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”.Now, for the first time, the so-called ‘guard rail’ of 2C has been abandoned in favour of the vastly less dangerous level of +1.5C, or ‘1.5 to stay alive’, as it’s quickly being dubbed. However, given that all the INDCs of almost every country on Earth, even if fully honoured, still deliver us a +2.7C future, quite where the colossal carbon reductions required to bridge that 1.2C chasm between a liveable future and no future at all will be found.

A great place to have started would have been to include global shipping and aviation, which together account for well over 5% of all GHG emissions (and rising rapidly). Perversely, both these sectors have enjoyed a complete free ride in all attempts to date to account for and begin the tough task of reining in emissions.

Shipping and aviation both enjoy tax and duty-free fuel, which amounts to a vast hidden subsidy both to the tiny handful of the world’s population who will ever fly in an aircraft, and to transnational commerce. Were these fuels priced to in any way reflect the damage they inflict, the era of shipping ultra-cheap throwaway electronics, clothing and other ‘consumables’ 12,000 kilometres and more would come to a juddering halt (human rights and gender equality appear to have been similarly excised from the latest draft).

Where else might the massive and urgent emissions reductions capable of turning +2.7C into +1.5C be found? How about agriculture? The phrase ‘food’ appears twice in the 27 page Draft Agreement. First off, it says: “Recognizing the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change…” (my emphases).

Later on, in Article 2, it returns to food as follows: “The purpose of this Agreement is to further implement the objective of the Convention through enhanced action, cooperation and support, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, so as to: Increase the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production…” (my emphases).

These are the critical phrases that some in the Irish delegation will have been involved in making sure delivered an agreement that met with the approval of the IFA and, more importantly, the all-powerful agri food processing industry, the folks who, despite their low public profile (and preference for routing their affairs via Luxembourg so as to avoid having to pay pesky taxes) really pull the strings that animate the movement of Ireland’s political class, notably Enda Kenny and Simon Coveney.

The IFA, meanwhile, is bouncing back from the misfortune of losing both its general secretary and president after it emerged that the former was being paid 20 times the average farmer’s income for his labours while the latter had to settle for a trifling eight times the average farmer’s wage for his ‘honorary’ post.

Among its representatives at COP21 was national chair of its ‘Environment & Rural Affairs committee, Harold Kingston. Earlier this evening, Kingston tweeted that he was “proud to represent the IFA, Irish farmers’ sustainable food at COP21”, but warned there were “big numbers of anti-Irish Ag NGOs here too”. In the IFA’s binary world, you are either for ‘em or agin’ them.

Earlier, the same ‘Environment committee’ chairman blogged that those who ignored what he called the ‘environmental creditentials (sic) of Irish food production’ do so because of ‘ideology’. Nothing to do with science, of course. The IFA studiously ignores engaging with climate science, other than to dismiss as ‘anti-farmer’ any attempt at critiquing an expansionist ‘sustainable intensification’ of beef-and-dairy-for-export model when science tells us unequivocally that we have no choice but to curtail the massive emissions emanating from the immensely inefficient global ruminant-based food system the IFA and its agribiz friends are so keen to export.

The UK-based Chatham House think tank has done some quite devastating research on the true price of our carnal desires. ‘A global reduction in meat consumption could bring a quarter of the emissions reductions needed to meet the 2C target at which dangerous climate change can be avoided”, said the report, which added: “without a significant reduction in global meat-eating, keeping global warming below two degrees will be nearly impossible. Tackling unsustainable meat consumption is therefore a necessity. It should also be seen as key opportunity for win-win policy-making”.

Or, in our Taoiseach’s words, Ireland “would be screwed” if we actually took our EU-mandated legal commitments seriously. That this lobbying for still more ‘special treatment’ for our ag. sector takes place as thousands of acres of farmland are once again flooded is bitterly ironic. Nor it this in any way ‘normal’. Portumna, for example, “has never been threatened by flood in living memory, but we are teetering on the edge right now”, according to a local councillor.

Given the craven performance of Taoiseach Enda Kenny on the opening day of COP21 in Paris, when it came as a rude awakening to many that our prime minister is prepared to demean himself and his office by posing as a runner boy for the agri-industrial lobby, it seemed strangely apt that the severance package for former general secretary Pat Smith is more than double the total amount the Republic of Ireland has committed to the crucial Green Climate Fund.

That appears to neatly encapsulate our commitment to ‘climate justice’ – look after the fat cats and special interests, while throwing the poor of the developing world (or the smaller Irish farmer subsisting on an annual income of barely €24,000) under the proverbial bus.

And speaking of buses, an international diplomatic incident was narrowly avoided earlier this evening when the ‘Stop Climate Chaos’ bus with its 35 activists en route to Paris were detained at Cherbourg, and had their passports confiscated while the police pondered refusing them entry to France. Happily, they must have done a good job of convincing les gendarmes that they didn’t pose much of a threat, individually or collectively, to anyone, and were allowed continue on their way.

