Long day’s journey into 1.5º

Let’s get this out of the way first. On climate change, things are worse, a lot worse, than most people have been led to believe. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities”, according to the IPCC’s ‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, released in Korea earlier today.

From where we are today, 1.5°C is desperately close. Human actions have already driven up global average surface temperatures by at least 1°C, so we are already two thirds of the way to the 1.5°C ‘guard rail’ of what could in any terms be regarded as ‘safe’ temperature increases. (‘Stop Climate Chaos’ put out a good summary document early today, while GreenNews.ie also had excellent coverage).

As is becoming ever more apparent, even the amount of temperature increase already in the system is wielding dangerous outcomes in an ever more restive, supercharged global climate system. As the mercury rises, things can only get worse, and not necessarily in a linear fashion.

The IPCC report explains how net human-caused emissions of CO2 would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.

“Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” in the words of Jim Skea, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group III. He’s probably right, but it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the emissions objectives needed to make this ‘unprecedented’ situation a reality.

For starters, globally, emissions have not fallen at all since 2010, so with 2019 just around the corner, than means we have precisely 11 years to hit the IPCC’s 2030 objective of a 45% cut in CO2e emissions. In simple terms, that means every nation on Earth, starting on January 1st next, manages to cut its carbon emissions by around 4% per annum, every year until 2030.

If you think that doesn’t sound too onerous, consider that Ireland was given the (binding) EU target of achieving a 20% cut in non-traded emissions in the 15 years from 2005 to 2020; so, a much longer time frame in which to achieve a much lower rate of emissions reductions. According to the EPA, we’re on target instead to achieve “at most” a solitary 1% cut versus 2005 levels. Take the impacts of the tail end of the last recession out and the figures would have been even worse.

In an economy like ours where success is only measured in terms of expansion of economic activity, rising emissions move in lock-step with this growth, given how highly dependent our energy, transport and (in Ireland especially) agriculture sector are on highly carbon-intensive systems. Consider also the phalanx of well-funded lobbyists fighting tooth and nail to make sure the economic gravy keeps flowing in their direction.

From IBEC to the IFA, and their many international counterparts, war chests running into hundreds of millions of euros per annum are available to lobby in favour of special interests and against our shared common good. Much of this lobbying happens behind closed doors and is therefore even more pervasive and difficult to unpick.

There are nearly 2 million private cars on Ireland’s roads, powered in around 99% of cases by liquid fuels. EVs are now finally on the visible horizon, but that revolution is going to take quite some time. While renewables have made genuine inroads, our energy sector remains similarly heavily dependent on fossil fuels, from oil and gas to peat.

So, change is tough. Countries in the developing world lack the finance and in many cases are lumbered with antiquated and dirty infrastructure that make an energy transition extremely difficult to achieve quickly. Developed, prosperous countries like Ireland mainly lack political will.

Any TD, especially one operating outside of a major urban area, who dares mention carbon taxes is politically dead meat. In our multi-seat constituencies, picking TDs off, one by one, is relatively simple for lobbyists, as this amazing FG backbencher effort to thwart even the most ridiculously modest carbon taxes in the Budget shows yet again.

Fine Gael-led administrations over the last seven years have been almost comically inept on this issue. Installing a rural TD as our first ever ‘climate action’ minister showed they were not entirely lacking in a sense of humour. Denis Naughten has, as planned, floundered around ineffectually. Whatever his personal abilities or beliefs, he has been handed a no-win brief, and it shows. His toothless National Mitigation Plan has been scrapped and taken back to the drawing board.

“This Report paints in stark terms the reality of the impact of our current trajectory of global emissions and the world we will be living in later this century if our collective ambition for climate action does not increase”, Naughten said today in response to the IPCC report. He added some of his standard spiel about the billions that will flow in the coming years under the National Development Plan (NDP) towards “addressing the transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient society”.

I for one genuinely wish him well, but would be a lot more convinced if, while talking in terms of tens of billions mañana, Naughten could point in the here and now, to modest, concrete and tangible steps he and his government are taking to prepare Ireland for the greatest peacetime transition in its history. Where are the ad campaigns? Where are the billboards? Or the websites and social media campaigns explaining the stark reality of climate change and what we can do to rapidly transition our society towards a less dangerous future?

