Oregon may point way for Ireland’s climate-change policy

Citizens must be engaged and consumption made local and sustainable

Portland, Oregon, is proudly green and sustainable, with ambitious 2050 targets for emissions and renewable energy. Photograph: iStock

Portland, Oregon, is proudly green and sustainable, with ambitious 2050 targets for emissions and renewable energy. Photograph: iStock

 

While we might not necessarily look to the US for environmental leadership these days, some American states and cities are setting the pace on climate action. Portland in Oregon stands out. It has an unofficial motto “Keep Portland Weird” which applauds its quirks and differences.

Proudly green and sustainable, it is frequently named as one of the world’s greenest cities. With ambitious 2050 targets for emissions and renewable energy, the city is building an integrated response to the challenges of climate change. Ireland can learn from Portland as we implement the Government’s recently published Climate Action Plan.

Portland has focussed on sustainable consumption and the impact that consumer purchasing has on resource and energy use, carbon emissions and the creation of waste. It recognises that cities have the capacity and ability to lead on climate action with sustainable consumption. Conversations at the local level are an integral part of this approach.

Ireland’s consumption of material goods is noted to be above the EU average and continues to rise as the economy recovers

Consumer goods contain a significant amount of embedded carbon through their production, transport to markets, use and disposal. However, the impact of goods that are consumed locally but produced elsewhere does not receive the same attention or measurement as domestic sectoral emissions.

This is the case for goods made abroad and used in Ireland. Similarly, Ireland’s agri-food industry exports its products around the world while the emissions associated with their production are assigned to Ireland.

Portland, and other US cities such as Minneapolis, are now systematically looking at local consumption of goods and services as a means of understanding consumption patterns and encouraging more sustainable behaviours.

Waste management

The Government’s Climate Action Plan wants to move Ireland in this direction. Ireland’s consumption of material goods is noted to be above the EU average and continues to rise as the economy recovers.

The plan discusses our current production and consumption model – based on produce, use and dispose – which is significantly carbon and resource-intensive. It raises the issue of sustainable consumption, but it is important that we recognise that it is much more than a waste management issue.

In cities such as Portland, sustainable consumption is tackled through a mix of approaches. The most recognisable aspect relates to consuming more efficiently, such as reducing food waste and energy use, aspects which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) actively supports through a National Waste Prevention Programme.

Any move to more actively engage citizens to propose solutions to difficult problems, choose priorities and provide feedback is to be welcomed

The next step is to consume differently. This approach explores alternative ownership models such as car-sharing or a sharing economy. More ambitious still is a “sufficient consumption” approach. This challenges the notion that if “some” is good, then “more” must be better; instead, it emphasises “enoughness” while “beyond consuming” sees a radical shift in how we live and consume.

Portland is gaining an understanding of the climate impact of the goods, food and services consumed locally by producing “consumption-based” greenhouse gas emissions calculations. These calculations take into account the full lifecycle of goods and services, including their production, transportation, use and disposal.

Developing similar numbers for Ireland would allow us to see where consumption is greatest. It would suggest additional opportunities for reducing emissions and complement the production-based sectoral emissions figures produced by the EPA, as the competent authority for greenhouse gas emissions.

Wider picture

Importantly, these EPA figures inform policies related to, for example, energy use in buildings and transport, and allow progress to be tracked against national, EU and international targets. Working together, however, EPA figures and a “consumption-based” emissions calculation would give a complete picture of Ireland’s production and consumption. Building on this evidence, future iterations of the Climate Action Plan could consider specific actions to encourage sustainable consumption to both reduce emissions and our use of resources.

Part of Portland’s success in environmental protection is its commitment to citizen involvement in decision-making with Oregon an early testing ground for collaborative governance. This means that public bodies, citizens and non-state stakeholders solve public problems together.

Here in Ireland, the National Dialogue on Climate Action is an excellent example of citizen engagement on climate where participants share perspectives, opinions and understanding.

Any move to more actively engage citizens, as set out in the Climate Action Plan, to propose solutions to difficult problems, choose priorities and provide feedback is to be welcomed. If we can learn anything from Portland in this regard, it is that we are on the right track. The National Dialogue on Climate Action is building social capital and shared learning; this will pay forward in terms of public acceptance and acceptability of climate mitigation in cities, town and communities around the country.

Climate action implementation is now centre-stage in Ireland. The public and communities, including younger people, are asking for change. Learning from others means that we can avoid pitfalls and ensure that our Climate Action Plan sets a course for meaningful action in Ireland. The engagement of citizens in finding solutions and in encouraging sustainable consumption must be central to this.

Dr Eimear Cotter is a director in the Environmental Protection Agency with responsibility for the office of environmental sustainability. She has recently returned from an Eisenhower Fellowship in the US

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