Harder thinking on global warming

Posted in Opinion on April 14, 2008 by Editor

images-2.jpgimages-1.jpgimages.jpg “funny man”                                patio fun                  funny old world

OISIN COUGHLAN OF FRIENDS OF THE EARTH argues cogently in today’s Irish Times that we have to stop flying so much. Can this be the same Oisin Coughlan who told Harry McGee [IT 25 January] that Friends of the Earth did not campaign against a second terminal in Dublin airport, because of “the current inadequacy of the airport”?

The government intends to double Dublin airport passengers to over 30 million between 2005 and 2030 with the new terminal and a new runway – both recently permitted without proper assessment of their greenhouse gas effects and opposed by few environmental organisations. It is shocking that Friends of the Earth consider the “inadequacy” of the airport justifies inducing this level of demand when as Mr Coughlan eloquently notes “if aviation continues to grow unchecked it would account for all our permitted emissions well before 2050. All other polluting activity including much that is essential for human survival – would have to stop”.

The coalition government has adopted a reasonable target of 3% average annual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. It is important that our infrastructure reflects a desire to reduce emissions too. At the moment we are building and expanding airports, roads and ports (for carbon-heavy imports) as if global warming didn’t exist. It is likely that this is how the Ireland of the future will be environmentally delinquent despite, ostensibly, so much current good will.

It’s time for environmentalists and government, including the Greens, to be honest and hard-minded and to join up the thinking. The debate on global warming in Ireland is primitive and unanalytical. We need to recognise the following:

Only governments can stop runaway global warming. They need pressure. From us!

Let’s go back to first principles.

When the known facts change we should change our minds – and our behaviour.

Science is now saying that global warming is an unambiguous fact, that we are disproportionately responsible in Ireland, and that it will threaten the lives of billions of people and of whole species worldwide.

Why no Change?

So why is Dublin airport set to double its capacity with general approval from schizophrenic media that purport to acknowledge global warming and its dangers? Why was the debate on Shannon-Heathrow connections conducted (even by the Greens) as if aviation is self-evidently good, why does a weekend bargain-hunting in New York seem normal to Aer Lingus and why is irresponsible Ryanair not a national embarrassment? Why are SUV sales up 30% over the last year? Why are “patio heaters” respectable?

The problem

The dramatic party-pooping truth is that the rich West needs actually to REDUCE emissions 90% by 2030 to avert a rise of more than one and a half degrees heat which could cause the Greenland icecap to melt and the Amazon forest to die, precipitating runaway global warming. Maybe, to be fair, 95% here in Ireland.

How to deal with it

The inconvenient truth is that for Greenhouse Gas Emissions it’s not the Power of One it’s the Power of Government to tax, impose individual carbon limits and insist on sustainable development only.

Power of One and Power of Government It would be nice to think that the power of one is enough. We need just change incrementally, turn off that last light before we go to bed, , fly off on eco-holidays only, believe what the lifestyle supplements tell us – that we need to consume more green goods rather than simply fewer goods. We do this and that nasty depressing stuff can’t happen. In fact this thinking is dangerous in practice and in principle.

The solemn truth is that we could not all as individuals just reduce our emissions by 90% without massively adulterating our quality of life. Of course we should admire those who try but it is not fair to make of saving the planet individual martyrdoms. Gestures will not be enough. Just as with the phase-out of CFC aerosol sprays, only if government changes the framework can individuals save the planet fairly and, even more importantly, effectively. Our efforts should be targeted on changing government, on applying our power to theirs.

Ireland Is one of the worst countries for annual greenhouse gas emissions per person: at 18 tonnes; the UK for example is at 11. Sweden, with a population of 9 million, emits less greenhouse gas than Ireland. We have also exceeded our Kyoto increase limit by nearly 100 per cent several years before the deadline.

The Coalition government is committed to 3% average annual emissions reductions. This is the right commitment if it is met. It will be captivating to see how serious this government is in its first year. Certainly we have heard the radical target. We have not yet heard the radical means.

I believe three years into their term of government the greens will panic as it becomes clear we will not meet these targets. The first year is not going to produce the requisite reduction and after that it will be catch-up. As dealing with climate change was their justification for entry into government they should be doing much more.

What government should discourage
I want to take a few sectors that no politician will tell you the truth about. These rampant, but apparently taboo, contributors to global warming will simply have to be stifled.

Aviation, which is overwhelmingly an activity of the richest elements in society, is responsible for between 4 and 9 per cent of the climate change impact of global human activity (more in the EU). But because of air travel’s extraordinary projected growth rates, according to the Tyndall Centre on Climate Change, the UK’s best known academic body specializing in climate change, aviation emissions will amount to at least 40% – and possibly 100% – of total allowed emissions at least there by 2050. Nor, despite the gyrations of Richard Branson, is technology going to change the gross carbon addiction of aeroplanes: the International Panel on Climate Change says “there would not appear to be any practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for commercial jet aircraft for the next several decades”.

Clearly we must join up our thinking on flying and global warming. Yet a vision of burgeoning aviation prevails everywhere it matters. Even the august Irish Times speaks out of two corners of its mouth on this issue. You cannot avert climate change catastrophe and be neutral on aviation expansion. The time for reporting growth in aviation as if it were manifest progress is over. And so we cannot be impressed by Ryanair’s recent announcement that it expects to double its passenger numbers to 100 million in five years’ time, or that Dublin Airport, pursuing the current government’s policies, is planning and developing for a doubling of passenger numbers to 30m annually by 2020 and for up to 40m by 2025 or by Fine Gael and Labour’s desire for a new airport to serve Dublin – presumably supplementing expansion of the existing airport.

