22 November, 2013

Let's shed some light on City and County Managers’ meetings

It's time that more was known about meetings of the County and City Managers’ Association (CCMA). They're one of the most powerful organisations in the country. Their thirty-nine members have much of the responsibility for the spending of  about €4 billion a year on running local authorities, and around €3 billion a year on capital expenditure. That's serious money. Clearly they've a lot to talk about. And yet when you try and find out how often they meet or what decisions they make make it can be quite a challenge.

The Local Government Management Agency (pictured above) hosts the CCMA's  web pages which state that the CCMA works "to ensure that the influence of Managers is brought to bear on the development and implementation of relevant policy." It goes to say that "CCMA represents its members on external committees, steering groups and organisations and develops evidence-based positions and makes submissions on relevant issues." That all sounds good and worthy, but it would be useful if the minutes of their meetings and any associated reports were made available to the public so that we know what is discussed. Greater transparency could improve the quality of the decisions that are made, and reduce legal challenges and appeals.

I served for over a decade on Dublin City Council as a councillor, and had the opportunity to watch Managers exercise their power and influence over major investment decisions on transport, waste, water and other issues. After the  Local Government (Dublin) Act 1993 was enacted, three new County Managers were appointed to the new counties of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal, and South Dublin. These Managers meet on a regular basis to discuss matters of common concern.  It stands to reason that these Managers have to liaise with each other and co-ordinate what they do, but the public interest would be better served if the minutes of these meetings were placed in the public domain. In theory the powers of the managers and those of the council are balanced, however the growing complexity of decision making means that many issues have been resolved before they are presented  to the Council. I sometimes got the feeling that the meetings before the council meeting were the ones that really counted

Occasionally the corporate view of the CCMA is visible when they make submissions that enter the public domain. Back in 2010 in a submission to the Department of the Environment they suggested that the burden of compliance with environmental regulation on Local Authorities was high, and that there should be a move towards self-compliance. Their submission also proposed that the EPA should scale back on monitoring licensed facilities where historic results have remained constant. You could argue that constant values should require a more detailed inspection procedure. Of course unnecessary red tape should be got rid of, but where do you draw the line?

 All too often when it comes to the big decisions that will affect the city for the next hundred years there appears to be an over-emphasis on solutions that favour large new-build engineering projects. The future to our water woes requires a large new pipe to the River Shannon; The waste problem demands a major incinerator; Sewage treatment can be solved with another huge wastewater treatment plant in Ringsend, and on it goes. Might this be put down to the managers meeting in conclave on a regular basis? I suspect it is. On many occasions I've found myself arguing for conservation measures, rainwater harvesting, recycling instead of new mega-projects, yet the City Manager insisted on the silver bullet of the major project that will solve all our ills. I suspect this is partially due to the heavy engineering and administrative background of many of these individuals. It may also be influenced by the outsourcing of many of these large decisions to consultancy firms that like to present the single large solution to the problem. An exception to this has been the move by the four Dublin Local Authorities to implement Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) for rainwater management in greater Dublin, but it is the exception, not the rule.

The problem in these uncertain times is that we can't quite predict the level of growth or demand that over the next five years, let alone the next twenty. This creates a challenge for decision-makers. It may mean that spending half a billion euro on building a pipe to the Shannon for Dublin's future water supplies is not be the most cost-effective solution. Perhaps we should be investing money in fixing more of the leaks that waste 36% of our water before it gets to the taps. Perhaps we ought to have considered alternatives to a single large incinerator in Ringsend where the EU has had to call a halt to a client management and public relations contract that has cost us €30m before the project has even been built. Who knows? Of course the lead-in time to these projects can be lengthy, and this is an added complication, but the public interest might best be served by asking people for their opinions and input at the earliest possible stage.  

Environmental Impact Assessment tries to ensure that the alternatives to any project are given a fair hearing, but from my experience the consideration of these alternatives is not explored in depth. In recent years there has been a significant shift towards involving citizens in decision-making at the initial stage of the process. The Aarhus Convention established this principle which has been implemented by various Directives from the European Union. I suspect that if the general public were more involved at the brain-storming stage of the process we would come to more sustainable and cost-effective solutions. 

