More power to our fledgling solar industry

The missing piece of the puzzle from Ireland’s transition to clean and renewable energy has long been solar power. While wind energy has grown in just a couple of decades from almost nothing to providing more than two fifths of total national electrical power (with much more in store once offshore wind kicks in), solar has been almost completely overlooked. This is now finally changing. I filed the report below for The Irish Times in early July, taking a closer look at this bright new sector:

SHORTLY BEFORE his death in 1931, US electricity pioneer, Thomas Edison confided to his close friends: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that”.

Today, some 90 years later, the pressing global crisis is that we are producing greenhouse gas emissions far more quickly than the biosphere can absorb them. The dramatic rise of renewables in response to this crux mean Edison’s bet on solar may at last be borne out, albeit not for the reasons he expected.

All future pathways to maintaining global temperatures below the 1.5ºC and 2ºC thresholds of dangerous perturbation of the climate system require rapid society-wide decarbonisation, beginning with our energy systems.

Ireland has made impressive strides in this direction, with some 42 per cent of total electrical production last year from renewables, which in our case is overwhelmingly onshore wind energy. According to the Sustainable Energy Authority, renewables in Irish electricity production reduced CO2 emissions by 4.8 million tonnes in 2019, avoiding nearly €300 million in imported fossil fuels in the process.

Wind energy has come of age in Ireland over the last two decades, with total installed capacity of just over 4,350 MW at the end of 2020. In sharp contrast, solar energy has been the Cinderella sector, with a negligible 50-60 MW of installed capacity, the second lowest in the EU.

The United Kingdom, enjoying almost identical conditions for solar production as Ireland, has, in response to clear government policy and supports, already deployed some 13,500 MW of solar capacity, and it now provides some five per cent of the UK’s total year-round electrical requirements.

“It has been difficult to explain that solar panels work in Belfast, but somehow not in Dublin”, according to Dr Sarah McCormack, associate professor of environmental engineering at Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

She admits that, up until very recently, it was nigh-on impossible to attract much interest – or funding – around solar projects in Ireland. “The general attitude we encountered is that renewable energy is all about wind and ocean power in Ireland, the mindset was that we’re not sunny enough for solar power”. This, as the UK experience has shown, is a significant misconception.

To date, funding for the TCD Solar Energy Applications Group, with which Dr McCormack is involved, has come from Europe, including a recent €1.5 million grant to work in diffuse solar energy, which involves maximising the energy that can be extracted from our frequently cloudy skies.

Regular silicon-based solar panels extract energy from sunlight in the visible spectrum. While direct sunshine is a relative rarity in Irish conditions, even on overcast days, there is quite a high level of incoming UV (ultraviolet) radiation. The TCD research group are developing methods of capturing UV light via specialised luminescent dyes and then re-emitting it into the visible range, where it can be converted into electricity.

Today’s silicon-based solar cells are typically 20 per cent efficient, while international research in what are known as tandem cells has seen efficiency of solar cells boosted to as high as 47 per cent. While in terms of raw solar energy production it would be hard for more complex solar panels to compete on cost with the cheap imported panels from China, the real advantage in high-performance panels is in locations where space is at a premium.

Ironically, our slow start in embracing solar technology may in fact give Ireland the benefit of ‘late mover advantage’ in installing brand new capacity in the 2020s. The cost per MW of solar panels has fallen precipitously over the last decade and more, and is now some 86 per cent lower than in 2009.

Indeed, according to the International Energy Agency’s 2020 World Energy Outlook, “for projects with low-cost financing that tap high-quality resources, solar PV is now the cheapest source of electricity in history.

The emergence of solar power as a literal sunrise industry in our energy landscape happened dramatically last August, when Ireland’s first renewable energy auction saw nearly 800MW of solar projects accepted. Not all of these projects will proceed, but at least five projects approved in this auction are currently being constructed. It is expected that around 600-700MW of new solar will come on-stream as a result of this Renewable Energy Support Scheme (RESS) auction.

Three in five of the 63 successful solar projects in this round are below 5MW. The main reason, according to analysis by IHS Markit, is that generators below 5MW connected to the distribution system in Ireland don’t have to pay system charges for transmission use. Around one in 10 new solar projects are large-scale utility projects above 20MW.

Two to four more RESS auctions are due to be held in the near future, with each expected to see similar levels of solar energy being rolled out. “By 2030, we think we can get solar to around 5GW of utility scale installations, and another 1GW of domestic and small scale commercial”, according to Conall Bolger, chief executive of the Irish Solar Energy Association (ISEA).

He points out that in 2020, Ireland produced some 12.6 terawatt-hours (TWh) of green energy, mostly from onshore wind. “By 2030, we need to be hitting 30-35 TWh, so we’re aiming to effectively triple current renewable output in just over eight years, and that means we have to go gangbusters”, Bolger adds.

Given its latecomer status to the grid, Irish system planners has, Bolger believes “consistently underestimated how much it could contribute to the grid”. Network connections in Ireland are, he adds, over-engineered. “We are speccing these connections for a windy, sunny night”, he jokes.

In sunnier Spain, auctions for solar can get it on the grid for around €24 per megawatt-hour; the equivalent cost in Ireland is three times higher, at €73. “The difference in sunshine between Ireland and Spain does not nearly account for this price differential”, Bolger adds.

While Ireland is blessed with excellent wind resources, our best locations for wind are remotest from major east coast population centres, and wind is also most effective at night. Solar produces its power in daytime, when demand is greatest, and the best solar sites are close to where electricity demand is highest.

And while onshore wind farms are often opposed by people who regard them as eyesores, a typical solar farm doesn’t involve major construction, operates silently and is all-but invisible, even from neighbouring fields.

Given that Ireland’s agriculture sector produces one third of total national emissions, there is some scope for mitigation of carbon via solar farms, but the challenge, according to a government source, is that on-farm demand for electricity is relatively low. “For farmers, the key is whether you are getting paid enough and can get a cheap enough grid connection”.

Another option for farmers is to enter long-term leases of land to commercial-scale solar operators, with up to 80 per cent of a given site still available for limited uses, such as grazing sheep. And, unlike other long term plays such as forestry, it is easily reversible and the land, having been left fallow, is more likely to improve than deteriorate. However, financial uncertainty, including worry over potential losses under the Basic Payments Scheme, means this potential has yet to be fully realised.

Ireland’s 2030 target for electricity production by renewable energy is 70 per cent, and both industry and government sources are confident this will not just be met but comfortably exceeded, with the prospect of even hitting the 100 per cent mark by then. This even allows for expanding electricity demand from electric vehicles, data centres and heat pumps for zero carbon home heating.

The sunlit uplands of an energy-independent zero carbon Ireland in the coming decades have never seemed more within reach.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and co-author of the Routledge International Handbook of Environmental Journalism
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The heat is on: climate emergency deepens

After the savage heatwaves that swept the northern hemisphere in June and continuing into July, I was asked by to contribute a piece putting these ominous events into context. Here’s what I wrote:

“WORDS CANNOT DESCRIBE this historic event”. That’s how a statement from Canada’s official weather service began. It was referring to 28 June, a day in which 59 new daily record maximum temperatures were recorded across the province of British Columbia, as well as 43 all-time records.

From Canada to northern Siberia and across the Middle East, India, Pakistan and the entire western United States, June 2021 was a month of record-smashing extreme temperatures across vast swathes of the northern hemisphere.

Before last week, nowhere in Canada had ever recorded a temperature greater than 45C. That record was obliterated when the town of Lytton in British Columbia hit 49.6C in recent days. This is hotter than the highest temperature ever recorded in Las Vegas, located in the Nevada desert, 1,600 kilometres further south.

Dozens of deaths have been reported across Canada, a country with little experience dealing with such extreme conditions, and where few homes have air conditioning. In Portland, Oregon, the streetcar service had to be suspended as the heat had melted cables, while citizens were advised to seek shelter in publicly run cooling centres.

Climate change is happening

“Without human-induced climate change, it would have been almost impossible to hit such record-breaking mean June temperatures in the Western United States, as the chances of natural occurrence is once every tens of thousands of years”, said Nikos Christidis, a climatologist with the UK Met Office. Human influence is estimated to have increased the likelihood of a new record several thousand times.

The remote village of Oymyakon in eastern Siberia is close to the Arctic Circle and is regarded as the coldest permanently inhabited location on Earth. On 29 June, Oymyakon recorded its hottest ever temperature, at 31.6C.

To put these and other extreme weather events so far in 2021 in context, NASA noted that last year was the hottest on the instrumental record, with the excess heating fuelling massive wildfires from Australia to Siberia and the western US.

Levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), the key heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, have risen by around 50% since the industrial revolution began, while levels of methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, have more than doubled. Overall, the entire surface of the planet is now on average 1.1C warmer than a century ago, and this is rising quickly. Earth is running a dangerous fever.

Atmospheric CO2 levels today are higher than at any time in the last four million years, and human actions are dumping an additional 40 billion tons of CO2 pollution into the atmosphere every year. The last time there was this much CO2 in the atmosphere was during an era called the Pliocene, when sea levels were around 25 metres higher than today.

Unprecedented damage

We are the first humans in the history of our species to live through a period of such rapid heating. A leaked draft copy of a new 4,000-page report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that Earth was fast approaching a series of thresholds which, if crossed, will lead to irreversible climate breakdown.

“Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems – humans cannot”, the report stated bluntly. The IPCC report has identified around a dozen critical system tipping points, such as rapid polar ice melt or the sudden loss of the Amazon rainforest, as likely with even very modest additional warming.

“The worst is yet to come, affecting our children’s and grandchildren’s lives much more than our own”, the IPCC report added. The panel now accepts that it has been too cautious in the past in assessing just how much risk is posed by even limited global warming.

A decade ago, the international consensus was to keep temperature increases below 2C. Given the devastating present consequences of the 1.1C rise in global temperatures and the extreme danger of breaching a planetary tipping point, the latest scientific advice says we must aim to stay as close to +1.5C as possible.

However, if all the pledges made by every country on Earth, including Ireland, under the Paris Accord on climate change were honoured in full, we are still on track for a deadly 3C+ temperature shift.

While our climate is rapidly shifting into extremely dangerous territory, the political and media response to date has been, at best, muted. For instance, Senator Michael McDowell set out in his Irish Times column this week a litany of reasons in favour of inaction on climate, which he appears not realise is an emergency.

And the national broadcaster, RTÉ (which has no acting Environment Correspondent) continues to report on the extreme heat dome affecting the Pacific north-west purely as a weather event, with little attempt at explaining the role climate change plays in loading the dice for extreme weather events.

Who’s voice is being heard?

Both of Ireland’s main governing parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have repeatedly fudged strong climate action, partly for fear of an electoral backlash, but also in a bid to mollify the powerful agri industry lobby, which routinely misrepresents climate action as somehow an attack on ‘rural Ireland’.

Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney broke ranks when tweeting this week: “This is remarkable! These are frightening temperatures in Canada – take note – increased ambition for climate action is not a policy debate, it’s survival!”

If this sounds like hyperbole, a major study published last year warned that due to the rapid spread of extreme heat, up to three billion people will be living in climatic conditions “deemed unsuitable for human life to flourish” by 2070.

The researchers warned that land surface temperatures are likely to shift more in the next 50 years than in the entire last 6,000 years, rendering up to one-fifth of the Earth’s land surface too hot to support humans or agriculture. This in turn risks triggering the greatest migration crisis in human history and is likely to lead to political instability, wars and socio-economic collapse on an epic scale.

Commenting on the Canadian heatwave, meteorologist Scott Duncan tweeted: “I didn’t think it was possible, not in my lifetime anyway. Not so, countered climatologist, Prof Robert Brulle, who wrote: “These (2021) records will fall as climate change accelerates! This is just a mild version of what we can expect in the future.”

John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism.

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Media, Sustainability | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Dangerous myth of infinite economic growth exposed

Regular ThinkOrSwim readers will know that your correspondent is not a noted fan of mainstream economics, or most of its practitioners, for that matter. They have, in my view, done untold damage in impeding societal and political understanding of and response to the unfolding ecological emergency. 

Nobody, in my book, has explained this more clearly than Australian economist and economics debunker, Steve Keen. His cracking paper, ‘The appallingly bad neoclassical economics of climate change’ is required reading. 

What caught my eye in preparing the article below for the Business Post in June, was a research paper published by the European Environment Agency challenging the inevitability of, wait for it, economic growth.

ANYONE WHO believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world “is either a madman or an economist,” quipped US economist and author, Kenneth Boulding. Even the 19th century father of liberal economics, John Stuart Mill, wrote extensively of the desirability of a ‘stationary state’ as the ideal model for a stable, sustainable society, but his warnings went unheeded in the race for growth.

A rare glimpse into the everyday madness of globalised hyper-consumption emerged this week, with the revelation that Amazon, the giant online retailer, which last year reported €325 billion in sales, routinely destroys millions of unsold items. Such “losses” are a trivial part of its globalised business model.

Practices like this are symptoms of the wider global crisis of chronic overproduction and over-consumption and the rapidly escalating toll it is taking on the wider biosphere.

Global output has grown more than eight-fold since 1950, a period now termed the Great Acceleration. It is no coincidence that in just the last half-century, two thirds of all the wild mammals, fish, birds and reptiles on Earth, products of countless millions of years of evolution, have been lost, along with vast swathes of their natural habitats.

Scientists in recent years coined the term ‘biological annihilation’ to describe the devastating scale and consequences of the wholescale extirpation of the natural world that has marched in lock-step with humanity’s seemingly insatiable hunger for resources.

Notwithstanding its impacts on the natural world, had the fruits of this dramatic economic expansion been shared equitably, hunger and poverty would have been eliminated decades ago, and every person on Earth given access to affordable healthcare and education.

However, despite our vastly larger global economy, according to the World Bank, today more than half the world’s population live on less than €5 a day, while the world’s 2,000-plus billionaires now control more wealth than the 4.6 billion poorest people on the planet.

In tandem with the ongoing biodiversity collapse, the global climatic system is being destabilised by the rapid increase in the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases being ejected into the atmosphere. This is mainly as a result of the vast quantities of fossil fuels that have been burned to power this explosive increase in human economic footprint.

According to a newly published briefing paper from the European Environment Agency (EEA) titled ‘Growth without economic growth’, the ongoing loss of biodiversity, climate change, pollution and loss of natural capital “is tightly coupled to economic activities and economic growth…and full decoupling of economic growth and resource consumption may not be possible.”

Human civilisation is, it warns, “currently profoundly unsustainable,” and drastic changes are now essential. The EEA paper breaks with the usual incrementalist approach by noting that absolute reductions in environmental pressures and impacts “would require fundamental transformations to a different type of economy and society, instead of incremental efficiency gains within established production and consumption systems.”

The idea of ‘green growth’, while clearly better than its conventional alternative, still offers no panacea for problems associated with growth itself. The notion of a ‘circular economy’ is gaining traction internationally, but in the case of the EU, only around 12 per cent of the total material throughput in 2019 was being recycled.

The laws of thermodynamics explain why recycling can only ever reclaim a small amount of the primary energy that is used and degraded in extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal of resources. In fact, high throughput and low rates of recycling “appear to be conditions for high productivity”.

As anthropologist and author, Joseph A Tainter noted, advanced societies require huge flows of energy and materials to maintain their organisational complexity. We are now being confronted on an almost daily basis by the limits of our planet’s ability to maintain the optimal conditions for life while being polluted and degraded.

Despite this, there is still little sign that the dominant economic philosophy predicated on the assumption of infinite growth is preparing to yield one inch to biophysical reality. Growth, the EEA notes, “is culturally, politically and institutionally ingrained”, and the very legitimacy of most governments, including our own, is judged by their ability to deliver economic growth.

If the deepening impacts of untrammelled growth are taking us to the precipice, what are the realistic alternatives? Various schools, such as the degrowth and post-growth movements, involve efforts to break the apparent link between human well-being and economic growth and to realign humanity towards other, less destructive forms of self-actualisation.

Consumerism is itself an artifice, created by clever marketers to sell ever more products. In 1955, US retail economist, Victor Lebow laid out the template candidly: “our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

In repudiating this atavistic philosophy, the EEA briefing calls instead on our better angels: “while the planet is finite in its biophysical sense, infinite growth in human existential values, such as beauty, love, and kindness, as well as in ethics, may be possible.”

The European heritage, the agency argues, is not just about material consumption. “The fundamental values of the EU are human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law, and they cannot be reduced to or substituted by an increase in GDP.”

Critics might argue that the true European heritage must also acknowledge its roots in violent colonialism and its role today in consuming far more than its fair share of the world’s finite resources, while using its political and economic power to continue to exploit poorer countries in the Global South.

The enduring legacy of the covid pandemic in the era of climate change may yet be a decisive shift of human consciousness and an awareness both of our shared humanity and our acute vulnerability to environmental shocks. Whether this happens in time to avert disaster, or at all, remains in the balance.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
Posted in Economics, Global Warming, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

A mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam: our fragile world

Has there ever been a better science communicator that the late Carl Sagan? If you’ve watched the original version of the series ‘Cosmos’, you’ll have a good sense of his mastery of the medium. The BBC’s Brian Cox recalls watching, as a 13-year-old, the series, and deciding to dedicate his life to science and science communication.

His distinctive cadence can be heard and enjoyed here as he speaks of the pale blue dot back in 1994. The following year, his book ‘Demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark’ foretold with uncanny prescience a future America, its critical faculties in decline, ‘unable to distinguish between what feels good and what is true’, is sliding inexorably into a new Dark Ages, with its media engaged in ‘lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance’.

This flight from reality has brought humanity to the very edge of ruin. Whether we proceed, or somehow turn back in the nick of time, remains very much in the balance. Much will depend on how robust our planetary boundaries turn out to be. We may be lucky, or we may be very unlucky in that regard. The below piece ran in Village magazine in June.

ON FEBRUARY 14, 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, then some 6.4 billion kilometres from Earth, turned its cameras backwards and captured a picture of our home planet. It was the tiniest of images, covering barely one tenth of a pixel on the digital frame, a faint speck suspended in the inky black infinity of space.

The idea for the photo came from famed scientist and science communicator, Carl Sagan. The following passage, from his 1994 book ‘Pale Blue Dot’ is perhaps one of the most poignant in all of modern literature:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

Amidst the awe and beauty, his writings contained a dire warning. That mote of dust, our only home, “is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves”.

Despite the delusional dreams of interplanetary adventures and Mars colonies peddled by billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who believe their staggering monopoly on wealth and resources will allow them to shake off the very shackles of this planet, in reality, humanity will survive or it will perish right here on Earth.

Earlier this year, Musk’s SpaceX company unveiled his latest gadget, named with characteristic modesty ‘Starship’. This craft is capable of transporting up to 100 people the 350 million kilometres to Mars.

To put this voyage in context, the Red Planet is almost 1,000 times further from Earth than our moon. Its destination, Mars, is a barren rock, utterly bereft of the ingredients for life, infinitely more hostile to humans than the remotest point in Antarctica or the peak of Mount Everest.

The ethos behind the race for space is a creeping realisation among the hyper-rich that life on Earth is critically endangered. “History is going to bifurcate along two directions. One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event”, Musk said in 2016. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilisation and a multi-planet species, which I hope you would agree is the right way to go”.

The “eventual extinction event” may well be much closer at hand. Our billionaire elite can clearly sense it, but rather than deploy their vast resources and access to the levers of political, economic and media power to effect the revolutionary scale of changes necessary for our collective survival and well-being on Earth, they instead engage in fantastical projects as monuments to their colossal egos and unbounded hubris.

The great 20th century economist, John Kenneth Galbraith clearly understood the corrosive influence of affluence. His book ‘A Short History of Financial Euphoria’ offered some sharp insights. “Individuals and institutions are captured by the wondrous satisfaction from accruing wealth. The associated illusion of insight is protected by the public impression that intelligence marches in close step with the possession of money.”

This is the best explanation I have encountered to account for the staggering myopia of extremely wealthy people who have unlimited access to expert advice and are in a position to quickly make the changes that could truly matter.

One of the enduring challenges of addressing the multiple ecological crises that confront us has been to find a way of seeing them as part of an integrated system, a ‘spaceship Earth’ floating in the void, with its crew entirely dependent on the on-board life support systems and the integrity of the hull, which on a planetary scale, means the thin atmospheric envelope that surrounds us.

In 2009, a group of Earth system scientists, led by Profs Johan Rockström and Will Steffen set about the interdisciplinary task of mapping out a “safe operating space for humanity”, to help advise governments and international organisations on how to identify and remain within this safe zone.

This led to the identification of the nine key ‘planetary boundaries’, within which Earth systems must operate, and beyond which lie thresholds or tipping points with dangerous or even catastrophic consequences when breached.

The boundaries include: climate change, novel entities, stratospheric ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading, ocean acidification, biochemical flows of phosphorus and nitrogen, freshwater us, land-system change and biodiversity integrity, including functional and genetic diversity.

The pie-shaped visualisation developed by the Stockholm Resilience Centre is colour-coded green, orange and red, to demarcate the safe, uncertain and high risk zones. All nine of these should lie well within the green ‘safe’ zone, the region where Earth systems have remained throughout the unusually stable 11,700 year recent epoch known as the Holocene.

“There is increasing evidence that human activities are affecting Earth system functioning to a degree that threatens the resilience of the Earth system, its ability to persist in a Holocene-like state in the face of increasing human pressures and shocks”, according to a 2015 paper authored by Will Steffen which aimed to update and extend the original ‘planetary boundaries’ study from six years earlier.