Aviation has had its day, though the aspirations of the airline industry do not yet reflect this. In another world it might be possible to get excited about new jobs in Aer Lingus or the idea of a nice new airport for Dublin but in OUR world air travel, especially for leisure purposes, now needs to be repressed. Depressingly, trains and even boats do not necessarily seem to be much more efficient than planes, though ultimately trains can be fuelled by renewable electricity. Still for the moment the lesson seems to be to avoid long-distance travel.

Apart from bypasses, it is a mistake – because they encourage carbon waste, – to be building motorways. The present Government’s plan is to build, widen or upgrade 850km of roads, costing €18 billion, over the next eight years. The thrust of this consensual political policy has been to encourage use of the private car since new roads induce new demand. As a result at the beginning of 2007 Ireland contained 2,296,393 vehicles. This total represents an increase of over 500,000 vehicles (37%) since 2000 and an increase of over 1 million vehicles (82%) since 1995.

At 29% of greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture accounts for more than any other sector of the economy including – alarmingly – transport, more than in any other EU country and almost double the proportion in France where farming accounts for just 17%. More than half of this is produced by cattle digesting grass and flatulently belching methane. It can be reduced by keeping cattle indoors – not an attractive, green option, killing cattle younger or sowing grass that includes organic acids. Individuals can avoid eating beef that depends on an animal, bred for human consumption, eating a disproportionate amount of vegetable matter. But try telling that to the IFA or Supermacs.

Clearly flowers grown in Zambia or Chinese strawberries depend on aviation. Ireland depends on imports of many goods from China. We import goods to the value of € 3.7bn from China annually. As of 2000-2001, China’s economy was three times more energy intensive than even the US’s so buying Chinese imports, while keeping emissions off Ireland’s national emissions register is a sign of an unsustainable economy. We need to review the sustainability, including long-term economic sustainability, of much of our trade. This is not yet an issue of respectable political debate but it will become one.

How Government should use its power
A good primer on how to achieve the 90% reduction is George Monbiot’s HEAT (Allen Lane 2006). For a start governments will need to introduce a carbon rationing and trading mechanism for individuals. Environmental fiscal reform “eco-taxation” should tax carbon-squandering and subsidise low-carbon goods and technology. Particular sectors require nuanced measures.

For homes, government must massively improve building regulations so houses are perfectly insulated against cold and heat (“passive houses” already do this).

For electricity, generators can strip the carbon dioxide out of fossil fuels before they are burnt and bury it. According to a recent German government study, European governments could pool electricity supply and demand that renewables including cross-continental wind and wave, Saharan thermal and Icelandic geothermal comprise80% of the total using breakthrough high-voltage DC cables to avert the dangers of inadequate supply when the weather is unhelpful in parts of the continent. A study in July suggested using hydroelectric reservoirs and vanadium flow batteries could increase this figure to 100%. We need to be realistic about how much domestic wind and solar power can help in Ireland – there obviously and simply isn’t much sun in winter for example – but government can incentivise developers to transform all buildings into mini-power stations adding up to local energy networks or “the energy internet”, using generators instead of boilers and generating not just heat but electricity also. Longer term, if governments promote research it is likely that hydrogen could be produced in the home, with the waste heat, generated in the production, used to warm the home. And on a larger scale local authorities should integrate District Heating systems into new developments, as with the Dublin Civic Offices.

For transport, cars are unsustainable. In Europe average fuel efficiency has actually been in decline as people buy bigger cars than ever before. Hybrids are simply not different enough from the average, biofuels take up too much land, seem to require a lot of energy in production and tend to be generated from palm oil which generates other environmental problems including deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia where it comes from. Again, governments need to provide incentives for use of new car technologies. Hydrogen cars will be exciting but will not be widespread for at least twenty years. Electric cars could have worked well but were killed off by all their stakeholders as shown in the movie, Who killed the Electric Car?” Meanwhile the solution again lies with government which must improve public tranport. Sustainable transport should prevail, predominantly buses which are flexible but should be rendered outstandingly luxurious – with coffee machines, internet access, movie-screens etc; and run on expansive dedicated laneways. Rail, trams and metros have their own more glamorous place.

So we’re going to need to change – and radically. Indeed so radically that very few will be willing to do it unless everyone is seen to be changing. And that – except for pioneers, zealots and martyrs – will require government action.

The most important thing is for governments to impose individual (tradeable) carbon limits. Then if you fly to New York return for a hooray’s stag-weekend, emitting 1.54 tonnes of carbon you must reduce your emissions elsewhere in your lifestyle. This is a month of current average emissions per head or nearly a year’s emissions when we reduce by the 90% required to save the planet.

Then we need environmental fiscal reform “eco-taxation” to send a price signal in favour of low-carbon products.

Finally, only sustainable development should be allowed from now on. This should be incentivised. Unsustainable development should be disincentivised and, where appropriate, prohibited.

You can deny global warming or just deny its significance for you – and your significance for it. You can believe in the supreme value of improved light-bulbs – that incremental change will see us through – if you want. But it is not true. We have to pull together to force government to act radically and early. You can deny it but you’ll have to reinvent Politics and Science to suit your complacency. And you’ll be in the company of flat-earthers and smoking/cancer link deniers. That, for you and me, O well-travelled, beef-eating, Consumerist, future-denying reader, is the Inconvenient Truth.


Have I missed something about Brian Cowen?

