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
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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
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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

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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: rte.ie/news/climate.

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
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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
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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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When scientific facts and corporate fiction collide

The article below ran in the Business Post in late January. Just days after the inauguration of a new US president, it seemed like an opportune time to explain to a wider audience how the blitz of malignant lies aimed at scientists whose findings potentially threatened corporate profits had presaged the rise of malignant Trumpism.

TO THE POLITICAL classes and wider public still reeling under the avalanche of Fake News and incredulous that the very foundations of democracy can be swept away in a blizzard of lies, climate scientists might well say: hold my beer.

Take Prof Phil Jones, a quietly-spoken climatologist at the University of East Anglia in the UK. In 2009, he was caught up in an illegal hacking attack on the university’s email servers, later dubbed ‘Climategate’. Continue reading

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Withdrawing the social licence of fossil fuels

The once all-powerful fossil fuel industry is, at last, on the ropes. Behemoths like Exxon Mobil are bracing for massive drop in demand for their products in the next decade and more, as the global transition to low-carbon energy, currently a trickle, becomes an economic tsunami threatening to sweep away businesses built on dirty fuels. Few tears will be shed for the eventual demise of an industry that has knowingly misled the public and politicians about the deadly impacts of fossil fuel burning – facts established decades ago by these industries’ own scientists, then quietly suppressed as Big Energy flooded huge resources into cynical campaigns aimed to undermine the findings of climate science and stymie effective action. The article below ran in mid-January in the Sunday Times, looking at the gradual withdrawal of the crucial ‘social licence’ of fossil fuels. This battle is far from won, but this time, Big Energy is the one under attack, its credibility in tatters as the long-denied reality of the climate emergency bites ever harder.

IT MAY SEEM hard to believe today, but up to a few decades ago, smoking was widespread and hugely popular. People smoked everywhere – in cinemas, on aircraft, in restaurants and even hospitals. Cigarettes were also widely advertised on TV and in newspapers and magazines, and brands were associated with glamour and sophistication. Continue reading

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Where greenwashing meet brainwashing

The piece below appeared in mid-December on the investigative website, DeSmog UK. I wanted to shine a light on the subtle agri-industrial marketing machinery which is cranking out ever increasing quantities of material aimed at the youngest and most impressionable target audience – primary school children – and meeting virtually zero resistance or even basic oversight from either civil servants, regulators or teachers’ unions, who you might think would be concerned at the dubious provenance of much of this cleverly packaged propaganda material. It is being developed and distributed almost exclusively by the intensive livestock (beef/dairy) sector in a bid to fend off growing public concern at the ecological and climate impacts of this type of  farming. Rather than addressing the actual problems and coming up with solutions to protect biodiversity and reduce emissions (ie. steps necessitating a fundamental re-think of the business model) the focus is instead to dial up the greenwashing, in the hope of creating sufficient public confusion that effective regulation is delayed or watered down. For lobbyists to make their case through the usual channels is fair enough. I am a lot less convinced of the ethics of direct marketing of industry talking points to young children.

BIG AG PROPONENTS are influencing classrooms in Ireland with learning materials that misrepresent the role of agriculture in contributing to climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss, DeSmog can reveal. This undue influence is occurring due to a lack of government oversight of educational resources provided to primary schools. Continue reading

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Agri emissions plan a roadmap to nowhere

In the absence of action, the next best thing is to look busy, and Ireland’s agri-industrial sector and its many boosters in politics and the civil and public service have elevated this frenzy of inaction to something of a performance art. This reached new levels of theatre with the publication earlier this month of the latest report to engage in the pretence that it is possible to rein in agri emissions while expanding the ruminant herd, including the most emissions-intensive of ruminants – dairy cows. My report below was published in the Business Post.

IF THE ISSUES at stake were not so serious, it would be almost enjoyable watching politicians, department officials and agri industry lobbyists attempting to talk up the publication this week of the government’s woeful ‘Ag Climatise’ Roadmap.

