In September 2016 the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held its 12th annual Conference, Environment Ireland 2016. In a previous issue of this magazine, we covered the conference in 2009, ending our Report by suggesting: “It would be useful to have a low-cost conference involving more community-based organisations and local government environmental staffs with the opportunity for these two groups to interact as they both live on the front line of efforts to protect the environment.” While during the recent conference there was some passing nod to the need for more community involvement generally in environmental matters, community members were largely missing from the audience. That may be attributed, in part, to the price of the conference and its content.
The morning plenary session included presentations by two government officials and two heads of independent environmental organizations. Not surprisingly, the government spokespersons were less informative. Denis Naughten, Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, acknowledged the need for more action to reduce adverse health effects from air pollution and the need to take drastic action on climate change. He seemed genuinely concerned about the impact on children, but nothing concrete was forthcoming about what the government intended to do. The Minister called on the community and academics to do more to help the government, but that plea sounded hollow in light of the government’s prior, well-known history of inaction on environmental matters, despite the concerted effort of many in the audience to get the government to do more.
David Small, Head of Environment, Marine and Fisheries Group in the Northern Ireland (NI) Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, focused on the voluntary commitments of the farming community to reduce its adverse impacts on the environment. Yet greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the sector remain high, suggesting voluntary is not working. He also was hopeful that the NI devolved administration would replace EU funding for the farming community, and continue cross-border cooperation with the Republic of Ireland. Of course these commitments will depend on what follows Brexit, and the NI devolved administration may well have little to say about Brexit negotiations and post-Brexit arrangements, despite the vague UK promise that NI as well as Scotland and Wales would be kept involved in the discussions. Since the May Conservative government has no interest in the UK Parliament being involved in the Brexit negotiations, there does not seem to be much room for NI, or its interests, at the table.
Following Small was Laura Burke, Director General of the Irish EPA, who reiterated Minister Naughten’s concerns about the health effects from air and other pollution, announcing a new strategy focusing on health and well being, but without a concrete sense of what actions might flow from such a strategy. Burke also reviewed the status of various markers for the environment, arguing that in general Ireland’s environment was in good shape but there were local weak spots, particularly with regard to air and water pollution. She acknowledged EU complaints about Ireland’s drinking water and urban waste water treatments shortcomings. There was, however, no clear direction on what was to be done about these problems.
Burke also suggested that Ireland could become a “leader” in the transition to a low carbon economy, and even could promote rapid decarbonisation by other countries (not including Ireland?). Given the government’s history of non-compliance with EU environmental laws and its foot-dragging on climate change, it seems unlikely it can claim any leadership role.
Burke did call for more action on climate change, as she did in an OpEd piece in the Irish independent, but as always it is unclear how EPA can move the Irish government to do anything. Moreover, Burke joined Minister Naughten in calling for more community participation and engagement on environmental matters. Unfortunately, the EPA conference is geared, and priced, for academics and industry representatives, so there were few members from community organizations to hear that plea.
Certainly the highlight of the plenary session was the polished, concrete talk by Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency (EEA), on the “State of Europe’s Environment in 2016.” The EEA is a good example of an independent agency proactively promoting progressive policy within the EU.
In assessing the state of the environment, Bruyninckx looked at the overlap between the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the EU 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP) and identified three key objectives: to protect, conserve and enhance the EU natural capital; to turn the EU into a resource-efficient, green and low-carbon economy; and, to safeguard the EU citizens from environment-related pressures and risks to health and wellbeing. All of this could have remained abstract except that Bruyninckx also looked at the status of these three objectives and talked about which of these were improving, which were showing mixed results, and which were deteriorating.
He then went on to focus on certain of the programs falling within this UN SDGs and EU EAP framework and showed how we are not on track to meet the 2050 GHG reduction targets, how only 16% of habitats are deemed to be favourable with 2/3 unfavourable, and how about 1/3 of bird species are threatened or declining. It is the circular and low-carbon economy, and sustainable development, with expanded investment in clean, renewable energy, that will take us out of this unhealthy environment. That investment is needed now so that the renewable energy is fully operational by 2050, with interim improvements by 2030.
In response to questions from Duncan Stewart, the broadcaster of TV series Eco Eye, and Michael Ewing, head of the Irish Environmental Network, Bruyninckx noted that to avoid the catastrophe of 4% warming, we need to maintain a vigorous oversight of what the EU does and to support the changes happening in China to reduce GHG emissions, and to address the reluctance of politicians to take action he noted that the EEA had just published a report on that problem. See Sources below.
After the plenary session, there were break-out sessions in the morning and afternoon on various aspects of the Irish environment. Of course it is not possible to cover parallel break-out sessions, but we can report on two of them to give a sense of what was covered and how.