Posted in Opinion on April 12, 2008 by Editor

A lot of Brian Cowen, more to come

If Bertie lasted a decade Cowen, who seems a lot more careful, will almost definitely be with us for much longer. Brian in 2008. Brian in 2012. Fine Gael for a few months before they screw it up – around say 2016. Then back to Brian until 2020. Then Brian for the Aras. Until 2034. Brian Cowen, everywhere every day until we’re all dead. Like it felt with Bertie.

Fianna Fail have obviously chosen this man because they think he has great qualities and the media coverage would be serviceable in a totalitarian state. All we ever read is that he is intelligent, articulate, Fianna-Fail-through-and-through, someone who doesn’t suffer fools blah blah blah. Nobody has challenged this consensus – and yet give them time and they’ll all come ’round!

For the moment I have a few nagging questions. What has he done up to now as a Minister? Isn’t it partly his fault that our economy has major structural problems? Has he ever said anything that I should really remember? Is that gruff/Biffo thing all there is or is there something else there? Have I missed something?

The only thing I can think of is that the media, which after all aggrandise Enda Kenny who has all the gravitas of an over-coiffed moth, feel they must be constructive to the new man. But constructive at what cost to their credibility?

I remember after both Bush and Brown were elected, thinking that they had unusual personalities that would ultimately (soon?) fatigue people. It seems to me Cowen is in the same bracket. He always looks like someone has just extracted one of his teeth. He is stuck in irritable gear. Of course Fianna Failers love the annoyed act as they seem permanently in search of a missing parent (see song-singing blind adulation of Dev, Haughey, Lemass, the Flynns etc).

Anyway, below is an article from Mark Hennessey, typical of many current articles that fight to lionise the new leader and much more informative and well-argued than most. Where I see only a scowl, Mark Hennessey somehow sees a leader who can be “softly-spoken, gentle, statesmanlike, but quietly tough”, a man who aims to be a “visionary technocrat” like Sean Lemass. This man is a paid political commentator, does he not realise that the phrase is a base political oxymoron? Bertie Ahern says Cowen has a “brilliant” mind and Senator Mary White says there is “magic” when he speaks. In support of this sort of mythology The Week in Politics last week treated us to footage of Cowen laying in to Senator Feargal Quinn who had criticised the National Development Plan as lacking coherence or vision. The implication was that here was a heavyweight. Cowen released his inner bluebottle all right, but in substance he waffled. On and on about how big it was, how much would be spent, what a difference it would make. I listened and there was definitely nothing about a vision. Quinn looked terrified but he was, in fact, right.

Brian Cowen does claim to be republican and a patriot. Mark Hennessey thinks that’s an attractive touch but surely republican is code these days for having no vision. Eamon Ryan spotted a vision (well he would) in some speech Cowen gave at the Royal Irish Academy where he mentioned the environment. But generally he doesn’t even get as far as the environment. And the same speech shows his vision of equity stops at a shifty reference to equality of opportunity, rather than any sort of equality of outcome. What really feeds this guy’s buzz, and no doubt he’d be horrified to hear it said – though it permeates nearly all his speeches, is the uninspiring notion of PRODUCTIVITY.

No – Cowen will be more of the same. More ad hoc policies rooted almost entirely in economics but with just enough of a social side to convince the mostly unimaginative commentators.

And he sometimes drinks, Hennessey implies – unless I’ve misread the IrishTimespeak which also echoes a recent insulting  Sunday Independent piece – to shirt-dirtying excess. And at least we will have a Taoiseach who will sing.

Is it all enough?

Cowen looks to Lemass as he lays out vision of future [From Thursday’s Irish Times]

ANALYSIS:The new public face of Brian Cowen was on show for the first time yesterday, writes Mark Hennessey.

FOR YEARS, most of the public has seen Brian Cowen as Mr Grumpy. Yesterday, he put forward a new public face: softly-spoken, gentle, statesmanlike, but quietly tough.

His first outing as Fianna Fáil leader-designate was a triumph, laying out the first chapters of his leadership to come, while respecting current office-holder Bertie Ahern.

Through it all, he spoke of words not often heard in Ireland outside of the realm of “the fourth green field” and bar-room republicans: patriotism, duty and service to one’s country.

The benchmark for Cowen is not Ahern, even if he mentioned him frequently, but Seán Lemass, and in particular, the Lemass of the 1960s, the visionary technocrat.

If backed up by actions, a Cowen-led government – one that has a minimum of four years to make its mark – should offer a very different perspective to that presented during the Ahern era.

In style, it will be quieter, with less of the celebrity-focus brought to it by Ahern, who built a significant part of his success on making his own life a soap opera for the public.

Though he has been left a united party by Ahern, Cowen faces major troubles on the economy, unemployment, the Lisbon Treaty and, crucially, the sclerotic public services.

For over a decade, Ahern worked in partnership with trade unions in a deal that delivered industrial peace, but not reform on the scale needed.

Change has been bought and often bought dearly. Now, change must continue, and accelerate and not be bought by a Government happy until now to sign cheques to stave off trouble rather than take hard decisions.

Cowen insists that the public service status quo cannot be sustained, and that change must come, but by agreement, not conflict. Indeed, he makes the point that the unions have already accepted it under Towards 2016.

Quick to declare full support for Minister for Health and Children Mary Harney, Cowen ended any speculation – the little there was – that she will be moved next month.

Her actions were taken with the agreement of the Cabinet, and “in compliance” with Government policy, he told journalists.

In fact, Cowen, who is not popular with many in the health services from his time in the Department of Health, went further, and questioned the motives of some of those opposing the HSE.

Many of the HSE’s “critics are, in fact, using their criticism as a ruse to maintain the status quo”, he declared in strong words softly spoken.

