Tag Archives: Global heating

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: We are burning the world

When earlier this year I was living in Juba, the capital city of South Sudan, I did not need to read any scientific reports to realise that we are burning the world.

Juba sits in a bowl of polluted air because of constant fires and might well provide a glimpse of what a future ecological catastrophe will look like as well as what can happen when there is not enough money in the local and central government coffers to provide basic public services.

While the footpath verges in towns across our domain are kept free of litter the roadside verges in Juba are covered with household rubbish which are regularly set alight. Further, every cooked meal eaten by every one of the estimated 480,000 population is done with the use of charcoal. Added to this mix is the dust raised by traffic travelling on unpaved roads by vehicles emitting streams of black smoke. The stifling heat compounds the health dangers and unpleasantness of what must be one of Dante’s nine circles of Hell.

The reader’s response on learning this might be that Juba is on a different continent, and although you sympathize with the people living there, their plight does not really concern us here in Ireland. A different continent and climate does not mean that given the same circumstances our plight would not be the same as that of Juba.

What for instance would you do if your Local Council no longer collected your household rubbish because the refuse staff were on a long-term strike? Would you in the course of time toss your rubbish onto the verge of the street and when the unsightliness and stench of it became too much set it alight? What would the outcome be if the MOT/NCT service ceased to function as it is designed to and there were too few police officers to prosecute drivers emitting over the limit amounts of exhaust fumes from their vehicles? And in time would our roads not crumble away because of the lack of funds to maintain them?

These things already happen to a certain extent. We know that the newly formed Northern Ireland Assembly has insufficient funds to meet all of its public obligations and that an unforeseen event, or series of them, could send the international economic order into a tailspin leaving national and local governments without the financial means to fulfill their basic responsibilities. The governments north and south of Ireland are already experiencing financial constrains as illustrated by their under-funding of care packages for the elderly.

The dysfunction of public services on our island and in affluent countries across the world on the scale of what it is in South Sudan might seem to be a never-never land we are unlikely to experience. Without doubt this is what the people thought in the extinct civilizations when they were at their apex. There is no evidence that the peoples of such highly sophisticated societies as the Ancient Egyptians, the Maya, Aztecs, and the people who built Newgrange some 5,200 years ago thought that their worlds would cease to exist. Likewise, with us today.

As we tend not to like change that might be disruptive we are prone to ignore the seismic shifts taking place in the background of our lives. This is most certainly the case in regards to the degradation of the biosphere.

The recent report in Nature that the Amazon rainforest, which has been climate resilient for an astonishing 65 million years, will become savannah by 2050 due to a combination of forest fires, deforestation and climate breakdown, highlights the case that we are blithely undermining the ability of the Earth to sustain life. The expected ecological change in the Amazon will have regional as well as global climatic and economic consequences.

If we view the world in a fragmentary rather an integrated way we might think that as the Amazon rainforest is on the other side of the world we have nothing to worry about. If so we would be mistaken. For although we live on a small island we are a part of the biome and effected by ecological changes of even a moderate magnitude. Further, we are, as every farmer knows, part of the international economic order.

To take one example, Up to 90 per cent of feed that is fed to our cattle, pigs and poultry is in the form of soyabeans and maize grown in Argentina, Brazil and the USA. A major degradation of the Amazon rainforest, as the paper in Nature predicts, will affect rainfall patterns across the Americas leading to a calamitous fall in the amount of crops farmers in Ireland and much of the world use to feed their animals.

Another, not widely recognized way we are turning the world into ash and smoke is through the emission of methane gas from landfill sites, most of the organic matter from which it arises was produced by burning fossil fuels. A 2018 report by the World Bank states that methane from landfill sites makes up 11% of global warming gasses, a figure that is expected to rise substantially by 2050 due to an increase in the human population and the subsequent rise in the amount of food waste.

Our dependency on fossil fuels means that we are doing nothing less than making the world uninhabitable. Because our economy is out of sync with the regenerating capacities of the biosphere and its long-established meteorological patterns we could, within the span of a generation, find ourselves at the stage of ecological and social meltdown that Juba and many other places find themselves in today.

We our long-passed wake-up time in regard to aligning how we live with what the biosphere can cope with. However, as with our personal health, it is never too late to make positive eco changes as well as ensure that our local and central governments spend our money wisely which means on public services that benefit us all.

Eco-Awareness with Larry Speight: COP needs to be reformed

The COP climate talks, held every year since 1995, is the only international event where a concerted effort is made by almost every government in the world to reach consensus on reducing the emission of gases, namely carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, that are the cause of global warming. Given the mistrust, animosity, competition and real sense of historical grievance felt by many of these countries towards each other the fact that COP exists, and is well attended year after year, is a tangible success.