They don’t exist. What we get instead is deeply cynical glossy mega-buck ad campaigns from fully state-controlled agencies like Bord Bia (‘Origin Green’) and Bord Na Móna (‘Naturally Driven’) while other state-controlled agencies like the ESB – run by people who presumably love their kids as much as anyone – source coal from Colombia to fuel power stations that help burn down our collective future. Politicians cynically say that the reason they don’t act on climate is that they don’t hear about it on the doorsteps, yet they could, for relative peanuts, engage the public and interest groups in a national dialogue on change.

To date, Naughten’s parody of leadership has involved insisting it’s not the job of politicians to “tell people what to do”. And as Fine Gael’s recent woeful ‘Green Week’ efforts show, it’s clear that Naughten has precious little support around the Cabinet table for anything that ventures beyond facile window dressing and easy PR stunts.

The Citizens’ Assembly showed clearly that we are not simply the narrowly self-absorbed automatons the marketers and political spin doctors believe we are. Given the plain facts, guided by experts, the Irish public displayed a perhaps unexpected appetite for tough choices. This occurred once people understood that the status quo is unacceptably dangerous right now and criminally reckless when the next generation’s needs are taken into account.

Prof Peter Thorne of NUI Maynooth, a contributing author of the report, put it elegantly in the Irish Times today: “The true cost of carbon, if accounting for the warming impact, is likely somewhere in the range of €150-€200 per ton. It’s currently taxed at 10 per cent of that. The result is a huge IOU to future generations.”

The same report quoted Dr Debra Roberts, a co-chair of the IPCC working group on climate impacts. “It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now. This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency”.

Complacency is a very good word to describe the predominant mood in Ireland. How else could a 30-something Taoiseach, in the teeth of the greatest existential crisis in human history, suggest with a straight face that switching to a keep cup was his ‘big idea’ on climate change? Twenty, maybe 30 years ago, that kind of incrementalism was understandable if not exactly laudable. Today? Unforgivable.

RTÉ did a fairly good job on its coverage, with George Lee genuinely animated (it’s a real shame the agriculture part of his dual mandate sucks up so much of his considerable energy). I called out to Montrose around 11am today to do a pre-record for an earlier TV news bulletin (clip embedded in report linked here).

While the Irish Times carried reports throughout the day, I could find almost zero evidence of this story on Independent.ie. The sole story in its Environment section related instead to the issue of whether or not coal and petrol would get a hike in tomorrow’s Budget. This, bear in mind, is Ireland’s largest newspaper group, and not a sausage all day on the biggest IPCC announcement since the Paris Accord in December 2015.

The Examiner took a quirkier approach, linking the IPCC report with tips to reduce your carbon footprint when travelling. Its advice to pack lightly (“this will make your plane that little bit more fuel efficient, as it’s not weighed down with jumpers and swimming costumes you don’t actually end up wearing”) speaks for itself. To be fair, the article does later on actually suggest the need to reduce air travel, but still clings to the view that “Long-haul air travel is unavoidable”.

Actually, yes it is. Realistically, we’re going to need to drastically reduce the amount of non-essential aviation globally. A strict carbon rationing system would at least mean it could be done equitably, but imagine the kerfuffle if Prof Peter Thorne’s suggested €150-€200 per tonne carbon tax were applied to aviation? A return economy class flight from Dublin to Los Angeles generates around 2.3 tonnes of CO2e, which, at a median €175/tonne carbon tax, would slap an additional €402 on your ticket price. Now, I wonder how would an idea like that fly politically?

To bring a long day to a conclusion, BBC’s Flagship program, Newsnight, had a segment on the IPCC report. It made the idiotic editorial decision to give a platform to a flat-out denier, Myron Ebell, of the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute to “debate” the IPCC report, in the interests of balance, don’t you know. (I wrote about this individual in the IT back in Nov 2016)

In summary: we thought 2ºC represented the red line beyond which lay the dragons of climate chaos. Now we know it’s 1.5ºC, tops. This concept was first put on the public agenda in Paris in December 2015, and has now taken solid form in today’s report.

And there’s the rub. We already know that, if every country on Earth honoured each and every one of their (non-binding) Paris commitments in full (and they assuredly won’t, Ireland included) then the world is on a glide path for, not 1.5, not 2, but a calamitous 3.4ºC average temperature increase in the decades.

The real value of today I would suggest, is not to remind us of the near-impossibility of keeping global temperatures within the 1.5ºC guard-rail, but instead, as a timely, stinging final warning of the simply unconscionable consequences of not succeeding. Until we fully grasp the price of failure, the cost of striving to succeed will always seem too high.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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