Making it clear that there will be no changes to any of the hospital reforms currently under way, he warned that “parochial arguments” could not override patient care.

However, it is not clear, and it may not become clear for a long time, what Cowen will do in the face of wilful obstructionism.

Will he just talk or will he bark? Will he, if necessary, bite?

Throughout his career, Cowen has always been the quintessential Fianna Fáil loyalist; once dismissive of junior coalition partners, contemptuous of enemies. However, he has learned, or he wants us to believe he has learned, at the feet of a master how to make coalitions work.

Asked yesterday if Fianna Fáil could secure an overall majority – once the holy grail of the party’s ambitions – Cowen seemed to indicate that while it would be nice, it did not matter very much.

Coalitions are where politics are at for the years ahead and Cowen seems intent for now on not being the man to wreck Fianna Fáil’s reputation as a partner – one that could keep it in power for years to come. However, junior Coalition partners should not look for too much after his litany of compliments to Labour’s Eamon Gilmore in recent months.

The tactic fulfils a number of objectives: it makes the Greens and PDs nervous and therefore more acquiescent; and it damages Enda Kenny’s ability to put forward an image of a “government-in-waiting”.

For anyone listening closely to Cowen yesterday for the first time, he would have presented an attractive image – one that is closer to the reality than his public image.

Uncomfortable with applause and anxious to get away from television cameras, Cowen has not lost touch with his roots or background and is less ego-driven than most in politics.

But even his constituency of Laois/Offaly was given a polite warning not to have an undue sense of entitlement or to take advantage of him or the office he will occupy in a month. “They will also know that in taking up this job that my responsibilities are national and that my responsibilities are to all the people of Ireland,” he told a local radio reporter.

The same message, perhaps, needs to be heard, and may have already been heard by some of those who have been his closest friends in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party over the decades.

Yesterday, some of them were ushered to seats at the front at his press conference. For some, it is a sign of preferment to come. For others, it is all they will get, but, perhaps, not all they will expect.

The softer image will be key. Cowen is a thoughtful, intelligent man, for the most part in private, but he can be a bruiser, particularly when faced with those he believes are not his intellectual equals. The political difficulty is that while men might find his demolition of enemies attractive in a pugilistic sort of way, the majority of women do not, and are not likely to be any more forgiving of such conduct from him as Taoiseach.

And Cowen is going to have to become more attractive to women voters if Fianna Fáil is to thrive. Ahern will be a hard act to follow with female voters.

Finally, the office of taoiseach will force changes on the lifestyle of a man who is social, blessed with the constitution of an ox and enjoys a drink or two.

So far, he has twice sought to set the bar as high as possible for journalists who might try to pry into his private life and that of his family. Cowen, however, knows that such a request will go unheard in some media quarters.

The image of a taoiseach, seen frequently in print with a pint in hand, may meet with a public smile for a time, if not forever, but it is better not to give ground to those who might exploit it.

Cowen is careful to obey the proprieties and not to talk as if he is taoiseach until he takes over on May 7th and forms his government after he receives his seal of office from President Mary McAleese. In the meantime, he will pay all due respect to Bertie Ahern, who is thanked by his Fianna Fáil colleagues for what he did as leader, but, if they were honest, most particularly for choosing to go when he did.

In the cruel way that will mark the passing of this political leader, even if it does include a US Houses of Congress speech, Ahern will appear as a man increasingly forgotten but not yet gone in the month ahead.

© 2008 The Irish Times

Why the Blog?

Posted in Intro on March 29, 2008 by Editor

Irish Media

22 March 2008
Investigative Journalism

WHY DO the Irish media do so little investigation? The answers are disparate.

The tired, conservative Irish Times regards investigative journalism as vulgar. The closest it usually gets to investigation is printing leaked anti-Bertie affidavits from the Mahon Tribunal, often after The Irish Mail has blooded them. The Sunday Independent fudges the difference between News and gossip and The Irish Sun doesn’t understand the difference between News and repeating the Sunday Independent‘s gossip, with more nipples. For the Irish Independent, investigation is what Sam Smyth finds in his briefcase after a night in Doheny’s. The Sunday Tribune confounds News with last week’s News and Metro mixes up journalism and usefulness in keeping the rain off. The Phoenix confuses investigation with insinuating Half-Truth while Radio 1 doesn’t understand the difference between News and sport and travel News.

What unifies them is that they’re not interested in attracting bright, hungry people with painfully analytical and obsessively investigative instincts. None of them understands that news is something someone somewhere doesn’t want published. Add to it a bit of door-stepping or file-rifling investigation, a reasonable approach to privacy, promotion of the public interest and a pick of style – and you could have good journalism. The rest is AA Roadwatch.

You don’t report news, you BREAK it. That’s what I thought when I decided to back Vincent Browne’s new “Village” magazine three and a half years ago.

I wanted the editor paid extra for breaking big news: say double the weekly salary if a story was big enough to make the nine o’ clock news. I wanted a magazine that was investigative and broke news; and one that was uniquely left wing in its editorial stance, because I believe there is a niche for such a magazine.

Vincent is a charming guy, but sadly the magazine is badly edited, suffocatingly Gramsciite – and has been the failure everyone I ever asked always smirkingly said it would be. It hasn’t really broken a single notable story in its three and a half years. (Vincent gets very annoyed if you say this!) Often there’s no carry-through on what the headline suggests lies below and too much leading material is dyspeptic rehashings by Vincent of old material, usually about the big male beasts in our society such as Tony O’Reilly or Michael Mc Dowell. Sometimes too, as with Charlie and Bertie, Vincent tellingly feels he has to publish endless nonsense about what nice fellas they are underneath it, as if that mattered in determining corruption in public life.

