Ireland’s Top Environmental Problems and Our Proposed Solution
A Dozen that spring to mind. It’s coming up to that Wishing Tree Time of year. (Much easier than New Year Resolutions, in case you are lining them up for yourself).
During the Plant-for-the-Planet Youth Summit last week we were asked to come up with some top environmental problems for different countries. We thought we would start here at home and here are a dozen odd we dashed off. Can you think of more and of course solutions are our thing! The reason for the exercise was that the summit had attendees from all across the world and sharing our problems and solutions, we discovered how much we have in common and how much we can learn from each other!
It’s easy to see how our raising tree cover to closer to the global (25%) or European (33%) norm is our best solution to all of these problems listed! Any good ideas? – send us a tree-mail
- Ireland was left with only just over 1 per cent native forest cover, down from 80% when it emerged from 800 years of colonial rule though the Deforestation commenced well before this in our cattle-loving country. The new state set to work with a brief of building a forest timber industry and we now have added a further 10% tree canopy of commercial and recreational forestry. In earlier years a major goal of our forest industry was providing jobs; a dozen here, forty there; these early planting schemes for timber had a social focus in our young state. Our national tree-cover still lowest in the EU with Malta and the Netherlands. This fact contributes to most of our worst environmental problems.
- Air Agricultural emissions of greenhouse gases, methane being most immediately damaging in terms of global warming in its short-term warming effect. Our national cattle herd has for subsidy reasons grown in recent years.
Despite the fact that the whole country is in a draft most of the time due to our prevailing Atlantic winds roadside air quality can be very poor. We had a good waterways navigation system of rivers and canals which became largely obsolete when replaced by a great public rail/tram network, largely dismantled in the mid-20th century and now we are in the era of the dominance of the private car with a bus fleet of only large buses struggling to cope with a widely dispersed population. Active travel is very difficult outside the main cities; pedestrian footpaths are rare in the countryside and the train system for the most part will not encourage or sometimes permit bicycle transport. Cars are king and cycle traffic usually shares the road with vehicles as segregated cycle lanes are the exception – a painted line on the road is the most usual attempt at segregation. We were first in Europe with an electric vehicle charging network; queues and outages at these facilities can be a deterrent for EV use. Cyclists who cope with our wet and windy climate valiantly are further stymied by wholesale cycle theft. Containerloads of stolen high value bicycles, subsidised by the state in a cycle-to-work scheme are discovered being regularly shipped abroad leaving their owners with an up to 5-year wait to avail of a subsidy again – very many never purchase another bicycle and revert to cars.
- Water Quality. Our high national water table is a factor here. 1,000 rivers are polluted with for example nitrate runoff from our national 55% monoculture grass-cover. Sea water on our coasts and freshwater in our lakes are regularly contaminated due to inadequate wastewater treatment infrastructure.
Drinking water is regularly contaminated as happened in our capital city in recent weeks due to inadequate water infrastructure. There are no water charges levied on private homes since the local authority rates system was dismantled in the 1970s in a successful vote-getting bid. Re-introduction of these rates has been very acrimonious with loud public demands for example for a free treated water supply to private homes which was successful. The water authority relies on inadequate funding from the central exchequer and water leaks or unreasonable consumption are commonplace while water shortages and boil-water notices are frequent.
- You get what you Reward. The current Grant system drives meat and dairy production and appears not to support farmers who want to implement best environmental practice. Farmers wishing to avail of afforestation grants are required to sign over this land to this use in perpetuity; this is not the case if the land use is changed for other purposes e.g. a different crop or raising cattle. Because of the devastating famine that occurred in the 1840s which lead to the halving of our population size, farmers have a historical attachment to the capacity for their land to produce a food crop and signing away this option poses a difficulty.
- Waste recycling
Since our previous solution of shipping our green waste to Chinese was terminated some years ago we are incinerating plastic
- Habitat loss
Our development Planning system; objections ; inability to get it right. The lack of housing is so bad around the country that last week an advertisement sought a room-mate at a rent of €500 per month where she would have to share a double bed with a stranger! Housing ribbon development and one-off housing leads to expensive connection for infrastructure. Our planning authority can override all local opposition to proposed developments. Opposition to developers can be very costly to local communities with hundreds of households each paying a 20 euro fee to object yet these objections can be completely ignored. One-off housing results in a large number of septic-tank arrangements in isolated places; when improperly managed leaks can compromise our high water table. A tradition of living in the countryside as opposed to the norm elsewhere of rural living in villages and towns means we lack economies of scale which would be useful for – as an example – combined heat and power schemes.
