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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A race between climatic and political tipping points

Some weeks back, in the course of researching an article on ecological grief, I reached out to US author, David Wallace-Wells for comment, and this led to a wide-ranging discussion that ran to over 90 minutes. I had filed a mixed review of his book for The Irish Times in February 2019, so welcomed the opportunity for a deeper dive into his thinking, and the resulting interview was published in early October, also in The Irish Times.

WHAT MOST disturbs best-selling science author David Wallace-Wells about climate change isn’t so much that the worst-case scenarios may come to pass. Rather, it’s how astonishingly dangerous even the so called best-case scenarios actually are.

When he began his deep dive into the science of climate change in 2016, his initial fear was that Earth was on the cusp of runaway climate change, also known as the Venus syndrome, where the planet transitioned from being capable of supporting life to a cauldon with a mean surface temperature of over 450ºC and an atmosphere mostly comprising the heat-trapping gas, carbon dioxide. Continue reading

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Eco-plenary indulgences won’t save our souls or environment

The below is a guest post from an occasion ToS contributor and concerned citizen who uses the pseudonym ‘Jeremy Hughes’. He takes a wry look at the new trend towards establishing tiny pockets of biodiversity while the bigger picture is one of relentless decline.

IN THE Catholic Church, an indulgence is a way for a person to reduce the punishment from God for their sins. The recipient of the indulgence has to perform a good act to receive it. They became notorious during the Middle Ages when indulgences could be bought from clergy to atone for sins and the sale of indulgences eventually led to the Reformation.

Biodiversity areas have sprung up in many towns, villages and parishes but I’m wondering if they are the eco plenary indulgences of modern times – a good environmental deed designed to make people feel better about their excesses and wipe out sins of their consumer lifestyles that are wreaking havoc on our natural environment. Continue reading

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Under Trump, Republican war on science escalates

The below comment piece ran in the Business Post in mid-September, tallying the all-out war the Trump regime has waged not just on client science but on decades of cross-party consensus on basic environmental protection. US elections almost always feel consequential, but this time the stakes have probably never been higher. 

THE EYES OF the world are fixed on Tuesday, November 3rd, with the future of the US as a democracy now on the ballot. However, a potentially even more ominous deadline looms the following day.

On November 4th, the US is scheduled to formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the key intergovernmental accord negotiated in 2015 in a bid to prevent global temperatures from breaching dangerous and likely irreversible thresholds.

If president Trump hoped his withdrawal would lead to the complete collapse of the Agreement, he has been disappointed. Perhaps underlining the decline in US influence since he came to power, not a single country followed its lead. Continue reading

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‘Our relationship with nature is broken’

The below piece ran on TheJournal.ie in late September. It was inspired by a combination of the surreal imagery emanating from the western US and the release of the 2020 Living Planet Report, which chronicles ever sharpening declines in planetary vital signals.

ONE OF THE most iconic scenes from the science fiction film Blade Runner 2049 featured the eerie bright orange skies over a future Las Vegas.

This dystopian vision became all-too-real in recent days as smoke from the hundreds of wildfires raging out of control in the western US blotted out the midday sun, casting entire states into a perpetual twilight.  A video clip featuring drone footage filmed over San Francisco overlaid with the score from Blade Runner 2049 quickly went viral.

Picking up the movie theme, Georgia Tech climate scientist Dr Kim Cobb said: “A year like 2020 could have been the subject of a marvellous science fiction film in 2000. Now we have to watch and digest real-time disaster after disaster after disaster, on top of a pandemic. The outlook could not be any more grim. It’s just a horrifying prospect. It’s going to get a lot worse.”

A broken world

While scientists have been warning for decades that climate breakdown could have dire consequences for humanity, in reality, for the rest of nature, the apocalypse is already in full swing, as vividly detailed in recent days with the publication of the WWF’s 2020 Living Planet Report. Its findings are clear: “Our relationship with nature is broken”.

Abandoning the normally ultra-cautious language used in scientific reports, WWF director general, Marco Lambertini set it out bluntly, pointing to: “unequivocal evidence that nature is unravelling and that our planet is flashing red warning signs. Humanity’s destruction of nature is having catastrophic impacts not only on wildlife populations but also on human health and all aspects of our lives”.

