As the Arctic ice melts faster than ever and global temperatures break all records, life seems to continue as normal in Ireland. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2016 assessment of the Irish environment points to increased greenhouse-gas emissions in agriculture, transport and energy use that will further jeopardise our environment, rather than protect it.
At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Morocco in November, climate scientist Prof John Sweeney said: “Ireland’s position is beginning to be well known in the wider world as a delinquent country when it comes to walking the walk rather than talking the talk about climate change.”
Speaking at the Dublin Sustainability Gathering in the same month, former head of the European Parliament Pat Cox said Ireland was in danger of becoming the climate-change laggard of Europe.
There is broad pessimism among environmentalists now compared with 2015, when world leaders pledged their support to keep global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius through the Paris Agreement. Also in 2015, the Irish Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development Act became our legislative basis for developing a low-carbon, climate resistant and environmentally sustainable society.
One year later, we are still waiting for the plans of how greenhouse-gas emissions can be reduced in our homes and offices, our transport system and our food production.
So, do we just wait for our politicians to take leadership on what many describe as a climate crisis of unprecedented scale in our civilisation? Or, are there things we can do to shift gear and move Ireland towards that low-carbon, climate-resistant, environmentally sustainable society that other countries are embracing?
Cara Augustenborg, environmental scientist, blogger and chair of Friends of the Earth “If we are serious about the transition to a low-carbon society, we have to have a clean technology renewable energy revolution on the scale of the Industrial Revolution. This has to be government-led but there are things we can do about how and where we use carbon.
“For instance, if you fly, you are part of an elite – only 15 per cent of the world’s populations have access to flight – that contributes to climate change. You can rethink your holiday plans for 2017. You can insulate your home, switch from fossil fuels to electricity-based energy, put in solar panels and make your next car electric.
“Of course, what you do on an individual level isn’t going to stop climate change from happening but efforts need to be individual, national and global. It’s not an either/or situation.
“Politically, the most important thing you can do is write to your elected representatives and ask them what they are doing to make the low-carbon transition. Politicians say they don’t act because it’s not a doorstep issue, so make it a doorstep issue.”
Stephen Nolan, chief executive of Sustainable Nation “My concerns about the environment are linked to jobs and what those jobs will look like. There are already 5,000 people working in the low-carbon, clean tech, resource-efficiency sector in Ireland. And, 70 per cent of those firms export products and services abroad.
“More and more companies are aware of the risks and opportunities in climate change. Irish companies such as Glen Dimplex, Kingspan and Mainstream Renewable Power are global leaders in this sector.
“It’s no longer a question of corporate social responsibility. It’s about embedding sustainability into the heart of the business. Investing in sustainable infrastructure and low-carbon technologies across energy, water, building, transport and agriculture is the key to meeting the Paris Agreement.
“Sustainable Nation is a not-for-profit body that has emerged from the Green Irish Financial Services Centre merger with Greenway, Dublin’s clean-tech cluster. It is estimated that over €85 trillion will be required to support global sustainability actions by 2030; €50 billion of that is needed in Ireland alone.
“We see 2017 as the year for sustainable business with more jobs in Irish companies working in the sustainability sector.”
Norman Crowley, Crowley Carbon and the Cool Planet Experience “We don’t have a choice to keep going as we are going because by 2070, the world will not be compatible with life as we now know it, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If we don’t fix this problem, we will have an unpleasant world in 20 years and our children will not survive.
“Although 97.5 per cent of scientists believe climate change is manmade, I’d say 97.5 per cent of Irish people don’t believe it. That’s why we have to do stuff like the Cool Planet Experience [an interactive exhibition on climate change which Crowley will open in April 2017]. People need to experience it and we need to change their minds.
“People say 2016 has been a disastrous year for climate change – partly because of Donald Trump’s election. But I think government policy will always be too slow to affect change.
“What’s really exciting is that the technology and science are solving these problems now. Solar power is now cheaper than any other power generation. There also has been more global investment in renewable energy in 2016 than any other year. Sales in plant-based milk and meat substitutes are rising in the United States, and Telsa, the electric car manufacturer, is opening a showroom in Dublin in 2017. Electric cars are now cooler, quieter and easier to use. It is technological changes like these that will change people’s minds.”
John Sharry, psychotherapist and member of Feasta, the foundation for the economics of sustainability “There have been setbacks in 2016, particularly with the election of the climate-change denier Donald Trump as the next American president and his decision to put chief villains of the fossil fuel industry in senior positions. When a message is alarming – as it is with climate change – people tend to switch off, ignore it and get on with their lives.
“But, there is no alternative but to get on with things in spite of these big challenges. People who are politically motivated need to campaign for action on climate change. We also need broader educational awareness to reach the people who are disconnected from the issues.
“I am shocked at the lack of reporting on climate change and how many climate stories are simply not reported or sanitised when they are. Maybe journalists don’t want to be the bearers of bad news, but the reality is that more and more houses will be flooded and our agricultural system and economy will collapse if we continue with business as usual.
“I believe lots can be done at community level. Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition Movement, said that governments tend to do ‘too little, too late’, and individuals can only do ‘too little’. Communities, however, might be able to do ‘just enough, just in time’. Organisations like Feasta are developing policies to mitigate climate change and to build the resilience of communities in face of it.”
Laura Burke, director general of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “I prefer to go into the new year with optimism and remember that in 2016, the Paris Agreement was ratified, which means there is momentum at a global level to address greenhouse-gas emissions. We also now have climate change legislation in Ireland, and the national mitigation and adaptation plans [to address climate change] are being prepared. These plans need to be strong and ambitious with a focus on implementation.
“Yes, our 2016 State of the Irish Environment reported significant challenges, and 2017 will be a key year for action on climate change. But, we also need to protect what we have and encourage people to recognise the importance of the environment for their health and wellbeing.
“We need people to see the environment as relevant to their everyday lives, not something that is out there. We need to harness the enthusiasm and awareness children already have through the Green Schools programme.
“I’d never say there is no point in making new year resolutions on the environment. Everyone has a part to play, and all the small actions add up and build on the momentum. In the EPA, we also have to make sure that environmental legislation is implemented totally and people don’t get away with damaging the Irish environment.”