We can no longer afford our double-speak on environmental action
Green directives and aspirations are currently miles removed from destructive behaviour
As a species, we have a most unfortunate tendency to value things only when they are on, or over, the brink of extinction. We don’t seem to know, as Joni Mitchell put it in her memorable song Big Yellow Taxi, what we’ve got till it’s gone.
It was hard not hear that chorus echoing at Ireland’s very first national biodiversity conference in Dublin Castle earlier this year. Here we were, gathering to celebrate our natural heritage at the very moment when many of the plants, animals and insects that compose that neglected patrimony are being driven towards extinction by our own behaviour.
Still, much better very late than never, and indeed the atmosphere at the conference was remarkably upbeat. Speaker after speaker spoke of projects where local communities are restoring degraded ecosystems; where species that we had lost altogether for centuries, like the red kite and the great spotted woodpecker, are making dramatic comebacks.
For every gain, however, more losses have been registered. Many more are imminent, as our biodiversity is squeezed between the rock of accelerating climate change and the hard place of rapid habitat loss. As President Michael D. Higgins told the conference, in a vivid image that found immediate and lasting resonance among attendees: “If we were coal miners, we would be up to our knees in dead canaries.”
And these dead canaries should worry us a great deal, for more than sentimental reasons. A healthy environment is not a luxury for elites, it forms the natural capital that is the essential condition for all human life. But this linkage is often made perilously invisible in the industrialised world, by the voodoo of our complex trading systems, our markets and technologies.
The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) make this interdependence between economy and ecology very clear.
But the SDGs themselves exemplify a problem that repeatedly torpedoes environmental initiatives: the “implementation gap”, the chasm that separates environmental regulations and the realities on the ground.
Because the SDGs are voluntary commitments, their implementation depends on peer pressure alone. They do create a welcome frame of reference for good practice. But failure to achieve them carries no sanctions for political leaders.
A healthy environment is not a luxury for elites, it forms the natural capital that is the essential condition for all human life
For European and national environmental laws, the “implementation gap” is of a different order, because these measures do carry sanctions, and often quite heavy ones – at least on paper.
However, environmental regulations from Brussels have proven to be among the most notoriously unpopular aspects of the EU. The politicians’ general response, with honourable exceptions, was the development of a bizarre form of double-think. They wax poetic, especially abroad, about our “green” landscapes. But they do little, or nothing, to prevent their continuing degradation.
Enda Kenny apparently saw no contradiction between telling the 2015 Paris climate conference that reducing greenhouse gas emissions was the defining issue of our generation – and then walking outside to assure the Irish people, almost in the same breath, that there would be no changes to popular policies increasing emissions in the years ahead. For Kenny on climate, the implementation gap was a chasm.
But it’s not all the politicians’ fault. The specialists and environmentalists who drew up instruments like the EU’s habitats and birds directives were strong on natural science but weak on people skills. They failed culpably to appreciate the need to achieve consensus, to communicate their purposes effectively and empathetically to rural communities. They also failed to ensure prompt compensation for those losing out at the sharp end of implementation.
As the President put it at the conference, “you can kill the best idea by administering it badly”.
And 20 years after the habitats directive came into force, 91 per cent of our habitats are in bad or poor condition. That’s according to the service responsible for implementing the directive, the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).
The specialists and environmentalists who drew up instruments like the EU’s habitats and birds directives were strong on natural science but weak on people skills
Special areas of conservation and special protection areas for birds are all over the national map, but most of them don’t even have the most basic conservation plans agreed with local communities, let alone implemented.
The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan has been embraced nationally by local communities, schools, businesses and local authorities, and is considered best practice in Europe. But there is no budget to run it.
There are fines for having invasive alien plants on your land, even in your garden. Such plants are ubiquitous, but have you ever heard of a prosecution? Indeed, rhododendron still abounds even in our national parks, managed by the NPWS.
Illegal turf-cutting continues on many “protected” sites. Our climate policy still talks double-speak long after Kenny has gone. And so on. And so on.
We simply cannot afford to continue to tolerate the gaping implementation gap between our environmental aspirations and our environmental realities; we must find better ways to communicate the urgency of this problem to the general public.
Perhaps the next biodiversity conference should be dedicated to brainstorming to close this gap, point by point. Senior politicians should be present to help with the real work, and not just for the photo opportunities and the greenspeak.
We know what we’ve got, in terms of natural heritage. And we know that it’s going. Do we want to have to tell our children that it’s gone?
Paddy Woodworth is a founding member of the Irish Forum on Natural Capital, which co-organised the national biodiversity conference with the National Parks and Wildlife Service. He has written this article in a personal capacity