The scale of the destruction almost beggars belief. Since 1970, global populations of wild mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish have collapsed by an astonishing 68 per cent on average. Although not directly tracked by the Index, scientists believe the situation for insect populations is equally dire. The phrase ‘insectageddon’ has been coined to describe the collapse in arthropod numbers.

In addition, around 12 million hectares of agricultural land is being lost to soil degradation and desertification globally every year, that’s an area greater than the island of Ireland.

According to the WWF, the way we produce both food and energy as well as humanity’s blatant disregard for the environment entrenched in our current economic models, has, it warns, “pushed the natural world to its limits”.

Incontrovertible evidence

Late last year, the United Nations published a major global assessment report, which found that nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times more than the average over the last 10 million years.

As a result of the carnage, around one million species now face extinction, with almost unimaginable consequences for the web of life itself.  The report described the likely impacts on humanity as “ominous”. These include freshwater shortages and ever more extreme weather resulting from climate destabilisation.

Today, some 75 per cent of the land surface of the planet has been sequestered for human use and significantly altered from its natural state. Animal agricultureinvolves the feeding and slaughter of some 50 billion land animals a year and is among the major global drivers of deforestation, water and air pollution, biodiversity loss, freshwater depletion and marine dead zones. In fact, 70 per cent of all the birds in the world today are farmed chickens.

The widespread use of herbicides and pesticides in intensive agriculture has allowed for dramatic increases in food production but at the price of ecological devastation, including depleting key microbes and invertebrates in the soil as well as wiping out insects and birds. Many of these novel chemicals also work their way into the human food chain, leading to a host of serious health issues.

The EU recently published strategies to promote biodiversity and to transform food production to make it work with, rather than against, nature. The WWF has strongly welcomed these moves, describing them as “potential game-changers”. It added that the EU’s global footprint, which it notes is “driving the destruction of forests, grasslands and other precious ecosystems outside of Europe”, needs to be reduced.

The EU’s so-called Farm to Fork strategy’s ambitious aims are to reduce dependency on pesticides and antimicrobials, reduce excess fertilisation, increase organic farming, improve animal welfare, and reverse biodiversity loss.

One key target is to increase the amount of EU land farmed organically to 25 per cent by 2030. Organic farming is crucial to the survival and well-being of wildlife, yet Ireland has among the very lowest amount of land in the entire EU(barely 2 per cent) farmed organically. Despite our carefully managed ‘green’ image, over 90 per cent of Ireland’s protected habitats are classified as being of “unfavourable conservation status”.

According to the National Biodiversity Centre, one-third of all Irish bee speciesmay be extinct by 2030, while 50 per cent of our freshwaters are polluted, leading to sharp declines in aquatic species.

Ireland’s biodiversity crisis

There is no mystery as to why Irish wildlife is now endangered like never before. It is due mainly to “the effect of monoculture and the drive to ever-higher levels of productivity characterised by a loss or neglect of hedgerows, farmland edges and scrub”, according to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NWPS).

The level of political contempt in Ireland for biodiversity and wildlife protection can be evidenced in the fact that the total annual NWPS budget is just €11 million, compared with state funding for the greyhound industry of €16 million a year and €64 million to the horse racing industry.

Whether we realise it or not, climate breakdown and biodiversity loss are two sides of the same blade that is now held to the throat of all life on Earth, including humans. What will it take to finally awaken us to take radical action?

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator who specialises in covering the climate and biodiversity emergency. He is a contributor to The Irish Times, The Business Post, The Guardian and DeSmog.uk and is a regular commentator on broadcast media. He blogs at Thinkorswim.ie and also runs the website Climatechange.ie and is on Twitter.

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Good grief: grappling with eco distress

The feature piece below appeared in this week’s Business Post Magazine, under the heading ‘Distress signals from Earth: the new condition of ‘eco-grief’. This is a subject that has long been close to my heart and no doubt for most people who have been paying attention to the parlous state of the biosphere and the relentless slide towards climate breakdown. Rather than just navel-gazing on the subject, I decided instead to draw on the thoughts of four interviewees, each with a unique perspective to share.

IN GREEK mythology, the Trojan princess, Cassandra was given the gift of prophesy by the gods, only to be cursed that she would never be believed. Today’s Cassandras are the scientists and activists who have been warning for decades that the Earth is hurtling headlong towards an ecological abyss. Yes, they were right; no, we haven’t listened.

