2019 will be remembered most as the year when the world’s youth took ownership of and made a hot topic of global warming by becoming more vociferous and militant in trying to persuade world leaders and politicians to urgently kick-start action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, led by waif-like Swedish student Greta Thunberg whose #FridaysforFuture movement gained international traction.
It was appropriate that the younger generation should mobilise and speak out, as they will inherit a planet that continues to heat up dangerously as a result of man-made activity that is interfering with eco systems and, as well as a climate emergency, many countries have also declared a biodiversity one. As banners at many of the students’ protests stated, ‘There is no Planet B.’
Ireland has at last begun to appreciate the urgency of the situation and, since his appointment at the end of last year as Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Richard Bruton has given the matter of climate action more attention than his predecessors, publishing the National Climate Action Plan, which shows plenty of ambition and makes all the right noises. At the ultimately-frustrating COP25 UN Climate Action Conference in Madrid earlier this month, he stressed that Ireland is ‘determined to play its part in addressing climate disruption’ and promised that we would further up our game in our efforts to become carbon-neutral by 2050.
So far, Ireland has been a self-confessed ‘laggard’ when it comes to achieving carbon emissions reduction targets and we still rank among the worst-performing European countries. Mr Bruton cited measures announced in Budget 2020 as an example of the action we are taking, but in truth, the government could and should have included a lot more in terms of incentives to encourage people to live more sustainably.
The new European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in setting out her Green Deal for the incoming Commission is even more ambitious: On her way to a carbon-neutral European Union by 2050, she wants to increase the interim emissions reduction target for 2030 from 40% to 50 or even 55%.
Given that Ireland failed so miserably to meet an agreed 20% emissions reduction in the almost 15 years since 2005, we are going to have to up our game so much that doing so should occupy our every waking moment of the next decade! Difficult to see this happening in reality, but we must live in hope that it can be done, and it can really only be achieved if everyone buys into it.
MINISTER Richard Bruton, under the Communications heading of his portfolio, was the subject of further intense pressure during 2019 over the escalating costs of the national broadband contract to €3bn, which ended up being given to the sole remaining bidder, a consortium led by venture capital fund, Granahan McCourt. Now that the work is under way, it can only be hoped that they will deliver what they are supposed to for rural Ireland in particular.
Another subject of huge cost over-runs that seem to be ongoing is the National Children’s Hospital, which could be heading towards a final bill of up to €2bn, having started out at an estimated cost of €650m – a possible three-fold increase. How could those behind the project get things so wrong?
Capital to cover every extra increase is inevitably going to impact on other health service projects across the country by delaying them. This adds to the problems beleaguered Health Minister Simon Harris is unsuccessfully trying to contend with, such as the ongoing crisis of people being kept waiting for long periods on trolleys in emergency departments for hospital beds to become available and, worse still, ambulance crews being kept waiting for hours before handing over patients to EDs, leaving cover thin on the ground in the areas they have come from.
The Minister’s Winter Initiative may ease the crisis for a while, but a longer-term sustainable solution is needed, as is the case with waiting lists of public patients for appointments with consultants and for medical treatment. Then there is the expensive but necessary Sláintecare plan to remove private practices from public hospitals.
As well as health, the housing situation is still a major problem. More houses are being built, but far from nearly enough. A Central Bank study estimated that 34,000 dwellings a year would have to be built for the next 10 years to meet demand, however the average annual completion rate since Fine Gael took office in 2011 has been just 10,500 with social housing provision away down.
As a result, homelessness figures have been increasing because rents have increased so much in recent years and the shortfall in housing supply is not being addressed quickly enough. People granted asylum are being put into emergency accommodation because they cannot afford rents either, thus exacerbating the homelessness problem.
SEVERAL ‘B’ words dominated public discourse during 2019 – from Brexit to Boris to beef prices. As the year ends, we have some certainty – closure even – on the first two, but the latter is set to provide an ongoing challenge to farmers trying to eke out a livelihood with the odds stacked against them.
Brexit has been a thorn in our side for three and a half years, plagued by uncertainty and hitting the value our exports to the UK as a result of the weakness of sterling against the euro. Sterling has rallied after this month’s landslide victory for Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party in the British general election, which also ensures that the so-called United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union will go ahead by the end of January 2020.
That Brexit should be orderly, once the Withdrawal Agreement Bill has been passed in the British Parliament, is some compensation for us, but our agri food trade with the UK will still take a hit and, while some of this may be offset by getting into markets further afield, that will be adding ‘food miles’ in contradiction of carbon emissions reduction efforts. A classic between a rock and a hard place scenario.
Meanwhile, our beef farmers have gained little traction in their struggle for better prices from the meat factories that they spent several weeks protesting outside throughout the autumn months.
They will remember 2019 as a torrid year from their perspective, starting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar saying that his new year’s resolution was to cut back on eating meat for health reasons and to mitigate damage to the environment. This rendered the farming lobby apoplectic to think that the leader of the country could be, albeit unintentionally, dealing a big blow to Ireland’s struggling meat industry.
This was followed by the respected medical journal, The Lancet, recommending a 90% reduction in our consumption of red meat and dairy products and a 70% reduction of chicken as well as starchy vegetables like potatoes. Then came news of the Mercosur deal which, if ratified, could see Europe flooded with cheap beef from South American countries – adding to global warming.