The agri sector is in fact awash with roadmaps. Barely two weeks ago, Teagasc, the state agricultural research authority, published its ‘2027 sectoral roadmap’ for the dairy sector. Too many roadmaps can, it seem, leave you driving around in circles. Continue reading

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Epic Arctic meltdown portends radically altered future

I first wrote about the fate of the Arctic region in April 2008, in the wake of huge melt events in 2005 and September 2007. I returned to the topic in September 2012, a year in which an area of sea ice 41 times larger than the island of Ireland disappeared in late summer, setting off alarm bells globally. The ominous trend has continued, with 2019 tied with 2007 and 2016 as the worst years. And, right on cue, 2020 recorded the second lowest sea ice summer minimum ever. My report below appeared this month in the new climate supplement to the Sunday Times. We won’t truly realise just how much we depend on the Arctic ice cover until it’s gone.

EARLY LAST month, a small metal cylinder was found washed up on the shores of Bloody Foreland in Donegal. It was a time-capsule that had been embedded in the ice at the north pole in August 2018 by the crew of the ice-breaker ‘50 Years of Victory’, with a view to it being uncovered in the distant future by other Arctic explorers.

Instead, in a little over two years, the capsule had broken free from the rapidly melting polar sea ice and drifted over 3,700 kilometres before finally beaching near Gweedore.
This extraordinary incident is a stark reminder both of how dramatically the Arctic is now destabilising, as well as how intimately Ireland is connected by the ocean currents to this seemingly remote and distant region. Continue reading

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Biden throws floundering global climate action a lifeline

The article below appeared earlier this month in the Business Post. One crucial first step in tackling the climate crisis is for politicians to say ‘no’ to dirty money from the powerful fossil fuel lobby (who notoriously have spent freely in recent decades to spread denial and disinformation about climate science). In the lead-in to the election, Biden made all the right noises, though there has been dismay at his recent appointment of a senior adviser with a long track record of taking money from oil, gas and chemical industry interests. Still, given his monumental achievement in freeing the US (at least for now) from the grip of authoritarianism, there is good reason to cut the incoming president some slack in sorting out his new team.

FOR A LIFE-LONG centrist, Joe Biden’s climate agenda is surprisingly radical. And there was no clearer statement of intent than his campaign’s outright refusal to accept funding “from oil, gas and coal corporations or executives.”

Tangling with the US fossil fuel industry is a high-risk strategy. In the 2018 US mid-term elections, the industry flooded $84 million in funding for Congressional races, with almost all the cash going to candidates opposed to environmental regulation. Far more money will have been spent this year. Continue reading

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Stirring up tensions between farmers and environmentalists

This piece appears  in the current edition of Village magazine. As a rule, I steer clear of articles focusing on individuals, preferring when possible to stick to the issues rather than personalities. Given the central role of RTÉ presenter Damien O’Reilly in this story, I’ve had to bend that rule somewhat, but the issues involved have nothing whatever to do with him as an individual; rather, they involve the commercial and editorial nexus between our national broadcaster and lobbying organisations.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT in October that RTÉ’s radio programme ‘Countrywide’ had entered into a 12-month sponsorship deal with the Irish Farmers Journal (IFJ) represents an unusual, arguably unprecedented departure.

The IFJ is bound at the hip with Ireland’s most powerful agricultural lobbying group, the Irish Farmers Association (IFA). The two organisations share the same premises in Bluebell, Dublin and are historically intertwined. Continue reading

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Close, but no cigar: Climate Bill comes up short

My report on expert reaction to the eagerly awaited Climate Bill was published for a British audience on DeSmog UK in mid-October.

A DRAFT climate change bill designed to put Ireland on a path to net zero emissions has been criticised by leading climate experts as “weak” and full of “get-out clauses”.

The new bill was promised by coalition partner, the Green Party, as part of its pledge to deliver ambitious climate action within its first 100 days in office, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin describing it as “truly ground-breaking”.

But the reaction from climate advocates has been lukewarm. Maynooth University emeritus climatologist, Prof John Sweeney described the legislation as being full of “weasel words, loopholes and get-out clauses”. Continue reading

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Green in name, but not in nature

Despite huge ongoing investment of both political capital and marketing euros in selling the message that Irish agriculture is green, climate-friendly and sustainable, it still keeps on running into the knotty problem that this simply isn’t the case. Recent comments from the EPA simply confirmed Ireland’s worst-kept secret: our food production system isn’t clean, nor is it especially green. I teased out these issues for the Business Post in mid-October.

ON PAPER, Ireland is a world leader in sustainable food production. The statistics are impressive: according to Bord Bia, Ireland’s food board, some 53,000 farms and 320 major food and drink companies are part of ‘Origin Green’, which it describes as ‘the world’s only national food and drink sustainability programme’. Continue reading

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