COP26, biodiversity and Galway

Policy-makers could really benefit from talking to children more. In a survey carried out at an event in June organised by the Galway National Park City initiative involving young people from 13 city primary schools, participants were asked what they loved most about Galway.

The most popular answers were ‘woods’, ‘wildlife’ and the ‘sea’. In reply to a question on what would help them be more aware of nature, children said they should be encouraged to plant more trees, to be allowed outdoors more and for adults to provide more green spaces. They also wanted safe parks to play, trees in the schoolyard to climb, more litter bins, no plastic, no pollution, less cars and more safe walking and cycling.

Go into a classroom, and in reply to the questions on what is it that gives life to humans and where does it come from, you will be told it is the oxygen we breathe in and that it comes from plants. Ask them what other important things can plants do and you will be informed that plants absorb the CO2 from the atmosphere, the gas that is causing the planet to heat up. Finally ask them if they think it is a good thing to cut down lots and lots of trees and get rid of the forests. They would give you an empathetic ‘No!’ and say it is a very stupid thing to do. From the mouths of children, flows so much reflective wisdom.

At long last though it seems that the most powerful adults on the planet are finally paying heed to the common-sense wishes of children in how to make the world a better, safer, and healthier place for both humans and the rest of Nature. At this week’s twenty six meeting of the Convention of the Parties(COP26 ) in Glasgow 110 countries, owning 85% of the planet’s forests, signed an agreement not only to end deforestation but to start restoring their lost forests by 2030, and to support indigenous communities as custodians of the forests. Considerable international funding has been promised to make this happen. Furthermore 28 countries, representing 75% of global trade in products linked to forest destruction such as palm oil and cocoa, committed to securing alternative bio-friendly sustainable sources.

Lungs of the planet

Known as the ‘Lungs of the Planet’, forests produce oxygen, purify the air and absorb up to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions linked to deforestation are the second biggest cause of climate change. These commitments if carried out will show an unprecedented collective positive response to tackling global warming.

The EU is actively rising to the challenges we face with economic, social and environmental policies being coalesced into the Green Deal. This new circular economy strategy will hopefully ensure that humans, as with the rest of nature, will look on ‘waste’ as a resource and harvest old products rather than continue to destroy the natural environment for raw materials. For instance there is one hundred times more gold in a tonne of discarded mobile phones than there is in one tonne of gold ore.

The Irish government has put forward some very ambitious Climate Change and Biodiversity polices. In 2019, it announced plans to plant 440 million trees by 2040 (22 million per year ); in the Programme for Government 2020, the coalition agreed to restore peatlands for biodiversity and carbon capture, provide funding and staffing for introducing a Greenway infrastructure nationwide, ensure sufficient biodiversity protection officers at local/national government level, curtail the use of pesticides and promote organic farming. Last month it was one of over 100 countries to sign the “Ecological civilisation: Building a shared future for life on Earth Declaration” (Kunming ) that committed signatories to protect and conserve 30% of their territories for biodiversity by 2030.

Galway has the capacity

Galway city has the capacity to implement these international and national directives. Its civic society at all levels has for decades being a pioneer in environmental actions. In 1984 the Galway-based Digital Equipment Corporation(DEC ), then the world’s second largest computer company, established in Salthill the Quincentenary Park as a gift to the city’s senior citizens and which has more recently been given a new lease of life as the ‘Circle of Life’ by Martina and Denis Goggin ably assisted by the council’s parks department.

In 1995 residents in Ballinfoile area, angered at urban sprawl and the lack of green space, inspired by the UN’s first treaty to combat human interference on climate campaigned for a people’s and wildlife park along the valley of the Terryland River. Environmentalists, artists and scientists joined in a new coalition and inspired too by the campaign to open of national borders in southern Africa to restore ancient elephant trails got the agreement of a very supportive management at City Hall to zone off pasture land (that would have been covered within built development in a few years ) to zone a public park connecting the Corrib waterways through the city into the farmlands of east Galway that would be a ‘carbon sink’, the ‘Lungs of the City’ and an ‘ecological corridor’ for wildlife.

On March 12th 2000, c3000 people of all ages (including senior city management ) came into a field with shovels and spades and left behind a forest. Today Terryland Forest Park, Ireland’s first and largest urban community-local government native woodland comprising 100,000 native Irish trees, is a sanctuary to a myriad of fauna/flora including 50+ species of birds and 6 species of bats. ‘Build it and they will come.”