I had considered taking the bus over this week, but fate, in the form of an invite to speak at the European launch at COP21 of Visions 2100, a new book bringing together the thoughts of 80 people from around the world active in environmental thinking, intervened, and I instead was in Paris from early last Saturday morning until late on Tuesday night.

We had hoped that fellow Irish contributor, Mary Robinson, might have been able to join us, but when you experience the sheer scale of the COP complex, with dozens of events taking place simultaneously across multiple venues spread out over acres, it was always a long shot.

Still, the launch went well, the après-event booze was free, and we ended up spending a most enjoyable evening with author John O’Brien and a number of other contributors from a wide variety of nationalities and backgrounds. Paris, perhaps the world’s most beautiful, and certainly most elegant city, provided the perfect backdrop for the business and social aspects of COP21. Despite its recent traumas, the city and its people are both resilient and surprisingly welcoming.

I had the very good fortune of travelling to Paris with the legend that is Duncan Stewart (he was travelling out ahead of his crew to reconnoitre the event for filming). Among numerous adventures, we found ourselves in the midst of a full-blown street protest; given all we had heard – and seen – of the overwhelming police presence, we were half-expecting to be pepper-sprayed or tazered, but happily the cops left an entirely peaceable, if noisy, demo run its good-natured course without incident.

Moving to and from our accommodation in the north east of the city to the COP complex at le Bourget, to glance at a map, looked like a nightmare. Imagine being based in Citywest and shuttling to and from an event in Churchtown. In fact, the metro and integrated RER train system made it a doddle.

Paris and its suburbs are home to some 10.5 million people, but it is infinitely better able to cope with this huge number than, say, Dublin, which decades of blinkered road-building and chaotic sprawl have now delivered us a massive traffic jam called the M50. It is 31 years since the DART was inaugurated; the greater Dublin area has swollen in population in that time, but the best our politicians and planners could manage was to slap another lane on the Naas dual carriageway, then another on the M50 (yes, we do have a few kilometres of Luas surface light rail, and yes, one of these days, the two bits may actually join up, but integrated? Not even close. Even the DART/Luas/bus ticketing is still a sorry mess).

Would it be too much to ask that anyone charged with making these decisions on our behalf should be required to spend two weeks in Paris. For week one, they must get about using a car; for week two, switch to public transport only. I’d suggest that by the end of their fortnight, they might come home with their ideological commitment to the private car severely dented.

Having nearly not gone to COP, I was beyond delighted to have made it, but three full days on the ground is nowhere near enough. Nor had I dedicated sufficient time ahead of the event to map out the most efficient way to allocate time between the huge number of conferences, symposia and workshops while also working around the vast number of stalls and exhibits. Chatting with folks from Climate Central, the WWF and the Union of Concerned Scientists, among others, was hugely stimulating. Having a front row spot and ending up sitting beside US energy secretary, Dr Ernest Moniz at a symposium on the role of nuclear power in a low-carbon pathway was an unexpected bonus.

Overall, the environmental NGO presence was genuinely impressive (for a great flavour of the event from ground level, here’s a series of articles written by Paul Price and others) they’ll never have the budgets to rival Big Energy, Big Agribusiness or their assorted denial front groups, but passion, energy and commitment count too, and that was there in spades.

We’ll know a lot more in the next couple of days about whether COP21 is another false dawn or an historic inflection point in our ever more desperate battle to deal with climate change – before climate change deals with us.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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5 Responses to On the brink of history, at the edge of the abyss

  1. Logically says:

    Very useful overview of the whole process John, many thanks. I’d love to have been at Paris but am glad so many from the Irish NGO sector, probably mostly at your own cost, have actually made the trip and have got stuck in to fight for a deal commensurate with the actual scale of the climate threat. Mr Kelly and his boss Mr Kenny both seem caught in a parochial mindset of thinking that a few slaps on the back, a handshake or two and the whole thing can be sorted. If only it were that simple!

  2. John Murphy says:

    First Chairman of NFA/IFA Livestock Committee in 1950s was Michael Gibbons from Co. Kilkenny. Also a leading Farmers’ Rights campaigner in 1960s. Any connection to current An Taisce campaigner? Sounds unlikely, though there is a certain family resemblance in published photos.

  3. John Gibbons says:

    Yup John, the late Michael Gibbons is my father. I still remember, as a three year old, the morning raid involving dozens of Gardai at our house in early 1967, when they confiscated our tractor, farm animals and most of our furniture. My involvement with An Taisce’s climate change committee arises from a strong interest on my part in climate change, a subject many farmers, and specifically their representative bodies, are choosing to ignore or downplay. This is, I believe, a profound mistake. My dad was a campaigner for what he believed passionately in, at a time when it was neither profitable nor popular to take that stance; so am I.