While all nine boundaries are vital, two (climate change and biosphere integrity) are identified as “core”. If planet Earth were indeed a spaceship, right now its red warning lamps would be flashing and its alarm bells buzzing, warning that a hull breach was imminent unless drastic remedial action were taken.

Given the global focus on the climate crisis, you might expect its indicators to be the most alarming. At the moment, our climate system trajectory is clearly unstable, but it is rated as still being in the zone of uncertainty, meaning increasing risk.

The areas that have already smashed into the red zone of extreme danger are the global biodiversity crisis and nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans. Ecosystem damage resulting from human activities over the last half century in particular are “the most rapid in human history, and increase the risks of abrupt and irreversible changes”. So severe has the loss of biological diversity and accompanying pulse of species extinctions been that it has been characterised as the Sixth Mass Extinction event in Earth history.

To truly grasp the devastation that has already occurred, consider that 96 per cent – by weight – of mammals on Earth today consist of humans and their livestock, with the totality of the world’s remaining wild mammals a mere 4 per cent. At the start of the Holocene, humans and their livestock would have accounted for less than one per cent of Earth’s then teeming population of mammals.

Humanity’s race to increase food production has thrown global cycles of both nitrogen and phosphorus into chaos. Humans now create more artificial nitrogen (as a chemical fertilizer) than all Earth’s terrestrial processes combined. This is leading to serious and escalating pollution crises, both globally and as witnessed in Ireland in recent years as nitrogen-dependent industrial dairying expanded rapidly.

Thanks to decisive intergovernmental action in the 1980s, the ozone crisis has been largely averted, but other planetary boundaries are under growing pressure. These include ocean acidification (now occurring at its most rapid rate in 300 million years) and freshwater over-extraction and pollution to atmospheric aerosols and thousands of novel chemical entities that have been suddenly introduced into the biosphere.

There remain large areas of uncertainty, but our current trajectory of ever increasing resource extraction, consumption, pollution, land use change and spiralling emissions push us ever further beyond our planetary safe zone. With wry understatement, Steffen warned: “A continuing trajectory away from the Holocene could lead, with an uncomfortably high probability, to a very different state of the Earth system, one that is likely to be much less hospitable to the development of human societies”.

As Carl Sagan concluded: “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known”.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator
Posted in Global Warming | 3 Comments

Billionaires to the rescue? No thanks

With our billionaire overlords queueing up to be the first into space or to colonise some real estate on Mars, I thought it was an opportune moment to file a piece in the Business Post taking a cold look at the phenomenon that a diet of movies has prepared us all for: the benign hyper-rich swooping in to save the world. After all, what could possibly go wrong? If that sounds like the ultimate fiction, then grab your popcorn and read on…

HEROES WITH super powers have long been a staple of Hollywood movies. The actual super power some, such as Iron Man and Batman, possess is extreme wealth. These billionaire playboy vigilantes aim to save the world with ingenious, expensive gadgets.

Life now appears to be imitating art with the emergence of not one but three actual billionaire would-be superheroes, this time on the most exciting quest of all: to rescue Earth from the ravages of climate chaos.

The motley cast, comprising Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Mars-bound entrepreneur Elon Musk have all pitched in some cash and pinned their reputations on finding solutions to the global climate crisis.

Gates’ recently published book, ‘How to avoid a climate disaster’ attracted massive media attention, placing the author at the centre of the global debate on possible solutions. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently added climate change as a priority to its nearly $50 billion fund.

Jeff Bezos has set up the eponymous Bezos Earth Fund, with a budget of $10 billion, which he plans to disburse on climate-related projects by 2030. He says it will support “any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.” This commitment sits a little uneasily with moves by Amazon last year to fire employees for speaking out on environmental issues.

Meanwhile, Tesla founder Elon Musk has pitched up a more modest $100 million to fund a competition to develop novel carbon-reduction technologies, and is a vocal supporter of a carbon tax to tackle what he calls an “unpriced externality”, i.e. the uncontrolled dumping of emissions into the atmosphere.

So, can the billionaire boys’ club really succeed on climate where even sovereign states have failed? One reason many states have struggled to respond is dwindling tax revenues due to widespread tax avoidance by the hyper-rich. Amazon filed record sales in Europe last year of €43.8 billion, but paid no corporation tax whatever on this income.

A 2019 investigation found that six Silicon Valley tech giants had collectively avoided over $100 billion in taxes, with Amazon top of the list. In the US, the share of corporate income tax as a percentage of GDP has plunged from around six per cent in 1950 to barely one per cent last year.

But surely billionaire philanthropy can at least to some extent offset their reluctance to contribute to the general tax funding that allows governments pay for schools, healthcare, public services, libraries, policing and infrastructure? The best advice here may be to beware of geeks bearing gifts.

In her book ‘No such thing as a free gift’, author Linsey McGoey uses the term ‘philanthrocapitalism’ to describe the core motivation at play. “The new philanthropists are increasingly proud, triumphant even, about the private economic fortunes to be made through embracing philanthrocapitalism. Not only is it no longer necessary to ‘disguise’ or minimise self-interest; self-interest is championed as the best rationale for helping others”, according to McGoey.

Aside from motivation, there is also the key issue of competence. Bill Gates admits he only twigged climate change as an issue in 2006. He is not a climate expert, in any sense of the word, and specialists have questioned many of the ‘solutions’ he promotes.

Gates places most of his hopes in gee-whizz future techno-fixes, including entirely untested and potentially cataclysmic global geoengineering projects, while being oddly dismissive both of renewable energy and of the impact of climate activists like Greta Thunberg in drawing attention to the crisis.

Gates admits to having no political solution to climate change, a stance ridiculed by prominent climatologist Prof Michael Mann. He wrote of Gates: “the politics are the problem, buddy. If you don’t have a prescription of how to solve that, then you don’t have a solution.”

Irrespective of their particular pet technologies, what all the new billionaire climate advocates have in common is their staunch defence of the status quo – a world of extremes, where the 26 richest people own as many assets as the 3.8 billion comprising the poorer half of the global population.

And over the last year, as the number living in poverty doubled to over 500 million worldwide due to the covid pandemic, the wealth of the world’s 2,365 billionaires ballooned by an astonishing $4 trillion, or 54 per cent.

The notion that billionaires can, without dismantling the rigged system that allows them to vacuum up an ever increasing share of the world’s wealth and resources, lead us towards climate salvation is further challenged by the fact that the richest one per cent of the world’s population produce more carbon emissions than the poorest 50 per cent.

Over the last quarter century, emissions from the wealthy elites have increased at three times the rate of the world’s poorest. As influential economist Thomas Piketty noted: “A drastic reduction in the purchasing power of the richest would in itself have a substantial impact on the reduction of emissions at global level.”

The philanthropic forays of the world’s super-rich have also proved useful in laundering their reputations. In the 1990s, Bill Gates was widely portrayed as an evil tech villain and monopolist. His Gates Foundation has since disbursed some $250 million in grants to a wide range of media outlets.

According to investigative reporter Tim Schwab, the Gates Foundation “has long used its charitable giving to shape the public discourse on everything from global health to education to agriculture”. And, more recently, climate change.

“Insofar as journalists are supposed to scrutinize wealth and power, Gates should probably be one of the most investigated people on earth – not the most admired”, Schwab added.

The apparent philanthropic largesse of Bezos, Gates et al. may serve to discourage media and environmental NGO beneficiaries from asking awkward questions about gross inequality and its oversized role in fuelling the climate crisis.

As public trust in both politics and society itself falters, it is perhaps no surprise to see the rise of the cult of charismatic billionaires whose genius, pluck and benevolence will magically solve our greatest crises, as corrupt politicians bicker and dither. This beguilingly attractive idea is in reality the ultimate fiction.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
Posted in Economics, Media | Leave a comment

A safer future for all means a better future for most

This article appeared in the Irish Times in early May, based around an intriguing paper published in the journal ‘Global Environmental Change’, titled “Providing decent living with minimum energy: A global scenario”. As the abstract begins: “It is increasingly clear that averting ecological breakdown will require drastic changes to contemporary human society and the global economy embedded within it”, it qualifies this by noting that today, despite humanity gorging on stupendous amounts of energy, the basic material needs of billions of people are still not being met. This, as you might suspect, is leading the authors towards the inevitable conclusion that without addressing gross inequality, we are not going to make any real progress grappling with the climate and biodiversity crises either. 

MORE THAN any other single factor, the defining characteristic of the modern era has been humanity’s use of cheap, plentiful energy. In the 20th century alone, humans deployed more energy than in all 20 previous centuries – combined.

This trend has continued to accelerate into the first two decades of the 21st century, pandemic notwithstanding, and shows little sign of levelling off, let alone reversing. The dominant form of energy during this period has been via fossil fuel burning, and this is in turn is fuelling dangerous levels of disruption to the global climate system.

While today’s levels of global energy usage are already altering the fundamental chemistry of the atmosphere and placing extreme pressures on the biosphere, the International Energy Agency projects that by 2050, world energy consumption will have increased by around 50 per cent.

Some 17 per cent of total global energy use currently comes from renewables. Even allowing for rapid ongoing adaption of clean energy, it appears implausible that such ongoing increases in energy – and resource – consumption could occur without triggering catastrophic destabilisation of our planetary life support systems.

Yet, despite our staggeringly high energy usage, the fact remains that “the basic material needs of billions of people across the planet remain unmet”, according to a recently published research paper titled ‘Providing decent living with minimum energy: A global scenario.’

The authors set out to see if the basic needs of a burgeoning global population could, at least in theory, be met by mid-century while averting widespread ecological breakdown. Their findings were unexpectedly upbeat.

Nor is this a purely academic exercise. After all, if there appears to be no possible alternative to the current growth-based system, it will almost certainly continue, despite the evident and escalating risks.

World population reached three billion in 1960; by 2050 it will likely have at least trebled, to around 9-10 billion. Despite this dramatic population growth, the paper argues that by 2050, “global energy use could be reduced to 1960 levels” while still providing a decent basic standard of living for every person on Earth.

This dramatic reduction would require a combination of advanced technologies and sharp reductions in energy demand to what it calls “sufficiency levels”, but the authors are adamant that “sufficiency” is far less austere than people assume. In fact, for the bulk of humanity, it would mean tangible improvements to their real living standards, such is the extreme level of global resource and income inequality today.

The research calculated the minimum energy needed to provide all basic needs, from adequate heating and cooling to nutrition, education, healthcare and access to information technology.

“Our intention is to imagine a world that is fundamentally transformed, where state-of-the-art technologies merge with drastic changes in demand to bring energy (and material) consumption as low as possible, while providing decent material conditions and basic services for all”, the authors state. Only through such a radical transformation, they add, can human needs be met within critical planetary boundaries.

At present, those daring to suggest alternatives to our current model of constant economic growth or promoting steady-state economics are likely to be dismissed as new age cultists or “degrowth fetishists” trying to make everyone poor.

The new study, according to lead author, Joel Millward-Hopkins of the University of Leeds, “offers a response to the clichéd populist objection that environmentalists are proposing that we return to living in caves.”