In the period of the late 1990s-early 2000s, stakeholders from across Galway society, from business, community and education worked with an oftentimes visionary council management and staff to create Ireland’s largest annual festival of science (Galway Science and Technology Festival ), Ireland’s national aquarium (Galway Atlantaquaria ), Ireland’s first 3 bin domestic pro-recycling waste collection, Ireland’s first urban Habitat Directory, social housing with a strong green identity (Suan ) and a commitment to make Galway a disability-friendly, cycling friendly and walking friendly city (multi-sectoral Galway City Development Board ).

The support for integrating community, environment and nature heritage into the fabric of the city goes back even further when Míceál P O’Cionnaith, as the council’s chief engineer in the 1970s-1980s, ensured the opening up Barna Woods and Merlin Woods as public amenities and established the original Galway City Museum.

United cross-sectoral approach

Today this united cross sectoral approach in promoting economic-social sustainability and biodiversity protection continues through the actions of so many people and institutions. Our city’s third level scientists/engineers are renowned worldwide for their research in climate mitigation/adaptation; our schools are centres for biodiversity projects, our health professionals are increasingly promoting the Green Prescriptions, our communities and third level students are campaigning for Climate Justice; our progressive architects are looking at new ways to integrate nature into building design; our environmental campaigners in Merlin, Barna, Terryland, Corrib Beo and An Taisce continue to protect our precious natural environment, our businesses such as Aerogen, SAP, Thermo King, Avaya and Cisco put carbon reduction at the heart of their manufacturing and support biodiversity initiatives in the city; our cyclist advocates are enthusiastically leading the campaigns for a network of Greenways within and into the city.

The programme in this month’s Galway Science and Technology Festival 2021, will include an event (the first of many ) where teenagers from the city’s nine secondary schools will meet up to reimagine a new Green and Smart Galway; primary school teachers with the Galway Education Centre are coming together to plan a second Glór na Oganach (Voice of Youth ); the roll out of the Outdoor Classroom to all of Galway’s schools; and the largest rewilding since 2000 will take place at Lough Atalia coordinated by the Galway Community College.

All of the organisers of these green projects are champions of the Galway National Park City initiative. With President Michael D. Higgins as patron, it is reactivating the successful pioneering multi-sectoral approach of twenty years ago in an effort to collectively tackle the Climate and Biodiversity Emergencies and integrate nature into the infrastructure of our city thus in the processs improving its citizens’ quality of life, promoting green jobs and giving space to biodiversity. This new dynamic is now being taken up by cities across the world and takes its lead from the London National Park City where developers and investors are coming together under its auspices to create wildlife corridors, greenways, green buildings and living vibrant communities in a city populated by 1500 species.

Through the Galway National Park City, ‘Green Finance’ from enlightened philanthropists and businesses are starting to help in transforming our city. The Lifes2Good Foundation, the TNC ‘Mude’ healthy drinks company and Aerogen are funding some of the most exciting eco-educational developments available anywhere in Ireland, which will be unveiled in the months ahead.

Such a strong cross-sectoral partnership fufills an important new requirement for new EU funding for municipality projects which requires a strong grassroots involvement.

With all of this diverse active civic engagement, and with so much state finance, staffing and enlightened policies becoming available from central government, Galway City Council needs to enthusiastically embrace the new reality of the 21st century. Whilst our local government is indeed undertaking a new positive direction in their adoption of the All Ireland Pollinator Plan, in launching schemes such as ‘Love Your Beach’ and securing funding for the new walking/cycling Corrib bridge connecting into the Connemara Greenway, there is still a feeling that they are hesitant about implementing much needed polices such as the Salthill Greenway and full-time wardens for the city parks. Their refusal to give legislative protection to the city’s public parks and their failure in July to buy 1.5 acres of private land that lay within the Terryland Forest Park was a shock to campaigners and was against the spirit of council policy dating back to 1996.

Their reluctance to include the Galway National Park City designation into the Galway City Development Plan 2023-2029 on the grounds of it being ‘premature’ and could ‘interfere with development’ is against the experiences of world leading London-based developers who see it as the template for all present and future development in one of the world’s greatest cities.

The designation, which is supported by the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and many of the city’s councillors and is the conduit for recreating our city in the new reality of the Climate and Biodiversity Crises, with a set of criteria adopted a few months ago by an international panel of experts from many countries, will be presented once again in a few months for the council’s consideration.


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