EPA issues stark warnings
‘Imagine an Ireland where we take great care of our natural environment and protect the water, air and land that supports a thriving economy and a healthy society. An Ireland free of litter. An Ireland where we all feel a sense of civic pride in our environment and appreciate its value to our economy, health and society. An Ireland where there is no waste, where everything we discard gets reused, recycled or recovered as part of a functioning circular economy. An Ireland, for example, where cars and buses run on renewable power, where every house and farm can be its own power plant, generating power through renewable sources and contributing excess power to a smart grid.”
This was the perhaps utopian vision of a low-carbon and highly resource-efficient future painted by Laura Burke, director general of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to mark the publication of its latest assessment of the state of Ireland’s environment. Defining climate change as the number one issue of our era, she declared that “the fossil age is over” in terms of large-scale consumption of coal, gas and oil, and said that we all “need to become leaders in this type of transformational change. This is possible and within our grasp in the lifetime of this generation if we are brave enough and imaginative enough to make it happen.”
The EPA’s State of the Environment report, produced every four years, provides an overview of the condition of our waters, air and natural resources and the impact of the main economic sectors. And while its 2016 assessment rates Ireland’s environment as “good” overall, this is a “highly-qualified good”. There are many worrying signals at local level “warning us that we are in danger” and the State and all citizens “need to act quickly to protect what we now have” by ensuring it doesn’t deteriorate with economic recovery.
For example, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of our pristine rivers, the “best of the best”, with 21 now classified as such compared to more than 500 in the late 1980s. It is a sad fact of life that when a waterway deteriorates beyond a certain point, full recovery is highly unlikely in spite of remedial measures.
Nature is also under threat, with assessments showing that only 9 per cent of the protected habitats that many species need to survive are rated as being in a “favourable condition”. Indeed, the report bluntly warns species such as the corncrake, the curlew and the freshwater pearl mussel “may become no more than a memory if this degradation of habitats continues”. This and the finding that 1,200 people in Ireland die prematurely every year as a direct result of air pollution constitute a stark message that the complacency that has characterised the response of successive governments to multiple environmental threats must end, and soon.