In these uncertain times maybe we should be opting for smaller projects to solve some of the big questions that City and County Councils face. These can be then be scaled up, if required. However county managers seem to have a fondness for bringing the big project solution rather than the question to the council chamber.  City and county managers should be more open about what they discuss, and what proposals they are making on on our behalf when they meet. The CCMA Executive tells us that they lead on the key issues to be tackled – mainly “big picture” / high level issues. In fairness to them they did open a twitter account last April but it has only had nine tweets over the last eight months. That's a start, at least, but in the twenty-first century in the interests of transparency the details of their deliberations should be available to all. If we know what city and county managers are discussing when they meet we might have a more informed public debate and discussion at an earlier stage. Chances are it would lead to better decisions.

08 October, 2013

Incentivising construction? Be careful what you wish for

Looks like it might be back to the bad old days if the rumours about scrapping or reducing the 80pc rezoning tax introduced by the last Government is anything to go by.

If this does happen it’ll be back to the nods, winks, brown envelopes and the occasional headlock for any councillor  who plays the green card in the Council Chamber.

Removing this tax would be a betrayal of all the lessons learned about bad planning during the boom years. It would mean a return to the bad old days of land speculation and councillor-led rezoning. The rezoning tax as it is currently enacted in the NAMA legislation implemented the 1973 Kenny Report on Building Land. It would be foolish to dilute this legislation.

Rezoning contributed significantly to the pyramid scheme of land rezoning and inappropriate development that led to the collapse of Irish banks. The last thing we need is a return to the bad old days of boom-bust planning and development. This is in danger of occurring if the windfall tax introduced by the Green Party through the NAMA legislation is dropped. 

Tax incentives have been proposed for certain works to existing buildings in Limerick and Waterford City, and this scheme is awaiting EU approval. This proposal if implemented carefully could encourage employment in refurbishing older buildings. However  It would be crazy  if the  Government were to drop the land rezoning tax,  as this is the first defence against the inappropriate rezoning of greenfield lands.

Rezoning more land in Dublin or elsewhere does not make sense. Currently there’s 2,500 hectares of land zoned for housing in the four Dublin Counties. This could provide space for 130,000 housing units at fairly modest housing densities of fifty units per hectare. To put things in perspective, this would provide homes for a quarter of a million people. Anyone who suggests we need to encourage more rezoning is mad as a fish and needs a reality check. Sure, there’s a problem in getting banks to lend, but that’s a very different issue from proper planning.

Those houses? They're on the road out from Castlemaine to Dingle. If you squint you might see the tumbleweed. The trees have probably grown a bit since the last time I looked, but I haven't seen much sign life there.

12 June, 2013

Time to rethink the Croppies Acre Park

It’s a tale of two cities.

Actually, the Croppies’ Acre Park and St. Stephen’s Green might as well exist in parallel universes.

During the recent hot spell Stephen’s Green was packed out with people enjoying the sun in a well-maintained and manicured park. Across the River Liffey, beside Collins Barracks the Croppies’ Acre Park was empty, bar a few adventurous city dwellers that had ignored the padlocked gates and hopped over the wall to sit on the grass and enjoy the sunshine. Oddly enough, both parks are managed by the Office of Public Works (OPW). Stephen’s Green is doing fine, but the Croppies’ Acre could do with, well, a little love. 

How did this happen? The OPW blames anti-social behaviour for their decision to close the park. I suspect the problem runs deeper than this. The Croppies’ Acre Park was poorly designed and has been badly managed. It has often run into controversy. Back in 1997 the National Museum wanted to provide a car park for visitors to Collins Barracks, and targeted the park for coach parking. Thankfully the National Graves Association (NGA) and others lobbied hard to stop this from happening. The future of the park seemed safe, but was it? The sculpture that commemorates the Croppy Boys dominates a large section of the Park, and has sterilised much of it. It consists of a stone spiral and flat slabs arranged in a geometric pattern on the grass nearby. The rest of the park has some trees and planting, but has always had been underused and poorly accessible. Even when the park was open to the public, there were only two entrances, close to the Eastern boundary. Along the Luas line a wall restricts access and visibility of the park itself. Tourists walking towards the city centre from Heuston railway station are mystified as to why there’s no entrance to the Park close to one of Ireland’s busiest train stations. The ground may well be ‘sacred’ as Matt Doyle of the NGA described it, but it should be reopened and provide more activities for Dubliners and visitors alike.