The ever-intensifying drumbeat of relentless environmental collapse, from rapid ice melting, record-smashing wildfires and ongoing rainforest clearance to species extinctions and global plastic pollution is now also taking a heavy toll on our collective mental health. Continue reading

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Can the farmer and the environmentalist really be friends?

The piece below ran in the Farming Independent in early September. It started out life as a rebuttal of a recent piece by a Findo columnist and dairy farmer, which did a lot of indignant huffing and puffing about an An Taisce press release highlighting escalating levels of dangerous ammonia air pollution as a result of Irish dairy herd expansion and intensification. I opted instead to pitch a (short) piece to the regular farmers out there, many of whom no doubt do genuinely care about pollution, climate change, sustainability and the collapse of biodiversity, and who must wonder why those claiming to speak for farmers so often carry on as if nature were the enemy, rather than the most vital ally of farming. 

A LINE IN THE musical Oklahoma! posed the thorny question: could the farmer and the cow-man ever get along? ‘One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a cow, but that’s no reason why they can’t be friends’. Continue reading

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Overshooting ourselves in both feet

How much money have you got in your current account? What about your savings? Imagine if by now, you had already spent all your income for 2020, and you were forced to live on borrowings for the next four months.

Now, imagine if that was happening year after year. Pretty soon, the debt would be crushing and, barring a Lottery win, you would be pushed into bankruptcy and ruin. This, in a nutshell, is what is happening to our planet right now.

Today, August 22, is Earth Overshoot Day, the date by which scientists calculate that humanity has used up “all the biological resources that Earth can renew during the entire year”. In fact, it is calculated that the last time humanity was living within its ecological means was half a century ago, in 1970. Continue reading

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SUV fad puts us into fast lane towards climate breakdown

I’ll admit to having never been a big fan of SUVs. It’s fine if you’re one of a tiny handful of people who actually need a 4×4 in your trade, but there seems little reason for regular folk to be driving around in these hulking great gas guzzlers on the commute or school run. And, as the piece below explores, the climate is paying an especially heavy price for this, at the very moment we’re supposed to be slashing emissions across all sectors globally. This was the theme for my second piece for the Business Post, which appeared in early August.

AMID ALL the recent brouhaha about electric cars, hybrids and fuel efficiency, you could be forgiven for thinking the global transport sector was among the shining stars of the new low-carbon economy.

Looks can, however, be deceiving. Behind the hype, one ugly fact emerges: vehicular emissions are in fact spiralling globally, and the chief culprit is the sports utility vehicle, or SUV.

Since 2010, booming demand for SUVs worldwide has seen their market share more than double, to 39%. According to analysis by the International Energy Agency, fast-growing demand for SUVs in this period was the second largest contributor to increases in global greenhouse gas emissions.

This was borne out by the European Environment Agency’s report on CO2 emissions from cars and vans for 2019, which noted that average emissions for new cars in Europe have risen for the last three straight years.

All the motor industry’s gains in fuel efficiency over the last two decades have been wiped out by the rise of larger, heavier SUVs, which now contribute over 700 million tonnes of emissions a year. Put in context, this is almost as much as the pollution from the entire global aviation industry. Were SUV drivers a country, they would be the seventh most polluting nation on Earth.

A report published by UK think tank, the New Weather Institute last month called for a ban on all media advertising of larger and more polluting SUVs, arguing that this was essential in order for Britain to meet its international climate obligations. The report noted that some 150,000 SUVs sold in the UK in 2019 were more than 4.8 metres long, meaning they don’t fit into a standard parking bay.

Using the analogy of banning tobacco advertising, the Institute’s report argued that while ‘SUVs are marketed as providing protection for drivers, their physical size, weight and pollution levels create a more dangerous and toxic urban environment for both drivers and pedestrians’.

Arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, pressure is growing around the world, including Ireland, to limit vehicular access to city centres to make more room both for pedestrians and for restaurants, cafés etc. to use outdoor seating areas. Logically, the larger the vehicle, the less suitable it is for our typically narrow city centre streets, which were built long before the advent of two-and-a-half tonne Range Rovers.

