2. Environmental governance and management

Ireland is a small unitary state where local governments play a strong role. It has higher regulatory quality, government effectiveness, rule of law and accountability than OECD member countries on average. However, most of these indicators declined slightly between 2008 and 2018 (World Bank, 2019). Over the last decade, the country built on its performance management culture to further strengthen its environmental planning and evaluation tools through better use of higher quality information and indicators.

Ireland has two levels of government: the national government and 31 local authorities of counties or municipalities. In 2014, the country undertook a far-reaching reform of local government, reducing the number of local and regional authorities. It also introduced a comprehensive system of local governance, with municipal districts replacing town councils. Three Regional Assemblies co-ordinate and promote strategic planning and sustainable development at the local level, promote effectiveness of local government and public services, and manage the European Union (EU) funding for regional development (Chapter 3). These reforms provided a more holistic approach to local environmental governance by, for example, consolidating waste management planning in line with a recommendation of the 2010 OECD Environmental Performance Review (OECD, 2010).

Environmental policy-making responsibilities are divided between two government departments: the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications (DECC) and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage (DHLGH). The DECC oversees climate action, energy and natural resources, as well as other environmental domains except water resources management; the latter falls under the DHLGH’s responsibility. The Department of Transport is under the same minister as the DECC, which indicates the government’s high policy priority of climate change and sustainable mobility. Biodiversity conservation is the remit of the National Parks and Wildlife Service under the DHLGH. The Department of Agriculture and the Marine covers the forestry and fisheries sectors. This institutional fragmentation of environmental policy making presents certain co-ordination challenges. However, following the 2020 government reorganisation, ministers and their officials will work more closely in a series of cabinet committees with focused responsibilities. An ambition to work towards an overarching national policy position on the environment was expressed in the 2020 state of the environment report.

Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an independent public body, regulates major industrial installations, most waste facilities (with local authorities also playing an important enforcement role in waste management), greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions under the EU Emissions Trading System and several other sources of environmental pressure. The EPA’s staff levels and funding increased over 2015-18 (OECD, 2020), with most of the latter coming from the general budget. This funding is complemented by allocations from the Environment Fund (which collects revenues from the landfill and the plastic bag levies) and revenues from licensing and inspection fees (Sections 2.3.2 and 2.4.1).

To facilitate the EPA’s relations with the executive, an Oversight Agreement between the EPA and the predecessor departments of the DECC and DHLGH and the associated Performance Delivery Agreement establish key performance indicators for the EPA.1 However, these indicators focus on outputs (number of site visits, reports, datasets, etc.) rather than outcomes and effectiveness of performance. This contrasts with performance indicators of environmental regulatory agencies in the United Kingdom. Moreover, the EPA’s internal performance management frameworks do not include quantitative targets (OECD, 2020).

Memoranda of understanding (MoUs) are commonly used as a co-ordination mechanism. The EPA has MoUs with key relevant central government bodies, including the Department of Agriculture and the Marine, Health and Safety Authority; National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management; Sustainable Energy Authority; Office of Public Works; Planning and Appeal Board (PAB); National Parks and Wildlife Service; and Central Statistics Office. Other environmental policy co-ordination platforms are interagency committees. The Water Policy Advisory Committee brings together national government bodies with responsibilities relevant to water resources management. A special Climate Unit in the Prime Minister’s Office co-ordinates implementation of the Climate Action Plan. The Climate Change Advisory Council supports the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications in preparing national mitigation and adaptation plans and reports but does not serve as an interdepartmental forum. The Network for Ireland’s Environmental Compliance and Enforcement (NIECE, Section 2.4) is another prominent example of co-ordination in policy implementation.

Local authorities implement over 500 environmental protection obligations arising from more than 100 pieces of legislation and issue a range of permits and licences (Section 2.3.2). Irish Water, a national water utility, was established in 2013 to manage national water and wastewater assets more efficiently. It took over local authorities’ responsibility for drinking water supply and sanitation services across the country.

There was a 30% decline in local authority environmental staff over 2008-15. This occurred as a result of budget constraints during the recession and reallocation of water and wastewater services to Irish Water (Figure 2.1). Since 2016, staff numbers have increased moderately, bringing the 2018 environmental staff total across local authorities to 20% below the 2008 level (EPA, 2020a).

The co-ordination between the EPA and local authorities is working well and represents a good practice: the EPA provides advice and assistance and evaluates local authorities’ environmental performance. Local governments’ performance is also assessed through a range of indicators by the National Oversight and Audit Commission. The DHLGH supports local governments in their other functions, such as financial management and social programmes.

