In the second instalment of her series on climate change actions, Keir McNamara, acupuncturist, sports injury specialist and former agricultural scientist tells Bridget Ginnity that taking a small bit of personal responsibility can have a big effect cumulatively in the quest for sustainable living
THE past president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, made an impression on me. He donated 90% of his salary to charity, lived on a bit of a farm outside the city instead of the presidential mansion, drove an old Volkswagen Beetle and said “I can live well with what I have.”
Travelling over the years, I saw how people in third world countries make do with modest amounts, which showed me that there is no need to have as much as we do.
I also witnessed at first-hand how human intervention has caused environmental disasters.
I spent time in Australia in the mid-nineties and saw how removing natural vegetation for agricultural land indirectly caused high levels of salinity in the soil. Previously good tillage land had to be abandoned as a result.
About 20 years ago, I was in California where a huge amount of irrigation is used and saw the unsustainability of that and the effects on water levels.
More recently, I’ve been to New Zealand where they need a massive amount of irrigation for grassland growth to sustain their transition from sheep to dairy cows, again giving rise to water problems.
All of these disasters are caused by us taking too much from nature.
Farming in Ireland
In Ireland, we haven’t had such large scale disasters and we’ve seen a big turn back to sustainable agriculture and support of biodiversity in the last 10 years.
Nearly every farmer is happy to embrace this approach because they love the land and the wildlife around it.
Farmers are the people who spend most time in nature. We do a good job here and there is also a lot of positive energy being expended by Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture to look at ways that farmers can farm more sustainably.
I was reared on the family farm and went on to do agricultural science. After a few years working with Teagasc and in the meat industry, I decided to come back to Clare and go into the family business of acupuncture because I prefer the rural life.
I still do a bit of farming and have a few sheep – I expect the neighbours would call it dog and stick farming, and it’s definitely hobby level.
I’ve an ongoing interest in the agricultural world, also with regard to climate change and the environment.
There has been a lot of talk about limiting productivity in Ireland in order to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
It’s good that we are taking responsibility from a climate point of view but we should keep in mind that we produce food very sustainably in Ireland compared with other countries.
If we reduce exports, the market needs will be met by suppliers from other countries who farm in a less sustainable way than we do.
Also, from what I’ve seen in other countries there can be much less emphasis on animal welfare than we have here, which should be as important as the other issues.
I’m also concerned that if we curtail production, we could lose expertise within a generation.
That would make it challenging if we had to ramp up quickly to meet supply needs due to the climate crisis or for other reasons.
Within a week of the start of the war in Ukraine, we’ve seen how quickly problems with food supplies can happen. It’s back to an emergency World War II situation.
There is talk of dairy farmers moving to tillage to help compensate for the loss of production in Ukraine. I think that’s not likely to happen as most farmers have special expertise and are not the generalists that they were 70 years ago.
The machinery and manpower simply isn’t there to change over on the huge scale that is being aspired to.
I try to keep an open mind about how we proceed and judge things on a case-by-case basis, and sometimes “needs must”.
For example, the ban on genetically modified crops is popular but genetic engineering may be able to help in dealing with the climate crisis.
Genetically modified animal feed has been developed that can reduce the methane emissions from cattle. Crops have been genetically modified to have greater pest resistance.
There’s a lot of research going on in this general area, including in Oakpark in Carlow.
If we are to produce the increased volume of food crops that may be needed, we may have to choose between permitting the use of genetically modified crops or the use of currently banned pesticides. We might end up reversing environmental gains that we have made in the past.
When my wife and I came back to settle in Clare, we built a new home and tried to build it as sustainably as we could afford.
It’s a passive house, and we put up a wind turbine and solar panels to help offset the impact we have in other activities we like to do.
At the time it was hard to get good, impartial advice and there was zero grant aid.
People often ask me about the payback of the environmental measures I have put in but for me, there’s a big emotional payback.
