The environment – running out of time
Sir, – In 2019, Ireland became only the second country in the world to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency. Any sense of pride we might have in this has been severely undermined by the Environmental Protection Agency 2020 report published this week (“Planning failures put nature ‘under unprecedented pressure’, says EPA”, News, November 25th; “The Irish Times view on Ireland’s environment: running out of time”, November 27th).
Across a range of environmental indicators, including waste, biodiversity, water, air quality and climate, Ireland is performing poorly. The contradictions between the image we have of our country as “green” and the reality unfolding every day is stark.
Specific issues stand out. As reported in The Irish Times, the Government provided €2.4 billion in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry in 2018. The largest component of these subsidies was an excise duty exemption for jet fuels used in domestic and international aviation.
This is not compatible with a climate emergency. Over recent decades, we have become used to the idea of cheap flights. It has encouraged a sense of entitlement to “fast travel”.
While mobility is crucial to an island with an open economy and an extensive diaspora, the environmental damage to the planet caused by flying must be reflected in the prices that we pay.
Politicians can leverage change in three ways.
First, by making subsidies conditional on airlines improving their record on efficiency of service provision, driving down emissions per passenger per kilometre travelled.
Second, by encouraging shifts in technologies, for example to aircraft using solar energy or hydrogen generated from renewable sources.
Third, by encouraging us to avoid flying, for example using online communication tools, or choosing “slow travel” using other means, such as ferries.
Unfortunately, I can say from first-hand experience that ferry companies could be much quicker to position themselves as part of a sustainable transition. As a foot passenger returning from Holyhead or Pembroke, your “customer experience” gives you the distinct sense of being at the bottom rung of a commercial ladder that prioritises freight and cars. Collectively, as a society there is much to be gained from questioning our unspoken emphasis upon speed and convenience in what makes for “good” travel.
While it is certainly easier to declare an emergency than to do something coherent and systematic about it, any Government involving a Green Party has an obligation to show leadership on climate and biodiversity. By using avoid, shift and improve interventions across key environmental domains, we can ensure that the gap between our idea of a “green” Ireland and the evident reality does not widen even further. – Yours, etc,