Apart from congestion, heavy traffic brings air pollution into densely populated areas. As a measure to tackle severe pollution, mainly from diesel engines, central London has introduced Ultra Low Emissions Zones(ULEZs). While electric vehicles are exempt, most cars, motorcycles and vans are charged £12.50 to enter an ULEZ.

The dangers don’t end with pollution. A study published in the US in June found that while 54 per cent of pedestrians struck by a car travelling at 64km/hr or more died, the mortality rate rose to 100 per cent for those struck by SUVs at similar speeds. The high fronts and rears on typical SUVs mean reduced visibility for drivers. This also leads to a greater risk of small children in particular being crushed in car parks and driveways.

In physics, momentum is calculated as mass multiplied by velocity. In a typical collision, that explains why SUVs do so much more damage than regular cars. Larger commercial vehicles are often speed-limited for this reason, but, so far, SUVs have escaped such regulation.

Innovations such as electronic pedestrian detection systems are being trialled in a bid to mitigate the danger, but a major downside of such systems is that they may actually lull drivers into paying even less attention to the road.

Driving an SUV may in itself alter driver behaviour. A study by Monash University in Australia found that drivers of large SUVs had the highest ‘aggressivity rating’ of any road user. The study concluded that ‘while not improving crashworthiness overall, SUVs put other road users at a higher risk of severe injury’.

In 2008, Ireland switched its VRT and motor tax system from being based on engine size to carbon emissions. However, as emissions were calculated on the misleading NECP standard, an Oireachtas analysis found there was a loss to the Revenue of €1.7 billion from 2008-2018 with only limited emissions savings, which are now being wiped out by the proliferation of SUVs.

That standard has been scrapped in favour of the more realistic WLTP benchmark, but the Revenue have yet to implement the new system, which industry sources believe could see new car prices rise by €2,500 as well as big increases in motor tax based on the more stringent WLTP standards. Given the motor trade is enduring a torrid 2020, it’s unlikely the axe will fall in the immediate future.

As the climate crisis deepens, this is the worst possible time for a ruinous global infatuation with SUVs.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism
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Ecocide: the greatest crime against humanity and nature

It is extraordinary that ecocide is not formally recognised and codified as a crime under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. There are surely few greater crimes than the deliberate destruction of entire ecosystems, in many cases leading directly to species being driven to extinction. In the frequently blood-soaked annals of human history, deliberate wide scale ecological destruction will I suspect stand out as among our most egregious and unforgivable failings. My deep dive into the topic was published in the Irish Times in mid-July.

THE YEAR is 2035; location is The Hague in Holland. Disgraced former Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro (80) is scheduled to appear before the International Criminal Court (ICC), charged with multiple counts of the crime of ecocide for his role decades earlier in setting in train the final destruction of the once-mighty Amazon rainforest.

The impacts of this devastating event have been felt across the world. According to ICC prosecutors, Bolsonaro acted knowingly and recklessly to accelerate clearance of the rainforest, with flagrant disregard for the impacts either on the regional habitat, the indigenous forest populations or the wider planetary implications of his actions. He denies all charges. Continue reading

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Sweden points way towards a lower carbon future

My debut contribution to The Business Post was published in early July on the paper’s Comment page. In the last year or two the Business Post has significantly upped its coverage and focus on environmental topics (reporter, Daniel Murray did an excellent  podcast series, Five Degrees, with yours truly among the interviewees last year). Right now, many would rate the Post as the best of all our national papers on this crunch topic.

GIVEN A CHOICE, would you prefer to live in a wealthy, high-emissions country or in one with low-emissions because it is poor? This is the false binary activists are often confronted with when serious climate action is being contemplated.

You will hear much about the ‘carnage and human misery’ that would inevitably ensue were green policies to ever be implemented in Ireland. This reflects a narrative that runs something like this: yes, while of course we’d love to take action on climate, we would really prefer to remain well off, so no thanks’.

And while in Ireland, emissions have indeed spiralled in lock-step with our growing prosperity and consumption, this is not as inevitable as it might sound.

Consider Sweden, a prosperous modern democracy that regularly features in the top 10 of the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness rankings. Sweden provides universal access to a single-payer healthcare system, free university tuition, 38 days’ holidays for all workers, high quality day-care and pre-schools for children and an ultra-generous 18 months’ paid parental leave.

