15 August, 2012

The upside to green living

Here's a piece from the Irish Times that I wrote in response to an article from Seán Byrne’s entitled “Green living may mean cold comfort for many”...

...Anyone who has spent time in a traffic jam might quibble with his suggestion that fewer car journeys imply a reduced quality of life. Similarly his view that a green lifestyle requires a loss of recreational showers is hardly that onerous. Showering with a friend is a time-honoured way of saving water, but installing a low-flow shower heads may suit those of a more puritanical leaning.

On a more serious note, a radical shift to reducing carbon emissions is crucial if we are to reduce the negative impact that our Western lifestyles are already imposing on developing countries. Climate change is already happening and it is the vulnerable in the developing world that are paying the price for our excessive consumption. There are many advantages to more careful consumption and travelling closer to home. A simple lesson from the Celtic Tiger years is that quality is worth more than quantity. Holidaying in Ireland can boost Ireland’s employment, and if you are travelling abroad, ‘slow travel’ by train and ferry can allow you to leave Dublin Port in the morning and arrive in Northern France by early evening without the stress of air travel. I highly recommend it. Communities that plan for walking and cycling generally have a higher quality of life than those built around the voracious needs of the private car. As an architect and town planner I know that we can design buildings and communities that require only a fraction of the energy that what was built over recent decades. There’s also significant scope for increased employment in retrofitting and upgrading existing buildings, and providing sustainable alternatives to increased car ownership and use.

Byrne suggests that driving may be more energy efficient than walking, but anyone concerned at rising hospital admissions due to obesity cannot ignore the importance of regular exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle. His extract from Timoney’s study is more appropriate to a school debate than a paper of record. His suggestion that wind energy requires ‘vast tracts of land’ ignores the fact that most of the land around wind-turbines apart from the turbine bases and access roads can be used for other uses such as grazing or food crops. Of course Government has to carefully approach the use of subsidies in the path towards a low-carbon economy. High subsidies for energy produced from photovoltaics may have distorted the energy market in Germany and Spain in recent years, but it did encourage investment in renewables in these countries. Proper life-cycle analysis is required of sustainable technologies, but the evidence shows that Government subsidies can speed up the adoption of experimental technologies into the mainstream. In the Irish context, the pay-back for solar water heating in new homes can be less than a decade. An easy-to-use calculator is available on the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland’s website.

Generally the private sector is better at choosing winners, but carrots are required as well as sticks, and pump-priming new areas of economic activity by the State can be worthwhile. The success of sustainable construction in recent years has resulted from a combination of European Directives; Irish Government regulation and grant-aid; and entrepreneurs prepared to put their money forward. I am proud of the role that the Green Party played during its time in Government to further environmental initiatives, despite the economic challenges that we also faced.

A greener lifestyle may involve less variety in food, but as I write I look out to a small urban garden where I grow vegetables such as artichokes and broad beans, and fruits including apples, plums and pears. Of course I eat imported food, but it’s worth bearing in mind fair trade, food miles, and carbon use when you purchase.

Tackling climate change is a deadly serious issue. Weather extremes of recent years have impacted most on poorer communities in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. There is a growing consensus that climate change is contributing to this instability. We have a moral duty to reduce our environmental impact on the planet, and in doing so to assist the most vulnerable on the planet.

Ciarán Cuffe is a lecturer in Planning at Dublin Institute of Technology and a former Green Party Minister of State