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Sunday 4 December 2016

'We can't stop climate change without ambition'

EPA director general Laura Burke says there is 'always a reason not to do things', writes Environment Editor Paul Melia

Published 28/11/2016 | 02:30

Laura Burke, director general of the EPA, at the EPA offices in Clonskeagh Photo: Frank
McGrath
Laura Burke, director general of the EPA, at the EPA offices in Clonskeagh Photo: Frank McGrath

Director General of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Laura Burke, is frustrated at the 'all talk no action' attitude from some in relation to protecting the environment. In particular, she's vexed at the lack of progress on tackling climate change.

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Emissions are on the rise as the economy returns to growth. We will miss 2020 EU targets to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) from transport, agriculture and other sectors. And the agency's assessment of the environment published in recent weeks sets out the actions we must take to tackle poor air quality, protect wildlife and habitats and deliver clean and safe drinking water.

"There's always a reason not to do things," she says.

"We have a national policy position we signed up to. We said our emissions are going to reduce by 80pc in transport and the built environment by 2050. It's not going to happen without investment and without incentives. We need to get on with it."

Appointed in November 2011, Ms Burke said the big difference today compared with five years ago is that the economy is recovering.

"When I started in 2011 I was very conscious about keeping the environment in the spotlight and in people's minds because all people were talking about was jobs - absolutely rightly so - but I wanted people to recognise the link between the environment and the economy. Five years ago we were in the midst of recession but also starting to see recession-induced reductions in emissions and waste.

"But now we're seeing that as the economy recovers, GHG are tracking the economy.

"The environment can support jobs and growth - it isn't a barrier. The difference now, moving on, is trying to get people to link the environment and the economy, but more importantly the environment and health."

There is a sense, she says, that the environment is "something out there", particularly in the context of climate change.

"It's (the disconnect) probably not only the political system, but society in general. Sometimes we can blame a political system, but a political system reflects the society which votes it in. Have we grasped the nettle? No. Having climate legislation, and a national mitigation and national adaptation plan, is necessary.

"It needs to have ambitious policies and plans from each sector, and they need to be implemented and measurable. There are lots of things that can be done and should be done."

On agriculture, the biggest source of emissions, low-emission fertilisers and sustainable afforestation, are needed. The public transport fleet should be an exemplar, with clean transport fuels used to improve air quality.

And while climate sceptics are a "distraction", she notes that in science, everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but "not to their own facts".

"We work on scientific evidence. We cannot say climate change isn't happening. We know it's happening, and we need to take action - and there's no reason for delay."

The key to success is engagement. She points to our 80pc recycling rate, up from 7pc in the 1990s, the success of the plastic bag tax, introduction of motor tax changes to encourage a shift to cleaner cars and the electrified Luas, all of which were "hugely successful" policy choices.

"If you look at business and community projects we fund, it's been really successful. Companies come to us with ideas to reduce their impact on water, waste and energy while saving money. We do work with the IFA and farmers to reduce their environmental impact. If you're more efficient, you save money. It's about showing positive elements. It's showing the wins to people."

That said, more needs to be done. We have less seriously polluted water sites, but fewer pristine ones too. We're not managing habitats and protecting species.

The mistrust surrounding renewables also must be addressed, as well as the continued use of coal and peat to generate power.

"It's an awful pity the way the debate (around wind) has ended up. Communities need to see a benefit in some shape or form. Mistrust has developed over the years where it's seen as big business coming in and imposing things on communities.

"Would I like Moneypoint to stop burning coal? Yes. We need to move away from coal and peat, and the national mitigation plan needs to set out how it's going to be done. We are investing in renewables, but that good work is being displaced by burning coal. That needs a policy decision, otherwise of course the ESB will continue to burn coal.

"Above all, proper debate about policy is needed. There's 4.5 million people, let's utilise those in terms of decision-making. We need to have proper discussions around congestion charges, use of bus lanes, and incentives for electric cars.

"There's pros and cons, but we need proper, mature debate.

"I think we're still about short-termism, but climate change doesn't deal in a five-year political cycle.

Read More: Industrial polluters to be named and shamed

"The lack of action is coming home to roost. We cannot start blaming Europe and should not blame Europe because we signed up to them (directives and targets) knowing what the implications were. More importantly, they're the right thing to do. Our water should be clean, our air should be clean, our industry should be clean.

"We need a plan and if they (mitigation plans) are couched in politics they won't be enough. They need to be strong, ambitious, implementable and measurable. That is the only game in town and we can't settle for something that isn't strong and ambitious.

"If we do, that's a wasted opportunity."

Irish Independent

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