Like most other countries, Sweden’s carbon emissions rose sharply as its economy expanded and living standards increased, but here’s where the story changes dramatically. As a result of the oil shocks in the early to mid-1970s, Sweden began the politically-led process of decoupling emissions from growth. Today, some 80% of its total electricity production comes from hydropower and nuclear energy, with another 12% from its fast-expanding wind sector.

Key to accelerating the decoupling was the introduction in 1991 of the world’s first carbon tax, levied initially at the rate of €23 a tonne. Since then, it has been steadily ratcheted up to its current level of around €110 a tonne, the highest level in the world. In contrast, Ireland’s carbon tax only reached €26 this year, though this is slated in the new Programme for Government to rise to €100 by 2030.

High carbon taxes led to residential and commercial energy use in Sweden becoming almost completely carbon-neutral, with district heating, biofuels and combustion rather than landfilling of non-recyclable rubbish, plus heat pumps. In stark contrast, the residential sector in Ireland accounts for around a quarter of total energy usage in Ireland, most of which is imported fossil fuels.

In 1970, Sweden’s per capita carbon emissions were 11.5 tons. Today, while gross national income has doubled in the intervening decades, emissions per capita have fallen to under 4.5 tonnes, or less than half of the average Irish person, despite Sweden having a colder climate. The country has also set itself the target of net zero emissions by 2045 ‘at the latest’.

“Sweden can develop a vision for transition to sustainable welfare, where we put down goals of being the world’s first fossil-free nation. We can show the world that you can build a modern welfare state within nature’s limits”, according to Professor Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

One of the most dramatic effects of a consistently high carbon tax in Sweden over three decades has been the behavioural changes it has fostered. For instance, in 1975, the average Swede sent nearly 200kg to landfill. Today, a negligible 3kg per person ends up in landfill.

Another league table that Sweden heads is the Global Sustainable Competitiveness Index (GSCI), which tallies natural capital, governance, resource efficiency, as well as social and intellectual capital (Ireland ranks 14th and the US 34th on this Index).

Their respective capital cities tell sharply different stories. While Dublin is ranked as Europe’s sixth most congested city, with drivers spending almost 250 hours a year travelling at less than 10km/hr, in contrast, in Stockholm, whose population is just under a million, some 850,000 people use public transport every day. Its entire underground system runs on green electricity and since 2017, all buses run on renewable fuels and tram routes have been extended.

Another major difference between Sweden and Ireland is in domestic energy efficiency. Many Swedish homes, including high-rise apartments, are built to ‘passive house’ standard, which effectively eliminates the need for any heating system whatever.

The small Swedish city of Växjö may be a model for how Ireland could begin to achieve the average 7% emissions reductions mandated under the Programme for Government. The city, population 61,000, has installed 150km of dedicated bicycle paths, while its bus fleet runs on biogas recovered from sewage and many of the city’s houses and apartments are built to passive house standard. These combined measures have seen Växjö’s emissions fall by over 40% in the last two decades.

While Sweden may light the way to a low emissions future for chronic climate laggards like Ireland, the country itself is no Utopia, especially in its dubious use of biomass as ‘clean’ energy. And Research published by Prof Kevin Anderson found that even ‘climate progressives’ like Sweden still are not doing enough to avoid dangerous climate change.

Perhaps the most crucial element in a county cutting emissions is public awareness. Since 1969, basic environmental literacy, from ecology to conservation, has been integrated into Swedish education, giving rise to generations of environmentally conscious citizens.

It is no accident that the world’s most famous young climate activist, Greta Thunberg, is a Swede.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism (2020)

 

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Better late than never for Irish political action on climate

My take on the Programme for Government and why I think it represents a real opportunity to break the decade-plus logjam on meaningful climate action was published in late June on Thejournal.ie 

THE BATTLE FOR the hearts and votes of ordinary members of the prospective coalition parties is underway in earnest. Without this endorsement, the historic political trinity of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party can’t happen.

The main focus to date has been on the Green Party, which has been openly divided throughout the negotiation process, and whose parliamentary party patched up an uneasy truce in endorsing the new Programme for Government with some abstentions.

