Ireland, despite its position of being “an island off an island off the continent of Europe” has always maintained strong ties with the heart of Europe. Our history has meant that these ties were not always formal ones, and at times, physical and political isolation have weakened them. However, in the latter part of the 20th century, through our participation in the European Union, the OECD and other organisations, Ireland has renewed and strengthened its historic connection with the broader European experience.
Ireland’s recent development has been marked by comprehensive engagement with the process of globalisation. Through the pursuit of progressive economic policies, such as those long advocated by the OECD, Ireland has seen unprecedented economic growth, greater interaction with the global marketplace and a reversal of many negative trends in terms of unemployment and emigration. Ireland now welcomes to our shores people from all around Europe and further afield, who search for employment in our revitalised island nation.
However, many of the issues that concern me reflect the potential impact of that economic advance on our environment. The first OECD Environmental Performance Review of Ireland (2000) showed that, while the quality of our environment is good, the challenges are increasing and intensified action is required.
In the first half of 2004, Ireland holds the presidency of the EU. The overall theme of the presidency, Europeans – Working Together, will be most visibly realised on 1 May 2004 with the accession to the Union of ten new member states from central and eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, so leaving behind a past of, at times, painful conflicts and divisions.
Shortly before then, I will have the honour of chairing the OECD Environment Ministers Meeting (20-21 April 2004). This will be an important opportunity for member countries, in the context of the OECD Environmental Strategy, to take stock of where we all stand in terms of ensuring that economic development does not take place at the expense of the natural resource base on which it ultimately depends.
As I see it, good progress is being made by OECD member countries in developing and implementing environmental policies in key areas, such as action to address climate change, reductions in local air pollution, better management of freshwater resources and improved energy efficiency. There is, however, no room for complacency: further action is needed urgently. For example, we need to continue to work together to limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, better manage transport demand (particularly in urban areas), promote greater use of renewable energy sources, and more comprehensively address the problems presented by unsustainable patterns of consumption.
In facing up to these challenges, we must work to avoid simplistic “economy or environment” choices: we can – and we must – have both. Making the market work for the environment is crucial here and is an approach that we need to exploit much more. We must be imaginative; for example, in Ireland we recently introduced a very successful levy on plastic shopping bags (a major litter nuisance) which dramatically cut their use while raising resources for environmental purposes. This demonstrated to the public how small changes can make a big difference. On a much higher level, CO2 emissions trading across the EU, which will start soon, will help achieve cost-efficient emission reductions.
We environment ministers need to get the message across that progressive environmental policies present significant economic and social opportunities. For example, in developing clean technologies we can protect the environment, while also contributing to economic growth, competitiveness and employment. Indeed, such technologies also have a key role in achieving internationally agreed development and environmental goals. We must foster greater collaboration with developing countries in this regard.
On the broad international agenda, there is, I feel, a real sense that the poorest countries have generally been left behind by increasing globalisation and, even in countries that have benefited, the gains have not reached significant segments of the population. The challenge, particularly for OECD countries, is to make globalisation work for sustainable development and to work to ensure that the benefits are shared more equitably and responsibly.
Our meeting in Paris in April will coincide with CSD 12 (see references) in New York, where the focus will be on water, sanitation and human settlements. I hope that there will be good synergies between the two processes, and out of them will come confirmation of the international commitment to the common pursuit of a high quality environment and sustainable development.
*The OECD Environment Policy Committee Ministerial meeting takes place in Paris, 20-21 April 2004. For more, please see www.oecd.org/envmin2004.
The Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Ireland, see www.environ.ie.
Irish Presidency of the EU, see www.eu2004.ie.
Brende, B. (2004), "Sustained action," Interview with the chair of CSD 12, in OECD Observer No 242, March. Available here.
©OECD Observer, No 242, March 2004