Over the years there have been proposals to increase activity in the Park, such as the imaginative proposal by architects Douglas Carson and Rosaleen Crushell  to provide some  5-a-side football pitches, but this was vetoed by the OPW's with their spokesperson Neil Ryan stating that it would be inappropriate, given the site's history as a mass grave. This was a bad call. Parks need activity, and football and monuments can happily co-exist in a park this size. Lots of families and dog-walkers use the small park nearby on Arbour Hill where the 1916 leaders are buried, so why shouldn't the Croppies Acre Park be more accessible and used by the general public? It's almost two hectares or five hectares in size, and thousands of people live nearby. It's also quite a walk, more than eight hundred metres or half a mile  from the Croppies' Acre gate to the nearest patch of grass in the Phoenix Park. For much of the twentieth century the Park was used for football. I'd imagine Wolf Tone's brother Matthew whose remains are said to buried in the Croppies' Acre would have welcomed a bit more activity.

Much of the OPW’s presence in the park over the last few years consisted of a security guard based in a graffiti-covered container who took it on himself to roar at kids who (naturally enough) walked along the parapet of the park wall. Meanwhile (and despite the OPW presence) a certain amount of rough sleeping, drug-taking and street drinking established itself in the Park. At the time of writing in June 2013 we have the worst of both worlds: a park that has been locked by the OPW, plus the anti-social behaviour.

Urban parks are a crucial part of what makes cities tick. They’re central to making urban settlements livable, and fun. They attract families and provide an outdoor space for those who live in small apartments. If we can’t get parks working well, we’re in deep trouble in our cities and towns.

Maybe we can look to the Netherlands to find a solution. Back in March I visited the Noorder Park in North Amsterdam. This park had  previously suffered from anti-social behaviour. Street drinkers had taken over a section of the park and nearby residents and tourists were afraid to visit. Rather than closing down the park the city adopted an innovative approach. They built a small pavilion that acts as an attractive neighbourhood centre. When I visited on a chilly Sunday in March the street drinkers were gathered, cans in hand around an outside fire and inside young mothers sipped herbal tea while their children played nearby. In one corner there was a singer with his guitar with an audience of mixed backgrounds and ages. Nearby an artist was sketching a visitor’s portrait. I was told that the cafe operator was concerned about security for her €5,000 coffee machine, but that the guys outside take it in turn to mind the pavilion overnight. Certainly on my visit there was peaceful co-existence between everybody there.

The crucial factor in all of this though, is that it doesn’t run itself. The City of Amsterdam employs a bright sharp manager who makes sure that the pavilion is well-run and maintained. She makes sure that there are enough old wood pallets to fuel the fire; schedules the singer-songwriter to be there on Sunday afternoon, and liaises with social services if one of the down-and-outs needs care. I wouldn’t be surprised though, if she was paid less than the bored security guard who used to be holed up in the drab security hut in the Croppies’ Acre. Not only does she manage the building, but she is a critical link between social services, the Parks Department, housing agencies and the police. This level of joined-up thinking is exactly what we need in Dublin.  A short video made to mark the fifth anniversary of the park pavilion shows the vitality of the area.


Here in Dublin we need  the same sort of imagination to re-open and improve the Croppies Acre Park. Some thinking outside the box  is required from the Office of Public Works, An Garda Siochána, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, Dublin City Council and the Department of Social Protection. All these agencies need to move outside their comfort zone. New entrances could be provided, and sections of the wall might be replaced with railings, or lowered in height. A Park Manager should be appointed, and maybe a cafe building provided similar to the one in Amsterdam. This  could lead to a more attractive park, and a brighter future for the down-and-outs, visitors and residents who might use its facilities. It could be a flagship project for social inclusion and regeneration.

The OPW need some fresh thinking when it comes to managing some of their urban parks in Dublin, or perhaps the City Council should take over. I suspect they could both learn from the example of North Amsterdam. I’d be happy to make the introduction.

18 May, 2013

Save Moore Street

Save Moore Street.

Not for the houses that the leaders of 1916 occupied in their last stand after leaving in the GPO, but for the vibrancy of the economic activity that immigrant and Irish retailers and visitors bring to the area, and the wealth of the existing built fabric and heritage that is threatened by demolition.