The only reason you could forgive all this is that he did once introduce Frank Dunlop to his radio audience with “You’re some little bolix, aren’t you”!

The management of the magazine owes little to the business manuals: it is an unorthodox, if beguiling, mixture of turmoil, spit and whirlwind. Remember the way Vincent spluttered and punctured so entertainingly in his late-night Radio 1 show, well that’s mostly how he runs Village.

There has never been a strategy so of course the point of the magazine has never been clear; and it has lost a lot of money – mostly Vincent’s but also I regret to say, roughly in proportion to my 25% stake (and neanderthal stupidity), mine. I don’t know how much money it has now lost as I’ve long since stopped funding it and Vincent has refused to furnish accounts despite a dozen letters, some of a legal nature. Indeed I had to resign as a Director as I was receiving contradictory reports from Vincent about the accounts and so had no idea if I could be deemed to be trading recklessly – a case of oppression of a minority shareholder by Vincent so blatant that if he does not furnish them soon I will seek the winding up of the Company for this reason – and the real story of Village will be told.

Perhaps it could be made into a short movie. The script would certainly be more entertaining – and remunerative – than the magazine.

I’d intended to write more for the magazine and to be centrally involved in editorial decisions and management. But that was as unrealistic as anyone out-spleening him on his radio show! And so I’ll leave Village to Vincent and get on with something else myself that encourages people to break news: wiser, not bitter and with a sense of Summer-morning birdsong after gentle rain.

Something positive: Poles

Posted in Personal Opinion on March 29, 2008 by Editor

29 March 2008

Spar                               Irish people                  Polish people

Before Ireland goes down a cultural and economic chute, as always happens to countries that got bumptious in a boom, I thought it would be good to write about how great it is to live in Dublin city centre in 2008.

I was going to write about how every week something exciting opens – a new pub, restaurant or indie music venue, how Dublin is finally a city comfortable with its hairstyle: multicultural; alive and rippling with a vibrant youth; a melting pot for ideas and edgy design; stirred by iconic theatres, a dynamic and alternative movie industry, an angsty literature and a casual music – an opera in every pub, a Citizens’ City with a surprise at each street corner. Embracing, laughing, iconoclastic, HUMANE Dublin.

I’d love to hear from anyone who can make the case that this is true. My attitude changes and I know the city centre is convenient and all that, but today I’m conscious only that my doorstep is the most vomited-upon in Europe, the next-door building is derelict and scrawled with graffiti and there’s less green space in the North Inner City than there is in a prison yard.

A few weeks ago I came home in the middle of the day to find a man urinating against my house, which is recessed and a good place to behave appallingly. I am used to people (men) peeing there and, as you may understand, am against it; therefore I tapped him gently so he would confront his delinquency and wet himself. Then everyone was shouting and amid the swirl it eventually became clear that he was in fact “emptying his kidney bag”. I laughed, half-apologised and shook his hand. We might as well have resolved to stay in touch. This is no way to live your life, at forty-two.

No, after a few years when it flickered, the city centre is moribund again. Full of too many desensitised hard-chaws with protruding faces who pee on our houses or ignore us. They’re right to ignore me. And in return I am committed to ignoring them. But they ignore everything. They even ignore my daughters. Almost as if they weren’t goddesses come out from the river. Venuses on chewing-gum-beslobbered Capel St.

Really the only good thing in my area is the Poles. Because I work from home and need desperately to get out, I spend far too much time in the shiny new Spar which is where they are concentrated, as in a Pomeranian sitcom. They obviously love each other and for all I know may even like Dublin.

Poles still know what smiling is. Male and female, they kindle and flame with warmth when you arrive and crackle when you offer up your milk carton or ask them for a coffee in the Insomnia cafe which Spar engirdles. And they’re so generous to my daughters. They beam at them and my daughters radiate back. Like it was the fifties.

I wish we could hang out in a bookish cafe but it is Dublin and there is only Spar. We make a second home among the baked beans and happy Poles.

Arnotts guillotined

Posted in News on March 27, 2008 by Editor
NEWS 27 March 2008

Arnotts          their Chairman, Richd Nesbitt             Carlton Cinema

Arnotts got guillotined yesterday in their bid to bring high-rise shopping to a salivating city centre.

An Bord Pleanala has told them to clip their proposed sixteen- storey tower on the Liffey St/Abbey St corner back to seven storeys; and reduce the height at other points, where they’d chanced their arm with heavyweight embellishment above what even a four year old could see was the natural height for expansion. Arnotts have to go back to the Bord with new drawings providing for these changes before June.

Actually overall Arnotts’ plan isn’t so bad, at least if you think more shopping in general represents progress and have had enough of cheap 1990s ironmongery, sunless internal signposts and basement chipboard. It provides for a useful amount of residential accommodation, public space and a new street – and in a part of the country that is well served by public transport.

But there are luminous problems with the proposal. For example it proposes pivoting (i.e. demolishing and rebuilding) half of that boring old 1890s redbrick protected structure on Henry St (you know the one that you thought WAS Arnotts) around. This is so the venerable retailers can insert their new street and have half of the shop’s main facade there instead, meeting the surviving half at a right angle.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the guillotining is that it indicates An Bord Pleanala is highly unlikely to have any truck with the Liberty-Hall height ski-slope thing Joe (Dundrum) O’Reilly is about to lodge for the former Carlton site on O’Connell St which includes (trading under the name Dr Quirkey’s) the site of a strangely under-investigated illegal gaming arcade.

