Colette Sheridan: Are the city's robot trees a worthy initiative or just a costly folly?

We act like the consequences of climate change are far away, somewhere vaguely in the future, says Colette Sheridan in her weekly column
Colette Sheridan: Are the city's robot trees a worthy initiative or just a costly folly?

TOO NEAR: A resident observes a large forest fire near the village of Pefki on Evia island, Greece. Picture: Getty Images

MAYBE there is method to Cork City Council’s apparent madness in spending €350,000 on five ‘CityTrees’, dubbed ‘robot trees’, which have been installed on Patrick Street and the Grand Parade.

The four metre-high timber covered units have moss cultures that filter toxic pollutants out of the air and can measure air quality, but only in the immediate vicinity of these structures.

While there has been much criticism of the expenditure on the hi-tech CityTrees, they have got people talking about air pollution as we try to figure out if the money has been well spent.

We won’t know until next year, as the initiative will have to be evaluated over time. But one thing’s for sure. For one woman sleeping rough on the streets of Cork, the robot trees are a folly, a kick in the face for the homeless bedding down at night on the footpaths of the city.

Last Wednesday, at the launch of Cork City Council’s air quality strategy in front of the three robot trees on Patrick Street, the Lord Mayor, Cllr Colm Kelleher, was ambushed by a rough sleeper who expressed her outrage at the expenditure on the robot trees.

“I see how much these cost today in newspapers and this is crazy and we sleeping on the streets and you don’t care about us at all.”

While the Lord Mayor was quick to point out that Cork has a low rate of homelessness and that he recently launched a new Peter McVerry Trust complex with five single-bed apartments, it must have been poor consolation to the homeless woman. After all, there has been a 20% fall in the number of affordable properties available to rent across the country in just three months.

The robot trees are “a costly and ineffectual gimmick”, said Dr Dean Venables, a researcher at the Centre for Research into Atmospheric Chemistry at UCC. He told the Irish Examiner that they would have no meaningful impact on the city’s air quality.

However, the timber-clad units are a conversation point, and what’s more, they can seat 20 people on Pana as they are erected on spacious plinths.

But as street furniture goes, they’re expensive. Their real function may not be very impactful.

On the environmental front internationally, what really made an impact last week was scary news from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). 

They issued a stark warning on the climate crisis which made us sit up and listen — for once.

Scientists at the organisation warned that human activity is seriously changing the earth’s climate in ways “unprecedented” in thousands or hundreds of thousands of years, with some of the changes now “irreversible”.

We’ve seen the horror on news footage of devastating fires in Northern California and blazes raging from southern Europe to Siberia. There’s been bad flooding in Germany, China and England. We had our own heat-wave but it was nothing compared to countries that have had to put up with 40-plus degrees Celsius.

Given our negligible attention span when it comes to environmental issues — no matter how frightening — environmental activist, Guardian columnist and author, George Monbiot, said it all on Newstalk last week.

The IPPC report received about 18 hours of coverage “and then suddenly it all disappeared again and everyone here in the UK is talking about Strictly Come Dancing. It’s baffling. We’re supposed to have a survival instinct and here we are facing the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced, with much of the world literally on fire.”

He added that it’s “the sort of thing you’d think journalists would be all over all the time and we’ve already shuffled on to the next round of mind numbing trivia to distract everyone from what’s going on.

“I find it almost incomprehensible. I’ve been doing this for 36 years now, knocking my head against a brick wall of media indifference. But it just seems to get worse and worse...”

George Monbiot pointed out the coverage of the pandemic has been going on, day in, day out, for over a year and a half.

“It was constant... and that’s a good thing, but that should be the case with the climate crisis.”

The whole ecological crisis is, he said, more threatening than the pandemic.

The problem is that until raging fires are in our backyards and our houses are flooded, we act like the consequences of climate change are far away, somewhere vaguely in the future.

But surely we’ve had a wake-up call? It’s here. In Europe.

We’re obsessed with Fit-bits, grimly trying to complete 10,000 steps daily. Maybe we should have some sort of an app or device to measure our carbon footprint. If we go over a recommended amount, we could be fined. It will take hitting us in our pockets.

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