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How green are our valleys, really?

Amid fresh evidence that Ireland will miss its emissions reduction targets, our reporter asks why we are failing so comprehensively to get to grips with ­environmental pollution

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Damage done: Our reputation of being a clean, green country is far from the truth, say environmentalists

Damage done: Our reputation of being a clean, green country is far from the truth, say environmentalists

Sea change: Pádraic Fogarty believes we can improve our record

Sea change: Pádraic Fogarty believes we can improve our record

Pollution

Pollution

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Damage done: Our reputation of being a clean, green country is far from the truth, say environmentalists

The words of the report could hardly have been starker. "Ireland's natural heritage is being steadily whittled away by human exploitation, pollution and other aspects of modern development. This could represent a serious loss to the nation."

But the sobering lines were not delivered this week. They stem from a 1969 governmental report. Even then, long before the term 'climate change' was coined, the country's environmental watchdogs were concerned that Ireland wasn't quite as green as the tourist brochures of the time would have had you believe.

As campaign officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust, Pádraic Fogarty knows more than most about the environmental damage we - collectively - have wreaked on our country. And the title of his polemical book, Whittled Away - released to widespread acclaim earlier this year - was taken from that very same 1969 report.

"We like to think of Ireland as a clean, green country and it's in all the literature from Bord Bia and the Department of Agriculture and so on, but the reality is completely different," he says. "Our environmental track record is exceptionally poor and that's borne out in report after report."

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Sea change: Pádraic Fogarty believes we can improve our record

Sea change: Pádraic Fogarty believes we can improve our record

Sea change: Pádraic Fogarty believes we can improve our record

The latest report - issued this week - made for stark reading for anyone under the illusion that Ireland is on track to meet international best-practice environmental guidelines.

In its first annual review, the Climate Change Advisory Council sharply criticises government action to date, and warns that Ireland will miss its 2020 targets "by a substantial margin" and is "not on track" to decarbonise the economy by 2050, despite pledging to do so under the Paris climate deal.

"The council's assessment of progress to date on meeting our climate change commitments clearly shows that Ireland will miss its agreed emissions reduction target for 2020 by a substantial margin," it says.

"Without major new policies and measures, Ireland will also miss both its proposed 2030 EU target and its objective of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide by at least 80pc relative to 1990 levels by 2050 by a very large margin. Both the pace and scale of emissions reduction need to be accelerated across all sectors."

Drastic action is needed, the review argues. Ireland needs to phase out use of coal and turf for heating and power generation and invest in a low-carbon car and public transport fleet if it is to have any chance of meeting climate change targets. "I'm sorry to say that the findings of this review don't surprise me in the least," Fogarty says. "The writing has been on the wall for decades but there just hasn't been a collective will to do anything about it. Successive governments have failed to even understand the problem, let alone tackle it, and the agriculture bodies don't seem to be willing to accept even part of the blame despite the fact that it's intensive farming that has done such enormous damage, especially to our rivers."

Eamon Ryan, leader of the Green Party, believes the present government has dragged its heels on environmental matters. "There just doesn't seem to be an urgency there," he says, "or a desire to take action. I know we've been criticised for our time in government, but we made good progress on renewable energy, for instance. In the past seven years, that commitment has simply disappeared.

"There's still too much emphasis on the car as a mode of transport, rather than developing the public transport infrastructure and even then, there isn't enough joined-up thinking. It broke my heart that cyclists weren't given greater consideration when it came to building the Luas Cross City [the new line opens today]. We need to stop with the short-term thinking."

Professor John Fitzgerald is chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council, which was set up in 2015. "Ireland is still over-reliant on fossil fuels," he says. "Ireland has the third highest emissions per capita for residential energy use in the EU, reflecting high dependence on oil, coal and peat.

"A clear medium-term strategy to phase out fossil fuels in the electricity, transport and residential sectors is required.

"In particular, the subsidy for peat-fired electricity generation should be ended. In transport, investments in public transport fleets should avoid fossil fuel 'lock-in' while overall capital investment should be rebalanced away from roads towards public transport."

Similar calls have been made in the past but haven't been acted on, according to Pádraic Fogarty. "I think part of the problem is people today are so disconnected with the natural world. They simply assume things are better than they are."

He cites the Ireland's national parks as examples of where perception and reality don't meet. Of the six that currently enjoy this designation, only the Burren he feels, comes closest to meeting the criteria of what a national park should be.