This slapping down of significant parts of the Arnotts’ proposal, we can be sure, will bring shame to the face of not one of the priss-pot architects who spearhead such schemes but who, like most of the press, seem unaware of what spoilsport Bord Pleanala does, which is to apply the plans that the City Council ignores – cutting out gratuitous height and demolitions.

Nor will red-facedness at being exposed for blatant have-a-goery ever spread up over the architects’ black polos, or out from behind their clever glasses. And if in ten years someone has to knock down what they are now proposing will ere a rosey blush taint their musings. Not for one second. Why do I predict this? Because ten years ago I appeared at an oral hearing in An Bord Pleanala where the usual sniffy architectural self-righteousness led to a permission to build a lot of what Arnotts are now bullishly applying to junk!

Joe O’Reilly, spurred by the audacity of Arnotts, is also proposing to shift the facade of the Carlton Cinema on wheels Northward down O’Connell St (you think I’m joking?) so he too can insert a street that will feed into Henry St. It’s all part of the exciting Louis Vuittonising and permeation of Henry St, which has the highest footfall of any street in Europe.

Maybe one or two of the feet, that currently fall only in multi-storey-car parks all over the South City and would never chance an outing in the terrifying North Inner City, might start falling down Capel St: former furniture Mecca of Ireland, now (due to its dosser shopowners) the Chinese restaurant, dildo and charity-shop epicentre of the Universe. Or even make it to forgotten Ormond Quay where I live, where only the most desperate feet ever fall and where you’d be grateful for anyone even contemplating building something inanely high.

Dublin City Architect

Posted in Opinion on March 18, 2008 by Editor
20 March 2008

Quayside Fridgeimages2.jpgthe-anna-livia-statue.jpg
Fridge                                 Spike                                     Floozie

SO THEY have finally knocked down the book market on Capel Street Bridge which I can see from my window.

To the outsider it always looked like a line of grey refrigerators that were nearly always closed and out of which things like window-blinds were occasionally sold, but to Dublin City Council they were bookstalls.

Responsibility for this mistake rests ultimately with Jim Barrett, the newly-retired Dublin City Architect, whose idea they were and who recently received a lifetime achievement award from Opus for “a high level of excellence, insight and achievement in his field over an extended period of time”.

The bookstalls were not his only contribution. Where they lead can the gas-guzzling Nuremberg-style braziers on a largely unused Smithfield be far behind on the runway to architectural oblivion? While they’re at it the City Council could also remove the somewhat clumsy Calatrava Bridge on Usher’s Island, the second-rate new granite all over the City, the hard-surface refurbishments of Ormond Square and Jervis Park and the taller-than-proposed office block with the toilet-block side-elevation, on the former civic green space on Dame St.

They won’t have to demolish the Chime in the Slime or the wibbly-wobbly bridge as they’ re gone and never happened respectively. Or the original elephantine scheme for Spencer Dock which Mr Barrett supported but which was refused permission on appeal.

Most of these schemes were non-contextual, non-green, functionless, “big” and carried out top-down without much regard to the wishes of the citizenry or local community. Terminal criticisms you would think.

In deference to sustainability and because his legacy is not entirely negative, the demolition squads should be permitted to leave the refurbishment of City Hall and arguably the Boardwalk, though the pointless spire may have to follow the Floozie in the Jacuzzi (which pre-dates Mr Barrett and is missing in action from O’Connell St en route to the Croppy’s Acre), which we all got a bit tired of.

Mr Barrett’s legacy is very mixed. With the appointment of a new City Architect, Ali Grehan, it is time for a general rethink.

Environmentalists’ Policies

Posted in News on March 17, 2008 by Editor

20 March 2008

John GormleyDavid Healy Poolbeg
Minister John Gormley; David Healy, ministerial adviser and before that on original Editorial Committee for submission; Poolbeg, Unsustainable Development


ABOVE IS the environmental sector (EENGO – don’t ask!)  submission on the national sustainable development strategy (NSDS). Please try to read it. It’s the most important document ever to have come from the environmental sector. I think it is a very bad document. I’m sorry this is so long but here’s why.


I’m a former chairman of An Taisce (1999-2003) and a founder member of EENGO, though obviously these comments are offered in a personal capacity.EENGO includes nearly all the campaigning environmental organisations such as Friends of the Earth, An Taisce, Feasta etc – around seventeen in total. The EENGO submission contains many radical and interesting ideas but sadly is simply not of the quality necessary for this the most important topic for environmentalists – from a sector that aspires to being taken into social partnership within a few years. Government is keen that the environmental sector should collaborate more. This document – its substance and its process – augurs badly for such collaboration. I believe the document must be rescinded as it undermines the credibility of the environmental sector. I am aware this document has already been sent to the Minister for the Environment and would have commented on it if I had been aware of it.

The Critique

1. Not Strategic
The National Sustainable Development Strategy should be strategic. Any submission on it should be strategic. The EENGO submission is largely utopian not strategic. It does not say how we get from where we are now (very unsustainable) to where we should be (sustainable). It largely outlines what we might look like once we are sustainable. And even here it makes little effort to justify its vision. It ignores a wealth of NGO experience in this sort of strategic thinking.

Much of the EENGO submission is absorbed with ownership rather than the environment.

