Bridget Ginnity speaks with Cormac McCarthy an ecologist with Waterways Ireland who is responsible for its Climate Action Plan. He is also chair of Ennis Tidy Towns which has many biodiversity and sustainability projects
BIODIVERSITY is one of the ways that we can address both the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis. For example, pollinator management with reduced grass cutting is a climate action in itself.
In Ennis we’ve increased the amount of wildflowers on the roundabouts, just by changing our mowing regime. We even have orchids. Longer grass sequesters more carbon, and because you’re using machinery less often, you have less diesel emissions.
Planting loads of trees isn’t the only nature-based way of sequestering carbon. It really needs to be properly thought through, because in taking what is well intentioned action, you may actually be doing more harm than good.
For example, if you push for afforestation to sequester carbon you may be losing peatland areas or farmland.
We have wonderful grasslands, scrublands and hedgerows with biodiversity, sites that shouldn’t be sacrificed for climate by planting trees because they already help with the biodiversity crisis that is intrinsically linked with the climate crisis.
More than Tidy Towns
There are amazing communities all over the country in the Tidy Towns. The competition has about 900 entrants so that means the bulk who enter aren’t in it for the prizes but are doing it for the sake of the local community.
The Tidy Towns is as much about sustainability as picking litter. They’ve recently added Special Awards which highlight particular local environmental activities that are open to any community group.
Scariff did an amazing project with the school on the clock in the town square. Ennistymon and Miltown Malbay have won special awards. And of course, we were over the moon to win the overall award in Ennis last year.
The Tidy Towns is a great vehicle for community-led projects. Ennis Tidy Towns developed many sustainability projects like the Sustainable Living Guide with practical tips and advice for greener living that is on our website.
We share details of all our projects on social media because we believe voluntary groups shouldn’t be wasting precious resources developing almost identical projects.
For example, details on our car idling project, community cups, and water bottle filling stations are all shared as fliers – the cost, the suppliers, the planning and such like.
We even shared our prize winning submission from last year – the holy grail – and got very positive feedback from that, as submissions are closely guarded.
One of the projects we’ve done with young people was Gumdrop, where boxes for used chewing gum were put in the schools.
This gum is then recycled into things like flip flops and pens and even lunch boxes – that does freak out some people. And it has the added advantage of reducing gum litter.
Ennis Tidy Towns was great during Covid. There was regular connection on the WhatsApp group. It was like family, with people checking in with each other.
At Waterways Ireland we want to develop the waterways in a sustainable way, and encourage those who use the facilities to do so sustainably. It needs a holistic approach that decarbonises, protects heritage and draws on nature-based solutions.
I was able to use the experience I gained in Ennis Tidy Towns in working collectively on sustainability, biodiversity and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
We got together with other water-based organisations and set up an all island working group. The water dimension adds a new aspect to a Climate Action Plan as we have peculiar bits of machinery like weed harvesters, we have boats, we have blue infrastructure as well as green infrastructure.
We also engaged with young people as part of the plan development. They are sick of policy, sick of consultation, they want action. So we flipped it to ask them about the actions and projects that are meaningful for them.
Joining the dots
For a long time I was “green minded” but it’s really only in the last two years that I connected it all together as climate action. Since developing the climate action plan for Waterways Ireland and the strategic development plan for the Tidy Towns, I’ve joined the dots.
There are a lot of different ways to look at climate action. Using your composting facility, biodiversity, water conservation and the green schools action all come under the umbrella of climate action.
Reducing the water in your toilet cistern by one litre seems insignificant, but that saves energy and emissions at the water treatment plant. Things like community engagement and social inclusion are all part of it as well.
I’ve become very conscious of the disposable nature of our lives, especially clothes and toys. I grew up with the family shop and supporting local shops and suppliers was a big thing, but I’m even more aware of it now because of the climate impact.
Reading about how bad it can be, whether you are a positive individual or not, heightens the sense of urgency that you need.
Getting the message across
I’m an optimist at heart but there’s no denying the science about climate change – at least most people don’t – so why are aren’t we taking action? For example, if SUVs were a country they’d be the sixth largest emitter, yet SUV sales are increasing.
I think the concept of climate change is so huge that anything we do seems insignificant. If you turn your washing machine down to 20℃, what’s that going to do? It doesn’t seem much if you do it, but if everyone did it would all add up.
We have to think differently about how we do climate action. The technology is there and we know what to do. We need to foster a mindset that we are all in this together.
