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.