Architect, environmentalist and TV presenter, Duncan Stewart, visited Wexford recently to speak on ‘Creating New Local Sustainable Enterprises’. The talk at Wexford Library, presented in association with Future-Proof Wexford, attracted a large and, as Duncan himself acknowledged, very savy audience.

In the course of a wide-ranging talk, he said that Wexford is well placed to develop sustainable businesses in a range of sectors, not least eco-tourism, food production and energy.

Through his work, the popular presenter of RTE’s Eco-Eye has had opportunity to closely examine sustainable organisations and projects both in Ireland and further afield. As such, he is well placed to offer advice on where new enterprises should be positioning themselves and on how existing organisations should be adapting.

He said that Ireland spends up to €11 billion on food and energy imports per annum. With a little foresight and innovative thinking we could substantially reduce this figure by investing in local renewable energy projects and by producing more food locally. This would mean, not just a massive saving to the state, but a much greater amount of money being spent and circulating in local economies. Imagine, he went on, if Wexford could get even a small slice of that pie.

Duncan said that we import 75% of our food, notwithstanding the excellent growing conditions we have here. He went on to say that the €5-6 billion we spend annually on imported energy not only costs us directly; it very often also supports undemocratic, even corrupt, regimes.

One of the advantages of keeping more of our wealth circulating locally is that it offers young graduates more opportunities at home. If those new home-grown import-substituting businesses are to thrive and stay innovative they are going to need a quality workforce. The net result should be a drop in the numbers emigrating.

From the floor, Tom Bermingham of Wexford Local Development said that the next round of LEADER funding (almost €8 million in Wexford) will focus on developing and supporting enterprises that are both innovative and sustainable.

While Duncan sees great potential in new sustainable business development in Wexford, he says that exisiting organisations also must change how they do things.

During the Celtic Tiger years there was such a focus on short term gain that very little thought was given to the consequences. As a result Ireland is now way behind many of our fellow EU countries when it comes to building standards, energy use, transport and environmental protection. Some examples of our poor behaviour: only 8% of our energy comes from renewable energies; the carbon emissions resulting from the building of the standard family home in Ireland is around 40-60 tonnes. On a grander scale the lack of any serious efforts by government to face up to the reality of climate change has led to the bizarre situation whereby we annually face fines from the EU. We continue to operate major CO2 releasing coal and peat fired power plants, while the ongoing destruction of bogs releases further CO2 into the atmosphere.

In taking a broad look at climate change and its consequences Duncan said that one of the biggest problems the World will face is climate change-induced migration. He also said that food shortages will affect every single country on the planet.

With successive governments not willing to tackle the climate change issue head-on Duncan said that change must come from the ground up. Communities and individuals must be more in control of resources. This is already happening in Germany, Austria and other EU countries – why not here? He says that some farmers in these countres are finding that they get a greater return from renewable energy generation than they do from farming activities.

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