The Irish Times view on Ireland’s environment: running out of time

Our ecosystems are in very poor condition, and getting worse

Many of us still see biodiversity loss as a distant abstraction and climate change as a futuristic scenario, so we kick these cans down the road, and continue with business as usual. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Many of us still see biodiversity loss as a distant abstraction and climate change as a futuristic scenario, so we kick these cans down the road, and continue with business as usual. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

 

This week’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on our environment lays bare, in forensic detail, the abysmal failure by successive governments, state bodies, businesses and ourselves as individuals to care for, as Pope Francis puts it, “our common home”. This is not a niche issue or fuzzy sentiment. The Pope’s analogy rings true: if we cared for our homes the way we care for the environment, we would be falling through our floors and wading through toxic sewage.

But many of us still see biodiversity loss as a distant abstraction and climate change as a futuristic scenario. So we kick these cans down the road, and continue with business as usual.

The EPA report spells out, in sober, evidence-based language, the consequences of our lethal myopia. This four-yearly assessment is integrated across all sectors, “seeing the environment in its totality so that we can understand our impact, both positive and negative. In our human, ecological and physical systems everything is connected. Ireland’s atmospheric, terrestrial including soils, freshwater and marine systems are essential to the health of its citizens and the functioning of its economy”.

These systems, the EPA tells us, are “under unprecedented pressure”. Every sectoral assessment is alarming. On climate, the position is “very poor”, with continuing high greenhouse gas emissions. The Climate Action Plan is a “first step”, but “major transition and system change” is needed. Water quality, especially in rivers, continues to deteriorate. Our ecosystems are mostly in “very poor” condition, and also getting worse.

What should be done? There is an urgent need, as the report states, for “a single, overarching, national environmental policy position”. Environmental costs and benefits must be explicitly factored in across all departments and sectors. The natural capital accounting system being developed in an EPA study could create common metrics informing such an integrated position.

Meanwhile, failure to meet existing targets and enforce existing regulations has been notorious. The report does not say so, but the National Parks and Wildlife Service has proved sadly unequal to some of its responsibilities, sometimes failing to protect iconic ecosystems even in the national parks it manages. It needs to be radically reformed and properly resourced.

But none of this will work, as the report wisely states, without effective communication and engagement with citizens and local communities, and economic supports to ensure a truly just transition.

We still have time to restore our degraded environment, and become worthy of the green reputation we so love to project abroad. But a massive shift in attitudes and behaviours, at all levels, is necessary, now.

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