Several shared services have been created across local authorities in recent years, representing a good international practice of cost-effective delivery of local services. Different local authorities take the lead in co-ordinating the shared services without significant involvement of the central government. The Local Authority Waters Programme is a shared service that works with individual local authorities, the EPA, the DHLGH and other government bodies to implement the second national River Basin Management Plan (2018-21) adopted in 2018. In 2013, the number of waste management planning regions was reduced from ten to three: Southern, Eastern Midlands and Connacht-Ulster. In each of them, lead local authorities run a regional waste management planning office, co-ordinate implementation of the regional plan and promote waste prevention, reuse, resource efficiency and recycling. The National Waste Collection Permit Office (based in Offaly County) issues waste collection permits centrally on behalf of all local authorities, but these permits are enforced locally.

The central government has signed a Climate Charter with all local authorities, committing them to meaningful climate action in their communities, including low-carbon development, and resilience and adaptation measures. Four Climate Action Regional Offices were created in 2018 to help local governments develop and implement these actions.

Over the last decade, Ireland has prioritised the timely transposition of, and compliance with, EU directives, as recommended by the 2010 EPR. It has made substantial progress: in 2019, the country had 15 open cases of infringement against EU directives (EC, 2019a) compared to 34 in 2009. Most of the current infringements are in the areas of water management (particularly water quality and wastewater treatment) and biodiversity protection (Chapter 1).

However, the transposition has in many cases led to multiplication of laws and regulations. Their consolidation, recommended by the 2010 EPR, has not progressed. For example, the comprehensive Water Environment Bill aimed at revising and consolidating some decades-old regulations was stalled in 2017 due to other policy priorities. In 2019, Ireland received a second formal notice from the European Commission regarding problems with the transposition of the EU Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC). It is discussing with the Commission different ways to address these problems through additional legislation. The regulatory consolidation remains a necessity.

Ireland increasingly practises evidence-based policy making, which improves the soundness of its regulatory and policy proposals and helps generate public support for them. It conducts mandatory regulatory impact assessment (RIA) for all primary laws and major subordinate regulations. The environment is one of seven focus areas, but the assessment is largely qualitative. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform provides RIA guidance and training. Since 2016, the minister responsible for implementing a law must provide an ex post assessment of its functioning within a year (OECD, 2018).

Strategic environmental assessment (SEA) is used mostly to evaluate land-use plans but also water, energy and waste policies, and major development plans. The EPA has produced guidance to help planning authorities to carry out SEAs. For national plans in the field of environment, such as the National Hazardous Waste Management Plan, the EPA conducts SEA itself as a proponent authority. SEA Action Plans for 2012-16 and 2018-20 were implemented to follow recommendations of a first SEA effectiveness review. A second review of SEA implementation noted application of the instrument across a growing range of plans and programmes. Some local authorities have employed environmental assessment officers. SEA is effective in promoting environmentally friendly policy approaches and solutions. However, many SEAs do not include sufficient analysis of alternatives, and environmental effects of the implementation of plans or programmes are seldom monitored (González et al., 2020). This runs contrary to the OECD Council Recommendation on the assessment of projects, plans and programmes with significant impact on the environment. The DHLGH is expected to finalise a new guidance on SEA in 2020 to address these issues.

Infrastructure projects with a potential significant impact2 require an environmental impact assessment (EIA) before a planning authority can grant a development consent (an entitlement that usually does not carry operational requirements). EIA is also a prerequisite for obtaining an integrated pollution control (IPC) or a waste management licence by the EPA. Unlike in many other OECD member countries, most EIAs are carried out in the context of land-use planning (in accordance with the 2001 Planning and Development Regulations) rather than environmental permitting or licensing of individual facilities. The reasons for this are largely historic: both infrastructure and facility projects are subject to a development consent with broad EIA requirements,3 whereas only facilities with a potentially significant environmental impact need an EIA to obtain a licence.

When an EIA report is submitted with the development consent application, the planning authority (local authority or the PAB for strategic infrastructure) must consult the EPA. While EIA is one input into the planning authority’s decision to grant a development consent, a negative assessment, including with regard to siting, does not mean a proposed project will be refused.4 This may lead to environmentally unfavourable infrastructure investments which, unlike facility projects with a significant impact, do not also require an environmental licence. If an EIA is performed as a prerequisite for an environmental licence, the EPA must consult the Health Services Executive, Health and Safety Authority and relevant local authorities. The EPA considers EIA conclusions in deciding on the licence and its conditions but is not bound by them.

The EPA separates the licensing (permitting) and enforcement functions within the agency. The Office of Environmental Sustainability handles licence applications. Meanwhile, the Office of Environmental Enforcement is in charge of compliance monitoring and non-compliance response. In local authorities as well, the same person never does both environmental permitting and enforcement. This is a good practice to help avoid potential conflicts of interest.

The licence determination process takes on average one and a half years to complete. The EPA wants to shorten the process to nine months to address considerable frustration in the business community (OECD, 2020). Each licence application is posted on line for public comments, which are also displayed on the website. Once the licence is issued, the facility operator is required to submit and publish on line an annual environmental report. The EPA reviews and revises all affected licences when best available techniques are updated. This is another good practice but requires substantial resources. Similar to the United Kingdom, Ireland charges substantial licensing fees that were created with cost recovery in mind. However, they cover only 10-15% of the cost of licensing because they were defined in the legislation in the 1990s and have not been reviewed since.

