21 August 2008 Edition
Renewables must be centre-stage in fight against climate change
IF YOU think about some depressing facts – that you can’t afford to pay your electricity bill this month, there’s an ongoing war devastating Iraq, and the ice caps are rapidly melting – you’ll find they all have something in common: they’ve all been caused by our addiction to fossil fuels. This dependence, while causing pain now, threatens nothing less than the future destruction of our civilisation through global warming.
Scientists have been warning us for decades of this climate crisis, and awareness has eventually risen around the world of the scale, causes and effects of climate change.
The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2) from the burning of coal and oil, is rising rapidly, trapping heat and causing warming. Leading environmental experts argue that we now have between five and ten years to dramatically slash carbon emissions to prevent irreversible and unpredictable ‘runaway’ climate change.
Speaking to An Phoblacht this week, the Sinn Féin MEP for the Six Counties, Bairbre de Brún, who has been working in the EU Parliament Committee on Climate Change, described climate change as “the greatest challenge we have ever faced”.
There is a growing international consensus that we must meet this challenge with the sense of urgency, co-operation and political will that the problem demands, she said.
Speaking in the EU Parliament, de Brún said:
“The need to prepare for the effects of climate change should be blindingly obvious to all by now. Our society and economy need to change as our climate does.”
Climate change is occurring at a much higher speed that previously expected. We have strictly limited time to achieve what’s necessary to prevent disastrous climate change – changing from high-carbon, polluting, wasteful economies dependent on fossil fuels to efficient, sustainable societies powered by renewable energy.
Scientists are now warning that the loss of the entire Arctic ice cap appears to be inevitable and that there is a 75 per cent chance that it may occur as early as 2010-13 – a full century before the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted.
When the Arctic sea ice melts it will no longer reflect the sun but the water will instead absorb heat, increasing the melting pressure on the land-locked Greenland ice sheet. Only a few years ago, climate experts were predicting sea levels would rise by between 20cm and one metre by 2100, but if the Greenland and west Antarctic ice melts, sea levels may rise by several metres in a matter of decades.
Climate change is already well and truly upon us, with weather patterns becoming increasingly erratic and an increase in natural disasters, flooding, droughts and storms.
In Ireland, we’ve seen a rise in flooding and severe gales over the past few years. Coastal flooding, less moderate temperatures, more storms and heavier rainfall are all expected effects of climate change on Ireland over the coming years, which will impact on agriculture and biodiversity.
Some climate change is now unavoidable, but most experts believe the worst effects can be prevented if we keep warming to below a global rise of 2°C. Basically, we need to immediately stabilise the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and then quickly reduce it. The IPCC recommends that, to do this, we have to cut emissions by at least 60-80 per cent below the baseline 1990 levels by 2050 at the latest.
In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed. There are currently 182 countries that have ratified the treaty, with the notable exception of the United States. Kyoto came into effect in 2005 and commits signatories to binding carbon-emission reduction targets, aiming to achieve an overall reduction of five per cent below the baseline by 2012.
Kyoto was a positive move forward for international co-operation in negotiating a framework to achieve emission reduction but it’s only the first step. Future agreements must be truly global and we must establish effective mechanisms for monitoring and enforcing reductions, eliminating loopholes. Above all, it must place the transition from carbon-based fuels to clean energy at its core and aim for the reduction level that experts agree is necessary to avoid disaster.
De Brún points out that future agreements must take into account the need to help underdeveloped countries prepare for the impact of climate change: “A phenomenon not of their making but for which they will suffer disproportionately.”
As a prominent member of the EU Committee on Climate Change, de Brún has been playing a leading role in negotiating the EU Parliament’s position on the future international framework post-2012. At the UN Summit on Climate Change in Bali in December, a developing consensus projected that industrialised countries need to cut emissions by 25-40 per cent by 2020 and that an 80-90 per cent cut was necessary by 2050 to keep warming below 2°C this century.
But at the G8 summit in early July, an agreement was announced that aims to reduce emissions globally by just 50 per cent by 2050. The G8 statement is a retreat from the minimum reductions demanded by the international community at the UN summit in Bali. Around the world, environment activists are saying that this unelected body of powerful nations cannot be allowed to sidestep their responsibilities and undermine the UN as the centre for co-operative international action on climate change.
As part of the EU’s target of cutting emissions by eight per cent overall by 2012 under Kyoto, the 26 Counties agreed to limit emissions growth to no more that +13 per cent above 1990 levels.
But reducing emissions was obviously not prioritised by the Fianna Fáil-led government during the boom years. Instead, the Government pushed private transport, refused to introduce a carbon tax, and relied heavily on carbon trading to meet its obligations under Kyoto. In 2007, Ireland’s emissions were 23 per cent above the agreed target.
Green Party Environment Minister John Gormley claims Ireland is now on track to meet the Kyoto target, with 21 per cent of emissions reductions to take place outside of the 26-County state through the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. Green Party ministers in Government are pushing for the inclusion of a carbon tax in the December budget.
In order to effectively go beyond our Kyoto commitments, Bairbre de Brún believes both governments in Ireland need to introduce a Climate Protection Bill that legislates for an ambitious target in reduction of CO2 emissions and provides the legal basis to monitor and enforce this. She says:
“Sinn Féin believes that a target of reducing CO2 emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 is a step in the right direction, following the example set by the Scottish Government who also set legally binding targets to reduce CO2 emissions by 80 per cent on 1990 levels by 2050.”
