With the New Year comes a new decade and a great opportunity

Given that this year, 2020, has been dominated by the news of a global pandemic, out-of-control forest fires, worsening news on melting ice caps and permafrost, worse news on changing sea temperatures and pH and the ever present destruction of our earth – through such things as deforestation for monocultures, spraying of toxic chemicals as pesticides and weed control and species extinction through habitat destruction or reduction – it is interesting, as the year draws to a close to look for good news and great opportunities that we can we find regarding the environment.

The USA will inaugurate a new President in January 2021 and many in the Environmental and Scientific World are expressing high hopes that this new administration will reverse the rollback of environmental protection carried out in USA during the last four years.

The 2020 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) provides a data-driven summary of the state of sustainability around the world. Thirty-two performance indicators across 11 issue categories are used to rank 180 countries on environmental health and ecosystem vitality. 

The EPI provides a scorecard identifying environmental performance in countries and providing practical guidance for them to move toward a sustainable future. However it is apparent, from digging in to the data, that creating and carrying out good environmental policy cannot be removed from creating economic prosperity.  The report shows that for nations to invest in policies and programs that lead to desirable environmental health, they need to build the necessary infrastructure to provide clean drinking water and sanitation, reduce ambient air pollution, control hazardous waste, and respond to public health crises; and these in turn yield large returns for human well-being. 

However, in the past, in the pursuit of economic prosperity, humans have industrialised and urbanised their environment, and in doing so have created pollution and have put massive strains on ecosystem vitality and climate stability. The October issue of Scientific American published a running list of environmental disasters in the USA in 2020, reporting 16 natural disasters, including wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes and drought that ‘each’ caused at least $1 billion in damage. 

How then to balance environmental and economic policy in symbiotic state remains the challenge for governments and businesses. 

Encouragingly the data suggests countries need not sacrifice sustainability for economic security or vice versa, however we must carefully manage economic and environmental issues, with our attention on all areas of sustainability including climate change mitigation and species diversity. 

The reported data shows that countries making concerted efforts to decarbonise their electricity sectors have made the greatest gains in combating climate change with associated benefits for ecosystems and human health. 

Policy in those countries with a high performance index, shows that it is possible to protect natural resources and human wellbeing despite the strains associated with economic growth.  Factors such as a commitment to the rule of law, a vibrant press, and even-handed enforcement of regulations have strong relationships with top-tier EPI scores. 

Those countries that score highly in the EPI have long-standing policies and programs to protect public health, preserve natural resources, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. 

Ireland ranks 16 in the 180 countries ranked.  

On November 25, Ireland’s Environment Protection Agency (EPA) published a report called ‘Ireland’s Environment 2020’ providing an assessment of the overall quality of Ireland’s environment, the pressures being placed on it and the societal responses to current and emerging environmental issues. The report states “The evidence from this assessment reveals that the overall quality of Ireland’s environment is not what it should be, and the outlook is not optimistic unless we accelerate the implementation of solutions across all sectors and society. The environmental challenges that Ireland faces are giving rise to complex and systemic issues. They cut across different environmental topics, such as climate, air, soil, water, biodiversity and waste, and across organisations and sectors, business and all levels of society.”

The report which can be found at epa.ie and goes on to conclude “Overall, Ireland needs a national policy position for its environment that connects the various environmental challenges and guides the protection of the environment. 

The overarching message from this report is that change is needed in how we look after our environment. However, economy or society cannot make the right sustainable choices if the systems or policies around them make it difficult to implement measures to protect the environment. Collaboration, integration and better connectivity across the different systems and policies are needed, as many are interlinked. Ireland has many sectoral plans in place with environmental commitments, but the environment continues to be affected and at risk – what we need is implementation, monitoring of plans and projects, and accountability to ensure that plans or projects are being carried out in the right way, in the right place and at the right time. A national policy position for Ireland’s environment could help to achieve all of this.” 

On November 22, 2020 the French government announced the creation of an ‘ecocide offence’ to prevent and punish serious environmental damage, as one part of a participative decision making model that views climate action and environmental protection as an enabler of local development. This model aims to transfer ownership of the transition to zero carbon societies to the people and communities and to tackle inequality, raising standards of living by delivering climate and biodiversity solutions. 

Currently in Ireland local communities have to fight hard, often having to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds to protect their local environment and the transition to zero carbon via the courts, as local decisions in planning and licensing run contrary to environmental protection and human wellbeing. 

It is good then, to see the EPA calling for evidence-based policy decisions and the regular use of integrated environmental assessment and system-based approaches to monitor these. We also need to close loopholes; and as in France, to make serious and large scale damage to the environment a criminal offence to be answered by an individual and punishable by a prison sentence, rather than the responsibility of a corporation or whole government.  

Such a deterrent would change the mindset of the individuals making the decisions and would create a strong incentive for forward looking and innovative development and solutions, rather than remaining stuck in the rut of the climate and environmental degradation that leads to our eventual demise and is so graphically reported by the EPA. 

The move in France to create an ‘Ecocide Offence’ was initiated by a Citizens’ Climate Change Convention. As we enter a new decade we have no time to lose. We need to lobby our government to support the creation of such a law and in our communities we need to start living as if this law was already in existence. 

For further news on this follow @IEcocide on twitter or join the group ‘Ireland Against Ecocide’ on Facebook or write to mailto:irelandearthprotector@gmail.com to be added to the mailing list.

Fiona Hayes

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