The EPA maintains a database of all installations it licenses (over 700). Since 2010, the Licensing, Enforcement and Monitoring Application has shifted the licensing process to an electronic format. It has also simplified notification and reporting from licensed facilities, centralised data flows and reduced the administrative burden on both regulated entities and the agency itself.

Local authorities issue development consents for local infrastructure, as well as bespoke air emission, wastewater discharge and waste facility permits to lower-impact facilities.5 However, facilities handling small amounts of waste need a certificate of registration instead of a permit. Operators that are members of an extended producer responsibility scheme also do not need a waste facility permit. There are no activity-specific general binding rules (GBRs) for other low-impact installations. In several other OECD member countries (e.g. Latvia, Greece), GBRs reduce administrative costs for both regulators and small businesses.

Ireland has a well-structured spatial planning system integrating environmental considerations, in line with several recommendations of the 2010 EPR. Land-use plans at the national, regional and local levels undergo SEA, as well as strategic flood risk appraisal and appropriate assessment of impact on biodiversity. The “Local Area Plans – Guidelines for Planning Authorities” document, published in 2013, promotes integration of climate change, biodiversity, nature conservation and green infrastructure aspects into local planning. Green infrastructure of open spaces, green corridors and natural areas (Chapter 1) has been included in several strategic plans, including development plans for Dublin City and Fingal County.

The DHLGH adopts a National Spatial Strategy (the latest one covered 2002-20) and issues guidance documents on national planning issues (rural housing, wind energy installations, etc.). The strategy has influenced the National Development Plan, which directs investment into transport, housing, water supply and sanitation services and communications infrastructure. The strategy has now been superseded by the 20-year National Planning Framework (NPF). The government adopted the NPF in 2018 as part of Project Ireland 2040, its high-level strategy for the country’s development. The NPF is a coherent product of a large whole-of-government consultation and consensus. The government is also working on a marine planning framework – an important step in advancing spatial planning for the country’s extensive marine areas.

Regional Spatial and Economic Strategies overseen by the three Regional Assemblies translate national spatial planning objectives into planning guidance for local authorities (OECD, 2017a). The Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR), an independent agency established in 2019, supervises this statutory hierarchy. The OPR ensures that proposed new statutory land-use plans at the regional and local levels are consistent with the NPF; it also promotes public participation in planning decisions. The OPR conducts reviews of the organisation, systems and procedures used by any planning authority or the PAB in the performance of any of their planning functions.

Local authorities make most planning decisions, preparing Local Economic and Community Plans (LECPs), development plans and local area plans. LECPs are six-year strategic plans to promote social, economic and community development at the local level. In larger urban areas, LECPs are linked to Metropolitan Area Transport Strategies (developed so far for Dublin, Cork, Galway and Kilkenny) that promote sustainable mobility (Chapter 4). County and city development plans are statutory documents that guide land use. They, together with LECPs, are implemented through small-scale local area plans. Every development project requires a planning permission from the local authority unless the project is designated as strategic infrastructure at the national level.

Compliance assurance responsibilities are divided between the EPA and local authorities. The EPA carries out approximately 2 400 inspections per year compared to some 170 000 by local authorities. Since 2014, the EPA has conducted four performance reviews of local authorities with regard to their planning and implementation of compliance monitoring and enforcement. Performance results are generated from 26 environmental enforcement indicators, which are predominantly focused on outputs. These indicators are based on data provided voluntarily by local authorities to the EPA on an annual basis in line with the EU Recommended Minimum Criteria for Environmental Inspections. The EPA plans to review its performance framework in 2020 to improve the link between performance metrics and national enforcement priorities (EPA, 2020a).

NIECE, established in 2004, originally focused on enforcement planning, handling environmental complaints and addressing illegal waste activities. However, it has expanded to other domains, such as wastewater, drinking water and air. It brings together representatives of the EPA (which chairs the Steering Committee and co-ordinates the Network’s activities), local authorities, the County and City Managers Association, DECC, DHLGH, the National Bureau for Criminal Investigations, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Inland Fisheries Ireland and the Health Service Executive. Representatives of businesses and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are invited to participate where relevant. NIECE, which provides a forum for peer learning on compliance assurance practices in key thematic areas, is an internationally acknowledged role model (Nesbit, 2019). Other OECD member countries, such as Australia and Spain, also embrace national compliance and enforcement networks as a good practice.

The programme of routine EPA inspections is primarily based on Risk-Based Methodology for Enforcement (RBME), a systematic risk assessment methodology. RBME considers the facility’s location, complexity, emissions, operator management (i.e. environmental management certification) and enforcement record. It produces the facility’s overall risk class: high (A1 to A3), medium (B1 to B3) and low (C1 and C2). The minimum inspection frequency of A sites is annual; for B sites every two years; and for C sites every three years. This minimum frequency may be adjusted based on additional site-specific issues or sectoral priorities. Local authorities use a simple Excel spreadsheet tool to account for risk factors in their inspection planning.

