The latest Environmental Protection Agency evaluation of the health of Ireland’s environment makes clear that playing the green card as a country cannot be justified.
The sum of environmental shortcomings adds up an indictment. The gross failures are manifest in inaction, an inability to deliver on commitments and a lack of enforcement.
Climate action may be set at its most ambitious level ever for coming decades as the country seeks to achieve net-zero emission by 2050 but there is huge risk that old failures will quickly resurface.
In addition to reverting to an increasing emissions scenario, there are fears we will continue to squander the few remaining pristine waters within our jurisdiction and not face up to the full environmental consequences of intensive farming.
There are likely to be difficult days ahead when some of our trading partners – the EU, and the developing world, which is already feeling the consequences of the climate crisis more than wealthy, northern hemisphere countries – will call out our poor performance, especially on decarbonisation and meeting our international responsibilities in helping to arrest global warming.
The message is stark from the EPA's new report Ireland's Environment – An Integrated Assessment 2020. The EPA director general Laura Burke notes: "As we emerge from the pandemic crisis. . . and look to stimulate economic recovery, we need to do so through a 'green investment' lens and avoid lock-in, or a return, to carbon-intensive and otherwise unsustainable consumption and production behaviours and technologies."
We live in a time of great uncertainty, she notes. "Climate change, ecosystem loss and resource constraints, and the disruption that will flow from them, are challenging the established economic, social and natural structures of our world."
Our collective futures
This will alter our collective futures in ways that are not yet fully understood. Social and economic inequalities combined with natural climatic variations will mean certain areas and communities will be disproportionately impacted. Hence the essential requirement for a just transition for many workers and their communities.
Her conclusion that today’s environmental challenges are demanding a fundamental reconsideration of “how we produce and consume, how we invest, how we develop and how we plan for the future” could not be more timely.
Compounding matters, we are also witnessing the erosion of biodiversity “at an unprecedented scale and seem unable to stem this tide of destruction”.
Yet we proudly declare our backing for global agreements such as the Paris Agreement, the UN sustainable development goals and the UN convention on biodiversity – and, more recently, the European Green Deal.
Too many politicians cite their declaration of a climate and biodiversity emergency yet fail to show the urgency and longer-term strategic vision to ensure there is a reasonable chance of addressing it in the best interests of future generations.
The 2019 climate action plan, Ireland 2040 and the programme for government commit to improving and protecting our natural environment but the EPA report correctly identifies that the fundamental "absence of an overarching national environmental policy position is negatively impacting on success across multiple environment-related plans and policies". In short, the sum of the parts does not make up a coherent – or effective – whole.
On emissions, it identifies a pressing need to maximise use of land as “carbon stores” through grasslands, wetlands and forestry, to enable the country meet its targets committed to under the Paris Agreement.
On air pollution, it says solutions must be targeted at causes of poor air quality in urban areas which mainly relate to the residential use of solid fuels for home heating, and emissions from cars.
On waste management, the report calls “strong, consistent, multi-agency enforcement and campaigns to change public behaviour” to target littering.
Landfill and waste-to-energy treatment in Ireland is at capacity, it warns, and the country is highly dependent on export markets to treat residual, recyclable and hazardous wastes. “We need to build in resilience to Ireland’s waste management capacity in the event of emergencies.”
This may require new levies on incinerators and on waste exports to ensure more recycling is carried out. Environmental taxes have been successfully introduced on landfill use and plastic bags, but are at a low level compared to other countries, the report notes.
The list of necessary measures goes on and, in this, the EPA report provides clear pathways to a better future. Remarkably, many of the solutions are already in place. So it is an issue of implementation and ensuring compliance. A lot of the findings have featured in its previous reports but, when presented collectively, the extent of failure is shocking.