Environmental Year Review 2000

Environmental Year Review 2000 – Ciarán Cuffe, Irish Independent, December 2000

It was a roller-coaster ride. From the failure of the climate change talks in the Hague to the final closure of the Chernobyl Reactor there was no shortage of environmental shocks and surprises during 2000. This was the year that brought record rainfalls to Ireland. As flood waters lapped the doorsteps of badly planned housing estates around the country people painfully made the connection between planning and the environment. Elsewhere around the world temperatures soared to record levels. Forest fires cast a plume of smoke across the United States, and the World Meteorological Organisation described the year as one of the warmest since records began. Here in Ireland, farmers reacted angrily to suggestions that cattle herds should be cut to meet our obligations on greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile in the Hague protestors build a mock dyke at the Climate Change Conference to symbolise the effects of rising sea levels.

Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency published their Millennium Report in April. It showed that the Economic Boom is causing a major challenge to the environment. From traffic emissions to water quality, levels of pollution have risen. This year their Director Dr. Padraic Larkin warned that ‘Ireland is in danger of losing the advantage of good environmental quality’. Vehicle exhausts are causing more damage than chimney stacks, and agricultural pollution is increasing in our rivers and streams. On the positive side the report confirmed the generally good quality of our coastal waters, and said that the smog ban in urban areas was having an effect.

In the Glen of the Downs protestors lost the battle to stop a motorway running through the heart of a nature reserve. The bulldozers moved in over the Summer and the area is now a mud bath of construction equipment. Meanwhile Wicklow County Council is pushing ahead with massive rezoning plans for Kilcoole and Newtown. The old saying that new roads quickly fill to capacity may well be proven right in a few years time, as cars commuting to Dublin fill the new road as soon as it is constructed. Meanwhile in Co. Meath councillors have reserved vast tracts of land at Clonee and Kilbride for new development. This will increase urban spawl around Dublin. The Department has written to Meath County Council expressing serious concerns about the proposed rezoning. Both the Meath and the Wicklow development appear to contradict the Strategic Planning Guidelines that were published last year. These were intended to allow for growth on public transport corridors outside of Dublin, but preserve the green belts elsewhere. At least we did get the Millennium Forest in 2000. This gives us all a real share in Ireland’s woodlands.

This was also the year that Frank Dunlop sung like a canary to the Flood Tribunal. We still have to await the Tribunal’s findings, but no doubt there will be lessons learnt for environmentalists and planners as to how decisions were made over the last fifteen years. Watch this space in 2001.

Spencer Dock dominated the headlines during August. It seemed everyone has an opinion on the proposal for what was in effect a new city in Dublin’s Docklands. Back to the drawing board was the message sent out by Bord Pleanála to the developers, as they granted permission for the National Conference Centre, but refused permission for the rest of the development. The Spencer Dock Consortium had sought planning permission for six million square feet, but only received permission for under half a million. In effect, they were given the thumbs-down for the vast bulk of the project. The Dublin Docklands Development Authority appeared pleased with the news, and they set to work on a planning scheme for the area that would limit building heights, and incorporate more green space and public spaces than the previous scheme. Johnny Ronan, one of the developers of the project turned his attention abroad, where he was involved in a winning bid to turn the troubled Millennium Dome into a high-tech office Quarter.

Across the Liffey, cranes appeared on George’s Quay where Cosgrave Brothers had been refused permission for a twenty four storey office block. To everyone’s surprise they had started work on a high-rise office development that they themselves had described as the ‘portals of darkness’. It seems that high-rise was everywhere. In Cork and Dublin building height studies were proposed to try and establish agreement on how the cities skylines would change.

There were some good achievements in the area of transport. Work finally started on the Luas light rail line in Dublin. This line will run from Tallaght to the City Centre, and should result in cleaner air and greater accessibility for some Dubliners. Cities like Galway and Limerick are now casting an eye over their railway lines and wondering whether light rail might help reduce their traffic congestion. Over one hundred thousand new vehicles were registered in Dublin alone during 2000. This was an all time record and led to record traffic jams in the suburbs where new road construction just can’t cope with rising car ownership.

