It’s a Vision thing

Last week the Visions 2100 international roadshow came to Dublin. I first encountered it, driven by the irrepressible John O’Brien, as a side event at last December’s COP21 conference, where, as one of 80 contributors to the book from around the world, I attended and spoke at the Paris launch (click here for a backgrounder piece I wrote at the time).

The venue for last week’s event was the newly refurbished Great Hall in Tailors Hall, Christchurch, home of An Taisce. The hall was packed out for the event, with standing room only. Speakers included former communications minister, Alex White, Dr Cara Augustenborg of UCD, Aideen O’Hora of Sustainable Nation and myself.

Climate committee chair, Phil Kearney welcomed the launch on behalf of An Taisce. Cara’s account of the meeting is here, and there’s another report by sustainability blogger, Aideen O’Dochartaigh here.

Since there are ample meeting reports above, I’ve added a video recording I made of the event below, for anyone who might be interested in catching up.

For the record, below is my ‘vision’ for the world in 2100, as published in John O’Brien’s book. Some would call it dystopian, but as was pointed out at the meeting, my estimate of there still being 50 million humans alive in 2100 is exactly one million times more optimistic than the lowest estimate in the book!

“First, the good news. Against the odds, we made it to 2100. Only fifty years ago it looked like it was game over for homo sapiens. It sounds crazy now, but back in my grandparents’ time they really did carry on for a while like there was no tomorrow: tearing down rainforests, flattening mountains, poisoning the seas, waging war on nature – all in pursuit of this strange idea they called ‘growth’.

There aren’t that many books now, but our teachers describe the Age of Madness, as it’s called, when the scientific community repeatedly warned that Earth systems were in extreme danger. But nobody listened, and few chose to act.

How could this have happened? Everyone, it seems, was competing with everyone else for money, resources, status. No one seemed to notice that this spree couldn’t last forever. Even the revelation back in 2015 that half of all the world’s wild animals had been wiped out failed to ring the alarm bells. And as for all the warnings about climate change, they always seemed to be about someone else, or some time in the future…

Well, that future is now. This generation has learned the hard lesson of hubris – and humility. There’s barely fifty million of us now globally. Life is tough, but we’re managing. This time, we’re keeping it simple. They say the Earth is healing, maybe they’re right. Maybe we can at last live in a world where, in the words of the poet Seamus Heaney, “hope and history rhyme”.

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Flights of folly at Dublin airport

Fallout from the recent Brexit vote may prove something of a gift for the Dublin Airport Authority’s (DAA) ambitious plan to have a second runway built and ready for business by 2020.

The huge cloud of economic uncertainty now parked over Britain may put the kibosh on its own 2015 Airport Commission recommendation for a third runway at Heathrow, at the eye-watering cost of almost €23 billion. The fact that Boris Johnson fiercely opposes the Heathrow expansion plan hardly increases its chances of success.

Another heavy hitter against the Heathrow plan (on cost grounds) is Willie Walsh’s IAG, owners of Aer Lingus. One of the reasons IAG splashed out for Ireland’s national carrier was to access Dublin as a cheaper hub.

Planning permission for Dublin airport’s second runway was issued in 2007, using a land bank bought up by the DAA as far back as the 1960s. The crash of 2008 saw expansion plans mothballed. However, since 2011, passenger numbers have rebounded strongly, growing by some 35% to over 25 million in 2015.

The price tag on the Dublin airport expansion is put at €320 million, a trifling sum relative to the multi-billion euro Heathrow plan. However, the sting in the tail for the DAA is that the planning permission, from Fingal County Council, came with 31 conditions, one of which, to reduce noise impacts on local residents, severely caps the number of takeoffs or landings at both the new and existing runway between 11pm and 7am.

This presents a serious pickle for the DAA’s chief, ex-Glanbia high flier Kevin Toland, who has been brought in specifically to deliver major growth at the airport. Toland was recently quizzed by Fingal councillors, one of whom wondered if the DAA’s assumptions about future growth in aviation demand actually took account of the Paris Agreement on climate change, which has been signed up to by the DAA’s sole shareholder, the Irish state.

Toland’s stance appeared to suggest that neither he nor the Irish government are losing too much sleep over the likelihood that Ireland might actually treat its binding EU and international commitments on sharply reducing emissions in any way seriously.

Considering the government is happy to allow another state-owned company, Bord na Móna to continue wrecking Ireland’s most important natural carbon sinks until at least 2030 suggests Toland is correct in not being too concerned about his political masters actually acting on emissions reductions any time soon.