Break-Out Session on “State of Environment: Addressing the climate challenge post COP 21”
Anthony Cox of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) talked about the consequences of inaction for climate change. He identified the costs of inaction on climate change by regions, with the Middle East, Asia and Africa experiencing the highest costs, and by sectors, with agriculture and health facing the greatest costs by 2035 and 2060. Cox also focused on the impacts from rising urban flooding, with South and North America and parts of Africa and Asia being hit the hardest. He touched on the wide range of carbon pricing around the globe and across sectors, noting that OECD was soon to publish a report on the issue (see Sources below), and finished with an analysis of the growth of Green Investment banks and green bond markets as sources of money to overcome inaction.
Jim Gannon of Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) provided the latest status of the development of renewable energy in Ireland, where we are about halfway to targets, with heavy reliance on wind farms for generating electricity. Gannon stressed the critical need for businesses, as well as citizens, to have certainty about government commitments for renewable energy and support for efficiency measures if we expect investment in these area to mitigate climate change.
Anna Beswick talked about how Scotland was preparing for the impacts of climate change, including adapting to a growing season that was extended for five weeks over 1960.
At the conference, there was keen interest in what John Fitzgerald, chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council, appointed by the Irish government under the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act (2015), would say about how the Council would approach its role, and particularly how it would interact with the government.
In the long, slow crawl leading to the climate Act, it was clear that the Irish government was not the least bit interested in an advisory body telling it what it should be doing about climate change. While it reluctantly included an Advisory Council in the act, after much agitation by the environmental Non-Governmental Organisations (eNGOs) and others, it is unclear what role that Council will play. Of course it is to provide advice, but there are certainly different understandings of that role. The UK Committee on Climate Change (UK CCC) serves as an advisory body on climate change matters to the UK government. It has adopted a proactive, even forceful, voice in providing the UK government with the data and policy discussions it needs to address climate change, and it has not hesitated to speak its mind when the government’s commitment seems to flag. For instance, recently the UK CCC advised the government that if the third runway at Heathrow were to be approved and implemented, that development would have serious, adverse consequences for the UK commitments to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs). The UK CCC advised that, with a third runway, GHGs from the aviation sector would be 15% higher by 2050 over 2005 levels. That would mean that other sectors would have to cut their emissions by 85%, an unlikely result.
A large question continues to hang over the role and function of the Irish Advisory Council. Fitzgerald acknowledged that urgent action is needed but this is complicated because the government has to sell a policy that will help the public avoid global warming but which policy will not only help but also hurt — it will be painful and costly. He added that at the moment Ireland has to focus on complying with targets, for 2020 and later, while future action will be required to de-carbonise electricity by 2050. Any such policy, including carbon pricing, must be cost effective and provide certainty to the public and businesses. Fitzgerald stated that the Advisory Council would provide advice on how to reach 2050 targets but it would not produce an Adaptation Plan.
Beyond these general policy considerations, Fitzgerald held his cards tight to his chest without tipping off his hand as to how the Council would function and whether it would add some urgency to its advice to the government, as the UK CCC often does, or whether it would go softly. For instance, is the Council ready to advise the government of the implications of its commitment to significantly expand the agricultural sector while failing to meet its legal obligations to reduce GHG emissions. Or is the Council ready to advise the government about the impact on other sectors and/or the public purse if the agriculture expansion proceeds.
It remains to be seen.
The final speaker in this morning break-out session was Cara Augustenborg, Chair of the Friends of the Earth Ireland, and one of the few representatives of the eNGOs or community activists speaking at the conference. Her talk was on a positive vision of what a fossil-free life in 2050 can look like if we and the government do what is necessary to mitigate climate change, eliminate or reduce air pollution, and preserve Ireland’s biodiversity and natural resources.
Augustenborg, using graphic images, showed us where we are now and her vision of where we can be in 2050, and how these advances make sense. The strength of her upbeat presentation was in the concrete examples she relied on to flesh out her vision for 2050: cities in America using 100% renewable energy; Denmark generating 30% of its electricity from wind power; large offshore wind farms powering almost half a million UK homes; solar power skyrocketing as prices get cheaper; China banning coal in Beijing by 2020; and 8.1 million people working in the renewable energy sector.
She tellingly exposed the lack of balance in the audience by asking for a show of hands in the audience from anyone from community organizations. There were precious few.
Break-Out Session on “Ireland’s environment: Planning and community engagement for a sustainable future”
To follow up on this community dimension to environmental protection, we decided to attend a break-out session on the topic in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the session was heavy on planning but light on community engagement, with 4 of the 5 speakers from the planning or academic fields.
