Harder thinking on global warming

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OISIN COUGHLAN OF FRIENDS OF THE EARTH argues cogently in today’s Irish Times that we have to stop flying so much. Can this be the same Oisin Coughlan who told Harry McGee [IT 25 January] that Friends of the Earth did not campaign against a second terminal in Dublin airport, because of “the current inadequacy of the airport”?

The government intends to double Dublin airport passengers to over 30 million between 2005 and 2030 with the new terminal and a new runway – both recently permitted without proper assessment of their greenhouse gas effects and opposed by few environmental organisations. It is shocking that Friends of the Earth consider the “inadequacy” of the airport justifies inducing this level of demand when as Mr Coughlan eloquently notes “if aviation continues to grow unchecked it would account for all our permitted emissions well before 2050. All other polluting activity including much that is essential for human survival – would have to stop”.

The coalition government has adopted a reasonable target of 3% average annual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. It is important that our infrastructure reflects a desire to reduce emissions too. At the moment we are building and expanding airports, roads and ports (for carbon-heavy imports) as if global warming didn’t exist. It is likely that this is how the Ireland of the future will be environmentally delinquent despite, ostensibly, so much current good will.

It’s time for environmentalists and government, including the Greens, to be honest and hard-minded and to join up the thinking. The debate on global warming in Ireland is primitive and unanalytical. We need to recognise the following:

Only governments can stop runaway global warming. They need pressure. From us!

Let’s go back to first principles.

When the known facts change we should change our minds – and our behaviour.

Science is now saying that global warming is an unambiguous fact, that we are disproportionately responsible in Ireland, and that it will threaten the lives of billions of people and of whole species worldwide.

Why no Change?

So why is Dublin airport set to double its capacity with general approval from schizophrenic media that purport to acknowledge global warming and its dangers? Why was the debate on Shannon-Heathrow connections conducted (even by the Greens) as if aviation is self-evidently good, why does a weekend bargain-hunting in New York seem normal to Aer Lingus and why is irresponsible Ryanair not a national embarrassment? Why are SUV sales up 30% over the last year? Why are “patio heaters” respectable?

The problem

The dramatic party-pooping truth is that the rich West needs actually to REDUCE emissions 90% by 2030 to avert a rise of more than one and a half degrees heat which could cause the Greenland icecap to melt and the Amazon forest to die, precipitating runaway global warming. Maybe, to be fair, 95% here in Ireland.

How to deal with it

The inconvenient truth is that for Greenhouse Gas Emissions it’s not the Power of One it’s the Power of Government to tax, impose individual carbon limits and insist on sustainable development only.

Power of One and Power of Government It would be nice to think that the power of one is enough. We need just change incrementally, turn off that last light before we go to bed, , fly off on eco-holidays only, believe what the lifestyle supplements tell us – that we need to consume more green goods rather than simply fewer goods. We do this and that nasty depressing stuff can’t happen. In fact this thinking is dangerous in practice and in principle.

The solemn truth is that we could not all as individuals just reduce our emissions by 90% without massively adulterating our quality of life. Of course we should admire those who try but it is not fair to make of saving the planet individual martyrdoms. Gestures will not be enough. Just as with the phase-out of CFC aerosol sprays, only if government changes the framework can individuals save the planet fairly and, even more importantly, effectively. Our efforts should be targeted on changing government, on applying our power to theirs.

Ireland Is one of the worst countries for annual greenhouse gas emissions per person: at 18 tonnes; the UK for example is at 11. Sweden, with a population of 9 million, emits less greenhouse gas than Ireland. We have also exceeded our Kyoto increase limit by nearly 100 per cent several years before the deadline.

The Coalition government is committed to 3% average annual emissions reductions. This is the right commitment if it is met. It will be captivating to see how serious this government is in its first year. Certainly we have heard the radical target. We have not yet heard the radical means.