In a letter to Fingal councillor David Healy, the DAA described the conditions of use attached to their planning permission as “onerous”. New EU regulations on noise abatement came into effect in June 2016 and the DAA has made it clear it would like a more ‘flexible’ agency to be overseeing the interpretation of its planning permission than An Bord Pleanála, and has strongly hinted that unless it gets it, the second runway is off the table (an as-yet unidentified agency is being teed up for this task).

This is designed to pile political pressure on a government already sold on growth-at-all-costs, one that views regulating climate change as annoying red tape rather than critical to human safety and welfare. Ireland’s National Aviation Policy (ie. expand and grow aviation) clearly trumps the 2015 Climate Action & Low Carbon Development Act, which, in theory, binds all sectors of the Irish economy towards achieving strong, permanent cuts in carbon emissions.

Thanks to Food Harvest 2020 and FoodWise 2025, our agri sector’s emissions will continue to spiral, while the transport and energy sectors are faring little better.

The deepening climate crisis makes Ireland building massive new aviation capacity seem more an act of international sabotage than rational policy, but measured purely in terms of narrow self-interest, it’s a sure fire winner.

*The above article was recently published in a well-known satirical magazine

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An Inconvenient Truth – 10 years on, it’s truer than ever

How’s this for a deeply unpromising script idea: making a movie about a failed politician trailing around the world presenting wonkish slide shows on his laptop to mostly small audiences about, of all things, climate change?

It hardly helped that the ex-politician in question, former US vice president Al Gore was reviled across the political spectrum. Democrat supporters blamed him for gifting the White House to George W. Bush with his incompetent run and premature concession in Florida in November 2000, while Republicans hated him mostly for not being a Republican.

It might have been only a slight overstatement to call Gore a pariah in the mid-2000s. For him to then choose to relaunch into public life by campaigning on one of the few topics even more unpopular than himself seemed to underpin his tag as a serial loser.

The film that emerged from Gore’s travelling slideshow, An Inconvenient Truth, didn’t exactly blow Hollwood away either – at least not at first. Director, David Guggenheim recalled that prior to its debut at the Sundance Festival in June 2006, they brought the film reel to a major studio for a preview, which Gore attended.

“I remember listening to one of them snore, then waking up awkwardly when the lights came up”, said Guggenheim. “I saw the executives going into another room and huddling, then coming back and the head of the studio saying to us, ‘We do not believe that this will ever have a theatrical distribution. We do not believe that anyone will pay to have a babysitter come so that they can go see this movie. Stop dreaming, this movie will never have a theatrical release.”

And yet. The film became a critical success, landing two Oscars along the way and grossing over $24 million in the US, small beer by Hollywood standards, yet one of the most commercially successful documentaries of all time. More importantly, it reignited the moribund environmental movement in the US after years of Bush era denialism.

Globally, it helped redefine ‘environmentalism’ as being a far broader church than that occupied by traditional environmentalists. Along the way, it helped to squarely frame climate change as the overarching ecological – and existential – crisis of the 21st century.

Watching An Inconvenient Truth was a deeply personal, emotionally wrenching experience for many people back in 2006. I know because I was one of them. Climate change had long been lurking in the shadows of public consciousness, poorly understood, frequently misrepresented and, as an issue, desperately short of passionate, persuasive advocates.

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth”, Winston Churchill drily noted, “but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened”. My first time to stumble over the deeply inconvenient reality of climate change in a world of ever-escalating human impacts had happened in the first two or three years of the 2000s, as I began to read my way into the subject, initially as an intellectual curiosity. The more I researched, the greater grew my sense of personal unease.

Yet all around, life went on as before. Not a single person in my work, family or social circle at that time shared this growing sense of dread. It’s neither pleasant nor healthy to remain in a constant state of high anxiety, especially when all around you seem perfectly relaxed. So, despite being fairly well informed, I too began to chill, to compartmentalise my anxiety and box off my concerns.

Though unaware at the time, I was probably experiencing what psychologists call the bystander effect: surely if things were really as serious as all that, other people would be alarmed too? But they weren’t. The invisibility of the issue in the media was both baffling and oddly reassuring. If there really was a massive story here, the media would be all over it by now?

The bystander effect hobbles us in three ways: first, there is a lack of sense that it’s anyone’s job in particular to intervene, so we’re off the hook as individuals for failing to act. Second, we all engage in social referencing, subtly aligning our actions with those around us; if they aren’t bothered, why should I be? Finally, few of us are comfortable sticking our necks out, especially if the issue seems complex or contested, so we mostly stay schtum.

By mid-2006 my incessant low-level ecological panic was showing signs of finally receding. Watching An Inconvenient Truth in the cinema changed all that. It was an environmental epiphany – that electrifying moment when everything I’d been reading and trying to process emotionally for several years came crashing into focus. It was like waking from a dream into a world that looked familiar, yet felt changed, utterly and beyond recognition. I knew in that moment that the days of being an eco-bystander were over.