2. Not practical
The EENGO submission underemphasises the practical changes that would transform the system. It ignores the wealth of NGO experience in monitoring and advocating mitigation of patterns of unsustainability. For example it does not emphasise the problems environmental NGOs encounter everyday such as rhetoric without enforcement; aspirations without timetables, targets or funding; short-termism; failure to integrate environmental goals with economic and social goals; lack of clarity of environmental goals; failure to decouple environmental degradation from economic growth; failure to give sustainable price signals; failure to plan; breaches of development and other plans; political intervention with professional environmentalists and planners; failures to apply European Law; inadequate assessments of the effects of proposals: incomplete EISs, no SEAs etc etc. Each of these problems has a practical remedy. The EENGO submission is dangerous because it goes into detail as if it were a precise response to actual practical problems but does not identify or address those actual problems. It is particularly surprising that it puts no emphasis on the need to enforce existing standards.

The EENGO submission notes [p18] that “the EENGO network is well informed from years of monitoring, commenting and campaigning on environmental issues” but the submission has been driven largely by an ideology, not experience or the lessons of campaigning.

It is highly significant that the document has nothing to say about cities or suburbs (and little to say about towns) – where most of our citizens live and will continue to live.

3. Inadequate mandate
The content of the EENGO submission has not been mandated. For example An Taisce has not had the submission’s policies approved by its Council. The document appears to have been written by a small number of people and many of its ideas are not as clear or coherent as they would be if they had been agreed line-by-line by a representative committee. Occasional name-calling and gratuitous swipes reinforce this sense.

Page 18 says merely NGOS are not against the economic and social content of the document. It says somewhat revealingly, “as many of our member NGOs have expertise in only a very particular area, not all actively support all of the ideas contained in the submission, particularly as they relate to social and economic issues. However, they are not either, against any of them as they respect the expertise of NGOs with a wider field of interest to contribute their recommendations”. Merely not being against something is not enough to give EENGO a mandate to publish a document in a group’s name. What mandate did component members seek and get from their members? I believe An Taisce did not, for example, put the document before its Council, as required. Many of the policies cut across agreed An Taisce policies.

There has been inadequate consultation of organisations’ members – though the submission says there has been, and the Department of the Environment requested it [p8].

4. Probably had no agreed written brief so some environmental issues have been omitted
Was there an agreed written brief for the submission reflecting a sectoral environmental vision? The approach seems desultory and haphazard. Many sectors seem to be treated in line with submissions received rather than with a view to proportionality, coherence or completeness. Perhaps for this reason some sections are strikingly discursive, laced with sage quotations, and too long – while others are paltry and short.

Important sectors have been extraordinarily left out or dealt with cursorily. Only pp 134-148 out of a hundred and eighty two pages deal with the sectoral environmental agenda.There are no sections on waste, air pollution, nuclear, agriculture, industry, chemicals, mitigating the local effects of climate change, national Migration (a crucial issue for Ireland) or Demographics; and there are negligible sections on water quality (less than one page), forestry (one page with no clear targets) etc.

5. The quality of the policies advocated is inadequate in theory and in detail [see also points 7, 8, 9 and 10 below]:

Structural problems with the submission
Much of the good material is lost through lack of emphasis and clarity.

The EENGO submission does not have a clear list of concrete recommendations.

It includes few recommended targets and dates.

For example, much of the treatment of climate change is discursive. A lot of the text on climate change is gratuitously-detailed descriptions of particular technical approaches. Another example is there are no targets even for improving the building regulations where there is much received wisdom.

There is an extraordinary dearth of citation of Irish academic works.

In general the EENGO submission makes too much use of esoteric and alienating jargon.

It is also badly edited and proofread (e.g. bottom p 18) and uses jarring terms like “ditto” [p129].

Problems with the submission’s ideas
The five “key elements” of a renewed NSDS set out on p 18 [point 5] of the submission (Risk Management and Resilience Building etc) are too unconventional for this mainstream environmental sector submission. Remedying some of the problems mentioned at 2 above should have infused this section.

The submission assumes that the goal of sustainability, and government policy, should be “Human Wellbeing”. Planetary not human wellbeing is the accepted goal for the environmental sector.

Commons, Trusts and eco-villages are over-emphasised for what is supposed to be the key, mainstream environmental submission. This leaves little room for treatment of the private sector and of the planning realities.

The section on Production and Consumption fails to make the critical point that we should establish measures of the ecological footprint of goods and services.

Even on climate change the authors suggest that “the government’s strategic priority we suggest, should not be to reduce its greenhouse emissions but to reduce the country’s use of all imported fuel whether fossil or not” [sic]. This is a crucial statement on the most important issue for environmentalists and the most important problem facing humans. For the EENGO submission to posit this strategy as central is highly controversial. George Monbiot for example suggests that the energy future may be in linking renewable electricity supplies with Atlantic countries contributing wind and wave power, Saharan countries contributing solar etc to a shared grid. Importation may be the future not a dead-end.

Under Social inclusion, Demography and Migration the EENGO submission comments, critically, “equality of opportunity is promised but equality of access to and enjoyment of the social and ecological commons is not”. Is it really, as implied, the concern of the environmental sector that equality of opportunity should be mitigated in this way (only)? It would be expected that the environmental sector would have concerns with the (liberal) notion of equality of opportunity and it certainly should be concerned with the treatment of private property and not just the treatment of the Commons. Key concepts are thrown around unconvincingly.

The built heritage is treated almost as if there were not a wealth of practical wisdom built up of long experience – despite what looks like an attempt to go into detail.

