Overwhelmed by the scale of the climate crisis? Don’t be — each of us has a role to play. Here, the people behind five Irish initiatives detail how their green ideas are slowly making a big change
Since the publication of the report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — described by the UN Secretary General António Guterres as a “code red for humanity” — in August and the spectacle of world leaders attending the COP26 in recent weeks, we’ve had a collective, long-overdue, come-to-Jesus moment about the environment.
And with the realisation comes massive anxiety.
We no longer talk about climate change, we talk about the climate catastrophe, or crisis.
It’s easy amid all this to become either paralysed by fear, or despondent from a sense of impotence.
What can one person do in the face of a problem of such scale? And really, is focusing on the individual in some way allowing governments and large organisations off the hook? Can the actions of one person really have meaningful impact?
We spoke to people about the homegrown businesses, initiatives, and ways of life they have created to enact change and reduce our harmful impact on the planet.
Each story is proof of the influence every one of us can wield.
Native Events, a sustainable-events solution-focused company, was born in 2017 out of frustration, managing director Megan Best explains with a smile.
“It started because myself and my business partner were event organisers ourselves for years, and were really struggling to bring in sustainable-event solutions and infrastructure to run events.
“I was the operations manager for the Body & Soul festival for a decade, and trying to implement compost-loo facilities, or solar and renewable energy at the festival, in nearly every incident we needed to bring over equipment from the UK.”
The carbon emissions caused by the transport involved in this largely negated the purpose, she points out. Hence the founding of Native Events.
The company’s approach is based around looking at six areas of high impact, Best explains.
“You have energy, which is trying to reduce your energy needs and your energy consumption. The second thing is transport; that’s a really, really tricky thing in this country, because we just simply don’t have the public transport network.
“Trying to convince audiences to travel to events on public transport, especially now on the back of the pandemic, is a huge nut to crack because audience transport can be anywhere up to 60pc of an event’s emissions.”
Food is another high-impact area, with the aim being to move as much as possible to locally produced, in season, plant-based offerings.
“Waste is a huge one in events and cultural organisations, and actually in theatre and film. All of the sets that we build, and all the beautiful ways in which we express ourselves, carry with them a huge amount of materials, and using resources, and transporting things.
“And then once the piece is done, what do you do with these materials? Introducing ideas and principles around circularity to that design phase for those pieces is a really key area to look at.”
Finally there is governance — making sure that it’s embedded across the organisation, that it comes from the top down, bottom up and gets people on board, spreading understanding of why and how we can change.
“I think the pandemic has been quite a wake-up call for a lot of people, because people have been able to get off the constant, ‘I’m too busy, I just need to get on with the things that I’m doing’, and actually take a moment to pause and reflect, and to be reminded of what’s important.”
Spending as much time outdoors as we have done in the past two years has reminded people of the importance of nature.
“The tide feels like it’s turning. A year ago or two years ago, I would have felt an awful lot more despondent than I do now.”
As for the power of the individual, and the knowledge that you can make a difference, Best advises: “Say to yourself on a daily basis, ‘what can I do, within the boundaries of the system that I have, how can I embrace change and transformation?’”
In 2008, Neil McCabe, a full-time firefighter and paramedic with Dublin Fire Brigade, was working in Kilbarrack Fire Station.
“It was a 40-year-old building that had never been refurbished or had any sort of upgrade.” He had the idea of improving it. “I put a cardboard box on a counter, and said to people, ‘Put used batteries here.’
“The batteries led to recycling; all of a sudden, everything was recycled. In the first year, we saved upwards of €10,000.”
Next McCabe moved on to considering what tweaks they could make in the heating system.
“We hadn’t asked for funding. It was all delivered from savings.”
McCabe expanded his horizons, inventing project after project to help the station save money.
He began to develop what is now known as The Greenplan, putting together a dedicated procedures-based system.
By the end of the third year, they had reduced the running costs of the fire station by €50,000.
This model was spread to every fire station around Dublin, becoming part of the business plan of Dublin Fire Brigade.
The Greenplan looks at seven themes; energy, water, waste, biodiversity, transport, society, and procurement, a model which has been adopted by local authorities throughout Ireland.
“In a four-year period, Dublin Fire Brigade had reduced its energy spend by €11m. The total spend to achieve that was €3.6m, that came from energy savings,” McCabe says with justifiable pride.
In 2013, McCabe was elected an Irish Ashoka Fellow, the world’s leading social entrepreneurs.
Having created a free course in The Greenplan and making it available online, the plan has been adopted by 164,000 towns around the world, and businesses throughout Europe and America.
“At this stage, we’re into hundreds of thousands of tonnes of emissions that have been saved.”
Just how much of his free time does this take up?
“I’d say all of it,” McCabe laughs.
“I’ve three lovely boys, I put them first on everything, and then the rest of my time goes into The Greenplan, [reforestation project] Grown Forest, and the clothing company called Grown.”
For every Grown item created, a tree is planted, and Grown Forest now means people can plant a tree for any occasion, including as Christmas presents (see grownforest.ie).
All of McCabe’s work in the environmental area is non-profit.
He has been invited in the past to travel with former US president Barack Obama and politician John Kerry, through his work on The Greenplan.
“I had no idea when I put a box up on a counter saying ‘put batteries here’ that it would have such an impact on my life.”
McCabe is now an expert adviser to four EU Directives on topics such as air quality and waterways, and has also met with Russian President Vladimir Putin through this work.
“I hope I’ve left my boys a legacy that there’s an awful lot one person can do.”
