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Climate Change: Going Beyond Reusable Coffee Cups

I’m sure I don’t need to go into much detail on the current climate change issues affecting Ireland and the world. It’s not possible to live in this day and age without hearing about our environment and the danger it’s in. Whether you believe it or not, take action or not, climate change is an unavoidable topic. With the recent Global Climate Action strike, this topic is now in the news more than ever. The general consensus around the world is that our planet is in a critical state and something needs to change, but that is where the single message ends. There are multiple arguments and opinions presented on how best to tackle the issue, as well as new approaches seeming to appear weekly. From banning single-use plastics to promoting a global shift towards plant-based diets, it is difficult to know which approach is the “best way forward”. Different organisations and experts all have an arsenal of research and evidence to back up their suggestions; yet some seem to be contradicting each other. Just last week I read two opposing articles; one claiming recycling was the only way forward while the other stated that is takes more energy to recycle plastic than to produce it in the first
place.

With all of these messages floating around social media and the news it can become confusing for an individual to know what they can do to help. As the old proverb goes, the squeaky wheel gets the oil. This is definitely applicable to climate change propaganda and information. But when there are multiple wheels needing oil, which one do we prioritise? The seemingly easiest approach for Irish people is to make small changes to their lifestyle to help the cause. Ditching single-use plastics, for example, will reduce the amount of waste going to landfill every year. Stop buying cling film, invest in some quality Tupperware and get yourself a pretty reusable coffee cup while you’re at it. For the more invested, there are hundreds of eco-friendly alternatives to everyday items available online and in certain shops.

The bamboo toothbrush trend has now expanded into Q-tips, straws, lunch boxes and cosmetic tools (to name a few items). Businesses in Ireland are jumping aboard the sustainability train too; replacing plastic cutlery and containers with compostable alternatives and many supermarkets ensuring the packaging on their own-brand products is 100% recyclable or compostable. Companies are encouraging employees to walk, bike or use public transport instead of commuting by car every day, while Irish schools and universities are pursuing greener, more sustainable policies.

Take our own campus in UCC, for example. Following on from the publication of the University Sustainability Strategy in 2016, the eco-friendly and sustainability agendas are deeply embedded in UCC, with the University Strategic Plan 2017-2022 highlighting the importance of sustainability and a Green Campus. From the introduction of a university-wide module in sustainability to being recognised through different awards, UCC has made excellent progress in becoming a greener campus. In September 2018, we were the first University in Ireland to be awarded a rating under the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s STARS programme. This award came with a gold rating; the first of its kind given outside of Canada and the US. This sustainable and green approach is not a new culture in UCC; in 2010 it was the first third-level institution to be awarded a Green Flag. These awards, as well as the hugely successful “Love our Library” green energy campaign, have earned UCC its status as one of the world’s leading environmentally conscious universities. The move towards sustainability doesn’t end with our physical campus though; in 2018 the University committed to investing €44 million in environmental and sustainability focused research projects over the next three years. With the number of students and staff passing through UCC daily, waste management was a key issue that was highlighted for change. According to the Green Campus 2017-2018 Annual Sustainability Report, there was a 25% reduction in total waste generated since 2012, as well as 10,000 less plastic bags used due to the new ‘bin-less’ system in the library. We must, of course, also mention the opening of Ireland’s first “plastic free” café in the BioSciences Institute.

While all of these policy changes and strategies are undoubtedly helping, Ireland is still known as a climate “laggard”. In its Annual Review 2018, the Climate Change Advisory Council, the independent body assigned with evaluating progress and advising the Government on climate policy, reported that Ireland “is completely off course” to meet its 2020 and 2030 emissions targets and to decarbonise the economy by 2050. This was again confirmed at the start of this year when the Environmental Protection Agency published data proving Ireland won’t meet it’s 2020 goals. With this in mind, the government does seem to be scrambling to implement policies and carbon-reducing actions.

Richard Bruton, Minister for Communication, Climate Action and the Environment secured a plan that will involve every government department and body taking action. This was a welcome announcement, although critics were suggesting it would take far too long for the commitment to translate into physical action.

Ireland is not the only country whose government is failing to meet climate change expectations. Climate litigation has become an increasingly popular movement, with people around the world taking their governments to court in an attempt to force them to take more decisive and urgent action. The most significant of these cases is the Dutch Urgenda case. In 2015, the Urgenda Foundation, a non-profit, went to the District Court on behalf of 886 Dutch citizens, claiming that the government has a legal duty to prevent dangerous climate change. The Court ruled in favour of the foundation and established that the government must cut its greenhouse emissions by at least 25% by December 2020. After being appealed twice (the second of which was in the Dutch Supreme Court), the Dutch State announced that it would uphold the order of the ground-breaking judgement. During the appeal process, the court accepted that climate change held a real and dangerous threat; and that according to European Convention on Human Rights, “the State has a duty to protect against this threat”.The success of the Urgenda case has inspired other litigation cases around the globe, including here in Ireland.

It has now become evident that, while it certainly does not harm, making changes at an individual or community level will not keep us on track to meet climate change goals and standards. Changes must be coming from the top, from our governments as well as powerful organisations. Just 100 companies in the world are responsible for 71% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions (since 1988), while it is the US, Chine and the EU who contribute to more than half of all global emissions. Surely it is these corporations and industrial groups who need to be making changes? As a population, citizens can join together and lobby these groups into making changes. Look at the number of people who participated in Friday’s protest; the majority of whom were students. While many people rely on the belief that we can’t make governments or powerful corporation change, history begs to differ. It was mass public interaction that propelled the campaigns for women’s rights, the abolition of slavery and the fall of Apartheid in South Africa. It is now time to take it upon ourselves to make these changes happen. Get in contact with companies, government ministers, TDs, MEPs; write to them outlining an issue, why it is important to you and what you would like them to do. If you don’t fancy the idea of taking on the powers that be along, consider joining a local environmental group. UCC’s EnviroSoc is an active part of our sustainable campus, while there are plenty of other groups on Facebook that you can look into. We owe it to ourselves, our ancestors and our descendants to fight for our planet, so let’s get started!