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Nicola Anderson, The Irish Independent. November 2021

From setting an example to the rest of Europe with plans for river turbines and transforming the energy ratings of Georgian buildings to growing their own vegetables, communities across Ireland are striving to be the problem-solvers heralded by David Attenborough in his rousing COP26 speech.

As the world holds its breath to see whether COP26 can truly make an impact on climate change, the revolution has already started at grassroots level in a number of towns and cities.

The dire environmental situation is being viewed with a grim steeliness by the residents of the Eco Village in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary.

It was ahead of its time – conceived as a self-governing model settlement for the 21st century that would be communal, carbon-neutral and self-sufficient. People there grow their own vegetables, houses are heated with district heating, with hot water pumped around the site from two large wood burners. Few drive cars as they have access to the local rail station.

A recent study showed the Eco Village to have half the carbon footprint of towns of similar size in Ireland.

“The Irish population agreed to stop smoking in pubs and the pandemic has shown people the pointlessness of commuting. Change is either going to be foisted on us or it can be our own choice,” said architect Sally Starbuck, who lives in the Eco Village.

“Things aren’t perfect – we have tensions between people and have difficulties about externalities we’re not in control of, like the local waste water system,” she accepted.

Sometimes issues are settled with a “preferendum” – with residents giving a list in order of their preferred resolutions. “It works far better than a referendum,” said Ms Starbuck.

And while it has had its challenges and has not yet achieved all it hoped, the community believes it has learned important lessons that should be shared with other towns and villages across the country.

“It’s not an internal monologue, we have education events, open webinars to show people what we’re doing here, this isn’t supposed to be a secret. It’s not rocket science. You reduce consumption and make sure that what you’re taking advantage of does the least harm.”

Ollie Moore is on the board of the Cloughjordan community farm initiative which grows food for local members, from carrots and potatoes to tomatoes and French beans in polytunnels.

And while the eco village has its own land for this, he says there is nothing to stop other communities from approaching a local farmer and asking to strike a deal to supply their vegetables for the year. “You’re responsible for the vegetables then – when there’s a glut you have to process it into chutneys and pesto,” he said.

“When you do this you’re thinking very specifically about pollution and you have a more intimate connection to the land.”

Another example Cloughjordan can set is the setting-up of digital farmers markets, Mr Moore said, which he explained works by customers pre-ordering goods which the farmer then delivers in boxes to a local drop-off point, with a set window for the collection time.

“For very small towns it’s more viable than a farmers market because nobody has to be standing around for hours,” he said.

Meanwhile, plans to tackle the climate crisis are on a somewhat larger scale in Limerick city.

In 2018 it was chosen, alongside Trondheim in Norway, as a “lighthouse city” to set an example across Europe for a major climate-change pilot programme on how to dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of urban areas. Rosie Webb, head of urban innovation at Limerick City and County Council, revealed they are trying to create a positive energy block within the city which can then be widened out into a district.

“We picked a difficult problem by choosing to start off in our historic centre,” she said. “That brings a lot of multiple property owners and lot of dereliction. It would have been easier to pick a campus like Trondheim did but we chose the problem that we really needed to solve by looking at the places that are already built.”

Covid set the programme back and the city is also waiting on key energy legislation that needs to be changed to allow people to sell extra electricity generated back to the community grid, with plans also in place for a river turbine. However, progress is already steadily underway – with 27 older buildings brought back from a derelict state and made energy efficient. “Even some protected structures are being brought up to a B rating which is very exciting,” Ms Webb said.

The work achieved in Limerick makes her optimistic about what can be achieved to tackle climate change. “It’s not an easy problem for sure – it will take a huge effort,” she said.

Among those at the crunch climate talks were a team from the Dingle peninsula in Co Kerry, who met the Taoiseach to discuss their 2030 initiative for a more sustainable future for their locality.

“Transport and agriculture are the two things we have to tackle in rural Ireland and he was very interested in some of the creative solutions we’ve been working on,” said manager of the Dingle Hub, Deirdre de Bhailís.

The team travelled in an electric vehicle from Dingle to Glasgow – which brought its own challenges.

“We were rolling into a charger at 3am with just three minutes charge left so it was a bit of a journey,” she said. But she takes issue with those who claim that electric does not make sense in rural Ireland. “I love my EV. It meets the majority of my driving needs.”

ECOVILLAGE

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