Transformational change needed to deal with climate change and other risks to our health and natural environment

Date released: Nov 08 2016, 12:01 AM

"Transformational change needed to deal with climate change and other risks to our health and natural environment” says EPA Director General

  • EPA launches sixth landmark ‘State of the Environment’ Report
  • Climate change the defining environmental issue of our times
  • Ireland’s environment generally ‘good’ - but serious underlying signals of concern
  • While the worst of the worst of our rivers have improved, we have lost the best of the best
  • Localised problems such as poor air quality and water pollution masked by national figures
  • Species such as the corncrake and the curlew almost extinct in Ireland
  • Environmental protection legislation keeps us safer and healthier and needs to be implemented

The EPA today launched its sixth State of the Environment Report.  The Report, produced every four years, provides an overview of the condition of our waters, air and natural resources and the impact of the main economic sectors on the environment.  It is a landmark evidence-based document that examines the environment in its totality and offers us the opportunity to reflect and plan for a better future.  Speaking at the launch, Laura Burke, Director General of the EPA said that the overall state of the environment is ‘good’ – but a highly qualified good, and that the State and all citizens need to act quickly to protect what we now have.

“Overall, there are many positives in the Report and people can take heart from those” said Ms Burke.  “Relative to our European neighbours, our water quality is broadly good.  So is our air quality.  But when you get into the detail, you see that at local level, there are many worrying signals warning us that we are in danger and we need to act with a much greater sense of urgency.”

Addressing the link between a clean environment and our health, Ms Burke said,

“A healthy environment is essential for the health of our population and for economic success. We have made progress in many areas over the last 20 years, but we are still losing much of what is positive, beautiful and economically valuable about our environment.  We are now seeing how vulnerable we are to climate change as an island nation. Our air quality may rate well by European standards but there is no safe level of air pollution. In years to come, the pollution of our air from vehicles or burning fuels will be seen as being on a par with tobacco smoking. It has direct health consequences with over 1,200 premature deaths every year from exposure to particulate matter in Ireland.”

Water quality in Ireland compares favourably with our European neighbours. However, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of our pristine rivers, the best of the best, with 21 sites now classified as such compared to over 500 in the late 1980s.  Nature is also under threat. Recent assessments show that just over a half of all the species in Ireland protected under the EU Habitats Directive are in a favourable condition. And only 9 per cent of the protected habitats that many species need to survive are in a favourable condition.  The report says that species like the Corncrake, the Curlew and the Freshwater Pearl Mussel may become no more than a memory if this degradation of habitats continues. Invasive alien species threaten Ireland’s biodiversity and a co-ordinated all-Ireland approach is needed to deal with this growing problem.

Ireland has improved its waste infrastructure with a tenfold increase in recycling since 1996. Economic recovery, however, is causing an increase in consumption that is driving waste levels up again; food waste alone, for example, costs Irish families on average €700 per year. Litter at a local level and in the marine environment is also an enduring problem associated with our throwaway culture.

Ms Burke addressed the need for urgent implementation of legislation, and ever more focused enforcement activity:

“Poor implementation of legislation is a problem with tangible consequences.  It generates regulatory uncertainty for industry and it can harm both the environment and human health.  We face EU complaints in relation to drinking water and urban waste water treatment.  This isn’t about Europe making unreasonable demands on Ireland.  It’s about making sure that, at a minimum, for example, the water we drink, or the water we swim in will not make us sick.”

Commenting on the need for transformational change, she said: 

“Ireland has a great deal to gain by becoming a leader in the move to a low-carbon and resource-efficient economy.  We can capitalise on our natural advantages.  And we can promote rapid decarbonisation by other countries.  This will help reduce the costs and the impacts of climate change.  But what is absolutely clear is that we are at a crossroads and the choices we make now will have implications for the future of humanity.

“The fossil age is over”, Ms Burke said, “and we are all now aware of the consequences of our large-scale consumption of coal, gas and oil over the past two centuries.  All citizens now need to be positively engaged in the move to resource-efficiency, changing the way we work, the way we travel, heat our homes, produce our food and use our purchasing power.”

Painting a picture of a low carbon and resource efficient Ireland, she said,

“Imagine an Ireland where we take great care of our natural environment and protect the water, air and land that supports a thriving economy and a healthy society.  An Ireland free of litter.   An Ireland where we all feel a sense of civic pride in our environment and appreciate its value to our economy, health and society.  An Ireland where there is no waste, where everything we discard gets re-used, re-cycled or recovered as part of a functioning circular economy. An Ireland, for example, where cars and buses run on renewable power, where every house and farm can be its own power plant, generating power through renewable sources and contributing excess power to a smart grid.  We need to become leaders in this type of transformational change.  This is possible and within our grasp in the lifetime of this generation if we are brave enough and imaginative enough to make it happen.”

The 2016 State of the Environment report draws from data and assessments by the EPA and many other public bodies.  It provides the public, policy makers, non-governmental organisations, community groups, businesses, teachers and students with the national evidence base about the condition of our environment.

A copy of the Report can be found on the EPA website. You can download the full report or by chapter.

Notes to Editor:

The EPA has produced a number of State of Environment products to accompany the report, all of which are available on the EPA website.

  • A video about the State of Ireland’s Environment 2016 (2.5 min)
  • E-book version of the report.
  • Graphs and figures used in the report are available in different formats. This includes the Infographic: 20 Years of State of the Environment Reporting Indicator 1996-2016. 
  • The Ireland’s Environment web resource is the gateway to everything you might want to know about Ireland’s Environment.  It is optimised for desktop, laptop and mobile devices. Watch the animation about the web resource (2.30 min). The report for Ireland’s Environment 2016 will be used to update the existing online information and data on the “Ireland’s Environment” section of the EPA website.
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