'Stat Chat' on COVID, Cars and Carbon
Using data visualisation, we take a closer look at the impacts that Covid-19 has had on fossil fuel use among cars, vans, trucks and motorbikes in Ireland.
SEAI’s Energy Statistics Team is rolling-out new Electricity, Gas, and Oil dashboards to better illustrate monthly fuel use and CO2 emissions. While testing out these new interactive dashboards, we looked at the delivery of oil products before, after, and during periods of strong COVID impacts. We knew we'd learn something about how COVID modified fuel use, but we also came away with a timely insight into what hasn't been changing over the last few years.
The sum of monthly national deliveries for Diesel and Petrol is a good approximation for fossil fuel use in "road transport" - the cars, vans, trucks, and motorbikes that speed along our roads. Travel restrictions during COVID lockdowns hit road transport hard and fast, introducing a distinctive pair of sharp "vampire fangs" in the Diesel and Petrol monthly data.
April 2020 saw a 50% reduction in both Diesel and Petrol deliveries after the Taoiseach announced a national stay-at-home order on 27th of March, and January 2021 saw a 40% reduction after the Government moved the entire country to full Level 5 lockdown restrictions on 31st of December. Outside of these sharp features, we see that the sum of monthly deliveries for Diesel and Petrol has a remarkably consistent baseline. For an energy statistician, that's useful - it gives us a straightforard way to estimate the avoided fossil fuel use due to COVID impacts, which we determine as 950 ktoe or over one billion litres of fossil fuel. This approach can only be used with SEAI’s high frequency monthly data, because annual reports and data from SEAI and EPA align to calendar years, and the strong COVID impacts don’t neatly align to those periods.
The consistency in the sum of Diesel and Petrol deliveries tells us something else - something more profound - outside of COVID impacts, Ireland's monthly fossil fuel use for surface transport has remained essentially unchanged for the last 6 years. While we can see a gradual reduction in Petrol, this has been completely offset and compensated by a matching increase in Diesel – the sum of Petrol and Diesel deliveries has been constant. While the emissions per vehicle have been dropping, Ireland has been adding more and more cars to its road – a case of one step forward, and one step back. As Ireland takes on the challenge of living within its 2030 and 2050 carbon budgets, we need the fossil fuel use and emissions from road vehicles to fall, and to fall quickly. We need to do this by increasing the number of journeys we make by foot, by bicycle, and on public transport, while simultaneously replacing petrol and diesel cars with electric vehicles (EVs).
Outside of COVID impacts, Ireland's monthly fossil fuel use for surface transport has remained essentially unchanged for the last 6 years.
The climate action plan has set an ambitious target of getting 1 million EVs on Irish roads by 2030, both cars and light goods vehicles, and buses. These EVs will be either wholly or partially powered by electricity, directly reducing our demand and dependency on imported petrol and diesel, and the CO2 emissions they generate.
Occasionally, sceptics of widespread EV roll-out point to the fact that Ireland's electricity supply is currently only about 40% renewable. Setting aside the fact that a 40% renewable share of electricity is already far better than the 3-6% blending ratio of biofuels into our petrol and diesel, Ireland has a target of 80% renewable electricity by 2030, with ESB targeting net zero electricity by 2040.
The fact is that an EV bought today will have an immediate and positive impact on reducing Ireland's CO2 emissions, and this positive impact will only grow as Ireland's electricity decarbonises further. It's quite possible that an EV bought today will still be on the road in 2040, getting you “from A to B, carbon-free”.