The paper points out that “inequality and especially affluence, are now widely recognised as core drivers of environmental damage.” Consider that in the year since the covid-19 pandemic began, the collective wealth of the world’s billionaires has ballooned by some $3.9 trillion, while hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people were plunged deeper into poverty and financial insecurity as a result of the pandemic.

This further debunks the concept known as trickle-down economics, the notion that tax breaks for the wealthy would somehow flow towards wider society. Resources are instead being rapidly siphoned upwards towards the already wealthy and economically powerful.

The paper points out that current levels of energy usage “underpin numerous existential crises, resource scarcity and the geopolitical instabilities these issues can catalyse, especially in a growth-dependent global economy”. While there have been significant improvements in energy efficiency, these have “largely served to boost productivity and enable further growth”.

Crucially, beyond a certain point, increases in energy use in a given society deliver little or no additional benefits to that society. The study envisages, with the aid of technologies, radical demand-side transformations that largely eliminate excessive consumption and focuses available resources instead on providing the conditions required for flourishing. These include basic physical health and safety, access to clean air and safe water, good quality (largely plant-based) nutrition, and the opportunity for social and political participation.

Resolving the paradox of how to satisfy the needs of all while using far less energy and fewer resources depends on sharp global reductions in meat-eating, down by some 85 per cent in rich countries. A massive expansion of public transport globally would greatly reduce energy and emissions while allowing people to meet their transport needs without the expense of owning and running resource-intensive private cars.

Globally, much of the existing housing stock needs to be replaced over time with modern buildings with very low heating and cooling energy requirements. This would be another vital step in achieving decent living conditions with far less energy than at present.

The paper is “a great contribution that offers a fresh perspective”, according to Brian Ó Gallachóir, professor of energy engineering at UCC. “Rather than emissions per se, it looks at primary energy; as a thought piece around energy justice and citizenship, it has an interesting focus on individuals as agents, not just consumers.”

Ó Gallachóir also finds the timing of the study propitious. “We have just come through a year where things have happened that just 12 months ago seemed totally unachievable. Through the pandemic, we have tended to listen to science, and find political consensus”, factors he feels will be equally necessary in facing the coming global climate and energy crunch.

The new study admits to having deliberately avoided what is likely the most problematic issue: how to we move from a world riven by vast inequalities, excessive and wasteful energy usage and prodigal overconsumption of finite resources to a utopian model where “decent living standards are provided universally and efficiently?”

The authors dismiss what they term incrementalism, as seen in concepts such as ‘green growth’ and ethical consumerism, which they see as little more than rebranding of the very economic system that is driving the ecological crisis.

The notions of sufficiency and economic equality underpinning their modelling are, they concede, incompatible with current economic norms, “where unemployment and vast inequalities are systemic requirements, waste is often considered economically efficient and the indefinite pursuit of economic growth is necessary for political and economic stability.”

Today’s 17 per cent share of renewable energy is around half of what the study estimates is needed to ensure universal ‘decent living standards’ by 2050, and the renewables sector will almost certainly have doubled by mid-century.

This means that, at least in theory, the total replacement of fossil fuels can be achieved without plunging the world into poverty and chaos. While this would entail heavily clipping the wings of the world’s most profligate economic high flyers, that may in time be seen as a small price to pay for a habitable future for all.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and co-author of the Routledge International Handbook of Environmental Journalism

Posted in Energy, Global Warming, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Do we care enough about nature to bother saving it?

This piece ran in the Business Post in early May, inspired at least in part by the devastating fires that swept many of Ireland’s uplands yet again this Spring, an annual ritual, it seems, that comes around with depressing regularity, and for whom no one is ever truly held to account.

YOU WON’T save what you don’t love. In the world of conservation, activists and scientists have long struggled to engage the public emotionally with efforts to prevent the destruction of the seemingly remote natural world. This is likely why, for instance, the World Wildlife Fund uses the cuddly Panda as its symbol.

Similarly, the plight of dolphins, polar bears and other so-called charismatic megafauna are often highlighted to try to tug on the public’s heart-strings. Who could forget the images of terrified koalas fleeing the Australian wildfires in 2020?

To most people in Ireland, our contact with wildlife is sporadic at best and restricted to the odd sighting of an urban fox or a buzzard overhead.

Notwithstanding this apparent disconnect, there was widespread shock in recent days as fires raged across uplands from Cork and Kerry to as far north as the Mourne mountains. In the case of the Killarney national park, up to 3,000 hectares have been affected, which is around half the entire area of the park.

Killarney national park generates around €400 million in tourism revenues for the region annually, and this has now been put in jeopardy by what appear to be deliberate fires started by landowners seeking an easy way of clearing scrubland for grazing – a recurring pattern of behaviour routinely defended by farm organisations as ‘best practice.’

According to nature and wildlife film-maker, Colin Stafford-Johnson, “we have wrecked this island – a lot of it is now an ecological desert.” He feels that while we as individuals love nature, “as a country, we don’t value it at all”, he told me.

He recalls recently driving past a spot in Mayo where this time last year, Yellowhammers were nesting. He was shocked to see the local authority had destroyed the hedgerow. “I’m sure this wasn’t malicious, it’s just they and so many other people have no sense of nature, no feel for it.”

As for Ireland’s ‘green’ reputation, he noted wryly: “It’s factory green; the reason Irish fields are so green is because we throw so much fertilizer on them…don’t sell me the idea that we’re working with nature.”

While Stafford-Johnson has produced nature documentaries for both the BBC and RTÉ focusing on the wild flora and fauna of Ireland, in reality such programmes are now vanishingly rare.

Agriculture and food journalist, Ella McSweeney believes Irish people do care deeply about nature, but feels the real issue is why it gets so little media space. “We need a massive increase in coverage of what is happening to the life around us and how we are managing the land”.

From the 1960s, RTÉ was producing and broadcasting regular high quality nature programming, most notably ‘Amuigh Faoin Spéir (Out Under the Sky) and ‘To the Waters and the Wild’ and their presenters, Éamon de Buitléar and Dutch-born Gerrit van Gelderen, were household names.

These programmes introduced many people, including this writer, to the wonders and mysteries of Ireland’s rich natural heritage. These shows had largely disappeared from RTÉ by the early 1990s, so a whole generation has grown up without any such window into our natural world. On RTÉ radio, the excellent ‘Mooney Goes Wild’ remains popular, but lacks the kind of society-wide impact that only television can deliver.

Speaking on the Late Late Show in 2001, the late de Buitléar said we Irish are “terribly careless about the environment.” He warned presciently of the ecological pressures of livestock agriculture, adding: “we’re having terrible problems with (live)stock on land, we have problems with spreading slurry on land, because at times, the land just cannot take it.” He added that as Ireland’s weather is projected to get wetter overall, this problem would only intensify.

Formal recognition of the crisis came when the Oireachtas declared a ‘Biodiversity Emergency’ in 2019. “There is no real appreciation of the scale of the problem, it’s still not coming home to people that it’s happening here, in their own locality,” according to Liam Lysaght, director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre.

He believes there is “a dearth of farm-gate advice on biodiversity,” adding that our agricultural colleges do not appear to mention it even in passing to students.

This situation has doubtless been worsened by the cynical framing by some politicians of even the mildest environmental protections as being somehow driven by an irrational urban elite and ‘anti-rural Ireland’.

The true urgency of the situation was driven home with the recent publication of a report by Birdwatch Ireland. It found one in four Irish bird species are now facing extinction, with nearly two thirds of all species rated as ‘threatened’. Ominously, the situation for bird populations has deteriorated since 2013, in parallel with rapid dairy intensification.

Pressures related to agricultural practices are growing. Over the last 50 years, pesticide use in Ireland has increased six-fold. A recent Environmental Protection Agency report noted that just 20 Irish rivers are now in “pristine” condition, compared with over 500 in the 1980s. “Ireland’s reputation as a food producer with a low environmental footprint is at risk of being irreversibly damaged”, the agency warned.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is charged with overall responsibility for managing Ireland’s national parks and for the protection of special areas of conservation, covering over 87,000 hectares.

Its Cinderella status was confirmed as its funding was slashed over the last decade, falling to just €11 million in 2017. This paltry budget meant management of our vast national parks has been woefully inadequate, with minimal detection and prosecution of arsonists.

Last October, Heritage minister, Malcolm Noonan reversed years of systemic neglect by increasing the annual budget for the NPWS to €29 million. It’s a small but significant step towards recovery.

Ironically, some of Ireland’s biggest environmental offenders are in fact state agencies, including the Office of Public Works, Coillte, the state forestry agency, and Bord Na Móna, which finally exited the peat-mining business last June, having razed much of our once biodiversity-rich peatlands.

Ecologist, Padraic Fogarty memorably described Ireland’s blighted natural environment as “a paradise waiting to happen.” That, surely, is something we can all agree on?

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
Posted in Agriculture, Biodiversity, Global Warming, Irish Focus | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Hard cheese for environment as Big Ag juggernaut steamrolls NGOs

This piece ran on in mid-April. This site has, since 2006, sought “to clear the PR pollution that is clouding the science and solutions to climate change”. And in Ireland, nowhere is this pollution more pervasive than the smog of greenwash and disinformation that shrouds the livestock sector. All that has transpired even since this story was published in April would take another, much longer, post to even begin to cover. Suffice to say it has been eye-opening; both ugly and sinister in equal measure.

Consider for a moment that the chair of the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee (and Glanbia shareholder) described An Taisce’s legal appeal as “a revolting act of treason” without even the slightest rebuke from his party colleagues or media backlash and you realise how fragile our democratic norms truly are and how easily they can be cast aside when greed and naked self-interest go unchecked. I will return to this in a future posting.

A NUMBER of senior Irish politicians and agri-industry interests are trying to block a legal challenge to a new cheese factory brought by environmentalists over concerns relating to pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Politicians and industry figures are applying sustained public and political pressure to have the appeal dropped, despite the High Court having approved the legal challenge.

In response, a number of Irish and European NGOs are now speaking out at what they call a campaign of “intimidation of environmental defenders”.

“I see this campaign as undermining access to justice and a warning off to anyone who dares stand up and fight for the level of transformation needed in Irish agriculture,” Attracta Uí Bhroin, environmental law officer with the Irish Environmental Network told DeSmog.

“As vice president of the European Environmental Bureau I am deeply concerned when we see attacks on access to justice rights and environmental democracy, which are essential to the protection of the environment,” Uí Bhroin added. The EEB represents some 160 member organisations in more than 35 countries.

The controversy centres around an objection by An Taisce, Ireland’s national trust, to a proposal to build a major new €140 million cheese-making facility at Belview, Co. Kilkenny, by Irish-based PLC, Glanbia, in a joint venture with Royal A-ware, a Dutch dairy processor. (Disclosure: This author, a journalist, is a volunteer member of An Taisce’s climate committee).