For me, the stand-out moment from the film was when Gore produced a chart on a giant screen tracking the uncanny lock-step relationship between CO2 levels and global temperatures stretching back through the millennia. By 2005, the year of filming, global atmospheric CO2 levels were approaching 380 ppm (parts per million), the highest level in at least 800,000 years.

In a sleek piece of visual theatre, Gore then climbed aboard a cherry-picker and began to ascend, all the while tracking the graph showing CO2 levels 50 years into a business-as-usual future as they spiralled out of sight. Allowing such a future to come to pass was, he argued, “deeply unethical”. He could have added: suicidal.

Today, more than one fifth of the way into that half-century time frame, the global CO2 figure has smashed through the 400ppm level, and continues to climb at the rate of some 3ppm every year, taking us rapidly into a completely new climatic era, the anthropocene.

“Future generations may well have occasion to ask themselves: what were our parents thinking? Why didn’t they wake up when they had a chance? We have to hear that question from them. Now”. These were the sombre remarks with which Gore concluded the film. I had a two and four year-old at home at that time, and the statement hung accusingly in the air.

They are now 11 and 13, and beginning to ask the questions I dreaded a decade ago. “How are we going to die?” my eldest child enquired, with an earnestness I found unnerving, during a recent conversation. I reassured her that while the situation is serious, there is still hope and the most important thing is to not stop trying, no matter what.

Given that, ten years later, global emissions have barely even begun to plateau, should we judge An Inconvenient Truth a failure? Certainly, if failure can be measured by the number of times Gore has been publicly accused of fronting a gigantic hoax, then yes, it’s a failure. However, I’d suggest the almost unprecedented level of hysterical vitriol Gore’s fact-laden documentary attracts indicates how close to the bone he had in fact struck. Even the comments on the Irish version of the Netflix site where the film resides are full of visceral loathing that goes far beyond any rational appraisal of the good and bad points of the film.

This is hardly accidental. The fossil fuel industry and its paid shills via countless think tanks, websites and right wing media outlets have run a frenzied counter-factual campaign featuring such sophisticated put-downs as ‘Al Gore is fat’ in a desperate attempt to sufficiently tarnish his reputation as to render An Inconvenient Truth toxic-by-association.

Though now looking ever more desperate, the campaign rumbles on to this day. A favoured ploy is to focus obsessively on a number of minor errors in the film, employing the dubious stratagem that if you can ‘prove’ that it’s not 100% accurate, then it must be 100% false.

The reputable ‘Skeptical Science’ website points out some errors in the film. Gore’s choice of mount Kilimanjaro to illustrate glacier retreat was unfortunate, but his wider point was accurate. Another forensic analysis found two notable errors and 8 smaller flaws in the film.

Compare and contrast with telegenic Danish climate denier academic, Bjorn Lomborg’s book ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’. It was similarly reviewed, and found to contain a whopping 337 errors and flaws, or 33 times more than Gore’s film and accompanying book. We all make mistakes, but when your book racks up an average of two factual distortions per page, it can begin to seem a little more than just carelessness.

There have undoubtedly been better documentaries made on climate change than An Inconvenient Truth, but none, it’s fair to say, have been as influential or as enduring.

The above article appears in the June 2016 edition of Village magazine

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Bord na Mona: of strip-mining and greenwashing

You can hardly have missed the hugely expensive PR and advertising blitz from the semi-state, Bord na Mona, whose ad agency has come up with a snazzy new campaign called ‘Naturally Driven’. They even managed to get RTE’s George Lee down to do a segment for the news to announce its new-found interest in sustainability, while Apart from its cloying 30-second TV ad, you can enjoy the full five minute corporate video here. Or, if you’d prefer to apply a ‘truth filter’, some wag has re-scripted and re-voiced a 30-second parody version here.

This multi-media campaign also included broadsheet adverts featuring a hare on it hind legs in a pristine environment of wildflowers and other native flora. The caption: ‘This land is his land. We never forget that’. The sub-text helpfully explains how ‘at Bord na Mona, we’re responsible for over 80,000 hectares of Irish landscape, and that responsibility extends to those who inhabit the land’.

Well, I can only imagine how grateful the countless million of plants and creatures, great and small, which have been ground to pulp under the wheels and tracks of Bord na Mona machines or have been slowly-but-surely doomed by the annihilation of their habitat will be to discover their tormentors are in fact really their carers and advocates.

Of all the vacuous tripe rolled out under the umbrella of ‘corporate rebranding’, this current campaign may well be the subject of doctoral theses for future academics on how senior executive in organisations, drunk on self-delusion and introspection and incapable of critical thinking, can actually sign off on material as profoundly, irredeemably dishonest as ‘Naturally Driven’.

