Political and economic uncertainty at a global level have drawn attention away from the threat of climate change. This cannot delay the roll out of innovations needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions and secure water supplies.
Late last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its sixth state of the Environment Report. Perhaps the most striking finding was that while progress has been achieved in curbing waste, air pollution is becoming such a pronounced problem, it could soon rival smoking as a cause of premature death in the Irish population.
Already, the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for around 1,200 deaths a year, according to the EPA. Another worrying trend is the increase in Ireland's average air temperature. The annual rate went up almost seven-fold between 1980 and 2008 compared to the average over the period 1890 - 2008. If it continues then among various adverse impacts we will see more intense storms and floods which damage farmland and compromise water quality.
As is often the case, societal challenges offer commercial opportunities - and Ireland's research and business community is responding.
The Irish cleantech sector encompasses companies involved in energy efficiency, renewable energy, waste management, bioenergy, water and services. Other industries including engineering, software, building management and electronics are also coming up with innovative responses.
Wattics are combining internet of things (IoT) technology and gamification (applying the characteristics of video games to user interfaces) to improve energy efficiency in buildings. Exergyn has developed an engine that converts waste hot water into energy - in effect using water as a fuel!
Eirecomposites in Connemara develop new materials for wind turbine blades; while Sirus Aircon and Techrete are part of an international consortium developing new energy-efficient materials for the construction sector.
There are also accessible opportunities in cleantech for Irish companies in waste-to-energy, supply chains and more. For example, £55bn in UK spending has been earmarked for water and energy efficiency up to 2021.
Offering economically-persuasive cleantech solutions is problematic because in many cases, traditional options are cheaper in the short term. This is somewhat offset by government measures but they are not providing the certainty the market wants.
However, there are alternative financing options. Sustainable infrastructure investor Jigar Shah believes the cleantech revolution need not be revolutionary, just well-financed. His infrastructure-as-a-service concept finances cleantech solutions with no upfront cost but subject to long-term charging, while delivering returns to investors who provide the capital.
The Gigaton Throwdown, a challenge laid down by the Carbon War Room, co-founded by Shah, and among others, Richard Branson, also offers solutions to reluctant investors. Its aim is to accelerate the adoption of carbon-reducing technologies by educating and partnering with investors, businesses and policymakers to establish profitable approaches to cleantech investment.
The Carbon War Room hopes to support and inspire investment of $1 trillion annually with the aim of halving annual greenhouse gas emissions from around 36 gigatons. Crowley Carbon are an Irish company picking up on the potential and provide energy management systems to drive efficiency while offering to share the investment risk.
There is clearly strong demand for long-term solutions in this sector. With an emissions target that needs to be achieved urgently, the opportunity for Irish cleantech operators is now.
Stephen Hughes is Enterprise Ireland manager for construction, timber and consumer retail