The Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind

It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere and there’s a feeling we have the pandemic licked. Maybe, let’s hope so! But climate change hasn’t gone away, rather we are another year down the road with little to show that we are even starting to turn our metaphorical super tanker away from its current catastrophic course.

Here in Ireland the Green Party are a junior member of the coalition government and they have been active in getting a Climate Change Bill published. It’s not a bad effort, much improved over prior attempts of earlier governments, essentially putting into law the requirement to achieve 50% reduction in emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050.
However, when I reviewed the bill in January my primary criticism was that there is nothing in the proposed legislation that defines responsibility or enables enforcement. Basically ministers are required to make budgets that are compliant with the overall target. But there’s no penalty for not doing that other than peer pressure. Good luck with that. Which brings me straight to a pretty sorry tale that shows without responsibility and enforcement, we will NEVER achieve our climate targets. And by the way, this isn’t just applicable to Ireland, most countries are in this boat.

Last month it came to light that Glanbia, a large Irish agriculture and food business is seeking planning permission for a large cheese making facility in County Kilkenny in partnership with a Dutch dairy processor Royal A-Ware. Now here in Ireland there has been a major expansion of the dairy business over the past decade with an increase of 25% increase in the national dairy herd. The proposed facility would add require additional growth in herd size. Environmental watchdog An Taisce formally objected to the planning process advising that “ . . this plant would lead to the production of an additional 450 million litres of milk to be used in cheese production. The impact of this additional milk production is an expected 2.5 percent increase in overall national ammonia pollution, an agricultural byproduct which, when released into the air, can impact human breathing. Increased milk production will also lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions from the expansion of ruminant agriculture.” In addition there are also water supply concerns.

Now the proposed facility is intended to produce Gouda cheese. It doesn’t take a lot to realise that Irish people typically consume almost no Gouda. The proposed facility is actually providing an Irish home for a Netherlands requirement, hence the involvement of the Dutch dairy processor. And surprise, there are strict environmental regulations that would be problematic for the Dutch processor in its home country, and so it is exporting the pollution to Ireland to bypass it’s local regulations!

Since An Taisce made its objections there has been a veritable storm of protest from the Irish agriculture industry. And it’s no surprise that as the most powerful lobby in the state, that politicians of all stripes have been coming out to protest against An Taisce’s objections, including our Taoiseach, (Prime Minister) Michael Martin.

It’s fair to say that the agriculture industry has been at logger heads with the environmentalists for years, but recently this tension has spilled into the open. Agriculture emissions account for over one third of total Irish emissions and are planned to increase over the next decade in direct conflict with the country’s target of 50%reduction in emissions by 2030. Note this is in context with the agriculture sector accounting for just 12% of GDP. This would mean that other sectors would have to massively over achieve or general taxation will have to bear the cost of EU fines for not achieving climate targets.

So to return to my criticisms of the proposed Irish Climate Change Bill. Without any legal enforcement measures the hugely influential agriculture lobby will cause the Irish Climate Change efforts to fail.

The basic dilemma we have, and I know this is true of most countries, is that our basic commercial and country economic models are based on ever increasing growth. And there has to be financial, not legal motivations to incentivise and persuade challenged sectors such as agriculture to move out of their comfort zone. The way to do this is to set carbon tax for larger enterprises (which have revenue over some threshold) that drive the sector. In the case of agriculture this would be the food processors, such as Glanbia, who create the market demand and encourage concomitant behaviours from upstream suppliers – the farmers. Naturally there will be dramatic change; growth markets always encourage investment, whereas declining markets need government support, (often referred to as just transition), and this clearly needs planning.

Carbon taxes will also be applicable to other sectors. For example, fossil fuel creation and using enterprises over a certain revenue threshold would have significant incentives to accelerate their conversion to sustainable products. Employers that insist on their employees commuting to central offices should be taxed on the emissions incurred. Similarly data centres that are still consuming very large amounts of fossil fuel based energy.

Whilst we can all see mistakes have been made in our response to the pandemic, we should reflect that our societies have mostly demonstrated an incredible collective effort to defeat the virus. The problem is that we are clearly very good at responding to an immediate crisis, but we are very poor at preparing for future crises regardless of how serious they are. We all know that climate change impacts will be an order of magnitude greater than the pandemic, and our challenge now is to maintain the crisis management attitude, to energise our societies to find opportunities in making change that benefit society and individuals.

One of the really important lessons we have learnt from the pandemic is that we don’t need to travel as much as we have in the past. The online world has been given huge forward momentum. Online everything, meetings, retail, government etc are all now normal. Remote working hubs have become common place. Individuals are choosing to live remotely from their business premises and optimise their quality of life. As the agriculture industry comes under pressure to reduce emissions, we can expect many more small, part time farmers to enter the market for organic products and act as suppliers to their locality. If we look forward to mid-century, it’s very likely that there will be a rebalancing between cities and countryside, and the opportunity to distribute more budgetary discretion and decision making to local bodies.

There is strong evidence that local responsibility is generally more effective at serving the needs of citizens than more remote central parliaments. Modern business practices embrace Agile methods that deliberately reduce planning and prioritize gaining practical experience based feedback. Many central parliaments have become ineffective because they are not capable of operating in this modern mode, and have become remote from their electorate because their cycle time is based on 20th Century best practice. Climate change efforts should be a wakeup call for governments and businesses everywhere that they need to urgently address a wide range of transformative actions to protect societies from future threats.

Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind


Spotlight on Climate Bill (Ireland)

Hard cheese for environment as Big Ag juggernaut steamrolls NGOs

About davidsprott

Artist, writer, veteran IT professional
This entry was posted in Technology and Society. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind

  1. annieasksyou says:

    This is a really comprehensive look at the competing factors that are holding us back in the essential efforts to combat climate change.

    We must always be vigilant about the kinds of incursions you describe: an entity from a country with more rigorous standards seeking more compatible environs to get away with polluting practices. In the US, we’ve just seen a drop in pollutants from some of the very “big guys.” Turns out they’ve been selling their debris to smaller, lesser known businesses that apparently thought they could slip “under the radar.”

    • davidsprott says:

      The real difficulty is that “business as usual” is the path of least resistance. We have to apply carbon tax directly on enterprises as an additional corporate tax, to incentivise the change in behaviour. Quite frankly I am pessimistic that we will have the ability to make the change.

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