The EPA’s inspection plan defines the geographic jurisdiction of its five regional inspectorates in Wexford (headquarters), Dublin, Cork, Kilkenny and Castlebar. In addition to the regional enforcement teams, thematic teams focus on air, water and waste. Each thematic team has industry experts who focus on key environmental issues in the following sectors: chemicals and pharmaceuticals, cement, and energy and incineration (for air); food and drink, intensive agriculture, and timber and metals (for water); and landfills, waste transfer stations and composting (for waste). Smaller sectors are also covered by the thematic teams as appropriate. Each year, the thematic teams work with regional enforcement teams to identify the main compliance issues in each sector and put together a sector-specific inspection plan (EPA, 2014). This sectoral focus of compliance assurance contributes to its effectiveness and represents a good international practice.

The harmonisation of waste-related enforcement across local authorities, and between them and the central government, has been a priority supported by targeted funding for local authorities. The National Waste Enforcement Steering Committee determines the enforcement strategy and co-ordinates between relevant actors on this issue. Waste Enforcement Regional Lead Authorities (WERLAs) were created in 2015. They are based in the Dublin City Council, Cork County Council and combined Leitrim and Donegal County Councils, one for each region covered by regional waste management plans. WERLAs co-ordinate waste enforcement actions within the three waste management regions and set priorities and common objectives to ensure consistent waste-related enforcement across the country. They work closely with local authorities that have the role of a “first responder” to waste-related offences. Multi-agency inspections at the local level are an increasingly effective tool in waste enforcement.

The EPA appoints third-party contractors to monitor air emissions. At the local level, the Dublin City Council has been outsourcing inspections of food service establishments (hotels, pubs, restaurants, canteens, etc.). Inspectors verify compliance with trade-effluent licence limits for discharges of fat, oils and grease that block the drainage network. After 2020, this programme may be extended beyond the Greater Dublin area.

The number of inspections by the EPA has remained stable since 2016. About 90% of site visits by the agency in 2019 were planned – a remarkably high ratio among OECD member countries. The same year, 93% of EPA’s site visits were not announced in advance to operators, increasing their effectiveness in detecting violations. During the COVID-19 lockdown, the EPA replaced planned inspections with video meetings with regulated entities, review of documentation and photographic evidence of works being completed. Any site visits that took place responded to incidents, emergencies and complaints.

In 2019, 10% of EPA inspections were related to complaints, whose number has been declining since 2015 (EPA, 2020b). At the local level, approximately 40% of compliance monitoring resources are dedicated to responding to complaints and incidents. These are rising and overwhelmingly related to litter and waste (EPA, 2020a). Complaints are mostly received by phone via the National Environmental Complaints Line but also through e-mail, the innovative “See It, Say It” application and online forms.

The EPA and local authorities charge enforcement fees in addition to licensing fees. Both fees seek to recover costs of environmental regulation. This approach is also used in the United Kingdom but is not common in OECD member countries. EPA enforcement fees, based on the RBME risk factors, recover 85-90% of costs. Local authorities use a simpler methodology that considers the number of inspections, time involved, travel, sampling and report costs, as well as site-specific environmental risk factors.

The EPA Office of Environmental Enforcement posts information on compliance monitoring and enforcement of IPC and waste licences on its Licence Enforcement Access Portal (LEAP), which was established in 2013. This information includes site visit reports, formal enforcement correspondence with operators, as well as annual environmental reports and other environmental performance and self-monitoring reports of licensed facilities. LEAP is accessible to the public in the Wexford, Dublin, Cork and Castlebar offices, which represents another good practice.

More than half of the industrial- and waste-licensed sites had no non-compliance recorded by the EPA over 2015-19. Still, non-compliance levels are relatively high: the EPA recorded 1 620 non-compliances against 362 individual licensed sites in 2019. The food and drink sector had the most non-compliances recorded (337), followed by non-hazardous waste transfer sites (271) and the chemical sector (193). The number of EPA-detected non-compliances has been stable since 2015. Exceedance of emission limit values prescribed in licences is the main type of violation: it accounted for 29% of all EPA-recorded non-compliances recorded in 2019 (EPA, 2020b).

At the local level, non-compliance is particularly problematic in the waste domain. Enforcement actions by local authorities nearly tripled over 2014-18: roughly from 7 000 to 20 000. This increase is mostly attributed to a growing number of fines for waste-related offences, which represent 85% of the total. Waste offences also account for 93% of environmental prosecutions initiated by local authorities, which rose by almost 75% over 2014-18, reflecting the priority enforcement effort on waste (EPA, 2020a). The compliance rate for first-time inspections by local authorities is only 60% for construction and demolition sites and 56% for waste collection permits. Although the mass of illegally dumped waste has been steadily decreasing over the last decade, unauthorised waste facilities accounted for 6% of the total at the end of 2018 (EPA, 2020a).