6. Too many naïve policies and factual errors
The submission has too many errors. I include a mere sample. For example is it really intended as a goal that we should halve the volume of road transport in 2012 compared to 2000 [p126]? It would be impossible. Ireland is not the most car-dependent EU member [p125]. The recommendation that subsidies should be withdrawn for “inter-regional” air travel should have said “intra-regional”. The programme for government does not envisage annual three per cent reductions in transport emissions [p125]. Is it really wise to contemplate that putting the electricity grid into a Trust should happen even if it leads to power cuts [p17]? Does the submission really need to assert on behalf of the broad environmental sector the possibility that the Company PLC is of itself “psychopathic” [p64]? Does the environmental sector agree that the government really needs to “scrap” as opposed to overhaul and redirect its National Development Plan [p38] which deals adequately amongst much else with issues like health and education? Is it really the case that “no government is going to be able to contemplate massive cuts in carbon dioxide unless the money creation system is changed”? [p82]

7. Unclear to what extent the EENGO submission is a critique of the EU NSDS and it does not make significant reference to the seminal 1997 Irish NSDS
These seminal documents (with their admittedly dated wisdoms) should at least be reference points if the intention is to be effective. There are desultory references to the EU NSDS around but they are notably incomplete.

8. Inadequately states the goal of society as “wellbeing” rather than quality of life or sustainability
It is shockingly wrong to answer the Department of the Environment’s key question to the environmental sector, “what should be the focus of a renewed sustainability strategy?” with “Human Wellbeing” [p18]. Sustainability recognizes the planet and other life not just humans and particularly addresses the long-term . It is universally recognized as the key concept here but the submission underplays it. The environment has an independent imperative and does not depend entirely on how it is enjoyed by humans.

The EENGO submission totally ignores work done by the ERSI, CSO, OECD, EU etc on quality of life and sustainability indicators, though it recognizes their existence. Quality of Life is a gratifyingly wide concept and most of its indicators have been ignored in this document which centralizes “health” as an indicator.

Health and wellbeing are not the key concepts for the environmental sector. The EU SDS includes the concept of wellbeing under Public Health (which it says comprises Health and Wellbeing). Wellbeing is taken by most commentators to embrace only issues like diet, contamination, disease. Quality of life is broader and less subjective and embraces environmental, social, economic and cultural objectives.

The section on “wellbeing” in the document is incomplete, over-emphasising indicators of health (US researched, at that), the land value tax and eco-villages. There is a section on social capital but there is no recommendation that the widest range of environmental indicators should be used to assess the success of society – along with the widest range of social, economic and cultural indicators. These indicators should apply to all development. The submission implies at one stage that some such indicators should apply to infrastructure only pp 78-9].

9. Skewed towards ownership and taxation not planning and the environment
The EENGO submission pays far too much attention to ownership (but only of the “Commons” which does not extend to buildings or infrastructure) reflecting the social concerns of the authors but not a mainstream environmental sectoral agenda. The land value tax that would apply to the site value, if it could be implemented, would tend to encourage development of the right sort of development, but unlike implementation of something like the Kenny Report (combined with cross-sectoral Agenda 21-style composition of sustainable plans) would not guarantee it. The EENGO’s proposed annual land tax does not guarantee local authorities the right to rezone and sell on land for suitable purposes like the current CPO regime combined with the Kenny Report would. In a country developing as fast as Ireland applying a land value tax instead of something like the Kenny Report would amount to a fatal missed opportunity to overhaul the fundaments of planning and development to start immediately serving the common good. It would be the wrong focus.

The Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution has already – following wide-ranging consultation – recommended implementation of a version of the Kenny report but the EENGO submission is ideologically opposed to this – a realistic corrective add-on to the existing statutory regime – as it does not facilitate the vision of Henry George, and the derivative notions of Commons and annual land tax.

There is also a strange emphasis on government rather than public performance [e.g. p 128 in the Objectives part of the Consumption and Production section].

10.Ingenuous vision of planning
Planning is perhaps the most important agent for sustainability (or unsustainability), particularly in a country growing as fast as Ireland. The EENGO submission includes no reference to the national spatial strategy which is the most important planning document widely accepted as an important (though flawed and flouted) salvo at sustainability. The EENGO submission implies that the future lies with eco-villages like Cloughjordan. Eco-development adjoining villages and towns is peremptorily dismissed as currently impossible in view of inflated land prices. The document has nothing, at all, to say about cities or suburbs. The submission has nothing to say to the ninety per cent of the population who would not consider living in an eco-village (and who do not live in social housing) about how to retrofit their housing.

There is a section [pp 55 and 56] which may (it is unclear) refer to towns as well as villages, providing for Framework Plans. It is naïve and utopian in assuming that a “team of consultants” whose relationship with the local authority is unclear can prioritise certain sites over others for development when the history of zoning in Ireland is so tainted and so much money would under the proposed system continue to be at stake. The report goes on [p56] in effect to recommend, in pursuit of the legitimate goal of ensuring Community-driven planning, use of CPO powers against recalcitrant “rural landowners” adjoining villages. But if this is recommended in the case of landowners’ recalcitrance adjoining rural villages the document does not make it clear why CPOs should not be used instead of land value taxes generally – where landowners are greedy rather than just recalcitrant and where the land is in a town, suburb or city.

The submission also envisages an unclear but very limited role for the private sector in future planning and development. The EENGO submission posits that developers of eco-villages should be not-for-profit. It is naïve to expect a speedy move from an avaricious building industry to a not-for-profit one, though that is not to say that might not ultimately be desirable. For the EENGO submission to suggest this peripheralises the environmental movement. The submission asserts that consultants are an exception to the rule against profits. If the vision is not for profit then surely no-one should earn a fee rather than a salary.

In any event the vision of eco-villages outlined is inadequately ambitious since it does not adequately address the issue of car-use and allows up to fully 40% of inhabitants to be holiday-homers or commuters.

The submission is on an important enough topic that it should be rewritten, recognizing the current document’s lack of mandate, lack of range, inadequate quality and inappropriate ideological biases.