Over the past number of years, the Irish Government has done a good job of demonstrating the limitations of carbon trading as the main plank of a climate strategy, showing how emissions trading schemes can be cynically abused.
Sinn Féin’s Environment spokesperson in the 26 Counties, Arthur Morgan TD, explains:
“Carbon trading aims to provide the means for governments and corporations who are unable to meet specific targets to be able to instead pay for the reduction of carbon emissions in some other project or country. Pricing carbon is a way to raise the fact that burning fossil fuels has an environmental cost, and it is supposed to be an economic incentive to switch to renewable sources.
“But for years the Fianna Fail-led government, which has the capacity but not the will to reduce emissions through energy efficiency and investment in clean energy sources, has been far too reliant on trading to meet its targets. This means that the extra cost of buying carbon credits to allow companies in Ireland to continue to pollute the environment is shifted onto taxpayers.”
He says this approach reflects “a total failure in providing leadership to face the climate challenge” and delays the necessary changes in Government investment and infrastructure policies.
As the ‘tipping point’ of irreversible climate damage approaches fast, the limitations of over-reliance on carbon trading are being demonstrated not only in Ireland but elsewhere. The extra costs associated with being able to continue to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will not necessarily be a ‘market signal’ to bring emissions down if the price of carbon credits is cheaper than switching to renewables.
In many cases, it has not resulted in investment into renewable energy sources and the extra cost has simply been shifted onto ordinary people through rising costs.
“What’s urgently needed in addition to carbon trading schemes is public investment into new technologies, energy sources and infrastructure – such as a major extension of our public transport system – that can power our society with clean energy and effectively slash emissions. This has to be at the centre of our national strategy for reducing our emissions.”
Arthur Morgan told An Phoblacht that while Irish environmental activists and NGOs had high expectations for the environment ministry under the direction of the Green Party, these have unfortunately not been met.
“This is because the Greens have committed themselves to the narrow framework of the Fianna Fáil Government, which is in essence business as usual for the environment instead of the bold changes necessary to deal with climate change.”
Referring to the defeated Lisbon Treaty, Morgan adds:
“The leadership of the Irish Greens have badly damaged their party’s environmental credentials by their enthusiastic support for a treaty that would bind us into the promotion of nuclear power over renewable energy.”
Along with local residents, Sinn Féin is involved in the campaign to stop the proposed incinerator in Wicklow and, in the Six Counties, to prevent a chicken litter waste incinerator going ahead in Glenavy. De Brún has campaigned in the EU against incineration as a so-called climate solution to waste disposal and heat generation.
“Sinn Féin has pushed for the ‘greenest’ possible policy in waste management to be implemented,” Bairbre de Brún says. “This involves prioritising wherever possible prevention, recycling and reuse. Central to this position is our rejection of incineration as a dangerous, toxic practice.”
Whatever John Gormley’s policy limitations are, at least he believes global warming is happening. Environmental activists and NGOs must have met the news in June that the Democratic Unionist Party had appointed Sammy Wilson as the Northern Executive’s new Environment Minister with nervous laughter, thinking it was some sort of joke. Wilson constantly questions the evidence that climate change is a threat to the planet and he strongly favours nuclear power.
North Antrim Sinn Féin’ MLA Daithí McKay describes the DUP decision as “grossly irresponsible” and says that the environment will suffer because of it. He said that First Minister Peter Robinson is “clearly going for the nuclear option” by appointing Wilson.
McKay has called on the new Environment Minister to rule out participating in the deadly bribe being offered by the British Government: for jobs and money to flow to councils that ‘volunteer’ to host radioactive waste.
Internationally, nuclear power is one of the dubious sources of alternative energy being suggested by certain vested interests. The British Government has recently announced plans to build eight more nuclear power plants in the coming years.
The best solution to quickly reduce emissions is to use the existing, proven clean energy technology we have: solar, wind, and geothermal power. Enough solar energy falls on the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 per cent of the world’s energy needs for an entire year. And when the demand for renewables goes up, their costs come down: the opposite of finite fossil fuels.
With public investment and incentives, we can immediately and dramatically expand the use of renewables in the production of electricity - at the household and industrial level.
By investing in and expanding the infrastructure, we can build a quality all-Ireland public transport network that overcomes the car-dependent culture arising from decades of under-investment in the transport system. Industrially, rail transport and ship freight are less damaging than road transport.
Daithí McKay says:
“The irrational nature of partition is brought into sharper relief than ever when it comes to the question of climate change. The causes and effects of global warming won’t stop at an artificially-created border, and neither should our strategies for dealing with the problem.
“Sinn Féin believes we need to establish all-Ireland legislation and an Environmental Protection Agency to push forward and enforce a strong programme on emissions and pollution. As economic and political integration proceeds, we will benefit from economies of scale while pursuing sustainable development.”
Arthur Morgan says:
“I know we are talking about major changes in our economy, our society and our lifestyles, but this is what is necessary. We need to work together on a global scale to come up with creative solutions based on the hard scientific facts on warming that we are faced with.
“Sinn Féin views the climate challenge with the utmost seriousness and we aim to work at the local, national and international level to do everything we can to contribute to the global effort to halt climate change and protect our planet.”