An Taisce, which for decades has had a legally prescribed role in the Irish planning process, objected to the fact that this plant would lead to the production of an additional 450 million litres of milk to be used in cheese production, which it argued that the national planning appeals board, An Bord Pleanála (ABP), had failed to consider.

The impact of this additional milk production is an expected 2.5 percent increase in overall national ammonia pollution, an agricultural byproduct which, when released into the air, can impact human breathing. Increased milk production will also lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions from the expansion of ruminant agriculture. Environmentalists are also concerned about the impact of additional dairy output on water catchments in the south Leinster and Munster hinterland of the proposed new plant.

The High Court last November granted An Taisce leave to mount a legal challenge to the ABP decision to allow the construction of the Belview plant to proceed. An Taisce contends that building the gouda-making facility in Ireland, rather than the Netherlands, amounts to “pollution dumping” as it seeks to bypass stricter environmental regulations being imposed by Dutch authorities.

While Ireland has allowed its dairy herd to increase by around 500,000 cows in the last five to six years, in Holland, the opposite has happened in response to the EU imposing a cap on phosphate emissions (which can result from manure production). Between 2017-2018, its overall number of dairy cows fell by 190,000, or 11 per cent.

The ABP decision has since sparked a series of verbal attacks on the environmental NGO sector generally and An Taisce in particular. It is seen as highly unusual for groups of MPs to issue joint statements on a non-political issue, but in the case of Fine Gael, four MPs and former ministers issued a joint attack on what they called the “divisive” court action against “this new exciting cheese plant”.

Former justice minister and lawyer, Charlie Flanagan, and several Fine Gael colleagues claimed An Taisce was “acting against the interests of rural Ireland” and its appeal was “vexatious”. MEP Billy Kelleher called the challenge “spurious”.

Irish Farmers Association president, Tim Cullinan, described An Taisce’s proposed legal challenge as “a vindictive court action by An Taisce [that] has impacted Glanbia’s plans”.

In a brief recent statement, An Taisce said it would, out of respect for ongoing legal proceedings, “not make any further comment on the case until the matter is decided”.

Fianna Fáil TD and chair of the parliamentary agriculture committee, Jackie Cahill, described An Taisce’s legal action as an “extremely cynical move to delay the process as much as possible”.

Cahill is also a dairy farmer and a board member of Centenary Thurles Co-Op, which is a corporate member of Glanbia. His party leader, Irish prime minister Micheál Martin stated: “There is a growing sense that the judicial review is becoming a new mechanism to frustrate and delay projects hoping that they may not develop”.

On top of all this, during a recent online Dairy Forum, Glanbia Ireland CEO Jim Bergin reportedly slammed government funding of environmental NGOs, including An Taisce. According to the Farming Independent, Bergin “attacked the Greens and Minister Ryan on the €1.8m in funding that went to environmental NGOs this year.”

In context, total state support for environmental NGOs is around 0.1 percent of state and EU funding for Ireland’s agricultural sector. The EU’s CAP Basic Payment scheme pays Irish farmers some €1.2 billion a year, with additional EU and national payments, supports, and subsidies bringing the sector’s total annual subsidy support to around €2 billion.

Pádraic Fogarty, campaign officer with the Irish Wildlife Trust, denounced the latest attack on Ireland’s environmental NGO sector. He described it as “a disgraceful pile-on, with politicians, including the Taoiseach, potentially trying to interfere with the planning process”.

This process, Fogarty added, is “to serve the wider public good, it’s not there to serve sectoral interests”.

Fogarty identified a “long-term strategy by the agri-industrial sector to dismiss and de-legitimise professionals, such as ecologists and planners; this is all part of the artillery of denial”.

Ireland’s agri-industrial sector has been in an ongoing conflict in recent years with environmentalists, as it has pushed ahead with expansion plans for ruminant-based agriculture that are completely at odds with Ireland’s international climate obligations. The sector has also sought to downplay the likely impacts of climate change, and to dismiss the role of ruminant methane emissions.

From 2000 to 2010, Irish agricultural emissions had reduced steadily. However, this reversed with the decision to rapidly expand the dairy sector as milk quotas were lifted.

Overall agriculture sector emissions rose by 10.4 percent between 2010-2019, and now account for more than one third of Ireland’s total emissions, with further expansion planned this decade.

This industry-driven commodity production policy makes it all-but-impossible for Ireland to achieve net emissions cuts of around 50 per cent by 2030, and exposes the general taxpayer to large EU fines for non-compliance. A 2017 EU study found Irish agriculture to be the least climate-efficient in the EU.

Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency told the Department of Agriculture last year that its “green” reputation is “not supported by evidence”, adding that the intensification of its agriculture industry is also the main pressure on Ireland’s declining national water quality.

Due to the serious climate implications involved, environmental groups argue that it’s critical for legal due process to be allowed to play out.

Judicial review “is a fundamental democratic right which must be respected and enforced by all for the benefit of all. If businesses can defend their own interests, the public and non-governmental organisations should also have a say to defend the general interest,” Anne Friel, lawyer and environmental democracy lead with European NGO ClientEarth, told DeSmog.

“This is not an option but an international obligation under the Aarhus Convention that Ireland and the EU have both ratified,” said Friel. “Unfortunately, we are still fighting for this right to defend the environment.”

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and volunteer member of An Taisce’s climate committee. He is writing in a personal capacity and not on behalf of An Taisce.

Posted in Agriculture, Global Warming, Irish Focus | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Beyond denial and grief and towards solidarity on climate

This piece ran in the Business Post in late March as my take on the revised – and considerably improved – Climate Bill. Since it was written, it has become clear that the absolute maximum ambition the agri sector is even considering is a 10% emissions cut by 2030, and even that depends on largely untested technologies rather than any constraint on the key source of sectoral emissions – ruminant agriculture. This being the case, all other sectors of Ireland’s economy and society must exceed 70% cuts in the next decade so the net 51% target can be reached. 

SWISS PSYCHIATRIST Elisabeth Kubler-Ross famously developed a five-step model to describe the stages of grief. These are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While originally relating to the psychological processes around dying, her model has come to be applied to other areas where wrenching change is being contemplated.

We humans and our institutions are creatures of inertia. Change is generally resisted until the last possible moment. Ireland’s collective response to the need for drastic action to address climate change has been a textbook study in denial, anger, bargaining and at times, even depression.

This week, perhaps for the first time, we may have begun to move into the fifth and final stage of our faltering journey towards truly accepting the stark reality of a climate-altered future.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin described how Ireland would “begin the journey to net zero, by halving our emissions over the next 10 years.” Tánaiste Leo Varadkar put a positive spin on the new Climate Action Bill, talking up the economic advantages, adding that “the early movers with the most ambition will see the greatest opportunities.” The early movers have in fact long since powered ahead, while we dithered and delayed.

Take Denmark. In recent decades it has from scratch built a domestic industry in wind turbine manufacture and export that is already worth more than Ireland’s entire food and drinks sectors combined. Surging global demand for clean energy means it is future-proofed.

For Green Party leader and Climate minister, Eamon Ryan, this week’s Bill is the culmination of a tortuous 16-year journey since he first introduced a Climate Bill from the Opposition benches in November 2005.

It may have taken the shock to the political system in March 2019 of tens of thousands of climate protestors packing the streets around Leinster House for the message to finally break through. Almost exactly two years later, was the new Climate Action Bill worth the wait and, more importantly, is it fit for purpose?

For context, consider the abject failure of Ireland’s climate policies to date. The EU set us a modest target of reducing emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, versus a benchmark of 2005. What we actually achieved was, at best, around a 1 per cent cut. In a similar period, Scotland managed nearly a 50 per cent emissions reduction.

For two neighbouring countries of similar size, the difference between success and failure is down to political vision, ambition, and the courage to face down special interest groups. Powerful, well financed and media-savvy lobbyists have stymied Irish climate action at every turn, and doubtless are now sharpening their knives in a bid to neuter the new Bill.

An earlier draft of this Bill published last October resembled a colander, pitted with loopholes and fuzzy language. For instance, it stated that the State would “pursue” climate neutrality by mid-century. I may “pursue” fluency in Urdu or a desire to be a concert pianist, but am quite unlikely to achieve either.

This time, the language has been tightened. It now reads “pursue and achieve”. Of course, politicians love signing up to abstract targets set far into the future. That’s why, crucially, the Bill sets out the immediate stepping stones towards carbon neutrality in the form of two Carbon Budgets (2021-2025 and 2026-2030).

In this nine year window, Ireland is legally committing to the herculean task of cutting emissions across the board by an average of 51 per cent. “No country has ever set such an ambitious target,” according to Ryan. The task of setting these budgets is being given to the beefed up Climate Change Advisory Council, a group dominated by economists which has had little impact over the last five years. It is being reformed and expanded to include expertise in climate science and biodiversity.

While government departments will now have carbon budgets, it is less clear what happens if a given minister breaches or ignores these. “It will be politically horrible for a minister to have to say they’re failing,” according to a government source. But will that be enough?

The Bill sees Ireland transitioning to a “climate resilient, biodiversity-rich, environmentally sustainable and climate-neutral economy” by mid-century. This utopian aspiration faces some formidable hurdles, not least of which are Ireland’s dairy and beef sectors, which produce almost one third of total national emissions, while also being largely responsible for recent declines in biodiversity and water quality.

Tackling this means compelling the politically powerful agri-food sector to do their fair share on both climate mitigation and biodiversity protection. This also requires ensuring state agencies such as Teagasc and Coillte align their policies to support, not undermine, climate objectives.

While there are many technical solutions that can help us towards our near and medium-term objectives, we crucially need to inject the same level of urgency and appeal to national solidarity that has surrounded Ireland’s response to the covid crisis.

When, for instance, did you last hear or see a government advert on radio or TV explaining why climate change matters, and how we’re all in it together in the fight for a safer, more just future? Consider also that in the last 20 years, RTÉ the national broadcaster has dedicated one solitary week to the greatest crisis of the 21st century.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee report on climate change recommended that ‘climate quotas’ be imposed on all licensed broadcasters, as is the case for news and current affairs. While this is not on the table, a government source told me a proposal is being examined “to set up a long-term climate communications unit within the department”.

As with Brexit and covid communications, its task would be to drive consistent messaging and advertising to explain and support climate action, and so to help win the battle for the hearts and minds of the Irish public and to challenge misinformation.

Surveys have shown the Irish public now broadly accepts the reality of the climate crisis, yet there is little evidence of a phase-shift in our public communications. The issue is still framed as a political or ideological contest rather than our collective existential crisis.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Climate hoofprint of ruminant agriculture under spotlight

The Farming Independent sought two contrasting views on the merits or otherwise of continued expansion of Ireland’s dairy herd, so I contributed the below, wearing my hat as a volunteer member of An Taisce’s climate committee. This article was published in late February.

AT LAST, the world seems to be getting serious about tackling the climate emergency. The EU has set the ambitious goal of cutting emissions by more than half by 2030, with the upward ratchet on targets to accelerate until net zero emissions are achieved.

