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Cork City Council defends 'robot trees' as it launches Clean Air Strategy

Cork’s ‘clean air’ plan is being launched today.

The CityTrees during installation
The CityTrees during installation
Image: Cork City Council via Twitter

FIVE HIGH-TECH ‘CITYTREES’ that can help to clean the air will be launched today in Cork as part of a city-wide ‘clean air’ strategy.

The 4m tall wooden units contain a moss that can filter pollutants and they will be installed at St Patrick’s Street and on Grand Parade in the city centre.

A number of other local authorities have weighed in on whether they will consider the technology, with Dublin City Council ruling them out and several others waiting to see how successful they are in Cork.

The structures, known as ‘CityTrees’ and which are designed by Germany company Green City Solutions, work thanks to the moss, which absorbs air pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides, and emits clean air. The moss “acts as a filter to ‘trap’ and ‘eat’ fine dust making it a sustainable and regenerative fine dust filter”, explained the council.

Cork City Council is keen to point out that CityTrees are only one part of its new Clean Air Strategy, but they have drawn a lot of interest so far, with debate over whether the ‘robot trees’ are the right way forward

The ‘robot trees’ are to be viewed as “complementary” to any planting of real trees and are paid for by the National Transport Authority at a cost of €350,000 including maintenance, said the council.

Larger plan

Cork City Council’s operations director, David Joyce, said criticism of CityTrees is based on “taking the initiative out of context” of the overall Clean Air Strategy, stressing that the structures need to be viewed as one step in a larger plan, which will include the spending of €3.5 billion at improving public and active transport systems.

“Cork City Council is the first local authority to launch an air quality strategy, with various short, medium and long term objectives.

My colleague in Wexford is 100% right, the way you tackle pollution is you tackle it at source so it doesn’t happen. But unfortunately to deliver such a project is not something that is going to be achievable today or tomorrow, so we feel we can’t rest on our laurels and it is incumbent on us to implement short and medium term strategies.

“That is why CityTrees is one local action we’re doing. If this [CityTrees] was a long-term plan, it wouldn’t work.”

Joyce added that CityTrees are “designed for specific issues at specific locations”, where the city centre now has a substantial clean air zone as a result of it pedestrianising 17 streets earlier this year.

“These are two plaza areas where people congregate daily to meet and eat their lunch, so we want to ensure we have maximum air quality at those locations.

“It’s not going to clean up the entire city but it will improve the air quality at those locations, which are both adjacent to roads with significant volumes of traffic.”

Trial

However, other councils have told The Journal that they would be waiting to see how Cork’s trial goes before making a decision on using the CityTrees.

Brendan Cooney, senior executive scientist at Wexford County Council, said he has “no interest” in acquiring the project, adding that local authorities need to “solve the problem at source” and avoid “throwing money at it” by investing in projects such CityTrees. 

“You’re better off reducing the problem of air quality at source. That means designating country-wide smokeless zones, stopping the burning of solid fuels and replacing fireplaces with stoves in homes,” Cooney said. 

“We’re trying to push for nationwide legislation to be adopted and that’s what we would prefer to see.”

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Meanwhile, Dublin City Council did not specify whether it has plans to install similar systems in the capital. 

“In February 2020 the four Dublin local authorities signed up to the UN Breathe Life Campaign which commits them to strive to meet World Health Organisation air quality guide values by 2030,” a spokeswoman said.

“This is an ambitious target as some of the WHO guide values are significantly more stringent than the current mandatory EU limit values.”

Councils in Limerick and Waterford each indicated they would be waiting to see how the CityTrees fare in Cork, while Galway City Council said it was consulting with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on whether the technology would be a good fit.

Fergus Galvin, Director of Environment Services with Waterford City and County Council told The Journal: “We’re not considering the CityTrees air filtering system being introduced by Cork. While it’s an interesting project, we’ll wait to see how they get on and review then as to whether there’s a value in it.”

Most councils said their current air quality is good and not exceeding recommended levels, nor have they drawn any concerns from the EPA. 

However, the DCC spokeswoman said the capital’s four local authorities are currently preparing a plan to address the exceedance of nitrogen dioxide reported in 2019, and this will be brought to public consultation later in 2021.

The council is also working to develop “innovative ways of monitoring air quality in the city” and engaging citizens in exploring ways to improve it.         

Each local authority is considering ways to update its climate strategy, with Limerick focused on increasing the tree coverage in the city, while Waterford is developing a decarbonising strategy where the main aim will be achieving a significant reduction in CO2 emissions over the next 10 years. 

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