The phone shops; the vegetable stalls; the French Bakery and FX Buckleys the butchers. For many a stall or a small shop on Moore Street is a step on the first rung of the economic ladder. It all gives  a buzz that doesn't deserve to be eliminated by the Celtic Tiger 'Dublin Central' project. It would be the ultimate irony if tax-payers money were to be used through NAMA to give this destructive project a new lease of life. The drawing of the scheme shows the profile of the project set against the existing O'Connell Street looking west. It is over-scaled and represents a dated approach to revitalising an area.  Perhaps the most bizarre part of the whole proposal promoted by developer Joe O'Reilly and designed by architects  BKD, McGarry Ní Eanaigh and Donnelly Turpin is the north-facing park proposed for the roof of the shopping centre. It is all just plain wrong in its shape and size. It is grossly over-scaled for the area, and involves the demolition of too many buildings.

It reminds me of the Skidmore Owings Merill proposal for a central bus station in Temple Bar from the early 1980s that would have demolished dozens of buildings on both sides of the River Liffey and replaced what was then a bohemian quarter with, well, buses. The Dublin Central project seeks to replace a vibrant quarter with, well, British High Street shops.

When you walk along Moore Street there is a lot of under-maintained buildings, but that's mostly due to the urban blight forced on the area by developers. If the cement blocks were removed from the windows of the upper floors of these buildings they could be refurbished to become artists' studios or living spaces that would increase the footfall and life of the area. Many of these buildings date from the mid-nineteenth century. Some look even earlier.

Dublin City Council needs to take enforcement action against the unauthorised surface car parks that have been springing up off Parnell Street. It also needs to reconsider the support it is giving  for comprehensive redevelopment that failed in the 1960s, and that is set to fail again if it continues to facilitate a deeply-flawed redevelopment proposal. If there is a building to be demolished in the area, it is the City Council's  own cleansing deport which an architectural travesty with a blank ground floor facade covered in advertising at the corner of Moore Street and O'Rahilly Parade. Perhaps it could be replaced with a decent indoor market that could give budding entrepreneurs an affordable stall and a roof over their head to sell their wares. 

Last Autumn my students in the Spatial Planning degree programme carried out a conservation inventory of the buildings in the blocks bounded by Upper O'Connell Street, Parnell Street, Moore Street and Henry Street. They showed that there is  a wealth of heritage and economic activity in the area that deserves to be protected.

Moore Street has a long and fascinating history. Barry Kennerk's new Book "Moore Street the Story of Dublin's Market District" is a great read that documents the history of the area through the eyes and words of traders and local residents. Street trading has deteriorated in recent years. That's partly due to the lure of supermarkets and shopping centres, but it's also due to the neglect of the street by the city council. It has not just turned a blind eye to the creeping dereliction fostered by developers, it has encouraged speculators in their plans.

The area  deserves a decent future. Retaining and refurbishing 16 Moore Street and the adjacent buildings could be the first step in  what needs to happen. The link to 1916 needs to be cherished and celebrated as we approach the hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Rising. However I'm not convinced that another museum is required. Maybe a 'Living Over the Shop' project would make more sense. Minister Jimmy Deenihan is the decision-maker on this one. A Committee of Dublin City Councillors recently called for the 1916 buildings at 14-17 Moore Street to be retained, but they need to go further.  The entire neighbourhood needs to be refurbished rather than demolished to facilitate another Shopping Centre. Comprehensive redevelopment is not the solution to regenerating this part of the City. Maybe an architectural competition could be held to come up a carefully considered master-plan for the area. 

Thirty years ago in Berlin they coined the idea of 'soft' urban renewal in Berlin. Essentially it means refurbishing old buildings in co-operation with the local community, and filling empty sites with well-designed, but not over-scaled buildings. Moore Street could have the buzz of Camden market and a thriving residential community. All it needs is a bit of imagination, and a change of direction from the City Council.

Soft urban renewal is what we need.


07 May, 2013

How about a new island for Dublin Bay?



Now there's a thought.

This might just be the answer to the challenge that Dublin City is facing over what to do with almost a million tonnes of spoil from the bottom of Dublin Bay. A new island might just be  what's needed.