How about this, direct from the extended video: “Today, we continue to harvest peat in a responsible manner, to help generate electricity to power Irish homes, yet at the same time we are actively contributing to ensuring Ireland meets its renewable electricity targets”. Hilariously, the ‘responsible peat harvesting’ bit is accompanied by footage of giant machinery open-cast mining peat in a barren moonscape as far as the eye can see. Japanese whaling ships are branded ‘Research Vessels’ and engage in a gigantic fraud, along with Norway and Iceland, known as ‘scientific whaling‘.

Bord na Mona is the landlubber equivalent of the scientific whaler, sweeping all life before it while insisting that it’s destroying the bogs so that it can ‘restore’ them at some future point. And, just like the whalers, they’ll tell you about all the local communities who depend on them. The reality, as set out in more detail below, is that the entire peat-for-energy racket is so hopelessly uneconomic, the ordinary electricity consumer is lumped with compulsory surcharges to prop this house of cards up.

By one calculation, the jobs of each and every employee engaged in burning peat for power production are subsidised to the tune of around €240,000 per annum. For that money up in smoke, three or four sustainable jobs with a long term future that involve neither destroying the environment nor poisoning or flooding your neighbours could be financed.

If Bord na Mona wants us to believe it is sincere about its new-found interest in sustainability, and restoring and rehabilitating peatlands, it would be a whole lot more convincing if it fessed up to the fact that the reason these once-pristine landscapes have been destroyed is because Bord na Mona destroyed them.

Its new campaign seems to position the organisation not as a prolific ecological pariah intent on redeeming itself for its atrocious ‘stewardship’ of tens of thousands of hectares of sensitive, once-ecologically rich bogs but as some disinterested party that has stumbled innocently upon degraded peatlands and is now determined to, in their own words, “create havens of natural beauty for local communities to enjoy, working responsibly with nature…etc. etc.”

Apart from taking zero responsibility for its own actions to date, Bord na Mona’s wilful intention to continue strip-mining peat for electricity production for the next 14 years makes a mockery of the formal policy of its owner, the Irish state, to rapidly and permanently decarbonise the entire economy. This places the board and management of Bord na Mona on the same moral plane as the executives in Exxon, Shell and other fossil fuel ‘producers’ who peddle excuses and talk about ‘jobs’ and repeat hollow slogans about ‘sustainability’ while the global environmental collapse they are so generously contributing towards continues to gather pace.

Below, including some edits, is the text I drafted earlier this month on behalf of An Taisce’s climate change committee in response to this campaign:


BORD na Mona’s corporate rebranding as ‘Naturally Driven’ is an exercise in cynicism. It pedals empty PR slogans in place of genuine reform of what could well be Ireland’s single dirtiest, most polluting and ecologically damaging organisation

“We suggest they drop their new ‘Naturally Driven’ slogan and replace it with the phrase ‘Profit Driven’. Then Bord Na Mona would at least be able to sell its business plan with a straight face”, according to An Taisce.

The industrial harvesting of peat is one of the least sustainable and most environmentally (un)friendly industries on the face of the planet. There is no long term future in peat and there can be no short term future in it either if we hope to prevent the devastating consequences of climate change and global biodiversity loss.

Born na Mona have effectively told us that they will stop harvesting peat when there is essentially no peat left to harvest  and through a flashy media campaign have marketed this as ‘progress’. This semi-state company continues to destroy some of Ireland’s most endangered habitats and unique cultural landscapes beyond repair. Often this is done in open breach of environmental law.

The organisation claims they have turned over a new leaf and have the best interests of local communities at heart, yet at the height of the past winter’s floods Bord na Mona continued to pump flood water off their bogs and back into the Shannon. This kept Bord na Mona’s peat dry while downstream communities bore the brunt of flood waters.

Bord na Mona bogs are also a significant source of water pollution. Communities throughout the region have seen streams that once teemed with fish reduced to dark peat-ladened mires. There is a serious health implication with this pollution in the form of THMs, which are chemicals created when peaty water is treated with chlorine. Long-term exposure to THMs can cause an increased risk of certain cancers, reproductive problems and damage to the heart, lungs, liver, kidney, and central nervous system.

Its statement that it will continue to devastate Ireland’s fragile boglands for the next 14 years to feed millions of tonnes of peat into three hopelessly inefficient, loss-making peat-fired power stations being propped up by compulsory levies on electricity bill-payers is about as far from ‘sustainable’ as it is possible to be.

