Monday 3 September 2007

Protecting the economy of the environment

Ireland’s growing consumerism is posing challenges for the environment, according to the director general of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Mary Kelly.

‘‘The problem for Ireland is that our economic growth over the last number of years has made us so affluent and made us into more of a consumer society,” she said.

That affluence means that people have more effect on the environment, a situation Kelly hopes to change. She said a cultural shift was needed to make Irish people more aware of their environment and the importance of making small changes in their day-to-day living.

Kelly has a busy week ahead, as environmental policymakers meet this week at the third annual Environment Ireland conference to discuss the key challenges facing the Irish environment. The conference is organised in association with the EPA and the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

More than 300 delegates are expected to attend the two-day conference on Monday and Tuesday, making it Ireland’s largest conference on environmental policy and management.

Delegates will be looking to the future, with the theme of ‘Towards 2020: the environment in Ireland’s future’.

‘‘We’ve mapped out six priorities - climate change, clean water, clean air, sustainable use of resources, soils and biodiversity and the enforcement and integration of the environment into other areas like economic policy,’’ Kelly said.

Despite environmental issues featuring strongly in the media and on the political agenda - particularly with the Green Party in government - Kelly said there was much work to be done. Creating a greener environment should be a priority for all groups in society, she said.

‘‘One of the things we said at the outset was that, while we can set an EPA vision for Ireland’s environment in 2020,we cannot achieve it on our own. We are very conscious that we are not the sole people with responsibility for the environment.

‘‘Part of the challenge for us is to engage with all the other stakeholders. Part of the challenge is how you get people to line up with you. It’s not just official Ireland, it’s everybody,” she said.

Kelly said environmental issues had come to the fore in recent years and were featuring more prominently on the political agenda. She said that the role of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in chairing a cabinet sub-committee on climate change was evidence of the increased important of the environment in political circles.

‘‘I’d say ten years ago that would not have been a runner,” she added.

The EPA last week launched a report on climate change conducted by the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Unit (Icarus) at NUI Maynooth.

The report indicated that the signals of climate change were evident in recent Irish meteorological records, with average temperatures rising by just under one degree Celsius in the last 100 years.

‘‘It is necessary to consider and develop actions which will allow us to adapt to future climate conditions in order to avoid adverse impacts,” Kelly said.

She said the reference to sustainable use of resources in the EPA plan also related to waste management.

‘‘What’s more important than waste management is not having the waste in the first place. Instead of calling it waste management, we have actually said sustainable use of resources. We are trying to prevent the amount of waste being created,” she said.

Enforcing environmental legislation is another issue that Ireland needs to address, according to Kelly.

‘‘It is very important that when you have environmental laws, you enforce them. Ireland has not got a great record with the [European] Commission. Now that we are an affluent country, we can longer drag our heels and not comply with directives,” she said.

Kelly said Ireland needed to improve its record in a number of specific areas, such as dealing with waste, the provision of clean water and also the preservation of bird habitats.

The EPA is also responsible for licensing waste facilities, large-scale industrial activities, intensive agriculture and large petrol-storage facilities. It conducts more than 2,000 audits a year on EPA-licensed facilities.

‘‘A big part of what we do is as a regulator. We regulate big industry and also the whole waste industry. We issue licences and all of our licences have very strict conditions on them. It’s up to us then to enforce those conditions,” said Kelly.

She said it was very unusual for a licence application to be rejected, given that any company applying would know the standards in place.

‘‘In general, a company applying to us will have read all the guidance and will often hire consultants to help them put the application together. It’s a complex procedure. We would want to know every emission from every emission point. We would have told them what the limits were and they would have to achieve them.

‘‘The planning system and the environmental licensing system are very separate, yet parallel systems. So, for example, if a company is going to situate in Ireland, it needs to get planning permission and it needs to separately get an environmental licence.

‘‘We don’t require a company to have planning permission before they come to us. Companies can progress the two applications at the same time. It’s not a given that if they get planning permission, they will definitely be granted a licence from us or vice versa.”

Another part of the EPA’s brief is quantifying Ireland’s emissions of greenhouse gases and implementing the Emissions Trading Directive.

There are more than 100 companies - each of which is a major generator of carbon dioxide - in Ireland involved in the scheme, which allows companies to trade allowances for carbon emissions. The emission allowances are traded across Europe, as with any other commodity.

‘‘What we have gone through to date is a pilot phase. We’ll be into the Kyoto phase from2008 to 2012,when penalties will start to apply. There are 120 or so firms in Ireland and 12,000 across Europe that have to engage with it,’’ Kelly said.

The EPA will launch a geographic information system (GIS) at this week’s conference. This free mapping service, which will be available on the EPA website, will allow people to get a snapshot of their local environment.

The service, which Kelly likened to Google Earth, will help people to find out about facilities with EPA licences in their area, along with environmental issues, including local water and air quality.

What is the EPA?

The Environmental Protection Agency is an independent statutory public body responsible for protecting the environment in Ireland.

It was established in July 1993, under the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992. It regulates and polices activities that may cause pollution, as well as collating information on environmental trends.

Mary Kelly took over as director general of the EPA in May 2002,after working for employers’ body Ibec in an environmental policy role.

She was involved in setting up Repak, the packaging recycling initiative, and was also a member of Comhar and the committee of the EPA.

Kelly holds a PhD in Chemistry from Trinity College Dublin and an MBA from Dublin City University.

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