Kathriona Devereux: Robot trees are symbol of the consumerism we need to halt

If humanity is to survive, we have to break up with ‘stuff’ and turn our back on our consumerist urges for shiny, new things, so says Kathriona Devereux
Kathriona Devereux: Robot trees are symbol of the consumerism we need to halt

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: The CityTrees on Patrick Street have sparked controversy since being erected last week.

IT’S very hard to clean up pollution once it has left the exhaust pipe, the chimney or the effluent drain. It’s a bit like trying to take milk out of a cup of tea.

The controversial installation of five CityTrees on Patrick Street and Grand Parade to mop up air pollution and improve air quality has raised quite a few eyebrows, including mine.

Some were raised at the eye-watering price tag of €350,000, while some questioned why actual trees would not be better than so-called ‘robot trees’. Others wondered if removing cars from the city centre or actually enforcing the ‘Pana ban’ would lead to the air quality improvements sought by Cork City Council.

If you missed the hoo-ha, City-Trees are moss-filled, tall, wooden towers that suck in the surrounding air, passing it over moss filters which absorb pollutants such as particulate matter (tiny particles of suspended dust that are associated with some lung disease). The units also monitor the surrounding air quality and have embedded screens that tell you about the project and other Cork City Council messages.

As the CityTrees were being installed in front of T.W. Murray’s on Patrick Street, the Twitterati went nuts. A parody Twitter account for the Cork Robot Trees was set up, joshing about becoming Cork’s overlords.

More serious commentators weighed in and Twitter provided a useful forum to read the thoughts of people like John Sodeau, a retired UCC chemistry professor, and Dean Venables, an air quality and atmospheric scientist at UCC. These academics commended Cork City Council’s desire and willingness to tackle poor air quality and welcomed the publication of the council’s Air Quality Strategy, but seriously questioned how effective these devices would be at delivering any notable air quality improvements.

Trials with earlier prototypes of the CityTrees were abandoned in Amsterdam and Glasgow.

What irked me most when I first encountered the Patrick Street units was that actual trees, electronics, monitors, TV screens, sensors, construction and transport energy were all expended in their creation and installation. It seems like a lot of resources to marginally improve air quality in the immediate vicinity of the CityTrees.

The German manufacturer then admitted that the true carbon footprint of the CityTrees had not been calculated yet.

Any five-year-old who has read or watched Dr Seuss’ The Lorax can tell you that to fix pollution you need to stop the polluter.

Last week, in a two-minute cycle from Father Mathew’s statue to Daunt Square, I counted 28 private cars heading north at about 5.30pm in the afternoon. They were (surprise, surprise) stuck in traffic, their idling engines emitting fumes into the surrounding streets.

By rights, those cars should all have been slapped with €160 fines for breaching the Pana Ban and Patrick Street should have been free of traffic, except buses and taxis, between 3pm and 6.30pm. But no-one enforces the ban and many motorists are oblivious.

I’d imagine there are many people who would be willing to stand on Patrick Street from 3pm to 6.30pm daily to police the car ban for a slice of the €350,000 paid for the five City-Trees.

City Council were quick to explain that this money came from a particular National Transport Authority budget and not the Council’s core budget, and could not have been spent on other pressing issues such as housing or homelessness.

The Council defended the initiative by saying that 1,300 trees would be planted in the city this year and making the point that there is nowhere to plant additional trees on Grand Parade.

Cities around the world are actively ‘de-paving’, digging up footpaths and pavements, to plant trees. 

Yes, concrete and paving is lower maintenance, but planting real trees is a single intervention with multiple benefits — it scrubs pollutants from the air, captures carbon dioxide, reduces rainwater runoff and flooding, cools during heatwaves, helps biodiversity, and improves public health.

Grand Parade is a wide expanse of paving that could easily accommodate more trees and greenery.

It was particularly unfortunate timing to launch CityTrees the week that the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a “Code Red for humanity”, with the latest frightening report screaming at the world that the climate crisis is here, it is not going away, and the best we can hope for now is to limit the damage by halving our emissions by 2030.

The images of wildfires in Turkey, Greece, Italy and Algeria accentuated the stark messaging.

The easier aspects of solving the climate crisis are to stop burning fossil fuels, slash methane gases, and plant trees to absorb the billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide we’ve released since the industrial revolution. The difficult part is reorganising our societies and economies to move away from the pursuit of economic growth and consumption of goods as metrics for success, and invent new metrics that measure economic, societal and environmental wellbeing.

If humanity is to survive, we have to break up with ‘stuff’. We have to turn our back on our consumerist urges for shiny, new things, and say goodbye to needless products that use up the planet’s finite resources and eventually become unwanted junk in our attic.

To me, the CityTrees epitomise the shiny, new item that, on the surface, tick the right boxes, but with greater scrutiny are just another needless product that we could happily do without.

The CityTrees project can be seen as an ill-advised mis-step in the council’s otherwise excellent recent commitment to cycle lanes and pedestrianisation.

Climate action needs to be based on science and see us embrace nature-based sustainable solutions if we are going to stave off the unlivable scenarios that climate scientists are warning about, and so many of the world’s populations are already living through.

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