The RoI EPA held its 5th annual conference at Croke Park Conference Center on September 23rd and 24th. The theme of the conference was ‘Towards a smart green economy: Prioritising the environment in difficult economic times’. Over 200 people attended, including about 40 speakers over the two days. With a price tag of €495, plus VAT of 21.5% (€395 plus VAT for early bird special), very few community-based organisations were represented. Covering the many different sessions, some offered at the same time, is not an easy task so we will provide a few highlights from the sessions, representing major issues that were addressed, and some positions taken with regard to those issues.
Running through most of the discussions was the recognition that times are tough, with little or no new money, and less old money, to spread around all the work that continues to be needed to protect our environment. There remain lots of issues to be addressed, including climate change adaptation; energy supply and security; biodiversity; wastewater treatment and protection of drinking and bathing waters; waste, especially biodegradable waste, among others. Mary Kelly, Director General of the EPA, set these terms out in her opening presentation and while noting the difficult task, she was optimistic that much could still be done to build on improvements over the recent past and she urged the audience to remain positive and to keep focused on what concrete actions could be taken.
Threads from the Conference
Almost every discussion was infused with some shade of green —e.g., green enterprise, green economy, green technology, green procurement — and there was much focus on price signals. It is amazing how environmental conversations have come to depend on, or at least reference, economic terms. It may be a sign of the growing sophistication of the environmental movement, in Ireland and elsewhere, or at least recognition that the economy and the environment have become so inextricably intertwined dimensions to contemporary life.
In light of the upcoming, critical talks in Copenhagen on what to do about climate change after Kyoto, it is hardly surprising that climate change should have gathered attention. The focus was on both mitigation and adaptation.
Some encouragement could be found at ESB. ESB has set a target of becoming carbon neutral by 2035, with 40% of that target achieved by wind power connected to the electricity grid. In addition, ESB is working on developing smart networks and smart meters, with a commitment to install smart meters in every home by 2015. The smart networks and meters will allow users of electricity to understand how much they are using and how much it is costing them (price signals), with the assumption that knowledge is power that will lead to reduced usage. It was also encouraging to hear that ESB is experimenting with 6,000 smart meters in homes for six months in order to measure the effectiveness and to learn how to help energy users change behavior. Finally, John Campion of ESB proposed that when the electricity supply was decarbonized, through reducing or eliminating use of fossil fuels, then the electricity power grid could be used to reduce other sources of carbon emissions. For example, the transport sector is a major emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG) and a switch to electric cars, fueled by decarbonized electricity, would be a major step in meeting existing and developing commitments for reducing GHG emissions. As encouraging as this was, it all remains a target which is heavily dependent on a host of contingencies, from the money to pay for it, the modernization of the energy grid, a commitment from an embattled government, or new government, technological developments in ocean power, clean coal and carbon capture and storage, as well as changed behavior from the general population that still has fond memories of the Celtic Tiger and all its glitter. But it is an important target to shoot at.
On the adaptation side of climate change, Richard S. J. Tol, a research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI) and a professor in Amsterdam, offered the most controversial presentation, which was apparently not unexpected. Professor Tol suggested that adaptation would remove most of the effects of climate change (in other words, don’t worry about mitigation) since it would be in people’s best interests to adapt and so they would. He pointed out that many people voluntarily move from one climate (wet and cold, such as Ireland) to another (warm and sunny, like Italy) that reflects temperature changes much greater than what has been predicted will occur as result of climate change over the next 50-100 years. Tol also argued that most adaptation will be required at the local level and so national policies are unnecessary, and national governments need not worry themselves about adaptation.
The easy read is that Tol is dismissive of climate change impacts and that everybody is a rationale, economic being that will pursue her/his best interests, ignoring common interests and resources. But that may be an unfair read. Professor Tol invites some of this reaction when he suggests that there’s no real problem with rising seas as people will simply leave the beach when the tide rises and seek a safe place, presumably to sun bathe. There is no room in this analysis for what happens to the millions of impoverished people who don’t have the resources to simply get off the beach, and who have nowhere to go, since other countries are unwilling to take them as environmental refugees. But Tol is quite explicit in arguing that whatever he says about the irrelevance of national governments for implementing adaptation measures, there are areas that do require national governmental intervention, as in the area of health impacts from climate change. Tol points out that malaria will likely increase with the warmer temperatures and government-sponsored training of medical doctors would be beneficial as malaria is easy to treat if spotted early. Tol also argues that flooding from rivers and coasts, and problems with water supplies, are as much a result of how we handle water usage and development as it does with climate change. Given the planning abuses during the period of the Celtic Tiger, it is hard to argue against this position.
Carbon emissions are only part of the climate change problem as methane is also a GHG for which agriculture is a major source, particularly from enteric fermentation (cows and sheep belching and passing gas). This area has remained intractable in part because of the great reliance by the farming community on cows and sheep feeding off grass. There were some hopeful signs. Research is concentrating on dietary adjustments that would reduce the methane emissions without requiring a commensurate drop in herd levels. There has also been progress in more efficient use of nitrogen fertilizers. It was also noted that 50% of GHG emissions in agriculture are not attributed to gas from cows and sheep but from energy uses. Technological advances from other sectors, e.g., electric vehicles and wind power, can be adopted by the farming community to reduce the carbon emissions from farming. Unfortunately, one potential victim of the proposed budget cuts is the Rural Environmental Protection Scheme (REPS) that appears to have been successful in wedding farming practices and environmental protection efforts, and bringing together the farming and environmental communities, a considerable achievement.
In the area of protection of water resources, there were suggestions that it may be time for a national water authority to coordinate water resources that spread over a number of regions, and water charges with support for people of limited means. There were also reports on more focus being applied to river basins as the unit of study and management, including a cross-border program in Donegal.
Protection of our waters rests in large part on the shoulders of local government officials. Several speakers, and attendees from local governments, spoke of the difficulties for local governments in fulfilling all the responsibilities imposed by the EU and national government. It was pointed out that these difficulties include, of course, lack of funds from the national government, but perhaps equally problematical is the lack of expertise required to fulfill these responsibilities. For instance, Dara Lynott for EPA pointed out, persuasively, that many of the problems identified by EPA in drinking water and wastewater systems run by local governments were the result of a lack of experience by local operators. Lynott suggested that more extensive training or use of outside consultants, perhaps shared by several smaller local governments, would be helpful.
To the extent that mitigation and adaptation measures to address climate change are going to require local action, including changes to planning systems, the burdens on local governments will only increase, substantially.
Karin Dubsky of Coastwatch spoke about how ordinary citizens felt excluded from participation in many efforts to protect water resources, and in other areas. She outlined a number of actions necessary to overcome the wide and deep public mistrust of public officials that she described. Her engaging presentation reinforced a number of speakers who stressed the importance of getting all the stakeholders involved in an issue together if meaningful and timely intervention was needed.
These were only a few of the many valuable presentations that addressed pressing matters in managing environmental issues in industry, biodiversity and the economy, waste infrastructure, built environment, and green procurement.
The optimism of a number of presentations was based on targets that will take several decades to reach. It remains to be seen if there exists the collective will, patience or stubbornness, and political capital to persist with the plans, not to mention the money.
The conference was well-attended and well run and such events allow people to connect with others similarly situated. 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.