Prominent climate activists have been speaking both for and against the programme, including Extinction Rebellion Ireland (XR) which described the deal as ‘a textbook example of spin, jam-packed with fluffy aspirations’. Continue reading

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Ambitious climate programme agreed by Irish political parties

My analysis piece for DeSmog UK was published on June 17th, as the parties concluded negotiations on a new Programme for Government. Ironically, while receiving much positive coverage internationally in terms of the degree to which the PFG is seen as progressive, even ambitious, on climate action, the reaction among many on the political and environmental left in Ireland has been altogether more muted. Time will tell as to who called this one correctly.

IRELAND’S three prospective coalition partners have just agreed the strongest commitments to climate and environmental action in over a decade.

The newly published Programme for Government, agreed after weeks of negotiations between the centrist Fianna Fáil, centre-right Fine Gael, and Green parties, is “the most progressive programme for government from a climate point of view that we’ve seen,” according to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contributor and former An Taisce President, Professor John Sweeney.

The programme now has to be ratified by the membership of each of the parties, a process likely to take upwards of a week.

While the Green Party, with just 12 out of 84 seats in the coalition, is the junior partner, it is widely seen as the winner in terms of having much of its policy agenda inserted into the programme.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have never been in coalition before, and have been bitter political rivals since the civil war almost a century ago. Fianna Fáil is viewed as populist and pragmatic on environmental issues, but Fine Gael has been the lead party in government for the last nine years and is widely recognised to have a poor record on green issues.

While Fianna Fáil are anxious to return to power after nine years, it is less certain that Fine Gael members will support coalition proposals. And within the Green Party, despite its recent electoral resurrection, where it went from two to 12 MPs, there are deep divisions over going into government.

Leader, Eamon Ryan and deputy leader Catherine Martin have been at odds on this issue, with Martin notably unenthusiastic about entering government. This view is shared by many especially younger and arguably more radical members. Three members of its parliamentary party this week abstained when the deal was voted on. It will require the approval of two thirds majority of its wider membership to enter government, and that remains in question.

Climate commitments

The Green Party’s key demand, that Ireland commits to seven percent average annual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions throughout the 2020s, is now part of the programme. This should lead to a 51 percent total emissions cut by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050.

Ireland is also planning to scrap its existing Climate Change Advisory Council, a body dominated by economists which has been seen as conservative and largely ineffective. It is to be replaced with a newly formed Climate Action Council (CAC) with executive rather than just advisory functions. The incoming government also promises to enact a Climate Action Bill within its first 100 days.

The programme also undertakes to “work with the European Commission to advance a stronger National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP) for 2030”.

The Bill will define how five-year carbon budgets are to be set and managed. The programme is notably vague on what emissions cuts will be achieved in the term of the incoming government, however. It states that “many of the changes started in the first carbon budget period (2021-2025) will only lead to reductions in the second carbon budget period”.

Sweeney warned that “backloading of the seven percent commitment to the second half of the decade is not good, and runs the risk of repeating the experience of the past, when aspirations and commitments were not realised”.

His concerns are echoed by Social Democrat member of the Irish parliament, Holly Cairns, who told DeSmog that, “without timelines and a commitment that all sectors will work to reach this target, I have grave concerns about the seven percent annual emissions target being met”.

While the mechanisms by which Ireland can achieve a 50 percent emissions cut by 2030 are hotly debated, in contrast, in the period 2005-2019, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, it achieved “at best” around a one percent emissions cut in 15 years.

Energy and transport reforms

On energy, the programme commits to delivering at least 70 percent renewable electricity by 2030. Today, around one third of Ireland’s electricity is powered by onshore wind farms. In the near-term, the plan includes adding five gigawatts of offshore wind off the east coast, between Ireland and Wales.

However, the longer term plan envisages “at least 30 gigawatts of offshore floating wind power” in the deeper waters off Ireland’s Atlantic coast. If delivered, this would position Ireland as a significant net energy exporter for the first time in its history. A €1 billion, 500 megawatt, interconnector direct to France and bypassing the UK, spurred on in part by Brexit-related concerns, is due to be operational by 2026.

While wind power has already achieved significant inroads in Ireland, solar is virtually non-existent, unlike in the UK, where over 13 gigawatts of installed capacity already exists. The programme promises to expand and incentivise micro-generation, including roof-top solar.