That said, it is apparent from COP27, recently held in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt, needs to be radically reformed. At COP27 there were 636 participants with links to the fossil fuel industries. A size that outnumbered the combined representation from Indigenous communities and the ten countries most affected by climate breakdown including low-lying island states whose whole way of life will likely be erased by the ravages of climate breakdown.

The intention of the representatives from the fossil fuel industries and most of the major oil and gas producing countries was transparent, which was to lobby hard against any meaningful agreement to reduce the world’s consumption of fossil fuels. They succeeded.

An item of contention was the commitment of the host country to the aims of COP. Egypt is not only a dictatorship that prohibits dissent as its 6,000 political prisoners bear witness but it is also a close ally of Saudi Arabia. At the conference Saudi Arabia along with Russia fought hard to have the 1.5C ceiling abolished, which thankfully they failed to do. They did, however, manage to get the aim of phasing out the use of fossil fuels left out of the final text while the proposal to accelerate the development of “low-emission” energy systems, a euphemism for upscaling the use of natural gas, was added.

It was perceived by many in attendance that Egypt managed the proceedings in a way that hampered the realization of the positive outcomes that many countries hoped for. The disappointment of these delegates was perhaps best expressed by Alok Sharma, UK president of COP26, who said in his closing remarks.

Emissions peaking before 2025, as the science tells us is necessary. Not in this text. Clear follow-through to phrase out all fossil fuels. Not in this text. And the energy text, weakened, in the final minutes. Unfortunately, it remains on life support.”

COP28 will be held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a major oil and gas producing country. Given that 30 per cent of its GNP comes directly from oil and gas and its tourist industry is oil and gas dependent through reliance on aviation, air-conditioning and desalination plants can the world expect it to fervently work towards phasing out fossil fuels? This is as implausible as a tobacco company hosting a conference to persuade the participating tobacco companies to agree to cease to do business. Likewise with COP29 which is likely to be held in Australia, a major exporter of coal.

There is widespread agreement that one of the few positives that came out of COP27 is the setting up of a loss and damage fund that will help those countries most adversely affected by climate breakdown. A committee composed of representatives from 24 countries will in the coming year work on deciding exactly what form the fund should take, which countries should contribute and how the money should be spent. It is envisaged that aviation, shipping and the fossil fuel companies will be asked to make significant contributions. This is not unreasonable as they on average have earned a $1 trillion a year, ever year for the past 50 years.*

A number of European countries have collectively pledged $300 million to the fund. This might seem a sizable amount but it is insignificant in comparison to the hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of damage per year that the most vulnerable countries suffer as a result of climate breakdown. In late August 2022, for example, flooding in Pakistan displaced 33 million people, killed 1,500 and caused at least $30 billion worth of damage. Like many poor countries its large international debts prevent it doing very much to make good its losses.

Sceptics will point out that it is easier to agree to contribute to the fund than actually contribute. Here one is reminded of Greta Thunberg’s comments about COP26 in Glasgow:

Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah, blah, blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah.”

The point is that in 2009 the wealthy countries, including the EU and the United States, agreed to make $100 billion a year available by 2020 to help poor, vulnerable countries prepare for the effects of extreme weather events as well as put renewable energy projects in place. Little of the money materialized. In the case of the United States, it is highly unlikely that Congress, which will be in the control of the Republican party, will approve donating money to the loss and damage fund. Without the lead of the largest economy in the world pledging money, many other countries are unlikely to.

In a nutshell the outlook for the health of the planet is not good. This is something we can’t divorce ourselves from as the life of each one of us eight billion humans, rich and poor, is directly dependent on having a healthy biosphere. A major ecological meltdown could erupt in multiple wars, from which even the wealthiest would not escape harm. This is demonstrated by Putin’s war in Ukraine where nuclear power stations are viewed as military assets, and therefore can be bombed. This is perhaps no different from the UK and the USA carpet-bombing Dresden in Germany during the Second World War. The factories, railway network and communication facilities were considered legitimate targets as were the people who worked in them.

With regard to future COPs, Simon Stiell, the UN climate chief, will scrutinize the COP process to ensure transparency, their smooth running and that they are less susceptible to the interests of the fossil fuel industries. On the basis that the fossil fuel industries peddle what the world urgently needs to wean itself off they should be banned from attending future ones.

COPs should also have strict guidelines about who their sponsors are. In the case of COP27 it was Coca-Cola, which produces more than 100 billion plastic bottles a year. Much of this plastic, which is made from oil, ends up discarded causing serious ecological problems. Such sponsors undermine the integrity of COP.

* Kevin O’Sullivan, Burning of fossil fuels relegated to side issue, The Irish Times, 21 November 2022.