In 2017, school teacher Orla Farrell was looking for a project that would tie in with other work her school had completed under the An Taisce Green Flag Programme, when she came across a project by a nine-year-old boy in Germany.
The idea was that school children would plant one million trees in each country.
“We discovered there were a million school children in Ireland. So, we emailed them over in Germany: ‘Where do we begin?’” she says.
“They had a programme where you would plant 300 trees, in 105 minutes, in your local public land, park, or wherever you could find. We organised a climate conference on a Saturday with children from five local schools. We had permission, we got sponsors, we went out to the park, and the local authority came along to help. They prepared the ground, and we planted those 300 trees. It worked really well.”
The project began to escalate; more schools became involved, Farrell’s team began running more Tree Academies, including a virtual event during lockdown.
Farrell took early retirement for her teaching to run the project now known as Easy Treesie.
“After a couple of years, there was so much excitement about this project that I thought, ‘You know what? I’ll see if I can get this million-tree project over the line.’”
The pandemic has meant more support for the project.
“There was an even greater interest in tree-planting, because people were so close to home, they really appreciated their local parks and whatever walkways they had near them,” explains Farrell, who has managed to get various sponsors on board to help costs.
“Our motto is ‘the right tree in the right place.’
“We call on people to find space for a suitable tree, plant it and add it to the UN Plant-for-the-Planet world map using the TreeMapper app. If you have no place to plant, you can use the app to sponsor trees for €10 on our project with charity Crann, Tree for Ireland, at easytreesie.com.”
To date, Easy Treesie has planted 205,000 trees.
“We expect to reach our goal,” Farrell says firmly of the one-million target.
“I felt a responsibility that we would take an action. It’s lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness, if you like.”
Weldon and Mu’azzam met in university in 2012, where they were both studying mechanical engineering.
“We were always interested in renewable energies, electro mobility, that kind of thing,” Weldon says.
He points to 2015, and the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, as a turning point for the pair.
“We were on Erasmus in Milan, having a wonderful time. The agreement was signed that November, and I remember quite clearly seeing the elation in the crowd; it started as a slow clap, and then everyone was on their feet, crying, and in each other’s arms. I remember feeling, wow, something that people had been arguing about since before I was born, this problem is being addressed, and you could go on and think what wonderful things you could do with your life.”
Subsequently, Weldon and Mu’azzam came to realise this was not the case, the problem was not being solved.
They knew that much of the technologies needed to help climate change already existed, the problem was they had yet to be widely adopted.
“We came to the realisation that not enough people were engaged in the climate crisis; it was just such a big thing for people to try and comprehend, that no one really knew where to start. So, if we could provide a tool that helped people to start taking climate action with little steps in their daily lives, then that would help grow the climate movement. It wouldn’t just help reduce emissions from their behaviour, it would also show government a need for stronger policy, and it would have a nice ripple effect through society and the economy.”
They decided to focus on the area of food, and in late 2020, the pair launched Evocco.
“It is a mobile app that empowers consumers to eat within planetary boundaries [the safe operating limits we need to be within to adapt to the climate crisis and avoid climate change],” Mu’azzam explains of the app, which helps people track, improve, and offset the carbon footprint of their food shopping.
Research shows that 65kg a month is the maximum CO2 emission we can each be allowed in what is emitted from the food we consume if we want to reach the targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement.
“You can take a photograph of your food shopping receipt, we give you a score, the climate impact of the products that you just bought, in kilogrammes of CO2, and then we give tips and recommendations to help you improve.”
The app’s recommendations are mostly around suggesting lower-impact alternative food groups.
“When it comes to climate impact, the most important thing is what you buy, not where it comes from, or how it’s packaged. The second most important thing then is, is it seasonal — that would cover the local aspect — and then the third thing would be how it’s packaged,” Weldon says.
“I feel like I have no choice but to be hopeful. If I let myself stray too much on the other side of things, the more you think about it, the more it feels like there’s no solutions out there,” Mu’azzam says of the climate crisis, adding that he notices an increasing momentum in how compelling the matter is for business, the public, and government.
On the power of the individual, Weldon points out that throughout history, great social changes have happened “on the backs of people who sacrificed and organised and demanded that those changes take place.
People organised for something they believe in, and that caused the system to change.”
“The foundation of the ecovillage started in 1999,” explains Iva Pocock, who was one of the roughly 40 original members.
“There was a group of people, many of them involved in environmental campaigning, I suppose the motivation was to try and do something positive, rather than constantly objecting to things. So, we had this vision of creating an ecovillage, a village which would be sustainable economically, socially and environmentally.”
They set up a company and began looking for land.
“We eventually found this farm, a former dairy farm here, adjoining the village of Cloughjordan in Co Tipperary.”
The aim was to build energy-efficient houses; the village now contains 130 units, including houses and apartments.
Most people own their own homes, but there are places for rent as well as a privately run hostel.
“We have an agreed ecological charter, which is a document to guide how we build our houses. We wanted to demonstrate alternative ways of generating energy [the village is run from one central boiler].
“We wanted to have land in order to grow food, in order to grow trees. And we wanted to be able to try and generate jobs and create work; we didn’t want to just be a place where people lived, and went to work elsewhere. Those were the main aims and they continue to be the main aims.”
“The big challenge when you’re doing something that you haven’t done before, you’re effectively pioneers so we basically became ecological developers,” Pocock adds with a smile, “with no real experience. So, it was very much a mission driven by this bigger vision. And maybe a youthful zeal.”