It's part of the final phase of what is known as the Dublin Bay Project. This is an ambitious plan to improve the water quality of Dublin Bay by improved waste water treatment, and building a pipe to send some of the waste water further out to sea.


The Liffey Estuary was designated as a nutrient sensitive water body by the Department of the Environment in 2001, and so the city has to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that discharge into these waters close to the shore. The plan is to invest in further sewage treatment at the Ringsend Waste Water Treatment plant, and to construct an underwater tunnel four and a half metres in diameter that will discharge the treated sewage nine kilometres out into Dublin Bay. This is not cheap. It will cost around €222 million to build, and around €3 million per year to operate.  Dublin City Council made an application to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to construct the works and dump the spoil at sea. The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)  estimates that the rock spoil from the  excavations will be in the order of 847,500 tonnes, or around half a million cubic metres in volume. In April 2013 Dublin City withdrew their Application because some of the documentation regarding assessments and environmental impacts was not received in time to allow members of the public to make observations. 

An other proposal put forward in the Environmental Impact Statement is to truck the waste through Dublin City for re-use or disposal in landfill. This would involve thousands of truck movements and wouldn't be that popular an option from those who live close to the proposed route. 

Maybe now is the time to consider an alternative approach?

I'm wondering could we carefully place the the rock spoil out at the edge of Dublin Bay on top of the Burford Bank and create a new island.  the Burford Bank is the vertical bar that can be seen on the right hand side of the chart above. The water is fairly shallow there: only about three fathoms or five and a half metres deep at the lowest tide. Arranging the spoil in a ten metre high mound resting on the sea-bed could produce a new island ten kilometres to the east of Ringsend. Such an island could be an amenity that Dubliners could sail, motor or row out to on a summers evening, you could even plant a few pine trees, put in a pier and and a few picnic tables. The island itself might be roughly one hundred metres in diameter, with a rock reef to protect it from erosion. The area around the island could be designated as a marine park, and might protect vulnerable marine species from over-fishing in the water s nearby. Needless to say there'd need to be an architectural competition held to come up with the best design for the project. It could be a great way of celebrating the improvement in water quality in Dublin Bay that would result from  the new outfall pipe. Of course the underwater hydrology would have to be carefully considered, but it might have a secondary function of helping to protect vulnerable coastal areas such as Clontarf from Easterly gales. Any proposal would have to respect the OSPAR Convention that protects the north-east Atlantic from pollution, as well as the various European Union Directives that protect our coast.

What would such an island look like? Well, here's a link to a similar island  located a few kilometres away from Copenhagen in Denmark. There's also a useful article by Wheeler, Walshe and Sutton from University College Cork on the seabed of Ireland's east coast near Dublin here, and some seabed mapping from the Celtic Voyager seabed surveys here
Currently the City of Amsterdam is building new islands by using rock and sand from dredging shipping channels. It's just an idea, and something that perhaps the Dublin City Council and the EPA could consider in their deliberations in advance of a new application for Dumping at Sea.


In 1801 Captain William Bligh, of Bounty fame surveyed the Liffey Channel and proposed extending the harbour walls so that ships could travel safely into Dublin Port. As a bonus Bull Island was created. Perhaps today’s plans to upgrade Dublin’s sewage treatment could give the city an amenity that would improve Dublin for the next two hundred years.  If we’re going to spend €220 million on Dublin’s sewage treatment upgrade, then let’s do something interesting with the waste rock and mud. In my mind a new island sounds like a good idea. 

Currently the options for dealing with the waste from digging the 9km tunnel are to make it disappear, just like Steve McQueen did in “The Great Escape” where the earth from digging an escape tunnel was spread all over the prison yard.  The alternative is to truck it out through Ringsend and the Dublin Port Tunnel to a landfill site. I’m suggesting a third option, and it might be cheaper, the building of a new island in Dublin Bay.

04 March, 2013

New Look Smithfield Horse Fair

Sanitised was the word of the day at yesterday's Smithfield Horse Fair.

Yes,  you need to be mindful of health and safety. Yes, animal welfare issues had to be addressed. Yes, no-one wanted to see a repetition of the incident from two years ago where several people were hurt, but...it still seemed over the top in terms of restrictions. I had a good chat with Frank Buckley who helped revive the Fair thirty years ago, and he mentioned a horse owner who was stopped five times by security checks on the way in and then told by the private security firm "You can't bring your horse in here".