  4. Daniel Courtney says:

    John, with the greatest respect, you seem to have a limited comprehension of the dynamics of global agricultural trade. Firstly, let me nail my own colours to the mast. I am not and never have been a member of the IFA or any other lobby group for that matter. Nor am I associated with any political party. What I am is a highly qualified and very knowledgeable agricultural scientist. Here is something for you to ponder. Given that there is a world market for beef products, would you prefer to see Irish beef exports curtailed and the slack take up by the likes of Brazil. You may or may not know that in the past 20 years there has been an area of the Amazon rain forest twice the size of Germany cleared for agricultural production – mainly beef production. In IPCC terminology this is called “land use change”. When LUC is factored in, the carbon footprint per tonne of product is truly staggering. Brazil is a major players and has plans to increase beef exports. Incidentally I recently came across a tin of Brazilian corned beef in a rural service station shop. Fortunately, emissions from Irish beef production are getting progressively lower. By 2025 most of the beef will be coming from dairy animals. The dual purpose nature of the cows involved will substantially lower emissions associated with both beef and dairy products.
    Turning now to milk production, the Irish 2020 target for production is just 1.25% of global milk production. Even if Ireland were to cease milk production altogether, the deficit would very rapidly be made up by production elsewhere – very probably in the United States, where production has doubled over the past 40 years – and continues to grow year on year in industrial scale units (thousands of cows per herd) despite serious questions over unsustainable use of water in particular. In any case over-supply in global milk production is followed rapidly by sharp downward adjustment in products prices to bring supply and demand back into balance. The key question therefore is: where can production be done with low GHG emissions and low levels for other environmental indicators? Research by the European Union JRC has found that Ireland has (jointly with Austria) the lowest emissions for milk production anywhere in the EU.
    Incidentally, despite the fact that some of my views are contrary to yours, do not label me as a climate change contrarian. I assure you, I am nothing of the sort.

  5. John Gibbons says:

    Daniel, thanks for your comment and for helping address my limited comprehension of the dynamics of global agricultural trade. The choice you are offering: Irish beef versus Brazilian beef, is at the core of the problem. The IPCC, among many others, have pointed out that dietary change is a key element in curtailing emissions. Put simply, we in the West already eat more meat than is healthy, either for us or for global emissions.

    Exporting that meat-rich consumption model (as the Irish gov’t is keen to do, using Bord Bia, the Dept. of Agriculture and other organs of State) to ’emerging economies’ and stoking their desire, via marketing and advertising, to follow us down an unsustainable path, is simply not compatible with a world capable of remaining below the +2C red line. Maybe you think meat consumption is so fundamental a right, even to people who now eat little or none, that it’s worth gambling with wrecking the biosphere to deliver cheap meat for all, whether that meat emanates from ‘green’ Ireland or cleared rainforests. I don’t accept that logic.

    You state that: “Fortunately, emissions from Irish beef production are getting progressively lower”. Any beef emissions reductions can be measured in single digits, and these are being overwhelmed by the growth in our national herd, so the numbers are going up, not down. You also state: “By 2025 most of the beef will be coming from dairy animals”. That’s news to me. We today have over 5 million beef cattle, but around 1-1.25m dairy cattle. Have you information regarding Ireland’s plan to cull its massive beef herd? If so, there’s no sign of this news in FoodWise 2025.

    Re. milk production, you fall back on the ‘if we don’t do it, someone else will’ argument. The INDCs committed to by all 196 countries who took part in COP21 require each country to set out how it will achieve its share of global emissions cuts. Every share counts, and given how much of Ireland’s overall GHGs emanate from agriculture, it’s absurd to argue that we’re globally insignificant. The aviation industry makes an identical case, as does just about every other sector.

    Finally, I agree that GHG emissions from Irish dairy are among the lowest in the EU (unlike our beef sector, which is no better or worse than the EU average) and yes, while we need to be sharply reducing global output of both beef and dairy, Ireland has a fair case to make with the latter. But what underpins the whole ‘food and climate change’ issue is that certain forms of food production are efficient in terms of inputs, be they water, fertilisers, soil, etc. and produce very modest emissions per calorie produced, and these are virtually all plants and vegetables.

    We are all going to have to get used to a lot less meat and dairy in our diets if we plan to inhabit a liveable world in the coming decades. Certain industries won’t like that, of course, but there will be more work than ever for our farmers in the future, but they will, I suspect, be producing a diet with vastly less red meat in particular. That wouldn’t be the end of the world, whereas global warming beyond +2C will likely be the end of the world for most humans. BTW, I hope I haven’t labelled you a contrarian, denier or otherwise. I understand your analysis and hope you will reflect on mine.

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