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Sharing a green vision

This article first appears in Irish Times on Saturday, May 9, 2009
By Sylvia Thompson

GREENING IRISH communities might seem like a fanciful notion in these recessionary times yet a gathering of environmental campaigners, public servants and business people made the first tentative steps towards this very goal at a recent conference in Farmleigh House.

“How can we get more and more people to lead active lives with a lower carbon footprint? That’s the key question we must answer,” said Dr Matt Crowe from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “We’re good at networking in Ireland but we’re also good at infighting and forming camps and alliances against one another,” he added.

One of the main problems with environmental organisations is that many of them are working in isolation, spreading similar messages and organising competing events which are only of interest to small groups of people. For many volunteers and staff from environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) this was their first real opportunity to network with local authority environmental awareness officers and experts from the EPA. It was also the first time that the State-run EPA co-hosted an event with the environmental NGO An Taisce. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government were also on board.

“We also have to give communities the power to change themselves. In Ireland, we’ve been living on the resources of the next generation and we have to change that,” said Charles Stanley-Smith, chairman of An Taisce.

“We need a shared vision and an ability to tap into existing networks to reach the environmental goals which include clean air, protected soil and water, biodiversity and the sustainable use of resources,” said Dr Mary Kelly, director general of the EPA.

THE GREEN SCHOOLS programme run by An Taisce with local authority environmental awareness officers was presented as a building block for greening Irish communities. With 3,200 schools currently participating, the programme encourages the younger generation to see good waste management, energy efficiency and careful use of water as the normal way of doing things. In total, about €2.4 million is saved per year by the schools involved in the programme.

Spreading this message to their parents is part of the Green Schools mission and in fact, the new Green Homes programme jointly run by An Taisce and the EPA emerged last year as an extension of the school-based programme. In this, householders are encouraged to look at key ways in which they can reduce their carbon footprint.

The financial saving to be gained from energy efficiency has already been publicised through campaigns such as the Power of One and the sustainable energy zone in Dundalk 2020, but those attending the conference admitted that mainstreaming the idea of green communities is still a big challenge. “Currently, we are reaching about 7,000 homes through the Green Homes scheme but there are over one million homes in Ireland,” said Dr Crowe. The idea of piloting a county in Ireland as a green community was also discussed.

With a network of environmental awareness officers in place already, it seems surprising that many people still don’t know how to take action on environmental issues. Suzanne Dempsey, environmental awareness officer with Co Roscommon, talked about the difficulties of getting people involved with Slim Your Bin waste minimisation challenge and the Energy Vampire challenge to improve energy efficiency.

“We approached 360 community groups in the area and got 21 groups registered for the challenges. It requires a change of mindset in communities and homes and you’ve got to keep motivating people,” she said.

Michael Ó Coileain, environmental awareness officer in Co Kerry, echoed the view of many when he said, “I think the time is right now. People recognise that we have become very wasteful. Even the fact that growing your own vegetables has become so popular is an example of how people are ready to change.”

The rising numbers of volunteers was also cited as a useful resource to green Irish towns and cities. “Over 450,000 people help clean their local communities as part of the National Spring Clean every year. There is scope for broader involvement of these people,” said Dr Crowe. The recent involvement of the Garda in getting people involved in the National Spring Clean was also cited as a gesture that cost nothing but time.

“I think there are lots of opportunities for environmental experts to piggyback neighbourhood-watch events that the Garda organise throughout the country,” said Garda Gráinne McParltin, who got people involved in cleaning up Tallaght last year. Getting more people involved in greening their communities through the Tidy Towns competition was also suggested.

Meanwhile, the GAA’s Cúl pledge was presented as another building block for greening communities. Devised with the ESB as part of the greening of Croke Park stadium, the Cúl pledge allows fans to donate their energy savings (ie reduced carbon emissions) to the stadium to reduce its overall carbon footprint. Dr Ela Krawczyk from the Futures Academy at Dublin Institute of Technology said that people working in companies and colleges could make similar pledges to reduce their use of energy.

Greening Irish business received less attention at the conference, however, the EPA supports for Irish businesses – greenbusiness.ie and the green hospitality awards ghawards.ie – continue to grow.

MINISTER FOR THE Environment John Gormley also dropped in and spoke of the new carbon management tool for businesses at the conference.

The need to create new green loans for improving home insulation and developing green businesses was raised by broadcaster and architect Duncan Stewart. “If all the houses in Ireland were given loans for energy upgrades in their homes, it could employ 20,000 people and the saving made would mean the loans could be paid back over 10 years,” he suggested. “This would also reduce energy consumption by a quarter.”

And, while people looked at how green communities might be certified and identified (green flags flying on the entrance to towns and villages, perhaps), the underlying issue about how to motivate large numbers of people to change their behaviour remained unsolved.

“In the last 10 to 15 years, people have been motivated by self interest. To green Irish communities, people will have to move to a point of enlightened self-interest,” suggested environmentalist, Gavin Harte.

“The issue is no longer one of awareness. It’s about creating champions and structures that people can engage with.”

 






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