I believe three years into their term of government the greens will panic as it becomes clear we will not meet these targets. The first year is not going to produce the requisite reduction and after that it will be catch-up. As dealing with climate change was their justification for entry into government they should be doing much more.

What government should discourage
I want to take a few sectors that no politician will tell you the truth about. These rampant, but apparently taboo, contributors to global warming will simply have to be stifled.

Aviation, which is overwhelmingly an activity of the richest elements in society, is responsible for between 4 and 9 per cent of the climate change impact of global human activity (more in the EU). But because of air travel’s extraordinary projected growth rates, according to the Tyndall Centre on Climate Change, the UK’s best known academic body specializing in climate change, aviation emissions will amount to at least 40% – and possibly 100% – of total allowed emissions at least there by 2050. Nor, despite the gyrations of Richard Branson, is technology going to change the gross carbon addiction of aeroplanes: the International Panel on Climate Change says “there would not appear to be any practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for commercial jet aircraft for the next several decades”.

Clearly we must join up our thinking on flying and global warming. Yet a vision of burgeoning aviation prevails everywhere it matters. Even the august Irish Times speaks out of two corners of its mouth on this issue. You cannot avert climate change catastrophe and be neutral on aviation expansion. The time for reporting growth in aviation as if it were manifest progress is over. And so we cannot be impressed by Ryanair’s recent announcement that it expects to double its passenger numbers to 100 million in five years’ time, or that Dublin Airport, pursuing the current government’s policies, is planning and developing for a doubling of passenger numbers to 30m annually by 2020 and for up to 40m by 2025 or by Fine Gael and Labour’s desire for a new airport to serve Dublin – presumably supplementing expansion of the existing airport.

Aviation has had its day, though the aspirations of the airline industry do not yet reflect this. In another world it might be possible to get excited about new jobs in Aer Lingus or the idea of a nice new airport for Dublin but in OUR world air travel, especially for leisure purposes, now needs to be repressed. Depressingly, trains and even boats do not necessarily seem to be much more efficient than planes, though ultimately trains can be fuelled by renewable electricity. Still for the moment the lesson seems to be to avoid long-distance travel.

Apart from bypasses, it is a mistake – because they encourage carbon waste, – to be building motorways. The present Government’s plan is to build, widen or upgrade 850km of roads, costing €18 billion, over the next eight years. The thrust of this consensual political policy has been to encourage use of the private car since new roads induce new demand. As a result at the beginning of 2007 Ireland contained 2,296,393 vehicles. This total represents an increase of over 500,000 vehicles (37%) since 2000 and an increase of over 1 million vehicles (82%) since 1995.

At 29% of greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture accounts for more than any other sector of the economy including – alarmingly – transport, more than in any other EU country and almost double the proportion in France where farming accounts for just 17%. More than half of this is produced by cattle digesting grass and flatulently belching methane. It can be reduced by keeping cattle indoors – not an attractive, green option, killing cattle younger or sowing grass that includes organic acids. Individuals can avoid eating beef that depends on an animal, bred for human consumption, eating a disproportionate amount of vegetable matter. But try telling that to the IFA or Supermacs.

Clearly flowers grown in Zambia or Chinese strawberries depend on aviation. Ireland depends on imports of many goods from China. We import goods to the value of € 3.7bn from China annually. As of 2000-2001, China’s economy was three times more energy intensive than even the US’s so buying Chinese imports, while keeping emissions off Ireland’s national emissions register is a sign of an unsustainable economy. We need to review the sustainability, including long-term economic sustainability, of much of our trade. This is not yet an issue of respectable political debate but it will become one.

How Government should use its power
A good primer on how to achieve the 90% reduction is George Monbiot’s HEAT (Allen Lane 2006). For a start governments will need to introduce a carbon rationing and trading mechanism for individuals. Environmental fiscal reform “eco-taxation” should tax carbon-squandering and subsidise low-carbon goods and technology. Particular sectors require nuanced measures.

For homes, government must massively improve building regulations so houses are perfectly insulated against cold and heat (“passive houses” already do this).

