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Saoirse McHugh: Achill has shown me the link between climate action and rural regeneration

To tackle climate breakdown the two most important areas that Ireland will have to focus on will be transport and agriculture, writes Saoirse McHugh.

Saoirse McHugh

In her fortnightly column for TheJournal.ie, Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party writes about what we can do as individuals in the face of climate chaos.

THE FIRST TWO weeks in September are always difficult to get used to here on Achill.

Almost overnight restaurants close up for the winter, the beaches empty, and hundreds of people leave their holiday homes until they come back for St Patrick’s day or the May bank holiday. During these months the place can feel desolate.

The difference between the summer and winter has become more stark in my lifetime. Schools and shops have closed for good, people drive over an hour to work and more have moved away, and that bustling feeling that children give to places has vanished. These things are painfully obvious when the summer tourists have left.

I am not going to go on about the emptying out of rural Ireland, we all know about it and we hear about it from many rural TDs.

What we less often hear about is the relationship between climate action and rural regeneration. To me, the two are inseparable. Housing is a prime example. The planning offices in Ireland have for years been overseeing the spread of ribbon development.

Houses are built further and further out from villages and towns whose centres begin to decay. Businesses struggle as a huge Tesco or Aldi built just outside the town sucks in the trade with attractive easy parking. Those who do brave town end up stuck in traffic making it unpleasant for those walking or cycling.

Public transport becomes less effective as the population is so dispersed until there is a situation, like here in Achill, where a bus leaves at 8.30 in the morning and returns late in the evening. Fewer residents and reduced foot traffic in the town negatively affects local businesses with many unable to survive.

As smaller shops close down and markets die out, farmers are forced into the more restrictive contracts that big supermarkets offer them or, if they cannot provide the year-round supply that the contract dictates, end up selling to a middle man and having their profit margin severely cut.

Nothing is ‘just happening’

To tackle climate breakdown the two most important areas that Ireland will have to focus on will be transport and agriculture. We have seen plans whereby electric vehicles will save us all. While this would contribute to a large reduction in emissions it is highly problematic for several reasons, not least because of the cost.

To truly tackle climate breakdown we will have to do more than switch from diesel to electric or from pesticide agriculture to organic. In terms of rural development, we need revitalised towns and villages so an efficient and effective public transport system can be designed. Where people live is key to designing public transport and so access to housing in villages and towns will be really important. Reducing reliance on personal cars, in turn, changes how people interact with businesses. The smaller sized businesses regularly found in towns benefit significantly from foot traffic.

Aside from the disproportionate advantages that small businesses bring to communities in terms of employment and social cohesion, they also can benefit producers with less restrictive contracts, a higher percentage of the sale price being returned to producers, and the acceptance of less uniform product.

This form of sale, be it direct sale in markets or through small shops, can have a transformative effect on the surrounding landscape and the farmers working it. Many of the pressures of supermarkets and international export force an environmentally damaging form of agriculture and locally focused production can allow for a less intensive, more environmentally sensitive relationship with the land.

How rates are calculated, planning restrictions, road building, and health and safety regulations are just some of the policies which will have to be altered if we are to reverse rural decline and address climate breakdown.

What is important to remember is that everything we see and everything that is happening is a result of policies decided on and implemented by the politicians we elect. Nothing is ‘just happening’ which (thankfully) means that everything can be changed.

Rural decline can be reversed and in doing so it can begin to tackle climate breakdown. All that is required is the political will. 

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Saoirse McHugh

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