Hitting these targets will be tough but essential, since the certain price of failure is global climate destabilisation and the horrific social and economic consequences that will ensue.

Agriculture is the industry most exposed to climate breakdown and extreme weather, for the obvious reason that it is almost entirely weather-dependent. You would think therefore that Ireland would be working hard to reduce total agricultural emissions, rather than just tinkering with efficiency tweaks. You would be mistaken.

Take Teagasc’s 2027 dairy road map. It envisages milk output rising by around 18 per cent to 9.5 billion litres a year. That’s an increase of in our most emissions- and pollution-intensive form of agriculture, at the very time these need to be falling sharply.

Agriculture accounts for a third of Ireland’s total emissions, so if it fails to act, all other sectors must hugely over-achieve to compensate. Should we take every car off the road, ban all flights and ration home heating so the dairy sector can continue to expand with impunity?

By far the most problematic agricultural emission is methane from ruminants, despite efforts in some quarters to pretend otherwise. Agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue recently made it clear that herd expansion is incompatible with meeting our emissions targets, adding that the environmental costs of dairy expansion are being passed on to other farmers.

Teasgasc’s scientists know this too, but their organisation is directed by an 11-person Authority, of whom five, including the chairman, are dairy farmers. There are no tillage or beef farmers represented, nor anyone from the organics or environmental sectors. Does this strike you as balanced?

Today, Ireland produces the most greenhouse gas emissions per euro of food output in the entire EU. Thanks to major dairy expansion, by 2027, this is hardly going to improve.

In December, an Environmental Protection Agency report on water quality found an astonishing 33-fold increase in the number of river sites where nitrate levels have increased since 2015.

EPA director, Laura Burke last October stated that Ireland’s ‘green’ reputation is “largely not supported by evidence”, adding that livestock sector growth “is happening at the expense of the environment as witnessed by the trends in water quality, emissions and biodiversity all going in the wrong direction.”

In business, as in life, reputation is everything. Like it or not, the ecological and climate footprint of intensive livestock agriculture is now under close scrutiny.

One major farming organisation recently rejected calls for EPA pollution licensing for large dairy farms, while working to undermine essential CAP reforms aimed at funding eco schemes and boosting organic farming.

Refractory leadership like this leaves agriculture at real risk of losing public support and becoming viewed as a pariah sector. This is surely not the future most farmers want?

  • John Gibbons is volunteer PRO for An Taisce’s climate committee
Posted in Agriculture, Agriculture, Irish Focus, Pollution | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Investors running for cover as allure of fossil fuels fades

The below piece was published in the Business Post in late February. By my usual standards, this probably ranks as quite optimistic, in pitching the argument that fossil fuel, the world’s most dangerous industry, is in the process of losing its social licence. While it may be wounded, it is still massively wealthy and politically powerful, and will doubtless fight to the bitter end to maintain its hegemony in energy.

THE DECISION to rely on fossil fuels to power civilisation and expand our dominion over the planet means humanity has unwittingly struck a Faustian pact with nature. Surprisingly, we have in fact understood the broad terms of this bargain for well over a half a century. In 1965, US president Lyndon Johnson published a report that presciently examined the existential risks involved in uncontrolled fossil fuel burning.

“By the year 2000 the increase in atmospheric CO2 will be close to 25 per cent,” it found. This “may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate, and will almost certainly cause significant changes in the temperature and other properties of the stratosphere.”

Johnson’s science advisory committee recommended “economic incentives to discourage pollution”, with special taxes to be levied on major polluters. This is how clear the science was over 55 years ago.

Hopes that the trillion-dollar global energy industry would clean up its act, in line with the scientific evidence have proven groundless. For instance, in 2000, BP rebranded itself as ‘Beyond Petroleum’, in what turned out to be just a cynical PR stunt.

Climate emergency notwithstanding, the lure of easy profits has proved irresistible for the world’s fossil fuel giants, many of whom, like Saudi Aramco, are state-owned. However, after many false green dawns, revolutionary change is now finally in train, and the key driver is, improbably, the global investment community.

Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, controlling a staggering €8.7 trillion in investments recently described the “tectonic shift” now underway in the sector. “There is no company whose business model won’t be profoundly affected by the transition to a net zero economy”, Fink told investors.

BlackRock says it will dump companies that fail to commit to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Further, Fink flagged any non-compliant companies for “potential exit in our discretionary active portfolios, because we believe they would present a risk to our clients’ returns”.

BlackRock is not acting alone. A consortium of 30 of the world’s largest asset managers, controlling a combined fund of over $9 trillion, have also warned companies seeking investment that they must clean up their act on emissions or face de-funding.

“Climate change poses one of, if not the most, significant risks to the long-term profitability and sustainability of companies, including our own,” according to Anne Richards, CEO of Fidelity International.

In December, New York’s city pension fund, valued at $226 billion, announced it was dropping all fossil fuel holdings. “Investing for the low-carbon future is essential to protect the fund’s long-term value”, according to state comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli.

Partly as a result of the pandemic, 2020 was an annus horribilis for the oil giants. ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron and Conoco Phillips suffered combined losses totalling around $33 billion. The once mighty ExxonMobil suffered the further indignity of being removed last August from the Dow Jones Industrial Average basket of companies. Credit rating agency Standard & Poors last month put a list of oil giants on a “credit watch” list, meaning they face potential downgrade.

Political pressure is growing too. The new Biden administration broke decisively not just with Trump’s overt support for fossil fuels but also Obama’s “all of the above” approach to energy. “Unlike previous administrations, I don’t think the federal government should give handouts to big oil to the tune of $40 billion in fossil fuel subsidies”, Biden stated on signing an executive order on January 27th to accelerate climate action.

At EU level, foreign ministers met last month and agreed that “EU energy diplomacy will discourage all further investments into fossil fuel based energy infrastructure projects in third countries, unless fully consistent with an ambitious, clearly defined pathway towards climate neutrality.” However, critics argue that the vagueness of EU ministers’ wording leaves ample wiggle room.

Despite our very poor record on emissions reduction, Ireland is recognised as a world leader in fossil fuel divestment. In 2018, the Oireachtas passed legislation requiring the state to sell off its €8 billion in oil, coal, gas and peat investments. This year, the government has gone further, announcing a permanent ban on all new oil and gas exploration licensing, although existing licenses will be honoured, while all new petrol and diesel cars are to be banned by 2030.

Evidence that the internal combustion engine is running out of road can best be gleaned from radio ads for new cars. Despite EVs still only accounting for single digit sales, brands are scrambling to paint themselves as fully committed to clean motoring.

Globally, road transport is the single biggest market for oil, accounting for one third of all usage. Rapid electrification of both transport and home heating poses a major threat to future demand for liquid fuels, and this risk is being priced in by edgy investors.

Fossil fuels will continue for some time to be the world’s dominant energy source, helped in no small part by the estimated $5.2 trillion in annual government subsidies globally. But the world’s most dangerous industry is finally losing its social licence. Decades of oil wars, ecological disasters and funding of climate denial have left its credibility running on empty.

Now the slow shuffle of investors, insurers and politicians tip-toeing away from the crippled energy leviathans is threatening to become a stampede.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
Posted in Economics, Energy, Global Warming, Pollution | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Taking the fight to the climate inactivists

One of the most enjoyable books on my 2021 reading list to date has been climatologist, Prof Michael Mann’s latest volume, ‘The New Climate War – The Fight To Take Back Our Planet’. I’ve long been a fan of his courageous defence of climate science in the teeth of relentless political and media hostility in the US over the last two decades. I conducted a Skype interview with him in 2014 for a magazine article (the full one-hour recording is available here).

It was a real pleasure to join him for a pint of Guinness (remember pubs?) in Dublin more recently, when he was in town to present a lecture in TCD. While many scientists have been cowed into silence by the constant intimidation, the bully boys messed with the wrong man when targeting the Penn State climatologist.

He has been a fierce defender of the scientific process and the right of scientists to speak openly and honestly about their work. Along the way, Mann has had to weather eight years of the George W Bush regime’s assault on science and another four as Trump and his acolytes set about destroying our fundamental ability to trust in expertise of any kind.

This review was published in The Irish Times in late February.

THERE ARE many stand-out moments in climatologist, Michael Mann’s new book, but perhaps the most salient is a chart reproduced from a 1982 internal Exxon document.
With uncanny accuracy, the oil company’s own scientists four decades ago were able to predict the likely levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), a key greenhouse gas by 2020, as well as its extremely dangerous impact on global temperatures.

What happened next is what the author describes, with some justification, as “the most immoral act in the history of human civilization.”

Rather than raising the alarm, the fossil fuel industry sought instead to protect its profits by spreading disinformation, including funding vicious personalised attacks on individual scientists.

One of their targets was climatologist, Michael Mann. In 1999, Mann and colleagues published the now iconic ‘hockey stick’ graph, which showed how global temperatures had been cooling slowly in recent centuries, only to rise sharply as CO2 levels soared.

While most scientists are professionally diffident and avoid public controversy, the Penn State University professor is a Mann of war. “They thought I was easy prey,” he notes gleefully. While his earlier 2012 book charts in vivid detail how powerful vested interests harassed and threatened him and other colleagues in a vain attempt to silence them, Mann’s latest volume brings the story forward.

The premise for his new book is that while overt climate denial is largely a lost cause, it has instead shape-shifted. The same largely right-wing vested interests are still very much at play, Mann argues, only this time they have cunningly co-opted many of the arguments and anxieties of progressives to stymie and delay effective climate action.

This is what he calls the new front in the ongoing climate wars, being waged by those he labels the climate inactivists. Mann’s alliterative toolkit for inactivists includes disinformation, deceit, divisiveness, deflection, delay and doomism.

Watching the covid pandemic unfold was, he writes, “like watching a time lapse of the climate crisis.” Crucially, in both cases, albeit on different time scales, “the slower we are to act, the higher the cost.”

One of the most insidious shifts in climate messaging is to push all the onus onto individual actions. This effectively lets the real culprits – multinational corporations – clean off the hook. “Is behaviour-shaming the modern opiate of the climate- anxiety-stricken masses? And are the inactivists the pushers?,” Mann asks provocatively. It was, he adds, the energy firm BP that first promoted the concept of the ‘personal carbon footprint’.

Last year, it emerged that a fossil fuel interests were behind a PR campaign in the US trying to drive a racial wedge between Black Lives Matters protestors and climate activists. Mann advises readers not to let themselves “get dragged into divisive spats with those who are on the same side as you.”

Given his own pugilistic style, Mann adds: “I constantly have to remind myself of the very advice I’m giving you right now”. He also articulates the frustration felt by some scientists that they are being unfairly judged. “Many ostensible climate advocates would gladly throw us (scientists) under the bus because we’re not living our lives as off-the-grid vegan hermits.”