The EPA has the power to issue warning letters, enforcement notices and compliance orders. It can revoke or suspend licences, impose fixed penalties (but not variable administrative fines) and enforce civil court orders or injunctions. It can also intervene directly to carry out remediation works and recover their cost from the responsible party. The agency and local authorities also have direct prosecutorial powers: they can take a case to a district court. In cases of more serious offences, they act through the Director of Public Prosecutions. A specialised unit within the prosecution service deals with waste crimes.

With regard to sanctions, the EPA mostly relies on criminal law. This implies a criminal standard of proof, imposing a substantial burden on the regulator (the EPA is represented by two legal firms). According to the EPA’s Compliance and Enforcement Policy, enforcement actions are proportionate to the actual damage and potential risk caused by the violation to human health and the environment; they consider the operator’s compliance history (EPA, 2019). In practice, this applies only to non-monetary sanctions. An offender’s financial gain from non-compliance is a factor in deciding whether to prosecute an offence. However, unlike in the United States,6 it does not influence the size of a monetary penalty. Criminal environmental penalties are capped at relatively low levels in the legislation (OECD, 2020). For example, waste-related offences can be punished by a maximum fine of EUR 5 000 per offence and/or imprisonment of up to six months.

The EPA and local authorities are working together to improve data collection and methods for sharing information concerning prosecutions. In 2019, for example, the EPA facilitated the development of a register to record convictions achieved by local governments under the Waste Management Act. The EPA’s publicly available activity reports contain information about inspected facilities. They single out facilities that were inspected unusually frequently and explain why. They also list operators that were prosecuted, as well as fines levied.

Ireland transposed the EU Environmental Liability Directive in 2008, making the respective regulations apply to environmental damage as of April 2009. A strict (independent of fault) liability regime covers a wide range of operations with respect to damage to water, land, natural habitats and protected species. Other regulatory regimes, providing for fault-based liability, apply to prior damage and activities not subject to strict liability.

The EPA requires high-risk operators to make adequate financial provisions to cover the full cost of emergency response and remediation measures in case of an incident, as well as the cost of the facility’s eventual closure and decommissioning (Box 2.1). In 2014, the agency published Guidance on Assessing and Costing Environmental Liabilities. The guidance sets standards for closure and restoration/aftercare plans and environmental liability risk assessments. It also helps determine the required amount of financial provisions, which is then agreed between the EPA and the operator. As of March 2020, the EPA had accumulated EUR 746 million in financial provisions.

The EPA uses a risk-based approach in the assessment and remediation of contaminated land and groundwater at its licensed sites. EPA guidance on contaminated land has been established to assist licensees and hydrogeological consultants to address remediation issues in a consistent manner. The guidance replicated the good practice implemented by the Environment Agency in the United Kingdom. The risk ranking system assigns a severity rating (red, amber and green flags) to contaminated sites using several groundwater quality requirements. A closure and surrender procedure is followed for licensed facilities that cease activity. In line with this procedure, inspectors ensure that operators do any necessary clean-up. Operators must then submit an independent closure audit to demonstrate they have assessed and addressed any on-site contamination. However, the register of environmental damage and liability for it is not publicly available (Nesbit, 2019).

Ireland’s regional waste management plans for 2015-21 laid out a roadmap to address the remediation of former landfill sites. The DECC has designated a budget for remediating historic municipal landfill sites that have been identified, risk-assessed and managed by local authorities in accordance with the EPA Codes of Practice on Contaminated Land and for Waste Disposal Sites. Local authorities identified 506 such sites as part of these plans. As of mid-2020, 45 sites had been remediated. Local authorities apply for a licence to carry out remediation works, which is granted and enforced by the EPA. Over 160 landfill remediation projects have received central government funding for a total of EUR 150 million. The DECC and Regional Waste Planning Offices oversee the funding.

However, Ireland does not have specific legislation on contaminated land. For instance, where liable operators cannot be identified, or are insolvent, the EPA (for the sites it regulates) is empowered but not required to take necessary preventive or remedial measures. This causes significant delays in the remediation of abandoned contaminated sites or contaminated land transferred to third parties. The legislative void poses a challenge of assigning financial responsibility for the monitoring and remediation of the site. As a result, many abandoned contaminated industrial sites have been left for years without any intervention. Work has recently started to develop a multi-agency protocol for remediating such sites with support of appropriate financial provisions (Payá Pérez and Rodríguez Eugenio, 2018).

The EPA assigns high priority to promoting compliance. For example, it provides information to farmers on best practices in fertiliser use and publishes other sector-specific guidance. The agency has funded research and programmes to use behavioural insights to improve compliance. It has a corporate communication strategy that identifies target audiences, desired behavioural changes, corporate messages, risks and communication channels. In 2017, the EPA adopted a policy of using plain language in its communications.

