Going Green: What does that mean?

First Published: Irish Times, August 2012


Going green can dramatically improve people’s quality of life,
contrary to Seán Byrne’s assertion in yesterday’s Irish Times, (“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