Others such as Killarney National Park - a crown jewel in Kerry's tourist industry - is, he argues, overgrazed by deer and sheep and consequently it's "ceased to be a functioning ecosystem", while illegal turf-cutting pockmarks Glenveigh National Park in Donegal.

Fogarty is frustrated that rural TDs, in particular, don't seem to have the environment at heart.

"Some of them say the most stupid things, such as the curlew became extinct because environmentalists released minks into the wild. They say people who want to protect nature are anti-farming and seem to tolerate all sorts of anti-environment practices from farmers because agriculture is still placed on a pedestal."

He believes too many government departments have a say in the environment and there isn't a compellingly unified approach - and he stresses that not enough money is allocated to organisations and initiatives working at protecting the environment. "The National Parks and Wildlife Service gets just €11m per annum - about half of what is was receiving before the crash. Meanwhile, the Irish Greyhound Board is getting €17m. It shows you where their priorities are at."

Environment Minister Denis Naughten says he is committed to introducing change, starting with one of the key recommendations of this week's report - banning smoky coal nationwide, some 27 years after being introduced to Dublin and ridding the city of its notorious smog problem.

But with one in five homes in rural Ireland having solid fuel as their only source of heat, a blanket ban will likely present challenges. To that end, Naughton says a pilot scheme will run in six rural communities.

"We have a psychological as well as an environmental problem, to move away from solid fuel," he said this week. "We need to be honest with people," he said, "and we need a road map in place to see what will work in rural Ireland and the practical steps needed."

Ireland would be the first country in Europe to introduce a countrywide ban, but the minister is insisting it needs to be introduced because the air quality in some smaller towns and villages is worse than the "City of London or some cities in China".

"It's completely unacceptable that some evenings in winter people cannot go out for a walk if they suffer from asthma with the poor air quality."

Eamon Ryan says it "is easy to be disheartened" about the scale of what's required, but points to behavioural changes in recycling and the enthusiastic adoption of bike share schemes in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick as examples of the willingness for people to do their bit for the environment. "The will is certainly there," he says, "but there has to be sustained government action and a long-term strategy."

The week's review points the way to what needs to be done and the list is lengthy. It says there needs to be guidelines on the development of wind farms and more engagement with communities around renewable energy projects.

On transport, a more "ambitious" approach is urgently required, including the rebalancing of spending away from roads and into public transport.

Take up of electric vehicles - still curtailed by the lack of charge points nationwide - needs to be incentivised and investment in a new public transport fleet needs to focus entirely on low-carbon vehicles. Furthermore, petrol and diesel cars should be phased out, although it will be several decades before the roads are completely free of such vehicles.

Emissions

Despite an "existing large rail infrastructure", rail freight has experienced a "steady decline", with "little sign" of recovery.

Agriculture, meanwhile, is pressing some of the most profound challenges and while the report notes that "some progress" has been made in making food production more sustainable, it has not resulted in emission reductions.

The council recommends that "cost-effective" measures on emissions must be adopted, and there is a "pressing need" to define what "carbon neutrality" means. This concept involves setting out how the agriculture sector can offset emissions from food production by planting trees or managing land to absorb carbon. Forest cover also needs to be increased. Only 6,800 hectares a year are being planted, which needs to increase to 15,000 hectares to meet the 2050 target.

Pádraic Fogarty says Norway and Spain have been able to turn around poor environmental records over a generation or two and believes Ireland could do likewise if there's a sea change in the approach.

"It's a huge ask and everyone has to be engaged and do their part. It's not good enough to think it's a problem for others. It's something we all need to be mindful of as we go about our daily lives."

5 ways you can help

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Pollution

Pollution

Pollution

 

Home and community

Reusing, up-cycling, repurposing and recycling items means less waste and more savings in terms of money, resources and energy.

Energy

Completely turn off appliances such as computers, television and mobile phones when not in use. Purchase A-rated appliances wherever possible. Turn off lights when leaving a room.

Home and health

If using coal, use the low-smoke variety. Walk and cycle to local shops or schools when weather permits. Be mindful that flushing household chemicals, medication, oil and pesticides in your septic tank may contaminate your drinking water and damage the environment.

Water

Don't use the dishwasher or washing machine unless they're full. Install a water-efficient shower head. Don't run the tap while brushing your teeth.

Waste

Think before throwing anything away - can it be reused? Buy fruit and vegetables that have no unnecessary packaging. Look for non-hazardous alternatives for cleaning at home and consider natural substitutes like vinegar and lemon.

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