The EPA maintains a list of worst environmental offenders – National Priority Sites (NPS). This is an effective way of “naming and shaming” industrial and waste management operators with poor environmental performance in order to prompt behavioural change. It also allows the EPA to identify which industrial- and waste-licensed sites should be prioritised for enforcement based on their environmental performance. NPS score-based ranking is a function of four enforcement factors: complaints, incidents, compliance investigations and non-compliance with licence conditions. The NPS scheme was revised in 2019 to reduce the relative weight of complaints (OECD, 2020). The EPA compiles and publishes the NPS list quarterly. In the first quarter of 2020, the list comprised eight industrial sites that exceeded the determined score threshold.

In 2017, Ireland published its second national plan on corporate social responsibility (CSR) for 2017-20. The national plan contains 17 actions that have been overseen by the CSR Stakeholder Forum. The Forum, established in 2014, includes representatives of the private sector, government departments, academia and other relevant public bodies. Progress reports – CSR Checks – are produced annually by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

One prominent example of a green business partnership is Origin Green. This nationwide food and drink sustainability programme, launched in 2012, brings together government, 53 000 farms and 32 food and drink companies. The programme operates across the full supply chain, from farms to food and drink manufacturers, with independent accreditation and verification built into every stage. This allows the country’s food industry to set and achieve measurable sustainability targets. Almost 800 independent farm audits take place each week across the country, focusing on GHG emissions, biodiversity, animal welfare, traceability, water measures, energy efficiency and soil management.

Verified Origin Green members account for 90% of Irish food and drink exports and over 70% of the domestic retail market. To become an Origin Green member, food and drink manufacturers must sign up to the Origin Green Manufacturing Sustainability Charter. Companies formulate medium-term plans with meaningful and measurable sustainability goals across three target areas – raw materials sourcing, manufacturing processes and social sustainability. An international auditing body independently verifies the plans’ implementation.

CirculEire – a National Platform for Circular Manufacturing – was launched in February 2020 by Irish Manufacturing Research. It is a cross-sectoral, industry-led, public-private innovation network aimed at enhancing circular economy knowledge and capability of Irish manufacturers and their supply chains. By 2022, CirculEire will provide manufacturers with access to an innovation fund and training opportunities.

The number of certifications to the ISO 14001 environmental management system (EMS) standard has been rising almost steadily since 2007 (Figure 2.2). Ireland has only one facility certified to the EU Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS), although EMAS-certified facilities are eligible for a licensing fee discount. Ireland also established a simplified EMS certification scheme, EcoMerit, in 2009. It targets primarily small and medium-sized enterprises. EcoMerit focuses on organisations’ carbon footprint and has much lower certification costs than ISO 14001. As of mid-2020, the scheme had 112 certified members.

Over the past decade, public procurement in Ireland has largely emphasised short-term savings rather than strategic purchasing. Green Tenders, the national action plan for green public procurement (GPP), was adopted in 2012. It set a target of 50% share of GPP by value or by volume without an associated target date. To change this orientation, the EPA published guidance in 2014 for GPP in eight sectors: vehicles, energy, construction, food and catering, cleaning, textiles, paper and office IT equipment. The suggested environmental criteria include the supplier’s compliance record. This guidance was expected to be updated in 2020, accompanied by training for public procurement officials. Its implementation will require better alignment between general procurement policies of the Office of Government Procurement and the EPA’s GPP guidance.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform together with the DECC published a revised circular on green and social procurement in 2019. This updated circular renewed the government’s commitment to the use of GPP in achieving environmental and social objectives. Starting in 2020, each central government department must report annually on progress in relation to GPP. A reporting methodology to support this requirement is under development.

The government plans to include green criteria in all procurements using public funds by mid-2023. Priority areas include the acquisition of electric vehicles, green and sustainable criteria in social housing construction and procurement of energy-related investments and services.

Ireland ratified the Aarhus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in 2012, as recommended by the 2010 EPR. The ratification completed the harmonisation of the country’s legislation in this domain, as much of it, particularly on access to environmental information, had been adopted earlier. The country has also made a multi-stakeholder effort to promote environmental education and awareness.

Stakeholder participation is central to environmental policy making in Ireland. At the highest policy level, the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) advises the prime minister on strategic issues of sustainable economic, social and environmental development. The NESC includes representatives of several government departments, business and farming organisations, trade unions, environmental NGOs and community organisations, and independent experts.

Ireland has chosen to write public participation requirements into many environmental regulations and procedures rather than set out general requirements for public authorities. In 2017, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform published guidelines for public policy consultation by government departments and local authorities as part of the Open Government Partnership National Action Plan. Recent examples of public consultations on draft policies include the Adaptation Plan, Ammonia Code of Good Practice, and the Climate and Air Roadmap. Public participation in planning decisions is extensive. The PAB has created a website that allows citizens to comment on planning applications and appeals on planning decisions.

