A Dismal Truth – climate change policy is failing

Clouds of Carbon

About: Popular Irish TV environmentalist Duncan Stewart is passionate in his beliefs about climate change and the urgent need for a carbon tax. As written for Energy Saver magazine (2008) and many of the points Duncan makes are still holding true.

Title: A Dismal Truth
Popular awareness of climate change has never been higher. Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth successfully spread the ecological message to a wide audience.
The EU in March 2007 have agreed strict new targets to cut carbon emissions and within that goal, the Government has published a White Paper on the shake-up of the energy sector with a strategy for meeting carbon emission targets.
Surely it is time to recognise that progress is being made in the reform of the Irish energy sector?
Not so, says, Duncan Stewart. “There’s no credit due to anything going on at Government level on renewable energy.”
Instantly recognisable with his trademark white hair as the personable presenter of Eco Eye on RTE 1, Duncan is one of our most widely known proponents of environmental reform in all walks of Irish life.
Duncan Stewart, environmentalist
“Our total energy from renewables is still at only 2%.” Our 90% dependency on imported petroleum fuels will increase to 93% in a few short years. Given that “We’re on the end of a pipeline from Siberia, we’ve no security of supply.” The Kinsale gas field is all but run dry and the Corrib Gas deal is so tied up that to Duncan at least, it appears as if the Government is “owned by the oil companies.”
Ireland has overshot its relatively soft Kyoto targets by more than double the margin allowed. We’re at the bottom of every EU table on emissions and getting worse.

Out of Control Climate Change

The average person in Ireland emits an estimated 17 tonnes of carbon a year. The Taoiseach is estimated to create 146 tonnes, much of it coming from the private jet the Government deploys to hop to meetings in Europe.
“It’s out of control.” says Duncan, simply. “We’ll be at a tipping point in climate change in a few years. And we’re doing nothing to stop it.”
Emissions of Greenhouse Gas
The Government have recently promised to plant trees to offset this, but will it be enough?
“The first thing you would do if you were being responsible is get rid of that jet.” Duncan says. Yet he does not stoop to party politics.
“My view is that the political parties should be coming together on this,” says Duncan, “Because these are unpopular issues that are necessary for the Irish people.”
Climate Change Leadership Needed
Duncan gets around the country and meets a lot of folk. Does he find that there is a general awareness of the importance of climate change out there?
Emphatically he says, “Yes. My view is that the Irish people want leadership on this.”
Duncan suggests a “Climate Change Ministry” is urgently required. All planning such as Transport 21 is then reassessed in terms of its climate change impact.
At the moment, the problems and solutions are spread over several ministries such as transport, environment, agriculture and natural resources. Nobody has ownership of the single biggest issue facing the country. It would be a statutory body with real power. The instrument of that power?
“We need a carbon tax, BADLY, in this country,” he says, “And if any Government going into the next election hasn’t got a SERIOUS commitment to carbon tax then this country’s not facing up to climate change.”
Duncan points out that the carbon control obligations don’t go away in 2008. They roll over and get tougher. Ireland’s strategy for meeting these obligations appears to be little more than buying carbon credits on the international markets. The Government has applied a budget of EUR15 per tonne of carbon at the base price. But, as Duncan points out, “As the squeeze for carbon credits comes on, the price of carbon is going to go up.”
“If the EU is serious about reducing emissions, then we will be forced to pay over much more for carbon than the Government admits, from EUR50-EUR100 per tonne.” In that regard, the Government’s set-aside is, according to Duncan, “misleading” and “irresponsible.”
Duncan’s TV-presenter persona is of a well-informed, affable architect with a mission to inform rather than campaign. But what the camera sometimes fails to capture is his immediate passion about the environment.
Duncan’s mild manner is punctuated by frustrated rumblings. He’s clearly committed to seeking progress in dealing with the environmental issues facing us. He apologises because he gets “angry about these things”. Everything from construction through transport to energy is a source not just of runaway emissions but disappointment.
Windfarm ImageThe Government line may be summarised thus, the emissions are up because economic growth is riding so high. What they’re not telling us is that high emissions are going to be a serious threat to our economic well-being in future, because of higher costs of production through a combination of environmental and taxation changes.
“Europe will impose very, very heavy costs on carbon. It will restrict carbon in such a way that the cost will rise very rapidly.” The dismal truth is, in Ireland, we are totally unprepared for when that happens.
The State’s own ESB is belching out more greenhouse gases than all other industrial and transport sectors combined. Clearly, they have no impetus to improve as their totals are increasing. Duncan points out the particular challenges in the Irish set up.
“The fundamental problem with power in Ireland is that the ESB is a monopoly and has blocked any initiatives on renewable energy”, he says.
Close on their heels in mushrooming emissions is the cement industry. It feeds one tonne of carbon into the atmosphere for one tonne of materials into the building boom. Energy rating specifications for housing have been forgone. Developers have been given a free hand because, he says, the Government and construction industry are “seriously in cahoots.”

We have opportunities here in Ireland – we have wind, we have tidal.

This process helps create the infamous sprawl, which in turn feeds the runaway transport emissions, up 140% since 1990. (The EU average rate of increase is 25%.) Land is treated as a “cash crop” to be developed. In the face of vested interests, Duncan is glum about the prospects of political change. “They won’t rock the boat.”
As “privatisation” of the ESB drags on, I put it to Duncan that we will inevitably have to buy nuclear generated electricity from abroad. He disagrees.
“I don’t believe so. I believe we have opportunities here in Ireland that other countries don’t have. We have wind. We have tidal. First of all, we could develop Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants.”
Small, efficient local stations plugged into a new grid saving energy and creating district heating. “Bring the power station to the source of the demand.”
Tidal Power Potential
Duncan also has reason to believe tidal power will be successful with the development of Wavebob technology, whose inventor, Irish physicist William Dick, had to go to Belfast to get support for. He’s now trialling several systems across Europe, including Germany, Belgium and even the Atlantic off Galway. But, as Duncan points out, “if we’re going to have serious wave power in five years we need to make major investments now. That investment is not happening.”

“The only way to make alternative energy supply viable is to increase it’s price.”

With oil being pumped out of the ground in the middle of war zones for as little as a dollar a barrel, nascent clean energy technology is priced out of the commodity energy market.
“Economically,” he explains, “the only way to make alternative energy supply viable is to increase it’s price.”
Al Gore’s position on climate change is as a moral issue, which may not be to everyone’s taste, but Britain’s recent Stern report predicts that climate change could shrink the global economy by as much as 20% in 20 years. Other reports are more dire. Global warming is bread and butter.

“Oil and coal is nature’s way of storing millions of years worth of carbon. Within a very short period of time, we’ve released large amounts of it back into the atmosphere.” as Duncan says.
“We have been stealing the atmosphere from our descendants”, he says.
He predicts the end of the cheap energy era. “It can’t be allowed to continue.” It’s not sustainable.
“I believe the oil in the ground should be treasured as a carbon sink.” says Duncan. “We’re heading for a lean economy.”
A carbon tax would drive that goal to everyone’s benefit. Duncan outlines how it works. “Over a ten-year period, the carbon target is set quite high. Results are measured, reported every year and the system is transparent. Revenues are ringfenced and fed back into systems that incentivise zero-emissions. Every year, the cost of using carbon goes up a notch towards the ultimate target. As time goes by, through investment, the decrease in carbon usage is matched by the increase in sustainability.”