It’s important to deliver the climate action message well. It can’t be preachy. You want to change minds and hearts and get people on board. Pilot projects, community based projects, peer to peer learning are all great ways of doing this.
A person I know who works in the public sector in Australia described a project where they asked people “what are you doing about climate change?”. The response was negative: “You’re the public authority, you’re meant to be doing something about it, it shouldn’t be on us.”
Then they changed their approach and asked people “How can we work together to stop climate change?“. Immediately there was a sense of community, a sense that it’s the job of all of us.
There is a level of humanity in everyone that we want to do the right thing. Both knowledge and the necessary supports help to mobilise people.
We’ve switched one of the family cars to electric and it’s great. It takes a bit more planning but it’s a lovely car to drive. Some of it is voice activated and it couldn’t hack the west Clare accent at first. My eldest had to give the instructions for a while.
You can sometimes be a bit obsessed with “will it get me to Dublin and back” but then, how often do we go to Dublin? If we need to get there without stopping for a charge, we take the diesel car.
At the moment some of the measures to take are expensive, like an electric car, a deep retrofit or solar panels. There are good grants but it’s not just handing out grants, you want someone you can call for advice, to ask “is this suitable for me?”.
Even the application forms can be challenging. And you hear that by the time you get all the paper work done and jumped through the hoops, you would possibly have got it done for a lot less.
The technology is there. There are hydrogen powered buses in Northern Ireland and they use waste food oil as a fuel for trucks in Finland and An Post. Scaling the technology up at the speed that’s needed is the problem. But projects like that make me optimistic.
Advice keeps changing. Farmers were told to fertilise, then to go green. Two years ago everyone was doing bee bombs – we gave them out at our local awards night. Now the advice is to let rewilding happen naturally.
It can be frustrating but changed advice is often the result of new research. We need to keep up to date with best practice and change where we can.
We make multiple decisions every day in every aspect of our life such as work, community, caring for family, sport.
My wish would be for people to think. It can be as simple as wondering do you need 10 limes for 49c in Aldi, even if it is a really good deal. Think about the energy that went into growing and shipping those limes.
And how can they sell a t-shirt for €2? It needed raw materials, had to made, packaged, shipped. It’s simply being mindful of the overall carbon footprint.
It can be hard as everyone has stuff going on but if you can, just pause, take a breath and think: do I need it? do I need that much? could I buy it from a local supplier? If you can afford to do the climate friendly thing, do it. It’s small steps but the impact is far greater than any one thing.
I’m more pessimistic on the national and global scale. We’ve heard genuine, raw speeches from people like Greta Thunberg. She’s lauded and applauded by world leaders, and yet we have higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions than we had before Covid. The policies and agreements are all there, but we need the action.
Countries like Bhutan have shown it can be done. Bhutan, a small country of less than 1 million, has already achieved net zero carbon emissions Even though they are a very different economy to Ireland, we can learn a lot from their inclusive and proactive approach.
We’ve all signed up to the Paris Agreement and the national Climate Action Plan is a big step forward. It says the public sector must lead by example but the government needs to lead by example too.
They need to recognise that the entire annual budget is actually a climate budget. For example, for both regular procurement and projects basic questions need to be asked like: do we need it? do we need to do it this way? what is the 30 year cost?
The need for security is more evident now than ever since the war in Ukraine. We need fuel security, we need food security and we need water security.
That’s not to say we shut ourselves off, but we need to develop more self-sufficiency as a country. Older generations would totally understand that as they were doing the circular economy and self-sufficiency long before we had a name for it.
A lot of things are outside our control. We need to focus on what we can do as individuals, in a community way. All the positive stuff feeds off each other.
A nice project I was involved in was about eight or nine years ago with a group in our estate. We delivered a reusable tote bag to all the houses with things like food measures, reusable containers to reduce food waste and a water displacement device for the toilet cistern.
There’s no point in giving out about other people. I’m very conscious that you never know what’s going on in people’s home lives.
Sometimes for whatever reason, something like composting or recycling is just too much for someone to take on, given what else is happening in their life. That’s why we tackle climate change as a collective, as some can do better than others at different times.
Volunteering is great. I can effect changes in the town that I wouldn’t be able to do on my own or sitting on the couch. In general I find the community and voluntary sector are way ahead of many public and private organisations.
Action and hope are more likely if you are optimistic. If you are pessimistic about the likelihood of defeating climate change, you find a way not to make any improvements happen, subconsciously or otherwise.
If you want to effect change, the energy of optimism drives positivity, idea generation and collaboration. When you have a sense of place, you want to protect that place.