I was struck by the massive amount of people overseeing the event. There were loads of Guards, including the Dog Squad who lent a slightly menacing air to the proceedings, particularly as they interrogated a few kids beside me who had been slamming the door of the fairly unnecessary public toilets that you see at festivals.

"What's your date of birth?"
-"4th June 1998"
"You're a bit slow on that. Where do you live?"
-"Ballyfermot"
"Whereabouts in Ballyfermot?"

It wasn't exactly the kind of exchange that will encourage that kid to consider joining the boys in blue in three years time.


The signs at the entrance to the central part of the Square stated no unaccompanied children under 16, no buggies and no dogs. This meant that a group of young teenagers congregated up at the North end of the Square on the new green space, looking bored. Two years ago several local councillors attempted to have the Horse Fair closed down completely, and there is a feeling that the event is simply being allowed on sufferance.

Between the Guards and their dogs, Civil Defence in their Guantanamo jumpsuits and Pulse Security in their high-viz vests and uniforms it all seemed a bit too controlled. I suspect Ballinasloe Horsefair and the Spancil Hill Fair have a bit more spontaneity...

On the positive side of things it was great to see a photographic expedition on display, as well as some great outdoor traditional music. There was even a reading from Colin Murphy on "The Strange History of a Dublin Square and its Horse Fair".

Research organised by my colleague Dave O'Connor in the Dublin Institute of Technology has shown that Smithfield is one of the least liked civic spaces in this part of the city. I suspect the polarised debate about the Fair is probably indicative of the frustration that people want to express about some of the changes that have taken place in this part of the city in recent years. The sculptural lights, gas braziers and cobblestones may have been appropriate to attracting activity to the area in the late 1990s, perhaps t is now time to soften the space and introduce more events that the local community can take part in. 

The outdoor seating and play equipment towards the river, and grassed area close to North King Street is a step in that direction. However maybe it's now  time for a basketball court or something similar down near the Generator Hospital. There's also the issue of an outdoor market. I understand that the lower part of the Square has had underground water and electricity outlets installed. Maybe the next step could be the appointment of a Civic Space Manager to run different sorts of outdoor events throughout the year?

There's no doubt that the City Council means well, and put a huge amount of effort into running a safe and secure March horse fair. but I'd hope that they might be able to tone down the security presence slightly at future Fairs. 

Perhaps the savings could be put to better use in managing the Square all year round, and we could have a civic space that could be both hippity-hop and clippity-clop at the same time.

12 February, 2013

Changing Climates, Changing Communities



“The three-tongued glacier has begun to melt.
What will we do, they ask, when boulder-milt
Comes wallowing across the delta flats

And the miles-deep shag-ice makes its move?”
Seamus Heaney,  Höfn 2006

Thanks to St. Patricks College in Drumcondra for asking me to speak, and to Seamus Heaney, a man whose heart beats in time with the earth itself. His poem about the Höfn glacier in south-east Iceland is a reminder of the impact of climate change on a vulnerable world. I have a few images over on Slideshare to accompany this.

Just over a decade ago, in November 2002. I was living on Millmount Avenue, close to St. Patrick’s College, with my young family. I was working late, writing an article on Thursday 14th November. I failed to notice the first few texts from my partner, and by the time I noticed, the tone had become urgent: “Come home quickly”. I cycled back from the city centre through stalled traffic and heavy rain. The Tolka was flowing thick and fast under Drumcondra Bridge. As I turned down Millmount Avenue I realised that the road was under water, and shortly after I arrived into the house, the water gushed up from under the floorboards, until there was the best part of a metre of brown flood water throughout the house. We escaped with our young family over the back wall, passing our six week old child over the back garden wall to the waiting Guards and Civil Defence.

At that time I wrote “It was no act of god, but an act of man” that caused the flooding. Those floods were no doubt as severe as they were due to unplanned development upstream removing the natural soakage of wetlands close the Tolka’s banks. As we look ahead to your lives, there is no doubt in my mind that the acts of man, manifested through climate change will change our world in ways that we cannot even imagine. Thankfully in the case of the Tolka a brush with danger led to action to reduce the risk of future flooding events.