On a windy day, the hot water is heated by the wind turbine, and on a sunny day it’s heated by the solar panels so I don’t feel one bit guilty having a long hot shower, all at zero carbon emissions. It’s not like when I was growing up and we had the big furore over who left the immersion switched on!
After lockdown, we were very eager to get back to travel but there is a bit of emotional baggage in that regard.
There seems to be a big effort in the aviation world to reduce the adverse impact, and I’m hoping that will let me continue to travel without feeling uneasy.
Improvements in fleet management can make air travel more efficient and there seems to be solid moves towards hybrid aircraft for the short haul flights.
I like to see people doing the simple easy things that can reduce their impact, like recycling and reducing food waste.
We don’t eat about 15-20% of the food we buy. Reducing that would make a huge difference.
Living in the countryside we’re very lucky that we have farm animals and pets to eat the leftovers and use up our food waste.
I’d also encourage people to look at grants available for home upgrades. A lot of people would love to have solar panels or a wind turbine but for whatever reason, often cost, it’s not appropriate for them, but the small easy things can make a big difference.
I believe that a small bit of personal responsibility can have a big effect cumulatively.
Renewable energy / technology changes
I’d like to see a future with more renewables and more embracing of technologies that are already there.
I can’t emphasise enough how important it is that people have access to the democratic process and that their voice and concerns are heard as part of the planning process, but I’m also concerned that a lot of renewable projects are running up against problems with planning.
While there are genuine individuals and groups, I’ve heard that there is a different motivation by some people who are objecting.
The effort some people put in to objecting to planning applications is evidence of how strong their convictions are.
Valid concerns must be addressed and projects must progress in a reasonable timeframe to be commercially viable.
We’ve seen recently that the company that were working with Moneypoint on their renewable projects in the estuary pulled away from it, due in part to how challenging they found the Irish system.
In Clare we’ve had a big commitment to wind turbines and they’re not without their impact on the landscape and to individuals living near them, and have had lots of opposition.
There has to be storage capacity to sustain the renewable infrastructure that is planned, such as batteries or hydrogen generation yet we see very few of those being built. Legitimate concerns, such as lithium fires with batteries, stopped a project in Co. Kildare recently. One of our big farming related issues is nutrient waste management.
Efforts at putting in water treatment plants and biodigesters have also been met with huge opposition. In other countries they seem to be able to get such projects done and still respond to the concerns of locals.
It would also be nice to see some joined-up thinking from government and local authorities.
New housing developments typically have great measures to make the individual house green but communal schemes like centralised heating systems or biodigester systems to supplement gas aren’t included. It just doesn’t seem to be considered.
Communal schemes are not new or innovative and these technologies are already well established in other countries.
Small scale projects like energy from biodigestion or green waste incineration at local level don’t seem to be undertaken here and again you see them working successfully in places like Germany or Austria for instance.
Here we seem to go for projects that get too large and unsustainable and inevitably fail. One example was bringing woodchips from Clare and other distant places to the old peat station in Shannonbridge, all with the best intentions.
It was great during the lockdown that we all rediscovered our local area – I found that I didn’t have to drive to Lahinch for an enjoyable walk to get a sense of wellbeing. It’s lovely to enjoy what’s around you.
If you feel you have to travel all the time for leisure it becomes unsustainable in the long term. It was lovely to see the satisfaction people got during the pandemic from enjoying what was around them and engaging with that.
I’m involved in the local Meitheal in Inch/Kilmaley/Connolly and we clean up along the roadsides through an An Taisce scheme. We take out about 2.5-3 tonnes of rubbish every year.
For some reason I always find Red Bull cans at the stretch of the road along my house – I wonder if it’s a young athlete training for a local team! And when I’m picking up coffee cups and water bottles from the ditch, it makes me suspicious of people with very clean cars.
Picking litter doesn’t have a huge impact on the climate or environment as such but it looks a lot better when it’s done, and it’s good to do things like that together in the community.
We are so lucky in Clare that we have such a range of habitats with great biodiversity. We have the opportunity to do lots of different activities on our door step.
I find that it’s when I go away and come back that I realise how much Clare has to offer.