Thursday 20 June 2019

Brendan Keenan: 'Less beef and more cycling will not be enough to fight global warming'

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Brendan Keenan

Brendan Keenan

Remember 'zero tolerance'? More to the point, do you understand what it meant? For the then Justice Minister John O'Donoghue, it meant zero tolerance of crime. He was having none of it.

There would be plenty of support for that - but it's not what it meant to the New York Police Department. They clamped down on the kind of behaviour which they reckoned leads to petty crime, such as being drunk in public, or even chucking litter about.

The horror in Mr Donoghue's voice when it was put to him that his constituents might be banged up by the gardaí for singing in the street was something to behold. Little more was heard of zero tolerance.

I was reminded of this by the startling news that Ireland had become only the second country to declare a climate emergency. Startling because its performance on climate change is reckoned by the UN's Climate Change Performance Index to be the worst in the EU and 48th among the 56 countries surveyed.

There is a real emergency of course. Some dissenters still question its nature, or even the existence, of global warming. But their cause has been greatly weakened by the fact that events have largely followed the forecasts in computer models of 20 years ago - and not the more benign forecasts either.

The doubts mattered back then because the enormous costs involved in seriously reducing carbon emissions had to be weighed against the possibility that the forecast warming would not take place. That can no longer be argued convincingly.

But mysteriously, and conveniently, the enormous costs seem to have evaporated. A lot of the current comment on climate change - led in a very 21st century way by a 16-year-old Swedish girl - would give the impression that what is needed are changes in behaviour which will not only save the planet but make you a better, healthier person.

More walking and cycling, less meat, a ban on single use plastic; it all seems quite uncontroversial - although the beef producers thought otherwise. There lies the difficulty. Most of these attractive suggestions would still turn out to have significant consequences on the livelihoods of a lot of people. All the others changes needed have significant consequences for everyone.

The nearest thing we may have to an up-to-date emergency plan is the recent UK report from the Committee on Climate Change. This goes for the big one - zero carbon emissions by 2050. Not only is Britain the first country to declare an emergency; it is the first to take the much more meaningful action of setting such an objective.

The former government minister John Gummer, who chaired the committee, said the target was attainable without causing major disruption or expense. The report puts it at 1pc-2pc of GDP - the equivalent in Irish terms of €2bn-€4bn. Quite frankly, this is not believable. Even done efficiently, the installation of national broadband will cost that.

The history of UK emissions since prime minister Tony Blair commissioned a truly impressive analysis shows that progress can be made. They have fallen by more than 40pc in the last 30 years, even though output grew by 75pc.

But such measurements are always open to interpretation. Measuring consumption instead, in things such as aviation, along with the outsourcing of industry to Asia, may reduce the drop in UK emissions to just 10pc.

The Irish difficulties were well illustrated by an apparently encouraging report from the Environmental Protection Agency which said emissions from Irish power generation and industrial companies that come under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme fell by 8.2pc last year.

This was mainly down to the Moneypoint coal-fired plant being out of use for the last three months of 2018, along with a good deal of wind at the right times. Very substantial investment will be needed to replace Moneypoint altogether and the uncomfortable fact is that the economics of maintaining reserve power plants for when the wind is absent are distinctly unattractive.

The bad news is that greenhouse gas emissions from the main industrial sources increased in 2018, including a 3.6pc rise from the dairy industry. The EU scheme involves trading carbon emission excesses and savings at €20 a tonne. Ireland is expected to face a bill of €150m to "buy" someone else's unused emission permits to cover its own excess.

It is too late for the country to meet EU targets for next year. Under present policies, it will miss the 2030 agreed limit as well. Ireland's higher than average growth potential, along with the size of its dairy and beef industry, gives it particular problems which officials and ministers scandalously failed to incorporate in the original targets.

Doing so would have implied serious intent to meet those modified targets. The impression is that there never was any such intent in the political establishment. Whether they thought it would all go away, or just could not face the difficult decisions, is irrelevant now.

That is before we come to the national strategy to make Ireland a base for power-hungry data and battery storage. With all this uncertainty, there is perhaps a case for making change seem as painless as possible, to at least accelerate the process.

That creates the danger that, when the unavoidable pain does become apparent, people will not accept it. Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton seems aware of this, with his ideas that GAA clubs might get involved. Add a low carbon category to the Tidy Towns competition and he might be on to something.

We may see the need for something like that with the publication of the climate action plan, expected any day soon. According to Mark Griffin, secretary-general of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment (we are never behind when it comes to names), the plan will turn the country "entirely on its head."

He could not be blamed for feeling a little miffed that the emergency, just like the republic itself, was declared without warning, or planning. The actual plan will need to make a few waves to restore some credibility to the process.

A few waves have been made already with the suggestion of a tax on oil and gas domestic boilers. The unfortunate fact is that these humble devices are major emitters of greenhouse gas and will have to be replaced by something else. Quite a job in itself.

At the other end is the practice, common among several of my retired acquaintances, of enjoying several little foreign trips a year by snapping up late bargains and cheap airline tickets. Marvellous value, but the plane is spewing out the same amount of carbon as on a one-off annual holiday.

Ireland is in a minority in not having an aviation fuel tax. A report for the EU commission suggested that a tax which raised the average ticket price by €20 would bring in €300 million a year. If people were convinced this money was being used to invest in carbon reduction, they might, just, buy into it.

The same could be said about a general carbon tax. This gets surprisingly little mention in all the grand plans. The Budget, of course, ducked even a small tax. It is more comforting to think that renewable energy sources, better insulation healthier lifestyles and new technology can deliver the desired reductions. Comforting but unconvincing.

There will have to be less travel, less heat, less fertiliser and dearer food as well. Exhortation is unlikely to achieve that. Expensive carbon - something of the order of three times the current EU price - will be needed.

In the transition period at least, businesses will close, jobs will be lost and incomes will be lower. Measures will be needed to alleviate inequality caused by the policies. This will be accepted only if people are convinced that the alternative is even worse.

All the evidence is clearly that it is. But the 'tragedy of the commons' means that, unless the big blocs of the EU, USA and China lead from the top, there is no compelling reason for individuals to make the sacrifices required.

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