Today I want to address three facets of imaging the future
I wish to pay tribute to great men and women; I want express my grave concern that the wake up calls on climate are being ignored and I want urge you to take action.

John Tyndall was a Physicist from Co. Carlow. He published important works in the area of heat, sound and light, and demonstrated the greenhouse effect which is the foundation of much of the current work on climate.

Charles Keeling was an American scientist. He worked at Scripps Institute and at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. His seminal work on the increase in carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere alerted the world to a changing climate. He charted the seasonal variations in levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. He noted that in the Northern summer months, plants and trees absorbed greenhouse gases, but not enough to stop the increasing upward slope of their concentration.

In recent years many women have blazed new trails in tackling climate issues: Gro Harlem Bruntland, the Norwegian Prime Minister defined sustainability, Christiana Figueres, as the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action, and Mary Robinson in the field of climate justice. They all have all assisted our understanding and response to a world where the climate is changed.

Speaking recently at World Economic Forum in Davos, Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund stated that climate change not debt or austerity is "...the greatest economic challenge of the 21st Century." She went on to say in unscripted but sobering remarks to her audience that future generations would be "roasted, toasted, fried, and grilled."

It is easy to map the rises in sea level that will be a consequence of melting ice. It’s more difficult to predict the storm intensities and surges that can cause devastation. The North Sea Flood of 1953 that claimed the lives of thousands in the Netherlands and the UK led to a massive investment in flood defences. The 2005 New Orleans floods were a wake up call for the US, as was the recent Superstorm Sandy. In Ireland considerable flood relief works took place since the flooding of 2002. Will it take a massive climate related event before the causes, rather than the consequences of climate change are meaningfully addressed?

Outside of Ireland the consequences of a warming world are devastating. Rapid changes in habitat are killing off species, and decreasing biodiversity. There are increased movements of environmental refugees from vulnerable regions. However, the economic consequences are harder to predict.

No-one knows for certain what will happen to the world’s economy when vast agricultural regions lose their ability to grow traditional crops, when river basins lose their precipitation, or when voices are raised in anger.

No-one knows how the impact of a warming world of changing climates will impact on our children. We do know that there is a moral imperative to take action, to take action internationally, nationally and in our own lives.

In June 2012 the Secretariat of National Economic and Social Council published an Interim Report “Towards a New National Climate Policy”. At an institutional level it is important to note that NESC’s mission is to advise the Taoiseach on strategic issues relating to the efficient development of the economy and the achievement of social justice. NESC has a history of producing reports with strategic, long-term analyses of key economic and social development issues affecting Ireland. Although the Environmental Pillar is represented on the Council of NESC, their terms of reference have not changed to recognise the increased importance of the environment in recent years. This needs to change because NESC simply does not have the capacity, the understanding or the mandate to prioritise environmental issues.

NESC states: “Our starting point was that action on carbon emissions must be consistent with Ireland’s economic recovery, employment growth and stabilisation of the public finances”. All of these points are important, but if NESC fails to acknowledge that much of the life on the planet is under threat, then their understanding of the challenge will be flawed.

NESC reframes the Climate Change Challenge in Chapter Three by stating: “The opposite of compliance is thinking for ourselves.” At best this implies that a fresh approach is needed to tackle the issue, at worst it means that this Government has simply not been convinced of the need to take the issue seriously. The Reports states that we should explore tax measures that: “rely less on taxing ‘goods’ such as labour and enterprise, and more on taxing ‘bads’, such as environmental damage and resource depletion.” This is all well and good, but the train has left the station and it is time we caught up and got on board.

In November 2012 the World Bank published an important report “Turn Down the Heat -Why a 4° Warmer World Must be Avoided” The tone and the content is in marked contrast to the NESC Report. The World Bank states: There is no certainty that adaptation to a 4 degree world is possible … The projected 4 degree warming simply must not be allowed to occur. In his forward to the Report Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group says “This report is a stark reminder that climate change affects everything. The solutions don’t lie only in climate finance or climate projects. The solutions lie in effective risk management and ensuring all our work, all our thinking, is designed with the threat of a 4 degree world in mind.”

The World Bank has sounded the alarm, but the response from NESC is lagging. Where is their enthusiasm, and the resolve that is so desperately needed?

