Friday, September 14, 2007

Pious Platitudes and Climate Change

View of rising Earth about five degrees above the Lunar horizon, taken on December 22, 1968 - - This is one of the more famous images of the Earth from the Apollo program, taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts as they became the first humans to circumnavigate the Moon.

The rising Earth is about five degrees above the lunar horizon in this telephoto view taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft near 110 degrees east longitude. The horizon, about 570 kilometers (250 statute miles) from the spacecraft, is near the eastern limb of the Moon as viewed from the Earth.

On the earth, the sunset terminator crosses Africa. The south pole is in the white area near the left end of the terminator. North and South America are under the clouds. The lunar surface probably has less pronounced colour than indicated by this print. Photo: NASA -
US National Aeronautics and Space Administration

The issue of climate change is very important but the danger of misguided good intentions has been illustrated this week by the impact that the encouragement of biofuel production will have on food prices, in particular for the poor in developing countries and also the risk of damage to the environment.

A report prepared for a ministerial meeting by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said governments should end subsidies for biofuels, as the demand for grain for the alternative energy industry result in surging food prices and the potential destruction of natural habitats, including rain forests.

The European Union target for 2020 that 10% of energy used in the EU should come from plants, has been called into question.

Brice Lalonde, the head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s round table on sustainable development, said on Wednesday that it may not be possible to hit the target using “sustainable” methods, as called for by European Union leaders in March.

Lalonde, a French former environment minister, said: “The message was to be careful and take a long hard look at the issues. Several people were very blunt in saying that you cannot ask nature to do everything. You cannot feed people and soak up carbon and protect biodiversity and fuel cars.”

Forest burning puts Indonesia in the third rank of greenhouse gas emitters after the US and China. It is ramping up palm oil production for biofuels and the huge Kalimantan rainforest peatlands are under serious threat. When the forests are cleared the natural carbon sink that is rich in methane gas combusts and much of South-East Asia gets covered in smog.

There are many very big challenges to address in relation to climate change.

It was for example reported this week that Opec countries' demand for oil is growing prodigiously - it is rising at 2½ times the global average rate - reducing the amount they can supply to the rest of the world.

Jeff Rubin, chief economist of CIBC World Markets in Toronto, said oil cartel Opec countries and other oil producers like Russia and Mexico were "cannibalising" their own production. According to the International Energy Agency, the rich countries' energy watchdog, Opec accounted for 22 per cent of the roughly 8m barrels a day increase in world oil demand between 2000 and 2006.

Ireland of course is a small fry when it comes to climate change and our principal role is to comply with EU plans.

Minister for the Environment and Green Party leader John Gormley TD said last month that a cabinet sub committee on climate change, which will be meeting this month, will have a central role in formulating and implementing Government policies and initiatives in this area.

"The establishment of a special cabinet sub committee, which includes the Taoiseach, is an indication of the priority this Government is attaching to addressing climate change," Gormley said. "The committee and the Government have an ambitious and challenging programme of work ahead in tackling the climate change issue, in both the shorter and longer term."

The Minister said, "I envisage that by the end of the year there will be a number of positive initiatives on reducing emissions in Ireland. These include proposals for rebalancing VRT and motor tax, the establishment of a climate change commission, and ambitious new energy efficiency targets for new homes."

Gormley's comments on policy so far have been confusing.

He opposes incineration as an alternative to landfill and says that alternative technologies, such as Mechanical and Biological Treatment, built on a smaller scale, provided much better scope for reducing reliance on landfill. However at the same time, he says that European and national standards need to be set for these technologies to ensure they can operate to the highest possible standards.

Gormley said he would be issuing directions to local authorities "to ensure that local authorities do not introduce any measures to effectively skew the market in favour of either landfill or incineration by directing or guaranteeing waste streams to such facilities."

The Minister said on September 3rd that an independent international review of regional waste plans would be carried out, which will examine the potential contribution of technologies such as Mechanical and Biological Treatment.

Simply, Gormley has said what his policy is but at the same time will get an independent international review to produce a report that may well contradict it.

"In the context of this review I will also consider increasing the landfill levy from its current low rate of €15. As part of this I will also examine whether it may be necessary to extend the levy to include municipal incinerators. I do not see why incineration should not be subject to the same financial regime as landfills," Gormley said.

This is duplicity cloaked in the veneer of reason.

As an incineration plant requires significant capital investment, the message Gormley is sending is that he will ensure that such ventures are doomed. He is Minister for the Environment of a country that sends 70% of its hazardous waste overseas for incineration!

It's very much in the Irish political tradition of self-back slapping for taking "moral" stands while we export our problems. In a similar vein, we can use the import route as for example in taking electricity from the UK - which may or may not be produced via nuclear power.

It is at least something at least that the Green Party leader gives even selective credence to scientific evidence even though he has decided the issue in davance!

On Friday, his government's Chief Scientific Adviser highlighted the sharp divergence between the scientific evidence and public perceptions of GM foods. However, as with incineration, Gormley is at his best also following the anti-GM crowd.

"Minister Gormley said he was open to hearing from everybody in this debate on whether landfill levies should be increased and whether an incineration levy should also be introduced," a press release noted.

Later in September John Gormley will address a UN meeting on climate change in New York. He should use the opportunity to thank other ministers for their countries support in burning Irish hazardous waste!

When Gormley cannot provide a coherent policy for this country, God help the rest of the world!

Forest countries seek carbon credits; Indonesia's Rain Forest Peatlands

OECD report calls for end to biofuel subsidies; Food price surges and damage to the environment consequence of current policies

Rising global greenhouse gas emissions will cost more than $200bn a year to return to today’s level of emissions by 2030

About 50% of the increased demand for energy services in the 26 International Energy Agency member countries was met through increased energy use, and the other half through improvements in efficiency in the period 1990-2004

Report launched on Key Meteorological Indicators of Climate Change in Ireland

Gormley Opposes Incinerators in Ireland but Supports Export of Irish Hazardous Waste for Incineration

Extreme weather the norm across globe; Temperatures highest since 1800