Recent extreme weather events linked to climate change have “severely tested the resilience of Ireland’s infrastructure; economy, healthcare services and people’s wellbeing”, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) director general Laura Burke.
"We have, by any measure, experienced an extraordinary year where nature reminded us who is in charge. With our changing climate, the confident predictions are that we can expect extreme events at greater frequency into the future," she told the annual Environment Ireland conference in Croke Park on Thursday.
“We have, by any measure, experienced an extraordinary year where our environment, our climate, reminded us of the fragile nature of our infrastructure, our economy and food production systems,” she said.
Reflecting on the range of weather events in the past 12 months “from storms and an ex-hurricane to a prolonged drought and heatwave” she believed it had been a turning point in the minds of the public and within key sectors in understanding what needed to be done to build and assure climate resilience.
While the cumulative costs to the economy were still being calculated estimates of €1.5billion had been reported for the October 2017 storms alone, along with the reported loss of at least five lives, directly and indirectly, she noted.
“Drinking water systems were knocked out, waste water treatment systems were knocked out, power lost, roads became impassable, sea defences damaged, homes and businesses inundated, primary food production activities badly compromised, healthcare services put under severe pressure, and so on.”
As a consequence, “the public, business and broader society have a greater understanding of the link between reduced emissions and a clean environment, and our health, our wellbeing, our economy, our very culture,” she said.
Mitigation in reducing carbon emissions and adaptation to the inevitable impacts of climate change were essential; “anything less is unsustainable, indeed, irresponsible,” she told the conference hosted by the EPA and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
Ms Burke welcomed the advancement of the National Mitigation Plan and National Adaptation Framework. “It is now a priority to ensure committed, coherent and relentless implementation of plans and policy measures to meet national and international commitments, [TO]ensure the well-being of society; the stability of the economy and the safeguarding of the environment.”
“The systemic nature of the climate challenge emphasises the need to deliver enduring, integrated, all-of-government structures with clear responsibility and accountability,” she added.
There was a need to move from a focus on achieving compliance with international commitments “to driving the transformational change that is urgently needed across our entire economy and society” to deliver on Ireland’s ambition to be a leader in tackling climate change and in doing so protect the health and wellbeing of its citizens.
For Ireland to grow sustainably, it was essential to safeguard and rigorously implement all areas of environmental policy and to remind every individual of the role they play, she said.
“Our strong economic and population growth brings with it pressures on land, water supply, sewage treatment, raw materials supply and waste management. We must not repeat the mistakes of our past.”
Implementation challenges remained at national, regional and at societal level, she concluded. People could play their part by making changes, by adhering to regulations and dealing with matters such as litter, waste prevention, water use, smoky coal use, septic tank management and conspicuous consumerism – all of which impacted on health, the quality of our environment and sustainability of resources use.
“Our environment, quite literally, sustains us and we all have a role to play in its protection.”
Ireland’s Year of Extreme Weather Events
September 2017 – Storm Aileen
October 2017 – Storm Brian & ex-Hurricane Ophelia
December 2017 – Storm Dylan & Storm Caroline
January 2018 – More rain in Malin Head than at any time since 1885
March 2018 – The Big Snow & Storm Emma
April 2018 – Wettest ever in many locations
May, June & July 2018 – Prolonged drought and heatwave