For electricity, generators can strip the carbon dioxide out of fossil fuels before they are burnt and bury it. According to a recent German government study, European governments could pool electricity supply and demand that renewables including cross-continental wind and wave, Saharan thermal and Icelandic geothermal comprise80% of the total using breakthrough high-voltage DC cables to avert the dangers of inadequate supply when the weather is unhelpful in parts of the continent. A study in July suggested using hydroelectric reservoirs and vanadium flow batteries could increase this figure to 100%. We need to be realistic about how much domestic wind and solar power can help in Ireland – there obviously and simply isn’t much sun in winter for example – but government can incentivise developers to transform all buildings into mini-power stations adding up to local energy networks or “the energy internet”, using generators instead of boilers and generating not just heat but electricity also. Longer term, if governments promote research it is likely that hydrogen could be produced in the home, with the waste heat, generated in the production, used to warm the home. And on a larger scale local authorities should integrate District Heating systems into new developments, as with the Dublin Civic Offices.

For transport, cars are unsustainable. In Europe average fuel efficiency has actually been in decline as people buy bigger cars than ever before. Hybrids are simply not different enough from the average, biofuels take up too much land, seem to require a lot of energy in production and tend to be generated from palm oil which generates other environmental problems including deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia where it comes from. Again, governments need to provide incentives for use of new car technologies. Hydrogen cars will be exciting but will not be widespread for at least twenty years. Electric cars could have worked well but were killed off by all their stakeholders as shown in the movie, Who killed the Electric Car?” Meanwhile the solution again lies with government which must improve public tranport. Sustainable transport should prevail, predominantly buses which are flexible but should be rendered outstandingly luxurious – with coffee machines, internet access, movie-screens etc; and run on expansive dedicated laneways. Rail, trams and metros have their own more glamorous place.

So we’re going to need to change – and radically. Indeed so radically that very few will be willing to do it unless everyone is seen to be changing. And that – except for pioneers, zealots and martyrs – will require government action.

The most important thing is for governments to impose individual (tradeable) carbon limits. Then if you fly to New York return for a hooray’s stag-weekend, emitting 1.54 tonnes of carbon you must reduce your emissions elsewhere in your lifestyle. This is a month of current average emissions per head or nearly a year’s emissions when we reduce by the 90% required to save the planet.

Then we need environmental fiscal reform “eco-taxation” to send a price signal in favour of low-carbon products.

Finally, only sustainable development should be allowed from now on. This should be incentivised. Unsustainable development should be disincentivised and, where appropriate, prohibited.

You can deny global warming or just deny its significance for you – and your significance for it. You can believe in the supreme value of improved light-bulbs – that incremental change will see us through – if you want. But it is not true. We have to pull together to force government to act radically and early. You can deny it but you’ll have to reinvent Politics and Science to suit your complacency. And you’ll be in the company of flat-earthers and smoking/cancer link deniers. That, for you and me, O well-travelled, beef-eating, Consumerist, future-denying reader, is the Inconvenient Truth.

2 Responses to “Harder thinking on global warming”

  1. […] michaelsmith.ie wrote an interesting post today on Global warming: patio heaters and weekends in BratislavaHere’s a quick excerpt … ould cause the Greenland icecap to melt and the Amazon forest to die precipitating runaway global warming. Maybe, to be fair, 95% here in Ireland….No Change So why is Dublin airport set to double its capacity with general approval from schizophrenic media that purport to acknowledge global warming and its d angers?…Only governments can stop runaway global warming…Rampant contributors to global warming will simply have to be stifled…. […]

  2. Hi micheal,great blog.I’m not being a skeptic or anything but 29% sounds a phenomenal amount for beef.Where did you get your figures from,becuase I’d like to research into that myself, and also for imports-do you know where to get a list of what products and who imports them into Ireland-how did you also get the 3.7 billion euro worth of products imported information?Again that is also something I’d like to look into.

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