Public participation is also a central element of EIA, as well as of the EPA’s licence assessment process. In addition to being able to make written submissions, citizens can subscribe to web feeds linked to licence numbers. This allows them to be contacted by e-mail if any new applications or updates are made to a particular facility’s licences. The EIA Portal maintained by the DHLGH since 2017 – a central point for notification to the public on all applications for development consent – is an important tool in this regard. However, the statutory minimum level of consultation as part of SEA has been found to be ineffective in engaging the public (González et al., 2020).

The EPA actively engages with civil society, which is consistent with the recommendation of the 2010 OECD Environmental Performance Review to broaden participation by NGOs (OECD, 2010). The EPA meets twice a year with the Irish Environment Network of NGOs. The agency also has an advisory committee, which includes representatives of the private sector, NGOs and academia. Since 2011, the government has provided substantial funding to the Environmental Law Implementation Group (ELIG) – a group of experts appointed jointly by the government and the NGO community. The ELIG works to improve the transposition and implementation of environmental law through enhanced and more effective communication between environmental NGOs and the government.

In 2016, Ireland convened a Citizens’ Assembly, a randomly selected but representative group of 99 citizens, to deliberate on a range of issues, including climate change.7 The assembly resulted in a final report to a parliamentary committee and a series of recommendations on policy tools and options. These have provided a basis for the government’s Climate Action Plan released in 2019 (Chapter 1). The EPA continues to co-ordinate the National Dialogue on Climate Action (NDCA) (Box 2.2). This process is similar to those recently used in several other OECD member countries such as Canada and France to define their climate policies.

Work is underway in Dublin City University, funded by the EPA, to develop toolkits, based on the lessons of the Citizens’ Assembly, to help deepen public engagement. The outputs in 2019-20 focused on the role of deliberation and communication in engaging the public on the climate crisis. The model shows how Irish citizens can be engaged in policy- and decision-making processes, which enhances the legitimacy and acceptance of climate policy decisions (Government of Ireland, 2019).

The highest percentage of Irish citizens (57%) rate climate change among the top four environmental issues, slightly more than the EU average (EC, 2020b). However, significantly fewer Irish people are taking actions (changing transportation mode, using less energy, etc.) than on average in the European Union. To address this issue, the Climate Action Plan envisages establishing a community outreach programme to drive change at the local level. For example, the Public Participation Network will be leveraged to share information and knowledge, as well as encourage local community groups to get involved in climate action initiatives (Government of Ireland, 2019).

Over the last decade, Ireland has improved access to environmental information in line with a recommendation of the 2010 OECD Environmental Performance Review (OECD, 2010). Government authorities are obliged to proactively make environmental information publicly available, as well as to respond to information requests. To support public authorities in meeting the increased level of demand for environmental information, access to information training events have been conducted regularly since 2014. The DECC published revised Ministerial Guidelines on Access to Information on the Environment in mid-2020 to make them more detailed and practical. If an information request is refused or inadequately answered,8 this decision can be appealed administratively to the Commissioner for Environmental Information and then, if needed, to the High Court. This ensures a high level of transparency of Ireland’s environmental governance system.

Ireland’s Environment portal run by the EPA contains a wide range of information, complemented by issue-specific sites such as National Waste Statistics. Environmental information is also found on the Environmental Open Data Portal and the national Open Data Portal. The national Geoportal carries spatial data in implementation of the EU INSPIRE Directive (2007/2/EU). The EPA has been publishing a state of the environment report every four years since 1995. The seventh report came out in November 2020. It also publishes annual reports on drinking water, urban wastewater, bathing water, water quality, air quality, waste and GHG emission inventories and projections. Some data, such as on air quality, are reported in real time. The EPA also maintains an open access, searchable environmental research database (erc.epa.ie/smartsimple). However, the information can be difficult to find and navigate (OECD, 2020).

The EPA established Ireland’s Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR) in 2011. The PRTR contains information about emissions from more than 350 industrial facilities across the country. In 2019, reporting of annual emissions and waste transfers was moved to a new Environmental Performance Reporting online application.

Ireland has an interest-based approach to legal standing on environmental matters: everyone who can demonstrate legitimate interest9 in the case has a right to sue. NGOs’ standing rights are written into law: those that have pursued environmental activities for 12 months are not required to demonstrate sufficient interest in judicial review cases pursuant to planning matters. The High Court conducts judicial review of planning and environmental matters, including the EPA’s regulatory decisions. Administrative appeals must in most cases be exhausted before such judicial review.

Several environmental laws (on air and water pollution and waste management) include provisions allowing “any person” to intervene via the courts to ensure enforcement of environmental requirements. This provides a mechanism whereby individuals or NGOs can address a failure to act on the part of enforcement authorities. In these cases, the court may order cessation of the polluting activity and other corrective actions.

The government plans to establish a Planning and Environmental Law Court – a dedicated division of the High Court with specialised judges (modelled after the successful experience with the Commercial Court). This measure would be in line with good practice in several OECD member countries (e.g. Australia, Chile, New Zealand and Sweden). It is expected to speed up consideration of environmental and planning cases, which can now take over a year.

