Ireland environment performances hurt by poor water management and excessive parking for the OECD

The OECD Environmental review of Ireland points out some country peculiarities causing environmental damage: parking space and water management. Despite considerable progress, additional effort is required to pursue the Sustainable Development Goals related to climate, energy, water and biodiversity.

Ireland has among the highest rates of greenhouse gas emissions per capita in Europe according to the latest Environmental Performance Review of Ireland from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Transport is the first source of greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland, and 74% of it comes from private car trips. Agriculture comes second.

Ireland has a dispersed settlement pattern, 57% live in a rural area, and a low population density (69 people per sq km), making roads the dominant transport mode. Among 43 recommendations, the report suggests to gradually increase diesel taxes to match those on petrol. More expensive combustion engine cars should encourage people to switch to electric cars. This is so far a rather conventional suggestion that could be seen in most developed countries.

But the OECD also emphasized that there is too much parking space in the country, which represents a “powerful subsidy to cars and car trips“. Over the past few years, Ireland has taken steps to reduce “excessive parking requirements for new developments” the report acknowledges. And the OECD to suggest a real-time dynamic parking fee as one of the potential solutions to better manage car trips. Several cities like San Francisco, Seattle or Washington D.C. are testing curbside parking prices adjusted to the occupation in real time by location. Moreover, less than 4% of drivers pay for parking when working in Dublin, encouraging people to use their cars to come to work.

According to the OECD, cars should be used less in Ireland to meet Environmental targets
According to the OECD, cars should be used less in Ireland to meet Environmental targets | Residential street in Dublin, Dimitry Anikin

Wastewater is only managed with Ireland’s state budget

The report also emphasizes the specific case of Ireland with water management. The lagging wastewater management issues of Ireland can actually pose serious risks to human health and the environment. In 2019, the European Court of Justice, seized by the European Commission in 2017, had found that Ireland failed to respect EU laws in almost 30 sewage treatment plants across the country. EU member states had yet until 2005 to ensure appropriate treatment of wastewater for agglomerations.

Ireland stands out among the OECD members because it doesn’t charge households for drinking water and wastewater services, a model that “may not be able to keep up with the scale of required investment”. The introduction of a tax in 2015 was retracted because of a strong social opposition. In 2022, Ireland will only charge households that exceed a certain threshold of water consumption. Less than 10% of households account for 40% of domestic water consumption, and most of it is supposed to be due to pipe leaks. Almost 45% of treated water is unaccounted for.

As a consequence, 20% of the Irish population has its own private water system and 40% of the population isn’t connected to advanced wastewater treatment. The poor water management performances lead to intertwined environmental and health consequences.

Ireland may have some of the most beautiful lakes and rivers, its water may not be as clean as it seems
Ireland may have some of the most beautiful lakes and rivers, its water may not be as clean as it seems | Gap of Dunloe, Mark Lawson

Large quantities of fertilizers and poor water quality

For instance, private wells may not be adequately sealed, and subject to diseases. Ireland has the highest level of infection for diseases like E. Coli because of the water contamination from cattle slurry. Also, a third of the population relies on its own water treatment system like sceptic tanks, for which around half of them are believed to be non-compliant with legal standards.

And the 8.5 billion euros investment on public water infrastructure may not be enough according to the OECD.

The concentration of nutrients in the Irish waters is among the lowest of the European Union. This poor water quality is mostly due to the agriculture and the inadequate wastewater treatment. Nitrogen levels increased since 2011, and the quantity of nitrogen fertilizers used in Ireland is more than 3 times higher than the average quantity among OECD members.

Overall, Ireland’s environmental performances follow the economic cycle. The OECD notes that environmental pressure increased during the fast economic growth of 2014-19 but the country experienced lower environmental issues during its economic recession of 2007-12. The positive environmental effects of the Covid-19 crisis are expected to be temporary. During the recession period due to the sovereign debt, Ireland was able to meet the Kyoto Protocol target. However, the estimated 10% reduction of greenhouse gas induced by Covid-19 upheavals wouldn’t be sufficient to meet the 20% reduction target for 2020.

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