European guidelines have been interpreted in a way much narrower than in any other European country in the forestry industry. Europe is at the same time being blamed for our collapse in tree planting since a high in the 1990s where we have missed every national planting target in the last several years. A license is required to plant more than 300 trees of any kind – 10 metres squared, the size of a suburban garden. The licenses currently take over 2 years to be granted. Licenses for thinning and felling take a similar length of time. Costly assessments costing 1500 euro on average are required if a proposed tree-planting site is within 15 km of a special area of conservation, this covers most parts of the country.
- Engagement; If all politics is local, we have a problem. Ireland has far fewer local municipilities than similar size Europen countries and Irish local authorities perform fewer functions than municipalities across Europe. (From “Ireland ranks last in European local democracy index” – Fórsa blog post on their “More Power to You” campaign. ) Our local authorities have only minimal powers and a budget of approx. 8% of Irish public spending occuring at local government level compared to an EU average of over 23%; a quarter of the Irish spend is not fully under local authority control. (Dr. Mary Murphy of Maynooth University in her research paper “Democracy Works if You Let It).
- An Insurance Stranglehold; the insurance industry drives a lot of caution in relation to mature trees. Hedgerows were flayed in many counties when local authorities sent notice to farmers that they would be liable should a tree from their land fall onto a public road. The easiest solution was what happened wholesale; the immediate cutting down of any tree that might ever be considered to be at risk of falling. Of course all trees die sooner or later; people call to doors offering to cut down trees claiming the trees are a danger and – since these tree fellers get paid if they can persuade the owner that this is the case then the trees are lopped before a second or expert opinion is sought. Insurance issues drive other strange behaviours; certain schools disallow running in school playgrounds citing fear of a claim should a child fall or collide; the longer-term harm from children not being able to exercise adequately and very high levels of childhood and adult obesity do not seem to be considered a suing cause for now.
- Climate Change has had the effect of increasing wet weather events, flooding, droughts, storms, incidence of disease in our trees and plants such as Ash Dieback disease currently expected to wipe out 80 per cent or more of the stock of this native species and a disease currently attacking furze/gorse a very common bush found countrywide. These factors of course have knock-on effects on our biodiversity and human population.
- Energy. A Nuclear power station has never been built in Ireland. Our main Coal station is being run overtime currently. Gas stations have being run with minimum maintenance, owned privately. We have insufficient generation capacity in the country, our energy regulator has not allowed more to be built; we have not enough reserve generation in the system. This year was a poor year for wind. The Celtic Interconnector due in 2024 will help stabilise the system and will offer opportunities to export.
- Conscious of our status as climate laggards, our population is naturally suffering from climate anxiety.
Countries such as Pakistan with a massive tree-planting national plan in place can feel they are taking action. We – our Easy Treesie project – have put together an action plan to address this. Planting 1M then 1 Billion trees!
Fake News; we have a high-regarded world-class education system which prioritises inclusion. This is not adequate protection against the bombardment of our citizens with false information lead by social media. Social Media has incubated serious issues for our democracy; anonymous targeting of women and minority public figures; we suffer from the global issue of false pushing by social media (as reported with Twitter this week) of right-wing extreme views which portray environmental campaigning and actions as something close to dangerous lunacy. Even our mainstream media picks up false narratives and amplifies them. When their mistakes are pointed out they can refuse to publish a rebuttal or do so in a way that means only the false news is prioritised.
Ireland’s Magical Creatures have been more affected than most with removal of their habitat leading to the abovementioned problems. This affects all of our “wee folk” – though we are a traditional home for mythical giants too – from water creatures, (we are home to the “Salmon of Knowledge” ) to those populating magical wells and trees – our world-renowned leprechauns and fairies. With loss of habitat many have moved to the cities and are living behind fairy doors in urban skirting boards, elves being confined to shelves, it is a scandal which will surely end in a public enquiry.