Based on the current level of subsidies being paid, it is estimated that over the remaining life of these peat-fired stations, up to €1.5 billion in PSO subsidies will be handed over to keep them open. Apart from the economic madness and regional environmental degradation, destruction of our bogs is a massive contributor to Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Given our legally mandated EU commitment  to urgently decarbonise the Irish economy, there is no justification whatever for Bord na Mona, a state-controlled company, continuing a policy that completely undermines national efforts to achieve rapid reductions in dangerous greenhouse gases.

An Taisce expressed concern at Bord na Mona’s statement: “Our target to cease harvesting peat for power by 2030 is a clear destination point in our journey to sustainability”. Apart from the complete unacceptability of continuing peat harvesting for power generation for another decade and a half, nowhere in the above statement does Bord na Mona commit to exiting its equally damaging horticultural and domestic peat businesses.

“For a company engaged in the massive strip-mining of millions of tonnes of Ireland’s most fragile landscapes to boast on its website that it is becoming more ‘environmentally friendly’ by encouraging its employees to “print less, turn off lights and recycle more” strongly suggests an organisation that is in the most profound denial of the environmental consequences of its ‘core business’ and is instead engaged in an expensive greenwashing exercise.

The government need immediately to put an exit strategy in place that will bring about the cessation of peat extraction by 2020 at the very latest. We need to develop a vision that can deliver true sustainability and prosperity for communities that have been ignored for too long. This must be part of a broader government agenda for the development of rural Ireland. This is a portfolio that warrants a full Ministerial position.

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We had better hope Jim Hansen is wrong this time

Former NASA chief climatologist, Jim Hansen has an unfortunate knack of being right a lot more often than he’s wrong. And when it comes to projecting the future path of climate change, he has an equally unfortunate habit of being well ahead of the scientific posse.

Back in the sweltering summer of 1988 Hansen testified to the US Congress on climate change, a phenomenon that was, until his electrifying presentation, seen as something of a scientific curio, an issue that some distant future generation would, eventually, have to confront. Hansen confirmed that not only was it real, it was already happening. Calculations Hansen published in the late 1980s of likely future climate change track what has actually occurred with uncanny accuracy.

Fast forward to 2015, a year in which global temperatures were smashed by record margins to make it, by some distance, the hottest year ever recorded. And temperatures recorded in first two months of 2016 have been described by climate scientists as “off the charts”.

The February 2016 global temperature anomaly is +1.35C above average. It took from the beginning of the industrial revolution until October 2015 to record a +1C global temperature rise. To add another 0.35C within less than six months has left the scientific community running out of superlatives.

And now Hansen is back. He and 19 colleagues have just published a blockbuster paper in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry & Physics. While the IPCC’s assessment reports represent the conservative mainstream view of climate science, Hansen and his colleagues can be said to be at the bleeding edge.

What their research has concluded is profoundly disturbing, throwing into question almost everything we think we know about how climate change is likely to play out in the 21st century. While the IPCC plumped for a likely maximum sea level increase this century of around 1 metre, Hansen argues this may be a hopeless underestimate.

“The models that were run for the IPCC report did not include ice melt, and we also conclude that most models, ours included, have excessive small scale mixing, and that tends to limit the effect of this freshwater lens on the ocean surface from melting of Greenland and Antarctica”, Hansen told a press conference marking the launch of his paper last month.

How Hansen sees this playing out in the real world reads like apocalyptic science fiction. Instead of a slow, incremental increase in sea levels, he believes we are looking at multi-metre sea level rise in the coming decades, not centuries.

Nor will this be a gentle process: he predicts devastating superstorms quite unlike anything since the last Ice Age, and the near-shutdown of major ocean currents such as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), or the Gulf stream, that vast current of warm tropical water that keeps northwest Europe, including Ireland, from not being frozen solid for several months a year.

If this is beginning to sound familiar, you’re probably thinking of the movie ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, where abrupt climate change triggered a massive freeze in the northern hemisphere. That, of course, is purely speculative; there is already far too much excess heat in the system for the return of widespread Ice Age conditions anytime in the next hundred millennia.

What is truly alarming, according to Hansen, is that as the heat differential between the equator and the northern hemisphere increases, this is likely to fuel powerful mid-latitude storms, on a scale not endured in thousands of years.

Such storms could be powerful enough indeed to pick up massive boulders weighting thousands of tonnes and toss them hundreds of metres inland. We have clear evidence that this has happened before – and he believes it can happen again.

With severe storms battering the world’s coastal regions, compounded by rapid sea level rise, the nightmare scenario of most of the world’s great cities being lost to coastal inundation moves from being some distant spectre far beyond the year 2100 and bang smack into the middle of this century. Cork, Dublin, Galway, Belfast, Limerick, Wexford… the list goes on, and that’s just on this tiny island.

Apart from the unimaginable human misery and forced migration of millions, the economic impact is almost incalculable Most of our critical infrastructure, including all the world’s great ports and trading hubs would be lost.

