Climate: Action and example needed

The first sentence in one of the earliest and most popular self-help books, The Road Less Travelled in 1978 was a banal statement of the blindingly obvious. 

“Life is difficult” it told readers in search of whatever it was they thought might solve their problems, As unwelcome as it might be to the passionate youngsters who have been on the streets demanding radical action to prevent a planet-wide, man-made catastrophe, a standard guide to the environmental crisis we undoubtedly face would begin: Reversing climate change is difficult, and a government declaration, of the kind made in Dublin this week, and in London, of a climate and biodiversity emergency does not of itself make the challenge less formidable.

Without a joined-up, practical action plan, declarations of this kind, however well-intended, can all too easily be dismissed by sceptics as symbolic, good for headlines and getting a congratulatory tweet from Ms Thunberg.

To his credit, Environment Minister Ricard Bruton has not been reluctant to talk about changes that will be needed if we are to have a decarbonised world. 

It will happen, he has said, “only if every home, every enterprise, every farm, every community recognises there is a change in their lifestyle … that has to be the driver for a real practical outcome”.

In real life, that can come down to what might seem to government ministers and civil servants to be very local, mundane matter. Take, for example, a problem that has emerged in the Dublin suburb of Shankill, through which a new bus route to the city centre is planned. 

Nothing wrong with that, since in theory better bus services means less polluting commuter traffic. The difficulty is that roadside trees will have to be taken away to make way for the bus corridor.

The National Transport Authority says 330 trees will have to go, but residents fear the loss could greater because trees in front gardens might also have to be removed. 

So how should the strategy for decarbonisation settle that contest, given we need trees and buses? Is there an alternative, treeless bus route? If the trees come down, can the environment ministry ensure an equal number will be planted elsewhere?

That is what the tedious mechanics of decarbonisation will entail for Ireland, which until now has been reluctant to face up to the challenge. We are ranked 45th out of 57 countries on the Climate Change Performance Index, when judged on three categories: greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy, and energy use. 

The country needs action, and it needs to be inspired by people who set examples. 

This is not a time for silly furores about a Taoiseach who admits to having had a steak dinner, but it undoubtedly is the occasion for the Government to examine every way its ministries and agencies use and abuse energy. 

We can be sure that President Higgins will let the train take the strain when he next visits Belfast or anywhere else on this island, can we not?

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