Everybody knows the world’s fossil fuels are running out. They know that more energy efficiency and renewable-energy technologies are needed. And they know using public transport, insulating their homes and avoiding energy guzzlers such as clothes driers and large vehicles will help tackle the problems, even in a small way.
But the “reduce, reuse, recycle” message became a meaningless mantra when a shopping addiction grabbed the nation. The environment issue was not taken seriously during the boom years, and was all but forgotten during the recession, as politicians grappled with budget deficits, debt burdens and international loans.
At a series of “Climate Conversations” organised in Dublin by environmental and social justice organisations earlier this year, environmental campaigners, trade unionists and policymakers discussed what had gone wrong with the environment message and what needs to be done to fix it.
Oisín Coghlan, director of Friends of the Earth Ireland for the past 10 years, says: “The concept of climate change seems intangible, remote in time and space and a blameless crime, which makes it difficult for us to act. We take our green image for granted.”
Coghlan says environmental campaigners got it wrong by targeting the personal choices and responsibilities of individuals rather than governments.
“We need political leadership that would change the discourse. The big picture is not whether we allow people to buy briquettes but whether the ESB keeps burning fossil fuels to make electricity. We have to keep the remaining fossil fuels in the ground.”
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan says: “We’ve made people feel guilty about the problem of climate change. We need to start listening to the farmers, builders and students and ask people for help rather than tell them what to do.”
David Begg, recently retired general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, believes there is a “moral, economic and political imperative” to move towards a low-carbon society.
“The future of work is dependent on environmental sustainability. There are no jobs on a dead planet. We need to create the institutions that manage the change.”
Begg says, however, he is worried that the markets alone will not drive us towards a low-carbon society “and the political economy has been subordinated to the market-driven economy”.
Sharan Burrow from the International Trade Union Confederation, another speaker at the Climate Conversations, echoes Begg’s sentiments: “We need to organise new jobs in the green economy and fight for a just transition to new jobs and work with pension funds.
“The technological shifts will be disruptive and cause social unrest without a plan, but the business-as-usual scenario by 2020 won’t work.”
Burrow reminds the audience that Germany is the only country in the world with an energy plan. It is also one of the few countries already making the transition to a low-carbon economy, with 50 per cent of its energy coming from solar/photovoltaic energy. It now has three million electricity producers (it had about 400 producers 10 years ago) and 1,000 energy co-operatives.
Climate-change scientists and industrialists remind us that the technological solutions for a low-carbon society are already here. All that’s needed is the political will to embrace them.
Glen Dimplex chief executive Seán O’Driscoll says: “Every school in Ireland could be self-sufficient in energy production. They could generate heat, light and hot water and be totally self-sufficient. And when the children are on holidays, the energy could be sold back into the system to generate an income for the school.”
Are messages like this one part of a new environmental agenda yet to fully emerge in this country?
Robert Watt, secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, adds a note of caution: “We account for 1.4 per cent of carbon emissions in Europe. The problem is that climate change is not high up on people’s agenda.
“Every county in Ireland is developing an economic and social plan yet there is very little engagement for a low-carbon economy. Local authorities need to focus on their own activities – how they manage waste, water and housing, how they plan and engage with communities and businesses for adaptation and mitigation of the effects of climate change.”
No matter how far the conversation drifts, policymakers and campaigners return to the urgency of responding to climate change.
Rogier Schulte, research leader in sustainable food production at Teagasc, and Andrew Doyle, chairman of the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee, argue that a total land-use policy for Ireland is what is required.
“How every part of the landscape does what its best at in terms of efficient food production, clean water, bioenergy, forestry, biodiversity, waste management and carbon sequestration for climate change is the way forward.”
Back on the agenda: What must we do to address the environmental issues we still face?
LORNA GOLD Head of policy and advocacy at Trócaire
"Big environmental concerns like climate change have fallen off the national agenda because by and large they don't affect our day-to-day lives and don't win votes. Even if more and more people accept the science, they are seen as long-term issues which we think will affect others rather than ourselves. They are put in the 'too hard, do later' box.
“We don’t make the connection to ourselves. This perceived lack of concern has enabled short-term economic interests to prevail, especially coming out of recession, even when these [interests] are damaging to our environment.
“Dealing with issues like climate requires a change of mindset which firstly recognises the significant costs of inaction and then the opportunities of taking action. People need to be engaged in more honest debate.
“Countries that have done this sooner rather than later, like Sweden and Scotland, with vision and foresight, are reaping rewards economically and socially.
“Climate has become an opportunity for better policymaking and business. A truly participatory process to prepare our first national mitigation plan would be a good start.”