Paul Hogan, National Planning Framework Project Manager in the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government gave a presentation on the National Planning Framework. While very technical, it was a succinct and useful talk on the origins and demise of the National Spatial Strategy (2002), and its replacement by a 20-year National Planning Strategy. Some of the impacts on planning from demographic data were particularly helpful, such as the consequences of a growing and, at the same time, aging population concentrated in urban centers, with a need for much more housing. Hogan detailed the growing influence of the greater Dublin area that generates 50% of GDP and has 40% of the population, which is equivalent to the next 40 cities and towns combined. Its influence stretches from Cavan/Louth to Kilkenny/Wexford.
Deborah Spence of Arthur Cox law firm provided a thorough and detailed review of certain law cases on planning and the environment, and how they have created a number of substantial uncertainties about planning law. Vincent Carragher, Research Fellow, Trinity College Dublin, reviewed recent research on the many factors that drive communities towards sustainable transition. Patrick Gallagher, Senior Planner, Meath County Council, offered his considerable experiences on the relationship between planning and economic development. There was also a detailed analysis of the differences and effectiveness of the Appropriate Assessment and the Strategic Environmental Assessment in planning procedures.
All of these talks focused on the more technical, academic aspects of planning and community involvement. In contrast, Aileen Campion, an “Environment Champion,” offered the concrete experiences of one community in Birdhill, Co Tipperary. The community has a population of 729 and had a history of community-led development through Tidy Towns committee, Sports Clubs, Parish organizations and many other groups. The community decided to develop an energy efficiency retrofit project. By 2013/14, the project retrofitted 22 homes and a community hall in one community, at a cost of Є250,000 with 15 jobs created; by 2014/15 there were 135 houses and 3 community buildings retrofitted, at a cost of Є2.2 m, with 50 jobs and a savings of 940,00kWh; by 2015/16 there were an additional 120 houses and 7 community buildings, at a cost of Є1.4 m with 48 jobs and a savings of 1.2 m kWh.
Campion attributed the success of the project to publicity and a road show organised by local energy teams; the use of local contractors and assessors; and positive response to feedback from previous year’s experiences. Financing was provided by SEAI, in part, and by private bridge financing.
Conclusion: Missed Opportunities
Within a week of the conference the press reported that the EU is close to prosecuting Ireland over sewage failures across the country. Then in November, EPA issued its report on Urban Waste Water Treatment finding that raw sewage is still discharging from 43 areas; that planned delivery of treatment plants at half of these areas has now been delayed, by an average of almost two years; and that annual investment in infrastructure since 2014 has dropped by 40% from the average levels during the previous decade. No wonder the EU is considering prosecution.
Meanwhile, the government and the agriculture sector continue to push for the significant expansion of agriculture with serious adverse impacts on Ireland’s ability to comply with its legal obligations to reduce GHG emissions. And the government is not forthcoming about who is going to make up for the shortfall resulting from agriculture’s growth.
While the conference included issues that were obviously important, there does seem to be a reluctance by EPA to focus on more pressing, perhaps contentious, issues such as waste water pollution and agriculture and the environment. There was little more than passing mention of these pressing problems in the plenary session or in the several break-out sessions we attended. The descriptions of the remaining break-out sessions did not indicate any focus on either issue.
Centering presentations and discussion on such pressing issues could have provided a lively and useful interchange with the eNGO community, the business/industry and academic communities, as well as, importantly, staff from EPA and other governmental departments and agencies such as Teagasc. It is also likely that more people from the eNGO community would have attended. If only they could afford it. And they cannot at current rates.
Perhaps it is time to open up the EPA conference both in issues addressed and the audience attending.
Report on EPA Annual Conference, Dublin (September 2009) in the Reports section of irish environment magazine (Nov. 2009). www.irishenvironment.com/reports/report-on-epa-annual-conference-dublin-september-2009/
“UK must focus on carbon removal to meet Paris goals, climate advisers urge,” The Guardian (13 Oct 2016). www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/oct/13/focus-carbon-removal-meet-paris-goals-uk-committee-climate-change
EEA, Communication, environment and behaviour (14 June 2016). www.eea.europa.eu/publications/communication-environment-and-behaviour
OECD, Effective Carbon Rates: Pricing CO2 through Taxes and Emissions Trading Systems (26 Sept 2016). www.oecd.org/tax/tax-policy/effective-carbon-rates-on-energy.htm
Pilita Clark, “Heathrow third runway risks carbon target breach, says official adviser,” Financial Times (24 Nov 2016). www.ft.com/content/aea930c0-b244-11e6-9c37-5787335499a0
Tim O’Brien, “EC closer to prosecuting Ireland over sewage failures,” Irish Times (30 Sept 2016). www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/ec-closer-to-prosecuting-ireland-over-sewage-failures-1.2812006
Irish EPA, Urban Waste Water Treatment in 2015 (23 Nov 2016). www.epa.ie/pubs/reports/water/wastewater/2015%20urban%20waste%20water%20report_Web%20Version.pdf