10 March, 2022

Greenways and nature-based solutions

Waterford Dungarvan Greenway

In March 2022 I was invited by Roy O'Connor of the Roads and Transport section of Engineers Ireland to open their seminar on Greenways. I made the point that Greenways are not simply a recreational phenomenon, but can be at the heart of our efforts to decarbonise by encouraging walking and cycling. My opening address can be found below.

Thanks to Roy O'Connor, and Engineers Ireland for inviting me to open this seminar.

Good morning and greetings from Strasbourg in France where I am attending the plenary session of the European Parliament. It is a dark moment in Europe, and we hope that de-escalation will occur. It is a week in which the energy rulebook for Europe is being re-written, in order to reduce reliance on Russian energy. That means less coal, oil and gas, and hopefully an acceleration of the green energy transition. This has significant implications from transport, and may assist in decarbonisation.

From a transport and mobility perspective, that means more support for active travel, public transport, and electrification. Active travel covers walking and cycling and now is the right time to boost these sustainable modes. The 2018 Strategy for the Future Development of National and Regional Greenways states, “Greenways are not simply a means of getting from A to B, they are an experience in and of themselves. They are also a means to experience the communities through which they transport us.” I’d like to flip that around and stress that they ARE a means of getting from A to B, and with the rise of pedal-assisted bikes, they can be transformative in achieving a favourable modal spilt for short and medium length journeys. 

However, let me backtrack for a moment. There was a lightbulb moment around twenty years ago when Fáilte Ireland realised that Ireland Inc was generating more revenue from cycle holidays than golf holidays, and this thankfully has led to a rise of investment in greenways. Nevertheless, we know that the reasons for greenway investment go far deeper than that. Increased concern about local air quality, particularly post-Covid have reinforced the importance of clean air, and travel on foot, or by bike and Greenways help achieve this. Active travel also helps tackle our obesity crisis. 63% of Irish men and 48% of Irish women have a Body Mass Index higher than 25, and being active daily tackle this. Ireland is above average, in a bad way and greenways can address this. 

The climate and biodiversity crises are further reasons for investment in greenways as they can, if designed correctly improve this at a local level. Greenways can also assist in climate adaptation. Embedding sustainable drainage systems from the outset can help nature heal, and provide resilience. Last week I visited Valkenburg in the Netherlands as part of a European Parliament delegation examining the aftermath of the deadly floods last summer that took hundreds of lives in Germany and Belgium. Tellingly, no lives were lost in the Netherlands and the mayor Valkenburg Mr. Daan Prevoo painstakingly explained the Dutch approach of giving ‘Room for the River’, a phrase I had previously heard from Henk Ovink, the Dutch water ambassador. You know all about these challenges, and I would like to think that we are moving away from concrete to more reliance on nature-based solutions, though I certainly see this argument raging within the Office of Public Works and other agencies. You know, I think we all need to go back to school every once in a while, and learn about new approaches to how we carry out our work. I know this leads to practical challenges: how for instance can we incorporate permeable surfaces that are strong enough to withstand extreme rainfall events that are becoming more common. We must work with nature, not fight against it. 

 The Irish Government has pledged a million Euro a day to walking and cycling. However, we cannot just throw money at projects, we need do it right. Continued Professional Development is crucial. While temporary Covid-related mobility measures have been positive, they have often come with a lot of plastic baggage attached! I hope that we can rely more on wood, green concrete, and trees and planting in the future. I live close to the Phoenix Park, and while I welcome the smooth resurfacing and plastic wands that now firmly delineate the cycle path, perhaps we could consider a row of cherry trees next time out. Nature can help with sustainable solutions. Transport and mobility has come full circle since I first campaigned about urban motorways in Dublin over thirty years ago. Back then, the mantra was that the car is king. We now know it was a pretender to the throne. The transport pyramid now puts teleworking on the top of the ladder, and the pedestrian, wheelchair user and cyclist on the rungs below, and that is the way it should be. Delivery vehicles, public transport and shared mobility come next, with dirty diesels barely making it onto the ladder, and being phased out as electrification takes hold.

 I am glad that land acquisition will figure in your discussions. That nettle must be grasped. So many Dutch towns have the cycle path safely planned at a short distance away from the main road, and that requires the purchase of land, a small price to pay for sustainable infrastructure. Greenways can transform our tourism offer, and our transport infrastructure at a fraction of the cost and a fraction of the carbon footprint of our motorway network. Let us ensure that local transport needs are central to the planning of greenways, not just for recreational use, but also for serving local everyday journeys. I hope the investment in active travel will also lead to a re-thinking of rural roads, where too often road markings consists of a dashed white central divider. In Denmark, on such roads the central divider is not present, but instead solid white lines on both sides delineate a metre of shared space that is available to cyclists and pedestrians. The psychological impact of this also helps reduce vehicle speeds. 

Before I conclude, may I make a final plea on the subject of way finding, or signage. It is clear that many who choose to drive are not aware that walking and cycling infrastructure exists. We need to improve the quality and quantum of signage that indicates active travel infrastructure. The Slí na Sláinte signs do this, but we need a similar system for all active travel routes. Such signs could list destinations, but also travel times. Over the years, we have reduced road signage to a listing of letters and numbers that are unintelligible to the layperson. The N17, as far as I know the only one of these that has acquired any cultural recognition. Let us get back to using authentic and grounded place-names that have been neglected, but that have a rich cultural grounding. I of course have to remind you, that in doing this we do not wish to create excessive signage and that we also need to declutter our streets and roads.

Thank you, enjoy the day!

04 March, 2022

A Green response to Russian Aggression in Ukraine



Green Party Ukraine Crisis Webinar March 2022
On 3 March 2022 the Green Party organised a discussion around the Ukraine Crisis at short notice. It was a webinar like no other: listening to Ukrainian MP Maria Ionova speaking to us from Kiev with sirens in the background. Minister Eamon Ryan TD, gave us an introduction, and Professor Donnacha Ó Beacháin from DCU outlined the need for support from Ukraine and Grace O’Sullivan MEP and myself gave a perspective from the European Parliament. Garret Kelly our Foreign Affairs Working Group chair joined us from Sarajevo and Senator Vincent Martin chaired the evening’s proceedings. Below are my speaking notes. 

Maria, I cannot imagine what you are your family are living through in Kiev. 

I ask myself, what can we do? How can we de-escalate? This is the key question this evening. As we watch the violence on our screens, we feel powerless at this remove. Lenin stated, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen." Meanwhile European Commission President von der Leyen said this week: "This is a clash between the rule of law and the rule of the gun; between democracies and autocracies; between a rules-based order and a world of naked aggression.”

Putin’s murderous actions must be condemned. However, we must avoid a direct confrontation between NATO and Russian forces. It was important for the European Parliament to be united yesterday in condemning the invasion, showing solidarity with the Ukrainian people, and calling for the EU to act on issues like greater humanitarian assistance and refugee protection. It is right that Ireland will play its part in welcoming refugees, despite our housing and homelessness challenges. I am pleased that in the European Parliament this week we voted for €1.2 Billion of aid for Ukraine.

Last week I was in Albania, as a member of the Delegation to the EU-Albania Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee. They have waited for many years to be on the list for EU accession.  Today, Georgia and Moldova have applied for EU membership. It is clear that there is now renewed pressure on the European Union to speed up the process for countries that wish to look towards Brussels. Also today, Ministers in the Justice and Home Affairs Council have agreed, for the first time, to trigger the ‘Temporary Protection Directive’ to support people fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

The Greens/EFA Group are calling on EU Member States and the Commission to ensure that all people fleeing the war can find sanctuary in the EU. I am glad that Ireland has agreed to play its part in this. The European Union was founded as an economic entity; the Steel and Coal Community, and it has become an environmental and social body. I am worried if it were to morph into a military body, and I am not convinced of this need. I ask myself where would it end? Of course, innocent citizens must be able to defend themselves, and Ireland must provide humanitarian aid. However, the EU must not become a military organisation. This would take away from its key role.

A year ago, I contributed to the public consultation to the Commission on the Defence Forces. I said then that our strengths as a neutral nation have served us well in our peacekeeping role abroad, and in humanitarian tasks in the Mediterranean and elsewhere.   Ireland sits on the United Nations Security Council; it can again assist in tackling global challenges. Our neutrality can be an asset.  In line with the Irish’s State’s constitutional commitment to neutrality, the triple-lock must be respected in terms of any external deployment of the Irish Defence Forces. 

This week’s economic sanctions are strong and significant. Ukrainian resistance is high. A year ago, I raised concerns over attempts that may have occurred involving the hacking of such infrastructure such as undersea cables by foreign forces, and the unannounced incursion of defence aircraft and submarines into Irish waters and airspace. These concerns must inform our defence capabilities.

Ukraine is a breadbasket. It is also rich in coal, oil, and gas, and nuclear. I had not considered concerns about nuclear installations in times of war, I had been more focused on terrorist attack. Clearly, I’d be more worried about a nuclear facility being a battlefield than a windfarm.  The EU’s dependence on Russian oil and gas is now in plain sight. Filling our cars with petrol fuels Putin’s ambitions. 

Now is the time to hit two birds with one stone: end reliance on Russian fossil fuels by promoting a 100% renewable energy economy which helps us tackle the climate crisis. The more we invest now in energy efficiency, energy storage, demand management, peak-shifting and renewable energy, the quicker we’ll be able to stop funding Putin’s war by buying less of his gas and oil. 

Update, 12 March 2022

Back in 1994 Putin made his intentions clear. Michael Stuermer, author of ‘Putin and the Rise of Russia’ was listening carefully. Referring to the 20 million Russians who lived beyond his country’s border Stuermer quotes Putin as saying “For us, their fate is a question of war or peace.” It seems clear that any solution to Russia's war in Ukraine will require assurances for ethnic Russians living there. He sees NATO expansion, and to a lesser extent the EU as a threat.

Earlier this week I had a meeting with Commissioner Frans Timmermans in Strasbourg. He speaks Russian and also knew Putin going back to the 1990s. He had his fair share’s of run-ins with him, over the behaviour of Russian embassy staff in the Netherlands, and Russia’s treatment of Dutch diplomatic staff in Moscow. He even negotiated with him for the release of a Greenpeace ship that was detained in Russia. He is acutely aware of Russia’s power after 192 Dutch citizens died after a Russian missile downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Timmermans believes that sharp and severe economic sanctions will have an impact.

However, I repeat, the focus right now must be on de-escalation. Hopefully peace talks will achieve this.

Thank you.