This domestic complacency needs to be dismantled. It does not involve false choices between the environment and the economy, it must be about both. One of the first ways that this can be achieved is through meaningful national legislation to set targets, for Ireland, for 2020, for 2030 and beyond. The 2009 Renewables Directive 2009/28/EC otherwise known as the “20 20 20 Directive” sets binding targets for greenhouse gas reductions, renewable energy but not energy efficiency, and that’s where the gap lies. An absence of targets is a failure to commit.

Action must take place at all levels. It can take place through the political process, but also through people’s lives, their studies, and through the organisations that inspire and guide them.

Internationally, the Conferences of the Parties will continue to meet every December. Can meaningful agreements be negotiated? It may be too late. The world population continues to rise, with global numbers equivalent to the city of Cork being added every day.

At European Level, the Commission and the Parliament have engaged with the challenge more clearly than other organisations, however the EU emissions trading system lacks sufficient ambition, and thus the current carbon price is too low. Mapping developed at European level through ESPON the European Observation Network for Territorial Development and Cohesion shows the effect of climate change through applying physical, environmental, social, cultural and economic criteria to different regions around Europe.

At National level, legislation and sectoral action is required. We need targets, sectoral allocations and realistic timetables. Last month the Irish Farming Association President John Bryan said “(the) IFA favours sectoral plans, as opposed to meaningless target-driven legislation, as a means to addressing the climate challenge.”

Targets are needed because evidence-based decision-making requires them. We already have clear figures for the amount of energy used in Ireland, and the emissions associated with them. We know the relative costs of different abatement measures in the Irish context. This sets the scene for choosing from the set of measures that are available to us today, not at some distant future date.

Without targets, without limits, we have nothing. A Bill with no targets is like a budget without the figures, or an emperor without clothes. In 2005 while in opposition, and in 2010 while in Government the Green Party produced legislation that contained targets and timetables for reducing our emissions. Had either of these bills been passed they would have given the certainty that businesses, communities and the planet so desperately need.

At regional level local authorities and other agencies can cooperate to take action. Dublin City Council has a climate change strategy that is up for renewal this year. It needs to be talked about and be seen as an integral part of the city’s strategy, rather than viewed as an add-on.

Within communities, there is significant scope for change. Traffic calming, a better bus service, community gardens can all help reduce emissions. However it is crucial that we move beyond the “unplug your phone charger” response. Real change requires a more involved grasp of the issues, and often a more fundamental response. There is a strong role for the media to educate and lead on this issue. It was heartening to pick up a current issue of the Sacred Heart Messenger magazine and read suggestions for calculating carbon footprints and carrying out carbon audits.

In my own life I try and fly less, drive less, and eat less meat. I spend more time in the neighbourhood where I live. These are all good things. We need to talk about them more.

Politicians like to give hope, I want to give you hope, so let me imagine a low carbon future. It might consist of quieter roads and streets with less motorised traffic, and more sounds like children’s’ footsteps and bicycle bells. It would contain warm homes both old and new that generate, rather than consume energy. There would be communities where bonds of friendship and connectivity exist that were unthinkable in a time where the car was king. There could be new neighbourhoods, carefully planned of terraced homes, tall trees, sunny courtyards, leafy play areas, and bustling cafes. On the bog of Allen 200 metre tall wind turbines connect to a pan-European grid. That could be our future. The alternative is more akin to that depicted in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and is best avoided.

I remain gravely concerned at the inertia within our political system, the failure to show leadership on climate on the world stage, and the locked in climate carbon emissions that spell death and devastation for many, particularly in the developing world.

Policy rhetoric has been and still is almost entirely detached from climate reality. Scientific consensus and political consensus are worlds apart. As the singer and songwriter Paul Simon once wrote “I would not give you false hope, on this strange and mournful day”

Long journeys begin with small steps, but unless you know your destination you are doomed to failure. Targets for 2020, 2030 and beyond should be enshrined in Irish law.

We have entered the Anthropocene, a period where vulnerable coastal cities are flooded, fertile lands submerged, and crops fail. Many regions will have to stage a managed retreat from low-lying coastal towns and countryside. The 1% of us who can afford to fly and drive regularly will be responsible.

The young will not forgive what we forgive. It is time to act.