IRELAND will be well represented at the UN climate change conference which gets underway in Copenhagen today, with Taoiseach Brian Cowen and representatives of various government departments due to attend, but how have we been performing on the environment in general?
Pressures continue to grow, as instanced by the devastation caused by recent flooding. And, while progress has undoubtedly been made in some areas, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
The last major report by the EPA, titled Ireland’s Environment 2008, analysed our performance over the previous four years. Though concluding that Ireland’s environmental quality is good, it clearly stated we are not progressing at the rate we need to.
For example, we are not going to reach our targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and we also have a lot of ground to make up in relation to water quality and waste management.
Like most things in life, money is also an issue, with a warning from EPA director general Dr Mary Kelly that if we are to protect the environment we must continue to invest in it. But, with swingeing cutbacks in the spending of public money, the environment can hardly escape.
We have made progress in some areas, including emissions to air and waste management. People are responding to recycling campaigns, especially with their domestic waste and there has also been progress with waste packaging and disposal of electrical goods.
There is overall agreement, however, that our environment is under threat and the mammoth scale of the challenges we face.
While climate change is the number one issue, there are other highly important environmental challenges for Ireland, according to the EPA, including environmental damage, particularly in relation to water pollution and habitats, making the environment a mainstream issue in all areas of the economy, and complying with environmental legislation.
Ireland has one of the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions per person in the EU and we are projected to exceed our proposed greenhouse gas reduction target for 2020 by seven million tonnes. We also need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, increase energy efficiency and use of alternative energy sources.
Dr Kelly said: “Climate change has been identified as the greatest challenge facing this generation and the EPA projections underline the difficulty in addressing this issue.
“Ireland must rapidly develop a greener economy – involving energy efficiency and alternative energy sources – which is not just a challenge but also an opportunity for a country that has shown itself to be adaptable and progressive in so many ways in the recent past.”
She also said each individual had a role to play and collective action could make a dramatic difference.
Building on some recent advances, ongoing research and the development of new technology are needed to improve the understanding of climate impacts and the implications for Irish society, Dr Kelly also pointed out.
With such a focus on climate change, however, it would be easy to overlook other pressing issues. Remedying damage to the natural environment is another major challenge when you consider that 29 per cent of river channel is polluted and 66 lakes and 15 estuaries are in an unsatisfactory condition, as anglers and fishermen have been highlighting for years.
Some key Irish habitats and wildlife species are in trouble and an estimated 75 per cent of commercial fish species in Irish waters are harvested beyond safe limits. EPA director Larry Stapleton said we need to focus on where the environment is under the greatest pressure, including water pollution, the protection of important sites for animal and plant life and the identification of contaminated land.
Ireland has been before the European Court of Justice on several occasions for its failures in regard to protection of certain species and habitat. In 2008, we were found to be far from satisfactory, under the EU Habitats Directive, relating to bogs, dunes, lakes, woodlands and natural grasslands.
Like it or not, fact is that much of the law relating to the environment originates from Brussels and complying with it is not going to be easy.
We face financial penalties running into millions of euro unless we improve our situation massively in several areas. Close to the top of the list would be deteriorating water quality. As we have just seen, flooding has led to contamination of drinking water and cryptosporidium is an ever-present threat.
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