In war, there are casualties, including the innocent. While Mann rightly blasts delayers and cynical ‘eco-modernists’ such as Bill Gates, Bjorn Lomborg and Michael Shellenberger, some of his volleys inflict collateral damage on good faith climate allies such as George Monbiot and Prof Kevin Anderson.

Unusually, Twitter provides much of the book’s source material (Mann is a prolific user of the platform). This may explain the robust nature of many of the exchanges, especially among people supposedly on the same side of the climate argument.

Mann reserves his special scorn for defeatism. “Doomism today arguably poses a greater threat to climate action than outright denial.” That is probably a stretch. While cognisant that climate change poses grave risks to civilisation, he adds: “there is no cliff that we fall off at 1.5 or 2ºC of warming.” A better analogy, he argues, is that “we’re walking into a minefield, and the further we go, the greater the risk.”

The minefield metaphor chimes well with his war framing, but I did not find it entirely reassuring. After all, you may also be unlucky and step straight onto a mine – an outcome every bit as hazardous as tumbling off a cliff.

But his point remains valid: for as long as there is the slightest chance of avoiding an irreversible climate calamity, simply giving up is as morally indefensible as climate denial, delay or deflection. Mann’s conditional climate optimism is inspired in part by the youth climate movement. He is also adamant that the entire fossil fuel sector can be quite quickly replaced by renewables. Many energy experts might demur.

‘The New Climate Wars’ is a punchy, provocative, informed, sometimes idiosyncratic but also deeply personal take on the crisis, by a respected voice in the climate science and communications field.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

Posted in Global Warming, Media, Sceptics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

From Climate Week to ‘climate weak’, RTÉ coverage falters

Here we go again, slagging off the national broadcaster. What about the independent broadcasters, why not go after them? Well, in short, we expect more, much more, from RTÉ as our public service broadcaster, heavily subsidised by the licence fee and mandated to cover stories based on their actual importance, as opposed to their appeal to advertisers. This article, which appeared in the February 2021 edition of Village magazine, is informed by my strong desire, not to knock RTÉ, but to see it live up to its role as a truly ‘public service’ broadcaster, especially when it comes to reporting the biggest story of the 21st century. They have shown they can do it. So, what are we waiting for?

IN NOVEMBER 2019, RTÉ unveiled its first ever ‘Climate Week’, an intensive blitz of broadcasting across its TV, radio and online divisions drawing attention to the deepening climate crisis.

The station’s current affairs team swept into action, with reporters dispatched as far afield as the ice sheets of Greenland to report on all aspects of this global emergency.

Announcing the initiative, RTÉ Director General, Dee Forbes said: “The world is rising to the burning issue of climate change, and here in Ireland our young people have been especially moved by the climate crisis. This special week reflects the growing concern, globally and here at home…RTÉ On Climate is our contribution to framing, explaining and, ultimately, moving us all one step closer to solving the problem”.

Meanwhile, 15 months later, the climate emergency has measurably deepened. All 10 hottest years globally since instrumental records began in the 1880s have occurred since 2005, with last year, covid-related economic slump notwithstanding, tied with 2016 as the two hottest years ever.

Perhaps even more worryingly, upper ocean temperatures hit new record highs in 2020. The real impact of greenhouse gases (GHGs) occurs in the world’s oceans, as they absorb around 93% of the total heat trapped, with only the remaining 7% warming the atmosphere.

So, while temperatures continue to climb off the charts, Irish media coverage has yet again fallen off a cliff. And nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than in the national broadcaster, the one media outlet specifically funded to ensure it is empowered to fulfil its public service mandate to cover stories that are important, as opposed to being caught on the commercial broadcasting treadmill of constantly chasing ratings and ad revenue.

What has happened to RTÉ’s new-found commitment on covering what Dee Forbes movingly described as the ‘burning issue’ of climate change? Its ‘Climate Week’ in 2019 was replaced with Science Week 2020 featuring not a solitary mention of ‘climate’ or ‘environment’. So much for RTÉ’s fleeting commitment to “framing, explaining and solving the problem”.

RTÉ’s website has channels for Sport, Entertainment, Business, Lifestyle, Culture etc. but no discrete area for environment or climate. In order to find any climate-related content, you would have to know to use the pathway:

On arriving at this sub-section in mid-February, you find that the last story RTÉ tagged under ‘climate’ was an AFP wire-service report filed on November 4th last, announcing the US’s short-lived withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.

Prior to that, there was a piece filed nearly a month earlier, on October 7th, by Fran McNulty, reporting on motor industry complaints about proposed VTR changes designed to reward less polluting vehicles. This would, McNulty reported, “cripple the (motor) sector and cost thousands of jobs.”

What is truly startling is that, in the entirety of 2020, RTÉ tagged a total of 12 stories under ‘climate’ (including industry special pleading, as in McNulty’s piece above) for the whole of 2020. The RTÉ website does include a channel called ‘Brainstorm‘ which, oddly, is only open to academic contributors. This sub-channel does include a few interesting web-only articles of relevance (‘Human dominance of Earth has come at a steep cost to our planet‘ for example), this is a long, long way from being an integral part of the public-facing function of RTÉ, ie. its output on radio and television.

The last time RTÉ’s ‘Science and Environment’ Correspondent, George Lee, filed a report relating to climate or environment was November 25th last. Prior to that, Lee filed just a solitary article – on the Climate Bill and motor vehicles – in October and one piece in September 2020.

When I asked Lee in January what was going on, he replied that while he is still covering the Environment brief, the ‘Science’ part of his job has come to dominate. “The covid-19 science story has been the constant story throughout the pandemic”, he explained, adding that the newsdesk “has been assigning other reporters on an ongoing basis to cover the environment and climate stories…there has not been any one specified reporter covering”.

George Lee is in no way to blame for this staggering lacuna in coverage. Clearly, these key decisions are made at the highest editorial management level in the organisation. And, as 2020 has so vividly illustrated, the station’s heart simply isn’t in it.

There are of course long-running shows such as the well-regarded ‘Eco Eye’ (an independent production that is saddled with a 7-7.30pm off-peak time slot) and ‘Ear to the Ground’, a show ostensibly about agriculture but which has produced some excellent environmental coverage. These remain small oases of green in an editorial desert dominated by programmes such as ‘Pulling with my parents’, ‘Celebrity Bainisteoir’ and ‘Ireland’s fittest family’.

Addressing the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (Jocca) in January 2019, Dee Forbes stated: “The coverage of climate change, and other sustainability topics, are a matter of ongoing review in terms of our editorial activities, and we have renewed ambition in this regard for 2019”. This was duly delivered with a high-impact and critically acclaimed Climate Week in November of that year.

However, Forbes also noted that, notwithstanding RTÉ’s ability to reach a mass audience, “there is no substitute for bespoke public information campaigns… which are essential in bringing about the broad understanding critical to changing behaviour”.

This point is reiterated by the Jocca report, which urged “a significant awareness-raising programme by Government”. That report also urged a review of all primary and secondary curricula, warning that without an effective and persistent public awareness programme in place, “the necessary policy interventions may quickly become unpopular, leading to substantial challenges in implementation”.

The Jocca report noted that there was “a substantial communication effort required” if the public are to accept the need for changes to lifestyles. “It is essential to communicate why this is necessary and the ways in which it is beneficial to all of us. The inertia represented by the status quo is hard to overcome”.

Given how dependent many households and businesses are on fossil fuels, “it is clear that this is not an easy task”, the report added. What it could also have pointed out is that vested interests, from the motor industry lobbyists to livestock agriculture pressure groups, will fight tooth and nail to paint climate action, however modest or progressive, in the worst possible light.

And in many cases, they will find elements within the media more than happy to stoke up real or imaginary controversy.

While then Climate Minister, Richard Bruton promised in late 2019 that the government would design “a nationwide communications campaign early next year”, no action whatever has since been taken on this promise.

The Jocca report went so far as proposing that quotas of climate-related content be imposed on all licensed broadcasters (as currently applies for news, current affairs and the Irish language), to ensure the subject was given the consistent editorial attention that has been sorely lacking in the past.

Reviewing the testimony it had received from RTÉ, Jocca said it “remains concerned by the relative lack of climate change content and dedicated programming on RTÉ”. The committee also noted the problem of false balance “that has been a negative feature of broadcast media in many countries and specific examples in the national context were raised by members of the Committee.”

Village has previously highlighted how RTÉ’s flagship current affairs programme, PrimeTime, lurched for years from completely ignoring climate change to presenting some of the worst imaginable ‘debates’ that gave entirely unwarranted editorial credence to climate deniers and fringe contrarian scientists, presenting a faux ‘balance’ to viewers and in the process, completely misrepresenting the true state of the science.

However, rather than accept reasonable criticism of its abysmal performance, RTÉ and PrimeTime in particular, doubled down on aggressively defending the indefensible and stymied and browbeat complainants.

Going back to the heyday of Pat Kenny, who took anti-environmental contrarianism to new lows, RTÉ has had a recurring problem with its environment and climate coverage. This was studied in a 2017 EPA report by Trish Morgan which delivered a damning indictment of the station’s overall performance.

It noted that, astonishingly, the station completely neglected to treat the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports as “stories suitable for thematic coverage”. The report identified a key deficiency in RTÉ’s coverage being that the station was operating without an environment correspondent for much of the timeframe of release of the IPCC’s 5thAssessment Report.

This was supposed to have been remedied by the appointment of George Lee, but his environment brief was initially paired with agriculture, leaving Lee in an impossible poacher-cum-gamekeeper conundrum. This was, after several years, updated to pair environment with science.

This too crumbled as soon as covid-19 arrived, and RTÉ senior management decided to jettison their short-lived climate crusade in favour of obsessive, wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic.

That the coronavirus pandemic is a huge story is not in doubt. What is far more questionable is when a public service broadcaster abdicates its duty to cover equally important topics in favour of slavish, highly repetitive around-the-clock coverage of the pandemic while completely abandoning climate and environmental reportage.

The fact that covid has its roots in environmental destruction and has likely been at least in part fuelled by disruption to animal habitats arising from climate change has gone largely unreported in Montrose, since there is literally no one responsible for joining the dots.

Today, despite the Green Party being part of government, there is still no indication in the recently published Climate Action Bill that any of the steps recommended either by the Citizens’ Assembly or Jocca have been taken or are even contemplated to copper-fasten climate awareness.

The purpose of such safeguards is to ensure that, in the stampede to cover the most topical stories, profoundly important topics are not pushed aside. The understandable media focus since March 2020 on covid-19 has drained media coverage in general and RTÉ’s output in particular of climate content.

Ignoring the unfolding climate and biodiversity emergencies while focusing solely on the Covid-19 crisis is a literal case of failing to see the wood for the trees.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator
Posted in Irish Focus, Media | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Global food system hurts people, crushes nature

It’s hard to keep being shocked or even surprised at the litany of reports on the dire condition of our biosphere, but the recent Chatham House study on biodiversity is still an eye-opener. Politicians often claim their job is to keep food cheap, irrespective of the toll it may inflict on human and planetary health. This is countered by Prof Tim Benton of Chatham House, who retorted: “We must stop arguing that we have to subsidise the food system in the name of the poor and instead deal with the poor by bringing them out of poverty.” The article below ran in the latest edition of the Sunday Times‘ Climate supplement.