However, high litigation costs are a barrier in access to justice in Ireland. The Court of Justice ruled in 2016 that environment-related litigation should not be prohibitively expensive (EC, 2019b). In civil proceedings brought by the public to ensure compliance with a statutory requirement, a licence or a permit, the government as the defendant must cover its share of the litigation costs irrespective of the court decision. Provisions for financial assistance with court fees are limited, but there are a number of pro bono legal advice schemes (European e-Justice Portal, 2020).

The Office of the Ombudsman may investigate any administrative action by a local authority (but not the PAB or EPA) in response to a complaint from an adversely affected individual. Its recommendations are non-binding. The Ombudsman’s powers do not, however, cover planning and environmental permitting decisions.

The Department of Education has developed a National Strategy on Education for Sustainable Development in Ireland for 2014-20. In line with the strategy, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment has conducted a study of integration of sustainable development into childhood, primary and post-primary school curricula, as well as teacher education. The study identified a wide range of good practices and provided several recommendations, including one to integrate environmental and sustainable development content into routine skills assessment (NCCA, 2018). A new course on climate action will be developed for the junior cycle curriculum to complement the ongoing implementation of the strategy. Education and training boards provide a wide range of green economy courses. The Higher Education Authority has identified over 90 courses at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels that consider sustainable development (DES, 2018).

The government is also active in environmental awareness outreach. The EPA maintains a LiveGreen portal with sustainability information (waste prevention, water conservation and energy efficiency) for households. It also runs “citizen science” initiatives to increase awareness and involvement of the public in the areas of clean air, clean water and sustainability. The EPA has also conducted a number of advocacy campaigns as part of the National Waste Prevention Programme.

The Environmental Education Unit of An Taisce (the National Trust of Ireland – an NGO working on environmental and heritage matters) is the national operator for all international environmental education programmes of the Foundation for Environmental Education. These include the Blue Flag Award for Beaches and Marinas and Green Schools, the international environmental education programme in operation across 93% of Irish schools. Green Schools is a student-led programme operated in partnership with local authorities and supported by several government departments. Under the Climate Action Plan, Green Schools will encourage students, teachers and the wider community to talk about climate change and get involved in local climate action. Participating schools will be expected to reduce their carbon footprint through improved transport, energy, waste and water management. Participation in the Climate Action Week, the Climate Action Expo and the Climate Ambassador programme will help educate students (Government of Ireland, 2019).

An Taisce’s Environmental Education Unit also operates a number of national programmes:

  • National Spring Clean, in operation since 1999, is Ireland’s largest and most popular anti-litter initiative. Another anti-litter and waste campaign, Neat Streets, targets secondary schools.

  • The Green Campus programme, created in 2007, promotes environmental education and management in higher education institutions. In 2020, 36 campuses were registered with the programme.

  • Green Home raises awareness among households by providing information on the main environmental themes of energy, water, waste and transport.

The EPA-funded GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) programme, part of a larger international science and education initiative, enables students to participate in data collection and scientific analysis. In 2019, 51 Irish schools actively participated in GLOBE air quality campaigns. In addition, initiatives such as the Young Scientist Awards and the Young Environmentalist Awards contribute to citizen-led activism in sustainable development and climate action.


DCCAE (2020), National Dialogue on Climate Action, Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, website, www.dccae.gov.ie/en-ie/climate-action/topics/national-dialogue-on-climate-action/Pages/default.aspx (accessed 19 March 2020).

DES (2018), Education for Sustainability: The National Strategy on Education for Sustainable Development in Ireland. Report of Interim Review and Action Plan for Q4 2018-Q4 2020, Department of Education and Skills, Dublin, https://assets.gov.ie/24989/c1a35f742acc48e09c9ea5427f6975f8.pdf.

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← 1. The EPA operates in the framework of five-year strategic plans, developed through an internal collaborative process with external consultation.

← 2. The EPA has produced draft EIA guidelines promoting a risk-based approach to determining the significance of impacts.

← 3. One of Ireland’s infringements against EU directives on EIA is its failure to conduct EIA for peat extraction activities. This was subject to the European Commission’s letter of formal notice issued in 2020.

← 4. In this regard, EIA is different from the “appropriate assessment” process carried out under the EU Habitats and Birds directives, where a negative assessment leads to a refusal of development consent.

← 5. Local authorities’ planning and permitting decisions can be appealed to the PAB. It is expected that the consideration of appeals against local authority decisions on air pollution licences will be transferred from the PAB to the EPA (European e-Justice Portal, 2020).

← 6. The United States EPA has been using a model to calculate and recover financial benefits from non-compliance since 1984.

← 7. Ireland is planning to organise another Citizens’ Assembly, this time focused on biodiversity.

← 8. In 2016, the central government refused 17% of environmental information requests, while local governments refused 30% (Nesbit, 2019).

← 9. The requirement to demonstrate “substantial” interest was changed in 2011 to “sufficient” interest.

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