Not everyone agrees. Prof Peter Thorne of NUIM was among those who reviewed Hansen’s paper, and while not ruling out worst-case scenarios, he believe publicising them may be counterproductive.

“Does this actually confuse, does it cause despair, does it help or hinder? I don’t know whether communicating something like this actually elicits a response that says: let’s do something”, added Prof Thorne.

*This  article is published in the April 2016 edition of Village magazine

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One man’s meat is another’s global ecological calamity

The article below is a referenced version of my piece that appeared in the Weekend Edition of the Irish Times on Saturday last. Writers don’t get to choose the headlines  –’Meat is madness’ – my preference would have been to emphasise the stark choice we face: unbridled meat consumption locks in climate havoc, yet compared to other swingeing lifestyle changes we face, cutting back sharply on meat is in fact among the least unpalatable. Lack of awareness that meat (especially from ruminants) is a key driver in just about every environmental crisis you can mention, is widespread. That’s what this article is really about addressing.


IRELAND HAS a serious obesity problem. By 2030, this will have spiralled into a full-blown public health emergency. World Health Organisation projections show that, on current trends, one in two Irish adults will be clinically obese within 15 years.

Ireland also finds itself among the very worst in the league table of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, where we are 45 per cent above the EU average in per capita emissions. And, despite binding international commitments to rapidly reduce this pollution, data from the Environment Protection Agency confirms our emissions, like our waistlines, are instead continuing to expand.

At first glance, there might seem little to connect GHG emissions with an obesity epidemic, but they can also be seen as two sides of the same dysfunctional coin. This is the conclusion of a major new study from researchers at Oxford University.

The current global food production and marketing system is generating a glut of cheap processed meats which are fuelling dangerous climate change while also feeding a pandemic of diet-related ill health which is costing between $700 billion and $1 trillion a year in healthcare and related costs.

If people in developed countries like Ireland and the US simply ate no more than the recommended levels of meat, some 5.1 million premature deaths could be avoided by 2050, according to the Oxford study. They further calculated that a worldwide switch to a vegetarian diet would yield 7.3 million lives saved.

While these would be welcome reductions in ill health, hospitalisation and premature death from heart disease, cancers and diabetes, the carbon dividend of such a dietary transformation is no less significant. Researchers calculated that reining in our meat consumption to the recommended levels would cut GHG emissions from agriculture by a hefty 29 per cent.

A global shift to a vegetarian diet would deliver a profound reduction in agricultural GHG emissions, slashing them by 63 per cent, while also easing a host of related chronic ecological problems, from deforestation to desertification, eutrophication and water stress.

This would have the vital co-benefit of also freeing the land available to grow food directly for humans and so reducing hunger levels among the poor.

Globally, the production of just meat and dairy products generates some 14.5 per cent of all emissions – this is greater than the output of every car, bus, lorry, train and ship in the world – combined.

The influential UK think tank, the Chatham House institute in 2014 produced a study that found low levels of awareness among the public about the true costs of their dietary choices. However, “consumers with a higher level of awareness were more likely to indicate willingness to reduce their meat and dairy consumption for climate objectives”.

Closing what they call the “awareness gap” is a vital first step. The study noted the “striking paucity of efforts” to rein in consumption. They also suggest that both governments and environmental groups have been “reluctant to pursue policies or campaigns to shift consumer behaviour”.

The reason seems to be the fear of backlash, principally from powerful vested interest groups, and in few countries is this more apparent than Ireland, where national food policy is shaped primarily by the agri-industrial lobby.

It’s worth considering what is at stake. “Without a significant reduction in global meat-eating, keeping global warming below 2˚C will be nearly impossible. Tackling unsustainable meat consumption is therefore a necessity”, the Chatham House report added.

Left unchecked, by 2050, global meat and dairy consumption will have risen by 76 per cent compared with today, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). This would represent a lethal double whammy for both human health and the biosphere.

Change in human behaviour is difficult, but not impossible, to achieve. A separate study by researchers at Reading and Oxford universities recommended taxing the ‘carbon footprint’ of foods such as beef and dairy products to reflect their true health and environmental costs.

They warned, however, of the risk of pushing the public towards sweeter dietary options that are equally unhealthy. Their solution: a CO2 tax of around €4 per tonne on high-emissions foods combined with a 20 per cent sales tax on sugary drinks. They estimated this intervention alone would reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas output by 18.5 million tonnes, while avoiding some 1,250 premature deaths annually.

The practical impact of such a tax would be to significantly push up the price of red meat, including beef and lamb, which could lead to a 20 per cent drop in consumption.

Shortly after this study was published, the UK government took the unexpected step of introducing a levy on sugary drinks. The Irish industry, backed by finance minister Michael Noonan, has been quick to decry such a move here. Taxes do work. A 10 per cent tax in Mexico on sugary drinks saw consumption fall by 12 per cent within a year.

The Irish agribusiness lobby is, unsurprisingly, fiercely opposed to levies on high carbon foods. Ireland’s national beef herd comprises over five million animals, with another 1.2 million dairy cows. The dairy sector, following the euphoria of last year’s lifting of quotas, is now in crisis as milk prices have slumped to barely the cost of production.

Dramatic expansion of Ireland’s dairy herd has run roughshod over our need to sharply cut agricultural emissions, which today count for around a third of all our GHGs. Irish taxpayers may soon be facing multi-billion euro EU fines as a result of this complete failure to manage either agriculture or transport-related emissions.

While dairy farmers struggle, the beef sector remains on life support, surviving thanks to massive EU transfers. Prof Alan Matthews of TCD quoted Teagasc figures last year confirming that, were it not for EU subsidies of around €400 per hectare, beef farming “could not continue”. If, he explained, “you were to add in the additional costs of greenhouse gases, those net margins would be even more negative”.

As a way of making food, beef production is strikingly inefficient. “Beef has one of the lowest ‘feed-to-food’ conversion efficiencies of commonly consumed foods. Only 1 per cent of gross cattle feed energy and 4 per cent of ingested protein are converted to human-edible calories and protein. As a result, beef uses more land and freshwater, and generates more GHG emissions per unit of protein than other commonly consumed food”, according to the 2016 Global Food Policy Report.

Defence of our high-emissions national agricultural policy is often based on the argument that, as a ‘food island’, we are a special case. This claim is severely dented by FAO data for 2011, which shows that Ireland is in fact a net importer of food calories – shockingly, we import food calories for 1.4 million people more than we export for. Rather than Ireland feeding the world, we’re not even feeding ourselves, according to research to be presented later this month in NUI Galway by Dr. Colin Doyle.

Shifting away from an excessively meat-based diet will directly benefit human health, while reducing hunger among the poor, easing animal welfare concerns and offering farmers a genuinely sustainable future.

High-tech alternatives, such as ‘Beyond Meat’ are fast emerging, using plant-based ingredients to closely mimic the taste, texture and smells that make meat so alluring, while trimming the health impacts and global environmental havoc our ancient carnal predilections are now wreaking.


Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Choosing to fail: Prof Kevin Anderson interviewed

Prof Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester and deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, is one of the world’s best known and most influential – and outspoken – climate specialists.

He was in Dublin for several days in early March at the invitation of An Taisce’s climate change committee (of which I’m a member), and he completed a whirlwind schedule with talks in DCU, NUIM, the RIA and the IIEA among other appointments, as well as a visit to Áras an Uachtaráin to brief President Higgins on the state of climate science.

I met him* in Dublin city centre just ahead of his final formal engagement: a lecture in the RIA on the chasm between where the physics tells us we need to be heading to avert disaster and where the timid steps proposed by our political classes are actually taking us.

As an aid to navigation, the first 10 minutes or so deal with Kevin’s observations on Ireland’s response to climate change. The next five minutes deal with the aftermath of the Paris Agreement, then he moves to address the growth paradox; then, he deals with his own decision not to fly. From there, he deals with climate sensitivity and extreme events. Next, he deals with the relative merits of carbon taxes versus rationing. From here, he examines the fitness for purpose of the neoliberal economic and political model. He also discusses the ‘new normal’ of life in a climate-changed world, where human impacts have already wrought disastrous changes to much of the natural world upon which we depend. The interview concludes by placing a moral framework on humanity’s relationship with the world. He remains deeply concerned that society, despite the overwhelming evidence of the need to act, that “we will choose to fail”.

*A full version of this interview will appear in the April edition of Village magazine


Posted in Economics, Energy, Global Warming, Sceptics | Tagged , , | 13 Comments

Election 2016: more fudge and waffle on climate change

Below, my article written for Village magazine’s post-election special issue. The election campaign was notable for the fact that environmental issues generally and climate change specifically were completely written out of the political and media script. Twenty, maybe even 10 years ago, this might have been at least understandable. But, in 2016, just weeks after the historic Paris Agreement, and after the hottest year ever recorded, it seems nothing short of delusional.


To say that environmental issues didn’t have much of an impact on Election 2016 would be a bit like observing that feminism hasn’t exactly been the defining feature of Donald Trump’s US presidential run.