WITHOUT EVER intending it, humanity has gone to war on the natural world. Worse, we are winning this war, and in the process, in real danger of crippling the very biosphere which sustains all life on Earth.

In Ireland and across the world, biodiversity loss is accelerating. According to a recent report published by the Chatham House think tank, the global extinction rate is orders of magnitude higher than at any time in the last 10 million years.

The global food system is the main driver of this trend, the Chatham House report concluded. It pointed out that over the last 50 years or so, wildlife habitats and entire ecosystems have been destroyed at an ever increasing rate to clear land for agriculture.

Of the 28,000 or so species currently known to be at risk of extinction, some 86 per cent are primarily threatened by agriculture. Our efforts to feed a burgeoning human population approaching eight billion are taking an ever graver toll on nature. This is not, however, inevitable.

In total, around four fifths of the world’s farmland is used for animal agriculture, either to graze them directly, or to produce vast quantities of fodder for housed animals. Yet, the animals only provide around 18 per cent of the calories eaten by humans.

Eating food directly, such as bread, vegetables, nuts or fruit is vastly more efficient in terms of resources used than consuming animals and animal products.

Farmed animals now comprise around 60 per cent of the Earth’s mammals by weight, with humans accounting for another 36 per cent. That means that, by weight, just four per cent of the world’s mammals are wild. So-called cheap food comes with a high ecological price tag.

While the number of wild animals and insects is in freefall, it is estimated that there are now around 70 billion farmed animals in the world. These, along with billions of humans, all require food, fresh water and other resources. These are being consumed at a far faster rate than the natural world can provide.

By depleting biodiversity and crippling ecosystems, humanity is also putting its own survival at risk, the report added. However, while dire, the situation is far from hopeless. The first critical step is to shift human diets to be largely based on plants, rather than farmed animals.

A shift of this kind would also benefit the dietary health of populations around the world, and, crucially, reduce the risk of future devastating pandemics. The new report follows a similar study by the influential Lancet EAT Commission in 2019. It recommended a drastic 90 per cent cut in meat and dairy consumption if we are to avoid dangerous climate change and protect biodiversity.

Intensive food production systems in Ireland and around the world involve the heavy use of chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, and are often monocultures. Ireland’s famously green fields are not what they seem. Most are now largely biodiversity deserts, as they typically consist of a single species of ryegrass for livestock fodder and depend on chemicals.

Up until relatively recently, many Irish farmlands were havens of biodiversity, with meadows in particular supporting a wide range of wildlife, grasses and flowers. However, as agricultural practices intensified, this led to drainage of wetlands and clearing of ‘marginal’ lands. As a result, farmland birds such as the corncrake have virtually disappeared.

According to Birdwatch Ireland, many wild animals in Ireland are now facing extinction, with birds particularly hard hit. Shockingly, some 40 per cent of waterbirds have disappeared in just the last 20 years.

Organic farming, which involves food production without artificial fertilizers or pesticides, allows nature to exist in harmony with agriculture. Recognising the crucial importance of this, the EU recently published its ‘Farm To Fork’strategy, which aims to see one quarter of Europe’s farmland managed organically by 2030, with ambitious targets on cutting the use of chemical inputs.

Ireland, despite trading heavily on its ‘green’ reputation for food production, has barely two per cent of its land farmed organically. It would require a revolutionary shift for our systems and attitudes to both farming and nature to see Ireland come into line with the new EU targets.

Today, barely a quarter of the world’s agricultural land is used for growing crops for human consumption, yet this land produces the vast majority of the global calorie supply. Sharply reducing the number of farm animals would reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also freeing up millions of hectares for crucial rewilding, to allow the natural world the space to begin to recover and regenerate.

It could also help arrest and reverse the ongoing clearance of rainforests, which is having a catastrophic impact on vital ecosystems which are being razed to clear land for meat production.

Agriculture made modern civilisation possible. Ironically, our runaway intensive agricultural systems, left unchecked, risk destroying the very natural world upon which we all ultimately depend.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
Posted in Agriculture, Biodiversity, Global Warming, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Could global warming trigger deadly new ozone crisis?

It’s an extraordinary privilege to inhabit the only known oasis of abundant complex life in the galaxy. We know from paleoclimatology that life on Earth has ebbed and flowed over the ages, including surviving five epic global mass extinction events. We also know that we have stumbled into the Sixth Extinction, this one primarily driven by the actions of a solitary species. The article below, which ran in late January on the Irish Times’ science page, looks back into deep time at new research which carries a warning for the 21st century.

NOTHING HAS so dramatically reconfigured the history of life on Earth as the epic mass extinction events that punctuate the fossil record stretching back at least half a billion years.

One such episode, known as the end-Devonian mass extinction (or Hangenberg Crisis), occurred 359 million years ago, and as many as 75 per cent of species disappeared during this tumultuous period.

While the exact trigger of this mass extinction event has been long debated, what is beyond dispute is that it involved a sudden and catastrophic depletion in the global ozone layer. One theory published last Septemberin the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences proposed that the effects of deadly cosmic rays from a Supernova explosion led to the destruction of the ozone layer. Its conclusions, however, remain speculative.

A paper published earlier last year in the journal Science Advances presents a more compelling and altogether more worrying scenario. According to this study, the end-Devonian extinction event was preceded by a period of major climatic warming, and it was this warming spike, not volcanic activity or cosmic rays, that led directly to massive ozone depletion and a subsequent spike in deadly UV-B radiation reaching the Earth’s surface and even penetrating into shallower ocean waters.

Lead author on the study, Dr John Marshall, Professor of Earth Science at the University of Southampton was excited and alarmed in equal measure by the implications of the research. “There was a lot of push-back on our study when it was first published; obviously, we’re saying something quite big here,” he told the Irish Times.

“I felt like we had suddenly tumbled into a big secret in knowing how the world works, so I was actually slightly more careful crossing the road, because we wanted to communicate it.” The bombshell finding in Dr Marshall’s research is that while ozone depletion was the end-Devonian “kill mechanism,” the trigger was primed by rapid global warming.

The implications are stark, given that the Earth today is heating rapidly. “We’re now in this rate of fast warming, so you should be alarmed now – it’s a decadal problem, not a thousand-year problem, because the speed of warming is like nothing else the planet has seen,” said Dr Marshall.

He noted that during Earth’s last mass extinction event some 55 million years ago, known as the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, rates of warming were 100 times slower than today’s human-induced climate shift.

Dr Marshall’s research team gathered rock samples from the mountainous polar regions in east Greenland, an area that was once an ancient lake bed in the Earth’s southern hemisphere. The team also collected samples in Bolivia, which would have been located close to today’s South Pole during the Devonian period.

On analysing the samples, they discovered microscopic plant spores right along the end-Devonian period showing clear evidence of ultraviolet radiation damage at the DNA level. Some of the spores were also found to have developed dark pigmented walls, as an apparent attempt to develop a protective ‘tan’ against extremely high levels of UV radiation.

The question remained as to how exactly a spike in global warming, in the absence of a massive volcanic event, could lead to the virtual obliteration of the global ozone layer? This puzzle may have been solved by earlier research published by Dr James Anderson and colleagues in a paper in Science which noted the ‘increased risk of ozone loss from convectively injected water vapour’. This research, mainly carried out over the continental US, identified water vapour that that been convectively injected deep into the stratosphere.

This, they noted, ‘can fundamentally change the catalytic chlorine/bromine free-radical chemistry of the lower stratosphere’ by transporting ozone-destroying substances such as chlorine high into the stratosphere. ‘This chemical shift markedly affects total ozone loss rates and makes the catalytic system extraordinarily sensitive to convective injection into the mid-latitude lower stratosphere in summer’, the paper observed.

The research concluded that if the intensity and frequency of convective injection were to increase as a result of climate forcing by the continued addition of CO2 and methane to the atmosphere, ‘increased risk of ozone loss and associated increases in ultraviolet dosage would follow.’

Such ozone depletion is already being recorded over the US as a result of the rapidly warming atmosphere, which is fuelling increased storminess and higher levels of atmospheric water vapour and provides the energy to sweep terrestrial elements all the way into the stratosphere.

Ironically, the history of how the Earth’s ozone layer was inadvertently damaged during the 20th century by the widespread use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and how the international scientific and political establishment rallied to avert the danger is one of the great success stories of the modern era. It is often cited as an example of the kind of decisive science-led political action now sorely absent when it comes to tackling the global greenhouse gas emissions crisis.

Although apparently safe and inert, CFCs were widely used in fridges, air conditioning units and as a propellant in aerosol cans. Scientists Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work in showing how the ozone layer was the Achilles heel of the biosphere, and just how vulnerable it was to anthropogenic emissions of key chemicals which would eventually drift into the stratosphere, with potentially grave consequences for the ozone shield.

Their theoretical work in the 1970s was vindicated in the most dramatic fashion when, in 1985, the British Antarctic Survey reported drastic depletion of the ozone layer, the so-called ozone hole. Public alarm led to intense political action, culminating just two years later with the United Nations developing the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which was ratified by almost 200 nations. This led to the rapid phasing out of the most destructive ozone-destroying gases. Disaster had been narrowly averted.

Now, it seems the spectre of dangerous global ozone depletion may have returned. It is known that stratospheric ozone was also virtually obliterated during the end-Permian mass extinction event (or the Great Dying, as it is known) some 252 million years ago. In that instance, ozone was destroyed as a result of the emission of huge quantities of hydrothermal organohalogens following a prolonged period of massive volcanic activity.

What makes the ozone loss as a trigger for the end-Devonian mass extinction of pressing scientific concern is that it appears to have been precipitated by rapid global warming with clear analogues to the present day.

“Ozone loss during rapid warming is an inherent Earth system process, with the unavoidable conclusion that we should be alert for such an eventuality in the future warming world”, Dr Marshall’s research paper concluded.

Among the biggest evolutionary losers in the end-Devonian die-off, which involved two discrete extinction pulses separated by around 300,000 years, were armoured fish, while sharks survived. Other casualties were ancient tetrapods with seven or eight digits per limb. Once this extinction period ended, the dominant number of digits became five. “It completely changes the terrestrial trajectory of life”, according to Dr Marshall.

The hypothesis presented by this new research remains to be definitively proven or rejected. The fact that the period in question is more than a third of a billion years ago further complicates matters. While crucial to life on Earth, stratospheric ozone is surprisingly fickle, according to Dr Marshall.

He hopes that, in time, researchers will have pieced together a definitive ‘ozone history’ of Earth. His more urgent concern is his ozone hypothesis does not become a deadly reality in the coming decades.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and co-author of the Routledge International Handbook of Environmental Journalism
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