Are We Doing Enough?
Ireland’s Role in Global Climate Change.
Welcome to the Emerald Isle. A country so verdant that Johnny Cash sang of the 40 shades of green that could be found in its rolling hills and valleys.
But how green is Ireland, really? What is the country doing to protect its environment? What role is it playing in preventing global climate change?
The Irish government has certainly pioneered some bold environmental policies. It introduced a levy on plastic carrier bags in 2002. This led to a reversal in consumer behaviour. Before the levy, 95 percent of people took their shopping home in plastic bags. Now, 90 percent use their own reusable bags.
In 2004, Ireland became the first country in the world to ban smoking in workplaces. Many countries have since followed its lead.
In May, it became the second country in the world to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency. This move was welcomed by 16-year-old climate change activist, Greta Thunberg, who urged others to follow suit.
Yet these headlines only tell some of the story. As I write this in July 2019, members of Extinction Rebellion Ireland have blocked a street in Dublin in an attempt to force the government to take action to reduce Ireland’s dependence on cars and, in the process, improve air quality in the city.
They have a point. In 1986, 44.9 percent of people commuted to work by car. By 2016, that had increased to 61.4 percent. The government recently announced plans to have 500,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2030 as a way of responding to this problem. However, based on current uptake and the lack of a widespread recharging network, this is not considered a realistic target.
Ireland’s biodiversity is in freefall. Of the 99 bee species in the country, more than half are in substantial decline, two are extinct, and 30 percent are in danger.
Birds are struggling too. There are 202 species of commonly occurring birds in Ireland, but over 60 percent of those are now on the red and amber conservation lists.
The agricultural sector is not helping matters. Emissions from farms account for a third of all Irish emissions and are on a rising trajectory.
Despite its declaration of a climate and biodiversity emergency, the government is not doing well at living up to its official climate change targets either. As part of the 2015 Paris Agreement, it made a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent of 2005 levels by 2020. Last year, the minister for the environment, Richard Bruton, admitted it would achieve only a paltry one-percent reduction.
So badly is the country performing that, at the end of last year, Ireland’s response to global warming was ranked the worst in the E.U. and among the worst in the world in the Climate Change Performance Index.
This doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon, either. Shortly after declaring a climate emergency, Minister Bruton ruled out an immediate ban on fossil fuel exploration. He justified this by saying that Ireland depended on oil or gas for 70 percent of its energy needs.
Looking to the future, a heavier carbon tax may be needed to push people into choosing environmentally friendly options. This tax currently stands at €20 per ton in Ireland, but there is talk of it being increased to €80 per ton in this year’s budget.
This won’t be the only financial penalty that Irish people will have to pay as a result of lagging behind in its response to climate change. Because our 2020 targets under the Paris Agreement were binding, the government expects to face fines of at least €150 million for not meeting them.
Yet there is some cause for hope. The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan is a campaign to get everyone – from farmers and local authorities to schools, gardeners, and businesses – to do what they can to create an environment in which birds and bees can thrive.
The farming organization Teagasc has recently published an emissions roadmap, which identifies 28 measures that could make a substantial contribution to meeting 2030 emission targets. This has now formed the basis of the agricultural element of the government’s climate action plan and includes practical suggestions such as changing fertilizer types, increasing broadleaf forestry, and displacing fossil fuels using biofuels and anaerobic digestion.
In April, all public bodies – including schools and hospitals – were banned from purchasing single-use plastics such as cups, cutlery, or straws.
Businesses and social enterprises are getting in on the act too. Refill Ireland is an initiative to reduce the two and a half million plastic water bottles that are generated in Ireland every day by recruiting private businesses and public enterprises to allow people to refill their water bottles on their premises.
Organic Movement is a fashion label that tackles problems associated with cheap clothing – such as synthetic fabrics contributing to microplastics in the ocean – by making clothes entirely from sustainably sourced organic cotton.
Rash’r goes one step further. This sportswear brand uses recycled ocean plastic to make its rash vests.
Then there are shops such as Twig Refill in Clonakilty. It minimizes the use of plastic and packaging by asking customers to bring their own bags, bottles, and jars to stock up on food items and household goods.
Most hopefully of all, there are the Irish individuals who are stepping up and inspiring everyone else with their eco-friendly example. Former president Mary Robinson is one of those.
Last year, she joined forces with comedian Maeve Higgins to create the Mothers of Invention podcast, which introduced listeners to women all over the world driving positive change in climate policy. She now has a new book, called Climate Justice, and at a recent talk at the Galway International Arts Festival, she described climate change as “possibly the single most important issue facing humanity.”
She isn’t the only one actively doing what she can to confront the problem. The Green Party is resurgent in Ireland, as are small pressure groups such as The Irish Pedestrian Network, the Zero Waste Alliance and Extinction Rebellion.
Joining them in what may be the greatest symbol of hope of all are the thousands of children and teenagers who have taken to the streets in school strikes for climate action. They are calling on the government to take its responsibility seriously. This means leaving fossil fuels in the ground, banning the building of new fossil fuel infrastructure, and actively planning for a future based on clean and renewable energy.
With these young people pushing the agenda, Ireland might become the emerald green isle she has always claimed to be. ♦