The National Roads Authority were pleased with the six billion pounds allocation announced by Minister Noel Dempsey for spending on new roads over the course of the National Development Plan. However nobody seems to have worked out where all the traffic will go, and sustainability doesn’t get a look in. The Government announced several new transport plans for Dublin over the course of the year, with plans for light rail, metro lines and even the Eastern Bypass was resurrected. Weary commuters shook their heads, as mudslides and then a blue flue hampered the introduction of new DART carriages, casting doubts on whether a new transport network would ever see the light of day.

In November the Hague was the scene for a major conference on Climate change. Politicians and scientist from the four corners of the globe battled it out at a conference billed as ‘two weeks to save the earth’. While almost everyone agreed that climate change was happening, agreement on what exactly to do about it was not forthcoming. Britain’s John Prescott tried to broker a deal on behalf of the European Union with the United States. However the proposal was dismissed by greener Environmental Ministers from other European countries and it all fell apart. The Conference wasn’t helped by the indecision over the US Presidential election where George W. Bush eventually won by a handful of votes. The Green Party’s Ralph Nader defended his decision to run saying that both Republicans and Democrats were in the pocket of big business. However Al Gore the Democratic candidate had written a book called ‘Earth in the Balance’, and many had hoped that Nader would eventually endorse Gore.

In December an offer to restart the Climate Change Talks stalled after US negotiators pulled out. Climate experts warned that , unless developed countries cut the emissions that have led to climate change, the earth could face an unprecedented period of flooding and drought with some low-lying countries virtually disappearing off the map due to rising sea-levels.

Ireland’s National Climate Change Strategy was published during the year by Minister Noel Dempsey just before the Hague Conference. The Strategy was a good framework for tackling the issues but was criticised for lacking in specifics and putting off some decisions for several years. Dempsey spent an entire week in the Hague, and announced that he would implement some of the Strategy’s recommendations sooner than expected. The document provides for closing Moneypoint power station by 2008, and tightening up the building regulation to provide for higher insulation standards.

Regardless of international agreements, it is important that Ireland puts its house in order, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2010. Sadly the budget failed to introduce eco-taxes. Apart from a tax break for low-emission vehicles, there was little sign of any new measures by Government to shift tax from labour and VAT to taxing environmental pollution. Even the proposed tax on plastic bags is apparently delayed due to legal wrangling. On the bright side, this was the year that brought choice to Irish electricity users. For the first time consumers can choose their electricity from the renewable source of wind turbines. Eirtricity is the company behind the move, and we can expect to hear more of them.

Christmas came early to Chernobyl as the disaster plagued reactor was finally closed down on the 15 December. It will take thousands of years for the Ukraine and Belarus to recover from the huge radiation leak of fifteen years ago, but the lesson has been learnt of the perils of nuclear power. Another success of 2000 was the increasing evidence that the ozone layer may be recovering from the damage caused by Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s). This is the gas that used to be in aerosols such as shaving foam. A treaty was signed in Montreal in 1987 phasing out the use of substances that damage the ozone layer. This year there was some evidence that the treaty may finally be having some effect.

Finally, the Sydney Olympics was deemed an environmental success. Greenpeace Australia used the Olympics to showcase environmental best practice. Although in the end they only gave the games a mark of 6 out of 10 it did show the way forward. Using the motto of ‘giving the planet a sporting chance’, they promoted waste reduction and recycling. The also encouraged water conservation and the use of sustainable materials in construction. They promoted partnership between those protecting the environment and developers. Not a bad lesson to learn as we look forward to 2001.

Ciarán Cuffe’s environmental highlights of 2000

1. Increasing environmental awareness

2. Millennium Forest

3. Bord Pleanála decision on Spencer Dock

4. Launch of Eirtricity

5. Start of construction on Luas

6. Signs of improvement in the Ozone Layer

7. Launch of National climate strategy

8. Closure of Chernobyl

9. Sydney Green Olympics

10. Tax break for low emission vehicles

Ciarán Cuffe’s environmental low points of 2000

1. Failure of Climate Change talks in the Hague

2. 100,000 new vehicles in Dublin

3. Road construction in Glen of the Downs

4. Those Floods

5. No green taxes

6. River pollution

7. Meath and Wicklow rezonings

8. No plastic bag tax

9. Election of George W. Bush as US President

10. Water quality in our rivers and lakes

ENDS

Irish Independent, December 2000, page updated 10th January 2018