A key demand of the Green Party had been to end all new oil and gas exploration in Irish waters, and this has been achieved. In addition, and as recently reported by DeSmog, the proposed Shannon LNG terminal is to be withdrawn from the 2021 EU Projects of Common Interest list, meaning it has no chance of proceeding.

The programme also commits to a dramatic 10-fold increase in the national retrofitting programme, with the aim of completing 500,000 homes to a B2 energy rating this decade, which is around one in four of all Irish homes.

Another win for the Greens in the programme is a major shift in public funding on transport. For the first time, cycling and walking are to receive 20 percent of the total capital budget, which translates into a commitment of €360 million a year. This will fund upgraded and protected cycle lanes and improved pedestrian infrastructure.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, public transport capacity is severely restricted and there has been a major increase in cycling as traffic levels abated during lockdown. The programme gives the incoming government the opportunity to put in place a high-quality cycling infrastructure.

Stalling on agriculture

One crucial area where little substantive progress has been made is in tackling Ireland’s spiralling agriculture emissions, which have risen by eight percent since 2015, despite repeated claims about improved efficiency.

The rapid expansion of the dairy herd over the last five years has driven the increases, but the sector is profitable and politically powerful.

Most Irish beef farmers on the other hand are unable to make a living, and in the last two years, an additional €200 million in taxpayers’ money has been paid to prop up a loss-making sector, cash that might have been invested in supporting organic farming, which languishes at below two percent of farm land, among the very lowest in Europe.

Such reform has been stymied by the main farmers’ organisations, as they continue to lobby for the intensified commodity production model of high volume, high input beef and dairy output favoured by the agri-food corporations and meat factories.

One third of Ireland’s annual 60 million tonnes in carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions are accounted for by agriculture, with dairy and beef production producing over 92 percent of Ireland’s methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Ireland is responsible for more than three times the EU per capita average of these emissions.

The programme for government appears to fudge this issue, referring to “the distinct characteristics of biogenic methane as described by the IPCC”. The term “biogenic” is being used by lobbyists to imply that the IPCC is saying agricultural emissions are natural and therefore of little concern. The IPCC makes it clear that agricultural methane emissions are human-caused rather than natural and therefore require serious attention.

Continue reading

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Long day’s journey into the ecological abyss

‘WE ARE ALIVE in a time of worst-case scenarios. The world we have inherited seems exhausted, destined for an absolute and final unravelling’. So begins Mark O’Connell’s journey into our ever-darkening future.

There are, he notes darkly, fascists in the streets and in the palaces, while around us ‘the weather has gone uncanny, volatile, malevolent’. The last remaining truth, O’Connell proposes, ‘is the supreme fiction of money, and we are up to our necks in a rising sludge of decomposing facts. For those who wish to read them, and for those who do not, the cryptic but insistent signs of apocalypse are all around’.

The faint splattering sound that reechoes throughout ‘Notes from an Apocalypse’ is that of the shit hitting the metaphorical fan. Continue reading

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Coronavirus an appetiser for what climate breakdown has in store

The piece below ran on Thejournal.ie in early May, and to my surprise, made quite an impact, with over 83,000 views, 142 online comments and thousands of tweets and reposts on social media. Thejournal.ie is now very much part of the Irish media landscape, attracting a markedly different demographic, mostly younger, than the typical (print-based) publications I usually contribute to, so it’s especially valuable to have the opportunity to bring these difficult messages to the very people who, by dint of their youth, have to most to fear from climate breakdown in the years and decades ahead.

IMAGINE FOR A moment that our government and others around the world had been given detailed information and warnings about the coronavirus years, even decades before it finally erupted.

Imagine also that experts had shown the path to minimising or even avoiding this global disaster, but our political and business leaders, uneasy about the costs of taking action and possible disruption to commerce, chose to ignore the expert warnings as alarmist and carried on regardless.

In reality, full-blown pandemics are vanishingly rare. Almost no human is alive today who lived in the time of the ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic of 1918-19.

In the modern era, our collective cultural experience is that of taming, rather than being at the mercy of, nature in general and deadly diseases in particular. Consider smallpox: during the 20th century, it killed an estimated 300 million people worldwide. A global vaccination campaign eventually led to its eradication in 1980. Likewise, polio, another dreaded disease, has been almost completely vanquished by vaccination.

The damage done

Until very recently, premature death had been the norm for most humans. However, in the last five decades, largely freed from the threat of predators, large and small, our numbers on this earth have more than doubled, to over 7.8 billion, while average life expectancy in the same period has increased by well over a decade per person.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that this unprecedented global expansion of the human footprint has brought the biosphere, our living planet, to the brink of collapse. There are many ways of measuring this, such as the precipitous decline in biodiversity, the average annual loss of 15 billion trees, many of them from razed ancient rainforests.

A major report on biodiversity and ecosystems published last May found that the natural world is declining globally ‘at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely’.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report concluded that around one million animal and plant species now face extinction in the coming decades. ‘The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed…this loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being’, the IPBES report warned.

The unavoidable warming

We face an equally daunting and arguably more intractable challenge from climate change. In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a special report on the likely impacts of global warming at and beyond 1.5ºC over pre-industrial temperatures.

Arising from this landmark report, it emerged that in order to keep global temperatures within relatively safe limits, carbon emissions would have to fall by at least 45% by 2030, which is just ten years from now.

This is in line with commitments made by almost all the world’s leaders, including Ireland, when we signed up for the 2015 Paris Agreement, which legally committed us to doing everything possible to avoid extremely dangerous climate change at 2ºC and beyond.

This commitment was underlined in January 2020 by the all-party Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action when it agreed a minimum targeted emissions reduction of 7%+ per annum and this, in turn, has become the Green Party’s key precondition for entering into a coalition government.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the economic impact of the coronavirus is likely to see global carbon emissions fall by some 6% in 2020.

We need to flatten both the pandemic and climate change curves; we need to show the same determination and unity against climate change as against Covid-19”, according to WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas. Action, he added, would be needed “for many generations ahead.

What this underlines is that to achieve a compound 7% annual emissions cut every year from now until 2030 would require the most radical rethink of how we organise our society and economy since the foundation of the state.

Can you see it happening?

Many are deeply sceptical. Former ‘Climate Action’ minister, Denis Naughten dismissed the 7% target as ‘unachievable’, claiming it would equate to banning every private car and slaughtering every (farm) animal in the country.

Naughten is at least being consistent. Back in 2017, he threatened to block implementation of the Paris Agreement at the EU level, claiming it was ‘unaffordable’ for Ireland to implement.

Since 2011, a succession of Fine Gael-led governments has stymied meaningful climate action. As a result, Ireland has now the third-highest per capita emissions in the EU, with the average Irish citizen accounting for more than double the emissions of their high-income Swedish counterparts.

As Sweden shows, ultra-low carbon solutions in transport, energy, home heating, agriculture and industry are indeed possible, but in Ireland, these have been held back by vested interest groups pursuing short-term agendas and TDs engaged in parish pump politics.

Even Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has had to concede he was “not proud of Ireland’s performance on climate…as far as I am concerned, we are a laggard”.

At what cost?

Apart from constant lobbying by commercial and agri-industrial groups, another reason politicians have run scared of climate action is that the issue is consistently framed in the Irish media in terms of the cost of tackling climate change. However, international studies have shown repeatedly that the price of inaction far outweighs the costs of addressing the crisis.

It is estimated that the cost of the coronavirus to the global economy is in the range of $2–$4 trillion this year. A 2018 report calculated that failure to rein in climate change would deliver a devastating $34 trillion hit to the global economy – many times greater than the economic chaos arising from the pandemic.

Other estimates are even less sanguine. An Australian study published in 2019 argues that ‘climate change represents a near to mid-term existential threat to human civilisation’. Should global temperatures reach 3C over pre-industrial by mid-century, ‘the scale of destruction is beyond our capacity to model, with a high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end’, the report warns.

So, the next time someone asks if we can ‘afford’ to tackle climate change, a better question might instead be: what price isn’t worth paying to avoid the collapse of civilisation?

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator who specialises in covering the climate and biodiversity emergency. He is a contributor to The Irish Times, The Guardian and DeSmog.uk and is a regular guest environmental commentator on broadcast media. He blogs at Thinkorswim.ie and also runs the website Climatechange.ie and is on Twitter: @think_or_swim.

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Habitat/Species, Pollution, Psychology, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment