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.

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In climate emergency, BAU is the road to unmitigated ruin

In early May, my first post appeared on The Currency, a business-oriented subscriber-only website launched by journalists Tom Lyons and Ian Kehoe and specialising in in-depth reportage. It’s not where you might typically expect to find a fairly downbeat assessment of the climate crunch, our heavily constrained future and a critique of many of our fundamental assumptions about economics, including the belief in perpetual growth, but I felt it was an opportunity to reach a different audience and was pleased to chip in the below article:

“Amid escalating climate emergency, business-as-usual is a road to unmitigated ruin”
An enduring legacy of the coronavirus crisis may be the widespread new awareness of the extraordinarily fragile state of our world, how utterly we are at the mercy of nature, and how quickly everything we take for granted can unravel.

In early January, 2019, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof penned an article titled: ‘Why 2018 was the best year in human history’. A year earlier, his January column carried the identical title, this time describing 2017 in similar terms.

Returning to the theme, Kristof’s column on December 28 last was titled: ‘This has been the best year ever – for humanity overall, life just keeps getting better’. He outlined what he saw as as the three most important global trends in the early 21st century: ‘our progress toward elimination of hideous diseases, illiteracy and the most extreme poverty’.

Three days later, on New Year’s Eve, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was formally notified by the Wuhan Municipal Health Committee that 27 cases of pneumonia ‘of unknown aetiology’ had been detected.

One month later, with almost 10,000 cases of the novel coronavirus confirmed, the WHO on January 31 formally declared a global public health emergency. Humanity’s ongoing battle to eliminate hideous diseases had just suffered its largest reverse in over a century.

What the coronavirus has brought into dramatic recent focus is an understanding that Earth scientists have long since internalised: human civilisation, our economies and our societies, are wholly owned subsidiaries of a functioning biosphere, our planetary life support system. If this system fails, then the 100-century story of human progress and flourishing since the end of the last Ice Age comes to an abrupt, harrowing end.

To be absolutely clear: this system is failing. Or, to be more precise, it is in the process of being destroyed, wittingly or unwittingly, by human actions. And as this destruction rapidly comes home to roost, we may yet look back on the early 2020s, coronavirus notwithstanding, as among our halcyon days.

‘Our species is now at the pinnacle of its numbers, its geographic spread, its power, and the fraction of the Earth’s productivity that it commands. That is the good news’, according to anthropologist Jared Diamond. ‘The bad news is that we are also involved in the process of reversing all that progress much more rapidly than we created it. Our power threatens our own existence’.

Diamond’s book, ‘Collapse – how societies choose to fail or succeed’ charts the slow rise and often sudden unravellings of civilizations throughout recorded history. While the circumstances and factors triggering major failures vary greatly, he notes two common threads: the first is resource depletion and the second is that societies on the verge of collapse remain almost invariably completely blinded to the nature of their predicament, choosing to reject evidence of their vulnerability even as the proverbial walls begin to crumble.

A contrarian approach to growth

Take economic growth. As everyone knows, it is essential for a functioning economy, and it is something we confidently expect to continue ad infinitum. What’s more, all our modern economic models are predicated on this fundamental axiom.

But is the assumption correct? American economist, philosopher and co-founder of systems theory, Kenneth Boulding identified what he believed as a crucial error when he wrote in 1933: ‘Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist’.

Boulding’s injunction towards caution was swept aside in the unprecedented period of frenzied economic expansion that kick-started as World War II came to an end in 1945 and continues to this day. It is known as the Great Acceleration, and it has involved near-exponential growth in global GDP, primary energy use, fertilizer consumption, urban population, foreign direct investment, transport, telecommunications and international tourism.

For the 20th century as a whole, global population quadrupled, the world economy grew 14-fold, while global industrial output grew 40-fold. To fuel this explosive increase in activity, energy use increased 13-fold, water usage grew 5-fold and coal production went up by a factor of seven.

The toxic by-products of this era have piled up equally rapidly, including a 17-fold increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that plays a critical role in determining global temperatures. Sulphur dioxide grew 13-fold, while global air pollution increased 5-fold during the tumultuous 20th century.

All these trends have intensified through the first two decades of the 21st century, with the coronavirus shutdown the first significant setback on this insatiable and seemingly unstoppable growth trajectory.

In fairness to Kristof, he is entirely right to point out that humans, as a species, have never had it so good. The share of the biosphere now sequestered by a solitary species (and its agriculture, industry and domesticated animals) is entirely without precedent, as are the impacts of our planetary dominion.

Consider the half century since 1970. In that time frame, human population has more than doubled and average life expectancy has increased from 59 to 72 – an astonishing advance in a single generation. Progress, however, turns out to be a zero-sum game. As humans have gained, countless other species and ecosystems have lost heavily.

A major UN report published in 2019, based on a review of over 15,000 scientific and government sources, found that 75% of terrestrial and 66% of marine environments had in this period been ‘severely altered’ by human actions.

The same study found that around one million species are now threatened with extinction as a result. “The overwhelming evidence of the (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) report presents an ominous picture,” according to IPBES Chair, Professor Robert Watson.

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide”, Watson concluded.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been producing its annual Living Planet Report for decades, and it is considered the gold standard in the field. Its 2019report found that the wild populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians have declined, on average, by some 60% since 1970. That means that almost two-thirds of the world’s wild animals, the products of millions of years of evolution, have disappeared in just the last 50 years.

While destroying biodiversity is catastrophic for animal and plant life, researchers point to the growing number of zoonotic diseases (those passed from animals to humans), from Ebola, bird flu and Sars to coronavirus, that have emanated from human incursions into the natural world.

The US Centers for Disease Control now estimate that some 75% of new or emerging diseases infecting humans originate in animals. The persecution of wild animals for the so-called wet markets of Africa and Asia helps provide ideal opportunities for viruses to jump from one species to another, or for dangerous new strains to be incubated.

Surface temperature and biodiversity

While it achieves the most attention, wildlife destruction is not restricted to mammals and birds. Insects have existed on Earth for at least 400 million years, and possibly as far back as half a billion years, which is long before even the dinosaurs evolved.

The insect kingdom survived the asteroid impact 66 million years ago that wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs and have long been the bedrock of life on Earth. For every human, there are an estimated 200 million insects and arthropods outweigh us by around a factor of 70. Yet this world too is crumbling.

A major European study published in 2017 found that the biomass of flying insects in Germany had fallen by an astonishing 76% since 1991. Anyone over the age of 40 will understand this viscerally. I clearly remember driving at night during the summer in the late 1980s and early 1990s and having to use the wipers repeatedly to clear the ‘bug splat’ from the windscreen.

Today, you could drive the length of the country at night and only encounter the occasional flying insect. The reasons for this precipitous decline in insect life are manifold but overall there is no great mystery. While pesticides are deadly to insects in even the slightest concentrations, globally farmers spray an astonishing 2.5 million tonnes of pesticides a year, with Irish farmers accounting for well over 3,000 tonnes annually, according to data from the Department of Agriculture.

Herbicides are equally deadly to insects, by selectively wiping out the wild plants they depend on for food. Over 136,000 tonnes of Monsanto’s ‘weed-killer’ glyphosate are sprayed annually. Insects are a critical food supply for a host of other animals, from birds and bats to frogs, hedgehogs, moles and toads. Insects are also key pollinators for the bulk of the world’s flowering plants, while healthy soils depend on the work of legions of arthropods.

The only form of agriculture that is not actively destructive of wildlife is organic farming, yet despite Ireland making much play of its ‘Origin Green’ credentials, less than 2% of Irish land is farmed organically, making us the second least ‘green’ country in the entire EU.

While the chemical warfare on the natural world by agri-industrial giants continues unabated, the chemistry of both the global atmosphere and oceans is also changing rapidly. Largely as a result of fossil fuel burning, atmospheric CO2 levels have risen by over 30% since the 1950s. This is by far the fastest rate of change in Earth history.

Globally, average surface temperatures have already increased by over 1ºC versus pre-industrial. This may not sound like much, but it’s already the largest and most rapid global temperature shift in over 10,000 years. UN scientists in October 2018 published a report indicating that the danger line for global warming is just 1.5ºC.

Even at this level, severe impacts will have already occurred, but at 2ºC and beyond, significant parts of the Earth will in the near future become too hot for human or animal life to exist unless sustained by air conditioning.

However, on current projections, global temperatures this century are set to increase by 3-4ºC, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). To look at what a 4ºC world would mean, the World Bank published a report in 2012, titled ‘Turn Down The Heat’. Its president, Jim Yong Kim described a 4ºC world bluntly as a “doomsday scenario”.

A world 4ºC hotter is one in which people and countries ‘would experience severe disruptions, damage, and dislocation…there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible’. Based on current warming trends, the United Nations is projecting a median figure of some 200 million people being climate refugees by 2050, while acknowledging that this number ‘might reach one billion’ in this time frame.

The geopolitical instability and chaos triggered by hundreds of millions of desperate refugees, combined with widespread starvation as global agricultural systems fail would likely lead to the collapse of many nation states and the effective end of globalised trade and travel by mid-century.

In 2015, that most conservative of institutions, the US Department of Defense warned that climate change ‘is an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water’.

*****

In short, and however wrenching it may be for us as individuals to accept, the science is crystal clear: business-as-usual is a road to unmitigated ruin, and the only sane choice remaining is to do everything in our collective power to change course while change is even possible.

The phrase ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ is sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill in describing the unlikely wartime alliance of the US, Russia and the UK that led to the formation of the United Nations. In the three decades in which intergovernmental processes have been in place to tackle global carbon emissions, these emissions have in fact increased by over 60%.

However, according to the Global Carbon Project, the impact of the pandemic in 2020 could see a 5% reduction in global carbon emissions – dwarfing the 1.4% (temporary) decline that followed the financial crisis of 2008.

This is likely the largest emissions cut since World War II, yet it still falls well short of the estimated 7.6% rolling annual emissions reductions we require, according to UN scientific estimates, to avoid dangerous and irreversible climate impacts.

Crucially, we need to engineer a way to achieve compound reductions in emissions of this scale, year after year until the global economy is effectively completely decarbonised. If that sounds like an impossible ask, bear in mind that if we fail, we face ruin on a scale that will make the coronavirus crisis pale into absolute insignificance.

We now have to do the unthinkable to avoid the unimaginable.

This is, by some distance, the greatest collective challenge humanity has ever faced. Failure is not an option as its consequences are too terrible to even consider.

Ultimately, I believe the most enduring legacy of the coronavirus crisis may be the widespread new awareness of the extraordinarily fragile state of our world, how utterly we are at the mercy of nature, and how quickly everything we take for granted can unravel.

Tackling the pandemic has also underlined the need to restore the primacy of expertise and, crucially, to heed the warnings of science. We have also been forcefully reminded that responding to global threats requires strong national and global governance and well-funded and managed institutions.

True freedom, in short, isn’t free. It’s not even cheap.

John Gibbons is an Irish environmental journalist and campaigner and the founder of the climatechange.ie

Posted in Biodiversity, Economics, Global Warming | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Irish LNG plan ‘dead in the water’

The spectre of massive quantities of imported (fracked) gas flooding into Ireland via a new terminal in the Shannon estuary was dealt what looks like a fatal blow when both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail accepted the Green Party’s position that, from a climate point of view, such a development was wholly untenable. My report below was published in early May on DeSmog UK.

IT IS INCREASINGLY unlikely that Ireland will develop new infrastructure to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) produced from fracked wells in the US, after the plans suffered a series of potentially fatal legal and political setbacks.

First, the European Court of Justice advocate general, Juliane Kokott, ruled that An Bord Pleanála, Ireland’s planning appeals body, erred in not requesting an up-to-date environmental impact study for the proposed Shannon LNG terminal before extending planning permission for a planned project. The decision means the case would have to be referred back to Ireland’s High Court.

Meanwhile, the political climate regarding the project has turned distinctly hostile, with the two major centrist parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil this week signing a joint letter that appears to signal the death knell for the LNG project.

Political pressure

The letter came in response to an explicit demand from potential coalition partners, the Green Party, that the main parties “commit to ceasing the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure, particularly LNG terminals, that could allow the entry of unconventional LNG into the Irish energy mix”.

In reply, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil party leaders Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin agreed that it “does not make sense” to build new large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure of this kind. In recent years, Fine Gael MEP, Sean Kelly, has been a major supporter of this project, and his influence was seen as key in having it designated as a European Project of Common Interest.

In the past, the official stance of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has been pro-LNG, with Sean Kelly a massive champion in Europe”, Dr Aideen O’Dochartaigh of the NGO Not Here Not Anywhere told DeSmog. “This week’s statement is significant in that it is a complete u-turn of their policies to date”.

However, O’Dochartaigh cautioned that the document includes significant caveats and opt-outs around energy security, though these appear to relate to the wider issue of a complete ban on all new fossil fuel infrastructure, also sought by the Greens.

The Shannon LNG project appears to be politically “dead in the water”, according to climatologist, Prof John Sweeney, though he warned that some of the promises being bandied about at the moment “feel like something of a honey trap, they could try to back off them when the next recession comes around”.

As DeSmog previously reported, the proposed LNG facility would be a massive deepwater terminal in the Shannon estuary on Ireland’s west coast, capable of docking the world’s largest LNG supertankers, and opening Ireland up to the import of fracked LNG by ship from the US.

Ending fossil fuel licenses

The Green Party also sought a complete phasing out of all fossil fuel exploration licences. The Irish government had already agreed to not allow new oil drilling licences but, on the advice of its Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC), kept the option of gas drilling open. However, in a surprise move, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil this week stated they were “committed to a pathway to phase out all fossil fuel exploration licences”.

This is a stinging rebuff to the CCAC, which last October claimed Ireland would need to continue to explore for new offshore gas as it would be part of the state’s energy supply for the next three decades.

Without gas, Council chairman, economist Professor John FitzGerald claimed there would be “a serious risk to life and limb”. At the time, Climate Action Minister, Richard Burton went along with FitzGerald’s advice, which was roundly condemned by environmental experts.

Professsor Barry McMullin of Dublin City University described the CCAC’s attempt to separate oil and gas exploration as “almost theological” given the reality that both activities are inextricably linked.

While the two main centrist parties have now stated they are open to extending the oil exploration moratorium to include gas, it is understood this does not affect licences that have already been issued, so prospecting may continue in Irish waters for some time.

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Approaching the Precipice

My review of ‘The Precipice’ by moral philosopher, Toby Ord appeared in The Irish Times on May 1st. It’s an intriguing exercise, with Ord estimating humanity at having a one-in-six chance of becoming extinct by the end of this century. Those odds are the same as spinning the chamber of a revolver, Russian Roulette-style, and pulling the trigger. However, I would disagree with how he goes about ranking and assessment of various risks. 

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THE TEAM of US experts secretly working on the development of the atomic bomb made a profoundly worrying discovery in 1942: an atomic explosion would create temperatures on Earth (15 million ºC) hotter than at the centre of the sun.

What might such an unprecedented inferno trigger? Scientists openly speculated that it could well ignite the hydrogen in the world’s oceans, or nitrogen in the atmosphere, setting off a cataclysmic fireball capable of extinguishing life on Earth almost entirely.

Despite being aware of the existential risk this entailed, on July 16th, 1945, the Trinity nuclear test went ahead. As author Toby Ord notes, “this was a new kind of dilemma for modern science”.

As the atomic fireball rose into the desert sky, one observer, Harvard University president James Conant, feared the worst. “My instantaneous reaction was that something had gone wrong, and that the thermal nuclear transformation of the atmosphere…had actually occurred.”

These fears turned out to be groundless, and within weeks the US had dropped two of its deadly new weapons on Japanese cities.

Ord assigns July 16th, 1945, as the beginning of what he terms the “precipice”, our new era of heightened existential risk. Humanity, Ord argues, “is akin to an adolescent, with rapidly developing physical abilities, lagging wisdom and self-control, little thought for its long-term future and an unhealthy appetite for risk”.

While adults impose constrains to keep adolescents in check, no such mechanism exists for humanity to collectively lay down and enforce the rules to keep its awesome destructive power in check, Ord adds. He cites the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention: “This global convention to protect humanity has just four employees, and a smaller budget than an average McDonald’s.”

Adolescence

Ord is a moral philosopher at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, and while teasing out the many risks humanity faces (he estimates we have a one in six chance of total extinction this century), his overall analysis is sweepingly optimistic. If we can survive our own turbulent adolescence as a species, he believes humanity has quite literally a place among the stars, and a future without limits.

It is a bold, relentlessly upbeat hypothesis. “This book is not just a familiar story of the perils of climate change or nuclear war. These risks that first awoke us to the possibilities of destroying ourselves are just the beginning.”

Rapidly emerging risks from biotechnology to novel pandemics to advanced artificial intelligence, he argues not entirely convincingly, “may pose much greater risk to humanity in the coming century”.

Latterly, carbon emissions, which Ord describes as a minor side effect of industrialisation, have “eventually grown to become a global threat to health, the environment, international stability and maybe even humanity itself”.

Ord’s thesis is that humanity stands at the edge of the eponymous precipice, facing on the one hand extinction, yet on the other a future full of possibilities beyond our present capacity to even imagine. “Humanity opening its eyes, coming into its maturity, and guaranteeing its long and flourishing future. This is the meaning of our time,” he posits.

Ord’s chapter outlining the key anthropogenic threats lucidly sets out the risks arising from climate breakdown. Reviewing the available evidence, he points out that “we could plausibly end up with anywhere up to 13ºC of warming by 2300 – and even that is not a strict upper limit”.

Ecosystems

The overwhelming consensus among climatologists is that a global temperature increase of 4-6ºC or higher is likely to be lethal to most species and ecosystems on earth, and will virtually wipe out agricultural systems. Yet having grasped this point, Ord lets it slip in concluding that when assessing climate and ecological risks “none of these threaten extinction or irrevocable collapse”.

In his concluding chapter Ord looks beyond the skies, suggesting rather improbably that if we could reach one nearby star, “this entire galaxy would open up to us…if we could travel just six light years at a time, then almost all the stars in our galaxy would be reachable”.

The author believes that humanity is unique not just on Earth but perhaps in the cosmos. “The main obstacle to leaving our solar system,” he concedes, “is surviving long enough to do so.” This view of human exceptionalism might be better leavened with more humility about our all-too-human shortcomings.

Yet Ord is a defiant Utopian, choosing to believe that humanity yearns “to end the evils of our world and build a society that it truly just and human”, adding that “many of the harshest injustices visited on our fellow humans are behind us”.

The Precipice is a well-researched and extensively annotated survey of global existential risk. Yet some of its key conclusions appear ultimately to be as much the product of earnest wishful thinking and techno-optimism as philosophical reflection.

The Precipice – Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity is published by Bloomsbury (ISBN-13: 9780316484893)

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Sustainability | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Earth Day – 50 years later, and deeper in ecological debt

This is piece ran on Cassandra Voices on April 22nd, the 50th anniversary of the inaugural Earth Day in 1970:

FIFTY years ago today, more than twenty million people took to the streets in towns and cities across the U.S. in what was and remains the largest environmental protest in history. On that evening’s news, CBS anchor, Walter Cronkite intoned: “a unique day in American history is ending, a day set aside for a nationwide outpouring of mankind seeking its own survival”.

Cronkite went on to describe Earth Day as an effort at “saving lives from the deadly by-products of that bounty – the fouled skies, the filthy waters, the littered Earth”. One in 10 of the then entire population of America took some part in Earth Day, with bipartisan support across the political spectrum, as well as from both urban and rural areas.

While it harnessed the momentum of the protest and social movements of the late 1960s, such as the anti-war, civil rights and women’s movements, the enduring effect of Earth Day was to be at a political and policy level: by the end of 1970, the (Republican) Nixon administration, bowing to the public mood and with the 1972 presidential election in mind, sanctioned the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as passing a raft of highly significant environmental laws and regulations.

Notable among these were the National Environmental Education Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and, crucially, the Clean Air Act. In 1972, the U.S. Congress also passed the Clean Water Act, and in 1973, the Endangered Species Act became law. In the years that followed, a raft of other federal laws and regulations were enacted.

Given the vast influence of the U.S., these regulations in turn were widely emulated around the world and have had profound and enduring impacts on water and air pollution in particular in many parts of the so-called developed world, including Ireland.

Hyper-partisan politics

Viewed through the political prism of today’s deeply dysfunctional and hyper-partisan U.S. politics, it seems almost quaint to recall a time when people, irrespective of their politics, religion or skin colour, broadly agreed that eliminating deadly toxins from the air that they breathed and the water that their children drank was a good idea.

Fifty years later, the ideologically toxic Trump regime is busily dismantling large chunks of the progressive regulatory framework that the actions of the U.S. environmental movement ushered into being in 1970. Most sane people think it’s probably a bad idea to allow high levels of mercury, a potent and irreversible neurotoxin, to be released into the air from coal-burning plants.

Yet regulations limiting mercury emissions from coal-burning are currently being scrapped by Trump. So are rules blocking leaking and venting of hydrofluorocarbons from large air conditioning and refrigeration systems. These chemicals are highly potent greenhouse gases and, according to a 2015 NASA study, are also contributing to global ozone depletion.

Criminal enterprise

A devastating list of 95 of the major recent assaults by the Trump administration on environmental regulations was compiled by the New York Times late last year. Anyone still labouring under the impression that this is anything other than a family-run criminal enterprise, abetted by some of the most corrupt politicians/grifters in the long and often deeply corrupt history of U.S. politics, should take some time to review this list.

But the key point remains: the original Earth Day was the foundation event for the modern environmental movement, and affected enduring changes in public and political attitudes towards pollution in particular, especially where the evidence of its deleterious effects were impossible to conceal.

Air and water quality in the developed world improved markedly from the 1970s onwards, partially arising from Earth Day legacy, but also due to the offshoring of much of the West’s highly polluting heavy industries, which had triggered the crisis.

So, wealthy countries began to de-industrialise, not by consuming less and living more modestly, but by shifting the axis of production – and pollution – over the horizon, to poorer countries where environmental standards were mostly non-existent and where politicians and public officials could far more easily be paid to look the other way, and desperate workers would accept a pittance to work in conditions dangerous to their own health and damaging to the communities where they lived.

Global warming

Another crucial element missing entirely from the original Earth Day was any consideration of global warming. While the concept was well understood within the scientific community by then, it had zero traction in the wider public, and much of the scientific establishment treated it more as an academic conundrum about what could possibly happen at some date several decades hence.

In 1970, global carbon dioxide (CO2) levels stood at 325 parts per million (ppm), having risen from 316ppm when systematic scientific measurements began in 1958. The highest pre-industrial CO2 levels had stood at 280ppm, so the atmosphere in 1970 was already carrying 15% more CO2 than before the industrial revolution.

This matters enormously, as the trace gas, CO2 is the atmosphere’s key chemical thermostat. Dial it up, and temperature rise, almost in lock-step. What about in the fifty years since then? Today, global CO2 levels stand at around 416ppm, which means it has risen by over a quarter in just five decades.

This is likely the most rapid shift in atmospheric chemistry in Earth history. The last time there were CO2 levels this high was in the Pliocene, an era from 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago. Then, sea levels were 20 metres higher than today, and trees grew at the South Pole, and overall global temperatures were 3-4ºC higher than today.

This unprecedented spike in atmospheric CO2 levels since 1970 will continue to impact temperatures on this planet for centuries into the future. Already, it has led to a rise in the average global surface temperature by just over 1ºC versus pre-industrial. This is the largest single temperature shift since the end of the last Ice Age.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the red line for dangerous and irreversible changes to the Earth’s climate system lies at around 1.5ºC, which is already perilously close to today’s levels. The IPCC advises that every effort must be made to decarbonise the global economy to avoid such a scenario.

Based on today’s level of emissions, the global ‘carbon budget’ for +1.5ºC will have been exhausted by 2030. Even the economic downturn arising from the coronavirus pandemic (estimated to see a 5% cut in emissions this year) may only slow this process down by a matter of months.

To avoid breaching the +1.5ºC danger line by 2030, global emissions will need to have fallen by a staggering 60% by then. Nothing short of a global political, economic, social and cultural revolution could effect such a profound transition in such a tight timeframe. In reality, our current economic model, coronavirus notwithstanding, sees emissions actually accelerating at the time we need to be hitting the brakes and bracing for impact.

Anthropocene

However dramatic the rise in global emissions and temperatures have been in the last five decades, this almost pales into insignificance when measured against the toll humanity has taken on the natural world over this period. We have eradicated almost two thirds of all the wild mammals, birds, fish and reptiles in just 50 years.

The last time a global mass die-off on this scale occurred was some 66 million years ago, in the wake of the asteroid impact that led to the extinction of all non-avian dinosaurs. Many scientists have already designated the current era as the Anthropocene, the era of human impacts, and state that the sixth great mass extinction event in Earth history is already well underway.

Researchers used the term ‘biological annihilation’ to describe the nature and extent of what they termed the ‘frightening assault on the foundations of human civilisation’. It should be borne in mind that while this carnage ultimately threatens humanity, it has already laid waste to hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary progress and, in the process, brutally simplified countless once-complex ecosystems.

“The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language”, said Prof Gerardo Ceballos of the National University in Mexico, commenting on the major study published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Today, over three quarters of the entire world’s land surface has been ‘significantly altered’ by human actions, with tens of millions of hectares of forests razed and cleared for agriculture. The hunting of wildlife for food is another force accelerating extinctions, with at least 300 species of mammals facing near-term extinctions as a direct result of the bushmeat trade.

At sea, the anarchy is even worse. Over 90% of the world’s large predatory fish, from sharks to tuna, marlin and swordfish, are already gone, with many species now on the brink of extinction. Studies project that as soon as 2048, the world’s oceans will essentially have been emptied of fish.

The vast fishing fleets that scour the oceans have the capacity to catch-and-destroy fish far more quickly than species can breed. Further, ocean acidification as a result of global warming is accelerating, while surface water temperatures are rising quickly, further disrupting marine life.

On top of this, tens of millions of tons of plastic waste is ending up in the world’s oceans every year, then slowly degrading from polymers into near-microscopic monomers, trillions of which are now contaminating the base of the entire marine food chain, as these pollutants are being inadvertently ingested by marine creatures from krill to sea birds. One estimate states that there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans by 2050 than fish.

‘We are stealing the future’

It hasn’t all been one-way traffic. As nature has waned, the human footprint has expanded inexorably. Since 1970, the global population has more than doubled, from 3.7 billion to over 7.8 billion today. In 1970, the total gross domestic product (GDP) of the world economy was around $23.8 trillion (in 2011 values) but by 2019, this had quadrupled, to almost $90 trillion.

Californian environmentalist and author Paul Hawken’s description of the predatory nature and mindset associated with the cult of endless economic expansion has never been bettered: “we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP”.

While the original Earth Day was inspired by people’s experience of ecological degradation they could see and even smell all around them, and while it achieved some notable successes as detailed earlier, its ultimate legacy is one of acute failure.

We humans proved unable (or unwilling) to extend our empathy to other species, to nature itself, and to act unselfishly on behalf of people in other places, or indeed of all future generations. This did not of course happen by accident.

Neo-liberal thought

Generations of neo-liberal thought have helped inure humanity against the pain of the natural world and the suffering of others, both humans and fellow sentient animals, while shielding the billionaire predators, who have profiteered from this ruin, which is the consequences of their actions and inactions.

Our species achieved spectacular evolutionary success not just by brute force and violence, but primarily by our ability to cooperate, and the strength and complexity of our social structures. These have been worn threadbare by decades of atomised consumerism.

This too did not happen by accident. Fifteen years before the inaugural Earth Day, US economist, Victor Lebow laid out the template for the brave new world of expansion and consumption in 1955: “our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

The Consumer Age is now at an end; replaced, I would posit, by the Age of Consequences. As the industrial revolution began in earnest in the early 19th century, poet William Wordsworth, perhaps sensing the fatal shift then underway in humanity’s relationship with nature, wrote presciently:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune

Posted in Biodiversity, Global Warming, Sustainability | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Shattering the illusion of control

Below, my piece for Greennews.ie, published on March 26th, just as the grim reality of the Coronavirus pandemic was finally hitting home in Ireland:

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Right now, millions of people around the world are waking each day with a sensation of panic in the pit of their stomach, a feeling that likely gnaws at them constantly, and is sharpened with every news bulletin and headline.

For anyone who has been closely following the unfolding horror story that is the global climate and biodiversity emergency, these are feelings are only too familiar. As author David Wallace-Wells wrote recently: “The age of climate panic is here…the planet is getting warmer in catastrophic ways. And fear may be the only thing that saves us”.

Of course, no one really believed him, just as no one has believed the mountains of scientific evidence built up over the last three decades and more. After all, if this stuff was true, then everything we think we know is wrong, and the very edifice of our industrial civilisation is built on sand, and that couldn’t possibly be the case, could it?

Up until a couple of weeks ago, if you tried telling anyone in Ireland that an emergency of the kind we’re now experiencing is not just possible, but almost inevitable , you would be immediately dismissed as a Chicken Licken alarmist, extremist or bug-eyed activist.

That was then. As the shock begins to wear off, the first casualty of our strange new reality may be the shattering of the illusion of control. Many people are now, perhaps for the first time in their adult lives, feeling profoundly helpless – and afraid. Our politicians, business and society leaders are equally stunned, but in Ireland, at least, we have responded reasonably well.

To see how else this crisis might be playing out, you only have to look to the UK or US and their cack-handed efforts to contain the pandemic seriously hampered by the populist antics of Johnson and Trump. Their glib slogans have proven no match for a reality that cannot be bluffed, tweeted or browbeaten out of existence.

During his inaugural speech in March 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to calm a public deeply traumatised by the economic crash of 1929. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” was how FDR memorably put it. He went on to point out the many positives, including that nature “still offers her bounty”. Nearly a century later, we face into the first of many global crises with a bounty that has been severely depleted and nature itself critically degraded.

Crises in purely human-made systems such as economies can indeed be fuelled by raw emotion and likewise abated by a shift in public sentiment or attitude. The rules governing the physical world are altogether less pliable as the climate and latterly the coronavirus crises have shown.

“I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act”. These famous words were spoken by Greta Thunberg at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos in January 2019.

In words that eerily presaged the arrival of Covid-19, Thunberg added: “You say nothing in life is black or white. But that is a lie. A very dangerous lie. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control or we don’t. Either we choose to go on as a civilisation or we don’t. That is as black or white as it gets. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival”.

World leaders and assorted celebrities gathered at the Swiss resort shifted a little uneasily in their seats as the young activist set out the options in the starkest of terms: “We all have a choice. We can create transformational action that will safeguard the living conditions for future generations. Or we can continue with our business as usual and fail”.

Last May – as much out of embarrassment as actual concern – the Oireachtas declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. It was the kind of stunt that politicians love: grand-sounding declarations drained of meaning and vague aspirations towards action at some indeterminate future point safely beyond the political career horizons of those making the statements.

Not even the sight of prosperous Australia in flames at the start of this year, with unprecedented devastation that left over a billion animals dead, could make a dent in our collective sense of detachment from and indifference towards the fast-approaching darkness.

Professor Liz Bentley of the UK Royal Meteorological Society told the BBC in February that extreme weather events everywhere around the world were “a wake-up call to the reality of climate change”.

She was absolutely wrong. As the Amazon burned, then the Arctic, then parts of Greenland, rather than waking up, humanity simply rolled over, hit the collective snooze button and went back to sleep.

Ecological own-goal

While death, destruction and ruin has been sweeping ever deeper through the natural world as ancient habitats and species are wiped out and entire ecosystems razed to the ground, the chief architects of this maelstrom – people in the so-called developed world – have been astonishingly immune to the blowback from environmental destruction. So far that is.

Now, as the coronavirus pandemic gathers pace, entire populations in the western world are, perhaps for the first time since the 1940s, gripped by fear, feeling their ontological security crumble, seeing the tables finally turned as a deadly new viral micro-predator targets homo sapiens as an abundant and largely defenceless host.

We thought we held the whole world in the palm of our hands. We were wrong.

Evidence is emerging that that novel coronavirus we are facing is in fact a spectacular ecological own-goal. As author David Quammen wrote recently, we have created a near perfect environment for the virus to flourish as we cut down forests and kill or cage wild animals and send them to markets. In the process, Quammen says that we are disrupting ecosystems, shaking viruses “loose from their natural hosts” and welcoming them instead as our guests.

Ever-increasing rates of transmission of disease from wildlife to humans are now “a hidden cost of human economic development”, says Dr Kate Jones of University College London. She sees these zoonotic diseases as linked to environmental disruption and human behaviour. It is us, humans, she says, who are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, yet “then we are surprised that we have new ones”.

There will be countless consequences arising from this novel coronavirus outbreak. For one, the return of Big Government. Following decades of neoliberal attack and relentless privatisation, the power of governments to effectively govern has been weakened, with transnational corporations in many cases now wealthier and more politically powerful than nation states.

Any fleeting sense that Apple, Google, Richard Branson or Jeff Bezos were going to save the world from Covid-19 or climate breakdown is well and truly dashed. Anyone expecting the corporate leopards to change their spots in a crisis is a poor student of recent history.

Take EasyJet, for example. Despite possessing £1.6 billion in cash, it is currently lobbying furiously for state aid as much of the world’s airline fleets are grounded. And while demanding taxpayer bailouts, EasyJet has decided in the midst of the current crisis to go ahead and pay out a £174 million dividend to shareholders, including £60 million to its founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou.

This, in the new Gilded Age, is state welfare for the mega-rich and bare-knuckle capitalism for the rest. Just as Haji-Ioannou fills his pockets with tens of millions, EasyJet has told staff to accept zero pay (yes, zero) for three months.

With hundreds of thousands of jobs lost in Ireland alone and tens of millions across the world as a result of the coronavirus shutdown, the risk of recession tipping into a full scale global economic depression grows daily.

This is why the once-heretical notion of the State providing its citizens with a universal basic income has seen a dramatic comeback. As a recent opinion piece in Bloomberg put it: “The state, much maligned in recent decades, is back, and in its fundamental role: as Leviathan, the preventer of anarchy, and the ultimate insurance against an intolerable human condition in which life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In the same article, author Pankaj Mishra adds: “It has taken a disaster for the state to assume its original responsibility to protect citizens”. He was talking about Covid-19 but could as easily have been describing climate breakdown.

If some long-term good is to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, it has to be in states rediscovering their mojo, and in a new understanding that the threats that confront humanity are truly global in scale and nature and can only be confronted by decisive action and tough choices based on the best available scientific evidence.

This, combined with a traumatised public newly shaken from the slumber of easy consumerism and political disengagement, could help form the conditions for an era of purposeful austerity where the existential threats that confront us are, at last, squarely addressed. We have few choices remaining. This is one.

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

Climate change making a tough situation worse in sub-Saharan Africa

Though it genuinely feels like a couple of years, it is in fact only a number of weeks since I returned from a working trip to Zambia towards the end of February. The main purpose of the visit was to see at first hand and report on how Zambia is coping with the ever-intensifying impacts of climate change.

I travelled with Irish-based NGO, Self Help Africa, which operates in a number of countries in the region. As a first-timer in Africa, there are significant practical and logistical challenges to be overcome, especially on a short visit, in order to cover as much ground as possible, and SHA were very helpful in accommodating the many demands of a busy itinerary.

My first print report from the visit was filed with the Guardian in early March, and there  also were interview slots on NewsTalk’s Pat Kenny Show, with Mario Rosenstock on Today FM and Declan Meehan on East Coast FM to discuss my findings (a more substantial 1,200-word piece ran in The Irish Times Science page in April). Given the tsunami of coronavirus-related coverage that has blanketed the Irish media since late February, I was grateful indeed to find some outlets prepared to dedicate some coverage to the unfolding climate emergency in central and southern Africa.

On arrival on February 16th, we encountered a country already on alert for coronavirus, in the shape of a fully gowned medical official in Lusaka airport, where all visitors were required to fill out a detailed form relating to their health and travel prior to landing in Zambia. Everyone’s temperature was also being checked and recorded. No such checks were in place in Dublin either on departure or on return a week later.

While the epicentre of the virus has switched from China to Europe (and now to the US), the paucity of healthcare facilities in sub-Saharan Africa mean that coronavirus will, in time, take a grim toll. In Malawi, for instance, there are roughly two ICU beds per one million inhabitants; in these circumstances, anyone needing intensive care is likely to die.

As my visit to Zambia began, the coronavirus still seemed a long way away, in a country still reeling after a series of severe droughts and flooding events over the last two to three years. The average Zambian accounts for 0.29 tons of carbon emissions a year, or around 40 times less than a typical Irish person.

Among the stops on the itinerary was a visit to the Kariba dam, which features a massive 2.1gw hydroelectric power plant that is jointly operated with neighbouring Zimbabwe, and which provides a large portion of electric power for both countries. However, severe drought has seen water levels plummet at Lake Kariba (the world’s largest man-made lake, at 5,500 square kilometres, or more than twice the size of Luxembourg).

I plan to write at length about this trip at a future point. For now, I’ll conclude with the report below as filed with the Irish Times on April 23rd:

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Shifting rainfall patterns a growing threat to farming in sub-Saharan Africa

ONE OF the more ominous indicators of climate change in sub-Saharan Africa has been the dramatic recent shifts in rainfall patterns. With rain-fed agriculture crucial for the livelihoods of millions in the region, a better understanding of this is critical to help the most vulnerable to mitigate climate impacts.

UCD’s School of Earth Sciences is involved in a collaboration with Irish-based NGO Self Help Africa (SHA) in examining isotopes from deposits found in caves in southern Africa to assess historic rainfall patterns before the era of written records.

To better understand current rainfall patterns, SHA has also deployed 184 weather stations and seven river-line gauges across Malawi and Zambia. “We are looking at the critical periods in a crop’s growth cycle, in terms of temperature and rainfall, and aiming to change the planting dates so you can avoid these periods,” according to Paul Wagstaff, senior agricultural adviser with SHA.

Although not indigenous to Africa, as with the potato in Ireland, maize has become a staple for many smallholder farmers, and is now favoured over more traditional crops such as sorghum and millet. While maize is productive, its key limitation is a lack of tolerance to high temperatures and drought conditions.

Gathering timely information via rain gauges and other technologies is only half the story. Disseminating this in a timely manner to farmers in remote areas is equally important. Basic mobile phones are an almost universal and vital part of life in Zambia, with a 2012 study finding that adults spend almost 20 per cent of their daily income on phone credit.

Messaging system

A technology company, Viamo, has developed a user-friendly SMS-based messaging system where farmers in the region can dial a number and receive up-to-date information on rainfall in their area, with advice on, for instance, when to plant.

As the system is voice-activated, illiterate farmers can receive recorded instructions in their local language. If a user has a specific problem, such as insects, the low-cost system can quickly guide them to the appropriate information. It also issues severe weather and disease outbreak alerts.

While cheaper mobiles are common in Zambia, Kenya has a greater number of smartphones, and this offers more sophisticated services for farmers. One system, developed in conjunction with Penn State University in the United States, uses an app that employs artificial intelligence to detect viral diseases in cassava. This app integrates with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation remote sensing software which monitors water availability in a given area.

I visited Zambia in late February in the aftermath of the latest severe drought to hit the region to assess the impacts, as well as to see what steps were being taken to mitigate the impacts of climate change in the region.

As a result of ongoing extreme weather conditions, about 2.5 million Zambians are now in receipt of food aid. Among these is Catherine Milambo, who farms in the village of Malalika in Kafue, in southern Zambia. She described how her typical maize harvest would amount to about 15,000kg, but drought conditions have seen this plummet to about 500kg. Her family now receive aid in the form of mealie meal (a coarse flour made from maize) and small amounts of cash.

Another villager, Habeene Mable, explained her concern at the cutting of trees for charcoal, believing it is contributing to the irregular rainfall that now plagues the region. She has begun to plant fruit trees as part of a project to help farmers diversify crops and increase food resilience.

Dennis Mooya, senior agriculture officer with Zambia’s ministry of agriculture, works with local communities in Kafue and surrounding areas to help them cope with the tough new conditions. “Thirty years ago, we all knew that by the time it was [Zambian] independence day on October 24th, the rainy season would have started, but now it’s after November 15th before you have the first planting rains.”

This loss of almost a month in the traditional rainy season has a major impact on rural smallholders dependent on rain-fed agriculture, he acknowledges. “I think we need to awaken to the fact that we have a problem, a climate-related challenge,” Mooya adds. “Now, let’s ask ourselves what if it doesn’t rain completely – what are you going to eat?”

He points out that 70 per cent of the food produced in Zambia is grown by smallholders. “We need to start thinking about smart agriculture and water-harvesting technologies for these farmers.”

Climate stresses are being exacerbated by unsustainable practices, such as indiscriminate ploughing and land clearance for crops, unmonitored grazing by farm animals and excessive monocropping, according to Wallace Benn, environmental officer in Kafue. Concerted efforts to introduce conservation agriculture techniques are ongoing. These include no-till planting and maintaining almost total soil cover to prevent it drying out.

Benn is deeply concerned at rising temperatures and dramatic shifts in rainfall. “Now, with the whole climate change scenario, everything is falling apart. We even have situations where people are migrating within the country to do something with their lives other than agriculture,” he adds.

“The western world is trying to dedicate resources more to (climate) mitigation – we understand this urgency, but the urgency in developing countries is not mitigation, it’s in adaptation,” says Carol Mwape Zulu, chief climate change officer in the ministry of lands.

“Our livelihoods are impacted and the infrastructure, the little that is there, is getting damaged. It’s drawing development back,” says Mwape Zulu, who is based in the capital, Lusaka. Dedicating more resources towards adaptation, she believes “would be a fair response by the western world towards assisting developing countries”.

In its formal submission to the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change, Zambia projected climate-driven GDP reductions in the coming decades as a result of declining agricultural activity “and its associated effects on poverty levels, the potential impact of an energy crisis, the higher cost of treating climate-related diseases, and the loss of natural resources”.

Hydroelectric station

South of Lusaka is the Kariba dam, a vast hydroelectric station capable of producing 25 times more power than Ireland’s Ardnacrusha plant, and source of about half the electrical needs of both Zambia and neighbouring Zimbabwe. The dam is fed by lake Kariba, the world’s largest artificial lake. Despite its huge size, the lake has dropped by about six metres in the past three years, leading to frequent power cuts in both countries.

It is deeply ironic that a clean electricity source in a country with extremely low CO2 emissions (Zambians produce 0.29 tons of CO2 per capita, or 40 times less than the average Irish person) should be severely impacted by the climate-heating effect of emissions produced in the “developed” world.

Another indirect climate impact is that Zambia is now experiencing rapid deforestation, with more than 270,000 hectares being lost annually. Much of this is as a result of farmers cutting trees to produce charcoal to try to offset income losses due to drought and flood damage. The frequent power cuts make charcoal popular in the cities as a reliable material for cooking. Charcoal sellers now line almost every roadside in rural Zambia.

Since the western world has so far failed to act to rein in emissions, mean annual temperatures in Zambia are, according to Irish Aid, projected to rise by a further 1.2 to 3.4 degrees by mid-century. This, even before the impacts of coronavirus are taken into account, paves the way to a dangerously uncertain future.

– John Gibbons travelled to Zambia with Self Help Africa and received practical assistance from the Irish Embassy in Lusaka

 

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