CATHERINE MARTIN Deputy leader of the Green Party
"For the current Fine Gael-Labour coalition, protecting the environment has always been a vague aspiration, an extra, rather than a core policy priority. Because of that mindset the Government did not look to the green economy and green technology as part of a response to both the financial crisis and the environmental threat.
“Environmental issues are not a separate box of problems we can take out and deal with when it suits us – they affect not just how we treat the environment but how we treat each other.
“The green message is one of social justice and is not solely focused on renewable energies and emissions reductions: achieving real equality in our society is just as essential, because often those who are hit hardest by mismanagement of the environment are the poorest in our society.
“The next government needs to take emission reduction targets seriously, and set out to meet our 2020 goals. Environmental issues are not secondary issues, they can’t take a back seat.”
ROGIER SCHULTE Professor of sustainable food production at Teagasc
"The environmental message got mainstreamed in policymaking and therefore has a different sound and look to it now. Sustainability has moved from the barricades to the boardroom.
“For example, in [Department of Agriculture strategy] Food Harvest 2020 the environmental analysis was done retrospectively but for [Department of Agriculture strategy] Food Wise 2025 the environmental assessment informed the policy.
“One of the challenges of the agriculture industry is that we want to have more sustainable food production within the context of increasingly stringent environmental legislation.
“You can look at the situation from two different perspectives: you can say that greenhouse gases from agriculture have not declined in the last number of years; or you can say that we produce more food, more efficiently now with the same level of greenhouse gas emissions.
“In Ireland, one plate of food is now produced with 25 per cent less carbon emissions than in 1998. Technically, both perspectives are right. We have to ask whether we want to reduce national or global greenhouse gas emissions.”
KATE RUDDOCK Policy and campaign manager, Friends of the Earth Ireland
"The recession came and the national agenda became about jobs at any cost. Protecting the environment was/is perceived as a luxury.
“However, it’s not just the environment, it’s the survival of society that is at risk. That link hasn’t been fully disseminated or truly grasped by our politicians.
“On our current carbon-intensive path, we will reach dangerous global warming by the time my two little boys (six months and three years old) are in their 30s.
“An energy revolution is required with communities and people at centre stage; owning and working in clean, renewable energy and buying and selling it to/from ourselves.
“Rather than sending billions abroad to pay for fossil fuels, keep the money at home and create sustainable jobs that will protect us against a future economic crisis.”
DAVID BEGG Former general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions
"It is not so much that the environment fell off the national agenda but rather that we lack the institutional framework for dealing with it.
“In the past issues of major public importance – like qualifying for entry to European monetary union, for example – were dealt with through social partnership.
“Good work on the environment is being done by National Economic and Social Council but it has no wider consensus- building process to feed into.
“Just like every other small, open economy trying to balance the conflicting demands of markets and society in a sustainable way, we need institutions for reaching agreement on the choices and trade-offs that are inevitably involved.”
ELAINE NEVIN National director of Eco Unesco
"Since 2008 the focus has been on the economy, and the environment has come way down the list. There is little understanding that our economy is built on a healthy society and society on a healthy environment. There is little realisation that as humans we need a healthy, biodiverse planet.
“We need more sustainably educated people who understand the interconnectedness of systems. We need greater emphasis on environmental protection in our education systems, in our workforce, in our national parliament and in local politics.
“We need to change our current economic model, which is mainly based on unlimited consumption of limited resources.
“In our current value system money is often seen as the most important thing. We need to decouple possessions and happiness and put a national focus on quality of life, not just gross domestic product. Young people often get this: they should be listened to more and be involved in decision-making.”
SEÁN O'DRISCOLL Chief executive of Glen Dimplex
"If the CO2 reduction issue is not taken seriously, Ireland will face very significant – hundreds of million of euro – of EU fines each year post-2020. We must electrify heat and transport as a matter of urgency.
“We must do it now and we cannot continue to kick the can down the road any farther. If we don’t, kicking the can will become a very expensive pastime.”
LAURA BURKE Director general of the Environment Protection Agency
"At a time of severe economic recession, it's understandable that the political focus is on jobs and economic growth, with the aim of revisiting environmental priorities once the economy had begun to recover. However, a clean, healthy environment is the foundation for a successful economy and society. The health, the wellbeing and the quality of life of the population all depend on a protected and well- managed environment.
“The development of key economic sectors such as tourism and the agrifood industry also depend on a clean, green Ireland.
“We need to mobilise everyone living in Ireland to place the environment at the heart of their decisions and actions every single day. Only by asking ‘What is this doing to our environment?’ can we build a sustainable future.
“We need to eat, work and travel. But our challenge is to do this within the planet’s capacity.
“Recent World Wide Fund for Nature data shows that living like an average EU citizen requires 2.6 planet Earths to sustain us. In Ireland we live as though we had 3.2 planets at our disposal.”