The topic was completely ignored in the botched opening Leaders’ Debate on TV3, and again, on RTÉ’s seven-way debate the following week. The Green Party had fallen foul of an internal RTÉ decision to exclude it from a slot among the extended parties. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

2011-2016: five more lost years for Ireland’s climate response

Below, my article as it appears in the Election Edition of Village magazine. This was written ahead of the publication of the assorted party manifestos (these are just now starting to trickle out) but it seemed a more useful exercise to step back to looking at the 2011 FG/Labour Programme for Government and see, from the environment/climate standpoint, how they actually performed. Here’s what I concluded.


THE OUTGOING Fine Gael/Labour coalition government did manage to pull off one headline act that had eluded the previous FF/Green administration, and that was they got climate legislation, of sorts, onto the statute books for the first time ever. Continue reading

Posted in Economics, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | 5 Comments

Every sector must pull its weight on curtailing climate change

Below, my article as it appeared in today’s Irish Examiner. I wrote this piece on behalf of An Taisce, prompted by this self-serving and misleading piece by the IFA in the same paper last week. The agribusiness lobby has been working flat out to twist the outcome of the Paris Agreement into (yet another) blank cheque for industrialised food production, including of course the exporting of vast amounts of meat and dairy produce to sate the appetites of the world’s emerging middle classes.

Rather than simply serving the ‘need’ for this energy and emissions-intensive foodstuff, the Irish state is actively using all its political, commercial and marketing nous to stoke up demand for these products, at the behest of the rancher class of Irish farmer that the IFA now primarily represents, and, more particularly, the giant agrifood PLCs, such as Glanbia, Kerry and APB Foods. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Met Éireann & climate change: time to break the silence

What is it with Met Eireann and climate change? Take the below, entirely typical, recent comments from forecaster Joanna Donnelly:

“It is a global phenomenon that needs to be looked at globally over decades and not days…Our climate is changing but you could not use the weather in any one country in any one month, day or year to say that this is the evidence of climate change…Climate change is evident all over the globe all of the time”.

The above quote is from a news article in the Irish Independent, dated December 3rd last. Just four days later, the Irish Examiner carried a report headed: ‘Storm Desmond: All the evidence points to climate change, says Met Office’. The Met Office in question is of course the UK version. Its chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo had no difficulty stating the obvious, which is: “all the evidence points to climate change”. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

On the brink of history, at the edge of the abyss

News tonight from Paris is surprisingly good. The latest Draft text catches up with scientific reality in emphasising that the mythical +2C global average temperature rise is not some political bargaining chip; rather, it is the place no sane climate policy dare take us – not soon, not ever.

The critical phrase that has made it into the new draft is as follows: “Hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C, recognizing that this would significantly reduce risks and impacts of climate change”. Continue reading

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

Never mind the bullocks, Enda isn’t cowed at COP

And so, to Paris. COP21 kicked off on Monday with each of the almost 200 world leaders chipping in their opening contributions. The feeling at the last mega-COP (in Copenhagen in December 2009) was that leaders only engaged at the very end, by which time the bones of the conference had been picked clean of any meaning, leaving a hollow shell as its legacy.

Quite how many more ‘final warnings’ anyone can seriously think the global scientific establishment can issue before anyone pays heed remains unclear. What we do know is that the mood music in Paris is significantly more sombre and serious than in any of the previous 20 Conferences of the Parties since the whole UNFCCC jamboree kicked off in 1994. (a year probably best remembered for Ray Houghton’s winner against Italy in the World Cup). Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Brave new world – or dystopian wasteland? Visions from 2100

CT_tUVGUsAAIN8O.jpg-largeEver stop to ponder what kind of a world might await our
descendants by the end of this century? Irish-Australian entrepreneur and author, John O’Brien has spent more time than most gazing towards the year 2100 through the environmental prism. The fruits of his labours were published earlier this month in his book Visions 2100 – Stories From Your Future.

Visions assembled a panel of 80 environmental writers and thinkers from around the world and from a wide range of backgrounds, each of whom was asked to contribute a short précis of the kind of world they expected – or perhaps hoped – might come to pass at the beginning of the 22nd century. Continue reading

Posted in Global Warming, Media, Psychology | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

“Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”

Coalition partners Fine Gael and Labour are fast becoming the Laurel and Hardy of environmental regulation, with chaotic, contradictory and just plain wrong statements emanating from the government parties as they attempt to talk their way out of their shambolic non-position on tackling climate change.

Last week, Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes announced that ‘Ireland can meet 2020 emissions targets, according to the EU Commission’. Hayes claimed to have been told by EU Climate Commissioner Arias Canete that, allowing for flexibility mechanisms under EU rules, “Ireland is on course to meet its (2020) obligations”.

This statement may have come as a surprise to Commissioner Canete, whose actual report stated that while the EU overall would beat its 2020 emissions targets, “the report warned that Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg and Austria would miss the 2020 target”, according to Euractiv. Continue reading

Posted in Energy, Global Warming, Irish Focus, Sustainability | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments