Three years and six goals to meet targets in the Paris Climate Agreement

A grouping of climate change experts has published six goals that must be achieved by 2020 in order to meet the targets set out in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

In a letter published in the journal Nature, the authors and co-signatories – represented by eminent scientists, business leaders, economists and NGO representatives – declared we must “overcome the risks of climate change” and “act boldly together”.

To meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the experts identified six key goals to be met by 2020:

  1. Renewable energy should make up 30 per cent of global electricity supply and no coal-fired power plants should be commissioned
  2. Three per cent of building and infrastructure stock should come from near-zero or zero-emission buildings each year
  3. Electric vehicles should make up 15 per cent of annual car sales, as well as a 20 per cent reduction in aviation emissions and 20 per cent increase in efficiency of heavy duty vehicles
  4. Policies should be enacted to shift land use from deforestation to reforestation and traditional agriculture to sustainable approaches. In doing so these lands would switch from being carbon sources to carbons sinks by 2030
  5. Carbon-intensive heavy industry should have plans in place to increase efficiency and be on a path to halve emissions by 2050
  6. $1 trillion dollars should be set aside annually for climate action initiatives

The authors choice of 2020 is significant for two reasons.

Firstly, with current global CO2 emissions at a staggering 41 gigatonnes per year, the goals of the Paris Agreement become essentially unattainable if emissions continue at this scale by 2020.

Secondly, 2020  marks the year when a country can formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement, as President Trump has already announced that the US will do.

Although the authors recognise that their goals are “idealistic at best [and] unrealistic at worst” and that the “political winds are blustery”, they remain optimistic.

“We are in the age of exponential transformation and think that such a focus will unleash ingenuity,” the letter reads.

For the first time in history there is almost unanimous international agreement that the risks associated with climate change are too great to ignore and that we must work urgently and collectively.

In many cases, solutions already exist and the transition to low-carbon technology is well underway in many sectors.

The global expansion of wind and solar energy will continue and the global sales of electric vehicles appear to be on the cusp of a rapid global expansion.

The past three years mark the first time that global emissions have stagnated while global GDP has grown, indicating that measures already adopted are beginning to have an effect.

While the recent G20 summit highlights the political and civil tension that exists at present, one clear positive outcome from the weekend’s meeting was the reaffirmed commitment to the Paris Agreement by the world’s most powerful economies bar the United States.

Although the G20 summit has further isolated the US, optimists will focus on the continuation of the US renewable energy transition and emissions reduction and a continued commitment by states, cities, companies and citizens despite the best efforts of the current administration.

In a recent interview, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson – a signatory of the letter in Nature – struck a positive note in relation to the US stance: “What President Trump has done is put climate on the American agenda in a way that it was never there before, and provoked a dynamic response from communities, business, civil society, philanthropy.”

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on July 10th, 2017.

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Legislation needed to protect European soil, new EU study finds

A new report published by the European Parliament’s committee responsible for scrutinising the European Commission’s agricultural policies has highlighted the threats facing soils across Europe.

The report – prepared by academic experts from Wageningen University, Aarhus University and the University of Cordoba – was presented to the European Parliament on 20th June and included a number of policy recommendations.

The experts emphasise the needs to reframe how we think about soil preservation to include the protection of ecosystem services provided by soils. These services include the provision of harvestable crops, clean fresh water and nutrients for plants and animals, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of a stable climate.

Soils and soil ecosystem services in Europe are faced with numerous threats that limit their capacity to function and prospects to sustain into the future. Intensification of agriculture, urbanisation and land grabbing, and poor management practices have led to widespread reduction in soil fertility, nutrient content and biodiversity.

We are also seeing widespread destruction of soil due to erosion, compaction, salinisation and desertification.

Protection of organic-rich soils a priority

One of the primary threats identified in the report is the loss of soils with high organic carbon content. EU soils contain more than 70,000 million tonnes of carbon, dwarfing the 2,000 million tonnes of carbon emitted each year by Member States.

If we were to allow the release of even a fraction of this soil carbon to the atmosphere, we would easily undo all emissions reduction measures in other sectors.

Peatlands are the most efficient store of carbon in terrestrial ecosystems and Northern European peatlands represent almost 4 per cent of this global carbon reservoir.

Peatlands not only lock away carbon that will otherwise be emitted to the atmosphere but pristine peatlands also sequester 350 million tonnes of CO2 per year globally.

Many European peatlands have been degraded by drainage activities and associated spread of agriculture and other industries.

Agro-foresty and silvopastoral systems are highly productive agricultural lands and also have high carbon content. The loss of productive agricultural land to urbanisation and land sealing – trapping of soil beneath asphalt and concrete – is a major threat to these areas.

Given the projected substantial increases in global food demand, pressures on biodiversity and our continued commitment to reducing COemissions, the report states that we must preserve our most productive and carbon-rich soils.

Topsoil being washed away, subsoil under pressure

Twenty-two per cent of European land is affected by erosion from water and wind, a large proportion of which is directly related to conventional tillage activities. Transitioning to the use of no-tillage or minimal tillage practices would reduce the erosion of topsoil.

The increased use of catch crops and cover crops instead of traditional bare fallow approaches would also help reduce erosion. Over time, there would be the added benefit of increased nutrient, organic and water content of soils.

Policy measures that enforce adaption to these farming practices will be needed. The report also proposes the potential establishment of formal vulnerable zones.

About one-third of European soils, specifically the subsoil lying underneath topsoil, are badly impacted by compaction caused by heavy machinery. The continual pressure to increase labour productivity is driving this increased mechanization of agriculture.

The report calls for statutory maximum permissible limits to the wheel load carrying capacity for traffic on agricultural soils.

Moving towards agroecological practices

This reports adds to previously published research to conclude that we need to transition from conventional soil management practices to ecologically informed practices that improve soil quality. These include conservation agriculture and organic farming.

While many of the threats to soil traverse political borders, soil is undoubtedly more challenging to manage than water or air. This is due to the substantial geographic variation in soil parent material, climate, topography and historical management and usage.

The diverse nature of soil type and land usage across Europe necessitates that any policies must rank and implement measures based on local requirements.

The AGRI report recommends a ‘two-pronged’ approach – promotion and enforcement of local suitable practices at the farm level and the monitoring and evaluation at the catchment scale to test impacts of measures on ecosystem services.

The time for awareness and voluntary action has passed, the time for legislation long overdue

The AGRI report found – based on a survey of thousands of European farmers – that there is generally a high level of awareness among farmers about the importance of soils and the need for their protection.

The timescale of the proposed ‘no net land-take’ by 2050 – a target put forward in the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe (COM 571/2011) – was also called into question. It is simply too long given the scale of the threat facing soils across Europe.

The EU Seventh Environment Action Programme states that sustainable soil management, soil protection and remediation of contaminated sites should be underway by 2020.

The EU has also signed up for the Sustainable Development Goals, which include elements of sustainable agriculture and soil protection. However, none of these initiatives includes legally binding provisions.

The People4Soil campaign is a European Citizen’s Initiative calling on the Commission to provide for such a legally binding framework.

The ECI is the EU’s direct democracy platform, enabling citizens to participate in the development of EU polices by petitioning the European Commission to make a legislative proposal.

If a petition receives one million signatures from European citizens from a least 7 out of the 28 Member States , within one year, the Commission is obliged to meet with the organisers and hold a public hearing on the proposals before deciding whether or not to propose new legislation on the issue.

People4Soil is supported by more than 500 organisations across Europe and needs its 1 million signatures by September 2017. Please sign the petition by following this link and you can do your part to help protect soils across Europe.

A version of this article appears in the Green News on June 22nd, 2017.

Retailers face higher costs without HFC phase-out, says Environmental Investigation Agency

European retailers face severe financial repercussions if they do not transition to hydrofluorocarbon (HFC)-free cooling technology, the Environmental Investigation Agency warned today.

The EU F-Gas Regulation, brought into law in 2015, legislates for the rapid, stepped phasing out of the use HFCs, which are potent greenhouse gases.

From 2018 HFC supplies will be slashed by 48 per cent. This will make HFC technology far less attractive from a cost point of view and suppliers will be forced to increases prices sharply.

Prices already increased 62 per cent in the first quarter of 2017. The EIA is urging supermarkets and other retailers to speed up the transition.

Clare Perry, head of the EIA’s Climate Campaign, also warned that HFC shortages could drive illegal trade in HFCs in the EU. This black market trade is also a concern in the US.

In their latest Chilling Facts report, the EIA outlined the current retailers that are leading the transition, with Aldi Süd and Tesco topping the list.

Ms Perry said that while European retailers stand out as global leaders in the adoption of HFC-free commercial refrigeration “the uptake across Europe is much short of the pace needed”.

The report highlights that all new Aldi stores in Ireland will use HFC-free refrigeration. Tesco currently has 11 stores in Ireland that use CO2 instead of HFC as a coolant, the report states.

However, Musgraves – a leading grocery and wholesale supplier in Ireland – is lagging far behind and according to the EIA report relies heavily on HFC technology.

HFC use has soared since first introduced as a replacement for banned chlorofluorcarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs).

These chlorinated organic compounds were largely responsible for the global atmospheric ozone depletion and were banned as part of the Montreal Protocol in 1987.

Montreal was a landmark agreement and put the ozone layer on a path to complete recovery by the middle of this century. This recovery will prevent harmful cancer-causing UV radiation from reaching the Earth’s surface.

While HFCs are far less damaging to ozone and have a much lower global warming potential (GWP) than CFCs, they still have a GWP thousands of times greater than CO2. In recognition of the dangers of HFCs, a global agreement was reached last year to amend the Montreal Protocol to include the phasing out of HFCs.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on June 15th, 2017.

Green Party launch Waste Reduction Bill 2017

The Green Party today launched a Waste Reduction Bill to introduce a deposit refund scheme for glass and plastic bottles and a complete ban on single-use non-recyclable plastics, such as coffee cups and plastic cutlery.

Only 40 per cent of the 210,000 tonnes of plastic produced each year in Ireland is recycled and at least 52.5 per cent goes straight to landfill.

Evidence indicates that the best way to tackle plastic pollution is to stop it entering the environment in the first place. Deposit refund schemes are a tried and tested approach that work well in a number of other countries.

Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan TD outlined the global context for this bill: “The issue of plastic pollution is a massive challenge. Every year, over 110 million tonnes of plastic is produced. Of this, up to 43% ends up in landfill.”

He also referenced the worrying estimates that 8 million tonnes of plastic leak into oceans each year and that at the current rate, we are on route to having more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.

Green Party Deputy Leader and TD for Dublin Rathdown Catherine Martin said: “The purpose of our bill is quite simple – to reduce the amount of plastic consumed in Ireland every year, and encourage recycling”. She expressed confidence that all parties in the Dáil will support such a “common sense proposal.”

Much of this plastic also ends up in the environment. In a report released last week, Coastwatch Ireland found that 80 per cent of surveyed coastal sites contained litter, with plastic bottles being the major type of litter.

The Green Party also quoted results from a recent survey by Coastwatch Ireland that showed 89% of people would support a deposit refund scheme.

The Environmental Pillar has long advocated for a drinks container deposit refund scheme and have just testified before the Joint Oireachtas Budget Committee asking for such a measure to be adopted.

Mindy O’Brien, of VOICE, which is a member organisation of the Environmental Pillar, said: “With the new government in place, and with Scotland taking similar steps, we call on Minister Naughten to join 23 other countries and support this initiative to combat our throw-away society and to promote the circular economy”.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on June 15th, 2017.

Trump’s climate decision dangerous for the US and the world

President Trump tweeted late on Wednesday evening that be will be announcing his decision on whether or not the US will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement today at 8PM Irish time.

Unfortunately, and as expected, he announced his decision to withdraw the US from the Agreement which aims to limit global average temperature to within 2°C above pre-industrial levels and combat the unavoidable impacts on people and the Earth.

Under Obama, the US had committed to reducing carbon emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2025.  Now, the US will join only 2 other countries – Nicaragua and Syria – as non-participants in the global deal.

So from a procedural point of view how will the US’s withdrawal proceed? And more importantly, what are the most likely consequences for the US and the world?

Two withdrawal options

Article 28 of the Agreement allows countries to withdraw from the third year after the Agreement entered into force, which would be November 2019 for the US. The withdrawal would also not take effect for another year. So the earliest the US withdrawal would be effective is November 2020.

The other scenario is that the US withdraws from the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which necessarily means withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. This could be effective in one year.

Consequences of US withdrawal

One of the worse possible consequences of the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is that it could discourage other nations from taking further steps to limit their own emissions, thereby hindering efforts to reduce global emissions. The US withdrawal could also cause diplomatic strain and damage relationships with other countries.

Todd Stern, former US special envoy on climate change under Obama, puts it bluntly in a recent article in the Atlantic stating that “the President’s exit from Paris would be read as a kind of ‘drop dead’ to the rest of the world”.

Withdrawal could also result in the US being left behind in the low-carbon energy transformation. This transition is already underway and China and Europe would likely take primary roles.

China currently accounts for almost 50% of the world’s new solar energy capacity and the US risks falling behind and losing valuable US jobs in the wind and solar energy sectors. The economic importance of committing to the Paris Agreement is recognised by many US industries and companies.

Sixty-nine of 500 US Fortune 500 companies, including Walmart, ExxonMobil, and Chevron, have stated their support for the Paris Agreement. Over 1000 US companies have signed the Business Backs Low-Carbon USA statement urging the US to stay in the Agreement.  Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, has said he will withdraw for White House advisory councils if President Trumps withdraws.

In an interview in Business Insider UK John Sterman, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and senior advisor at Climate Interactive said that it is “not far-fetched to imagine a scenario where China…implements a carbon tax on all goods exported from the US”.

Further down the road, the US government could also leave itself open to expensive lawsuits taken by victims of climate change, on the basis that the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement causes damage and requires compensation.

Carry on Regardless

Many US States and the some of the largest US cities will continue to tackle climate change and transform their energy portfolio regardless of what President Trump decides.

In December 2016, I attended the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco – the largest meeting on Earth and space sciences in the world. The Governor of California, Jerry Brown, gave a keynote speech and in it he responded to Trumps threat to stop satellite collection of climate data by saying “California will launch its own damn satellites”.

Many US states have invested heavily in clean energy technologies and are proceeding with their energy transformation. Wind and solar energy made up two-thirds of new electric energy capacity in the US last year.

Twelve US cities, representing 25 per cent of the US population, are part of the global C40 Climate Leadership Group.

Will the pressure change Trump’s mind?

With pressure piling from global leaders, environmental charities, scientists, Big Business, Democrats, Republicans and even family members, will Trump rethink his decision to enact one of his pre-election promises?

Ultimately, whether the US are in or out of the Paris Agreement, the new US administration will likely continue making damaging changes to US science, environmental and natural heritage policy.

A version of this article appeared in the Green News on June 1st 2017.

Fracking: what we know, should it be banned?

Hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ has dramatically changed the energy sector in the US , allowing them to become the world’s largest natural gas producer and lessen its dependence on crude oil imported from the Middle East. But the question remains as to what environmental and public health cost? There are increasing numbers of reports that hydraulic fracturing can cause groundwater and surface water contamination, cause emission of volatile compounds, induce earthquakes/tremors and causes ecological damage. Many other countries, including Ireland, still need to decide whether they will follow the US and allow hydraulic fracturing on, or under, their soil.

Hydraulic fracturing is a unconventional gas recovery technique that involves pumping water-rich fluid into a borehole until the pressure at depth causes the rock to fracture. The shale gas revolution in the US has come about largely with the development of directional sideways drilling from the initial borehole. The fluid and gas mix is then pumped back to the surface. Take a look at this Youtube video for a better idea of how it works.

 

The detailed regional geology and subsurface depth of fracturing are two critical technical aspects that shale gas companies need to consider when conducting their work. These factors are also critical when it comes to potential environmental impacts. Coal bed methane fracking is generally considered to pose greater risks than more typical shale gas fracking since it occurs at shallow depths close to the water table. In addition, the US is deemed to have simpler geology and subsurface tectonics compared to most of NW Europe. In any case, the relative environmental health impacts and risks must be assessed based on the most up-to-date knowledge and research. Most would agree that these investigations should be performed by unbiased independent bodies that generate quality peer-reviewed data.

A recent 2016 study from Hays and Shonkoff published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE comprehensively assessed the peer-reviewed literature between 2009 and 2015 dealing with the environmental and health impacts of unconventional gas development. They found that 26 out of 31 (84%) public health studies found some public health hazard or risk; 40 out of 58 (69%) water quality studies found some evidence for water contamination and 40 out of 47 (87%) air quality studies found elevated air pollutant emissions. The authors highlight that almost all studies cite the need for additional work, and the need for quantitative epidemiological research on the health outcomes associated with the aforementioned risks.

The US EPA released its report on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water supplies in 2016 (for its press release, click here, and for the report click on this link). Similar to the Hays and Shonkoff findings, the EPA found that there were significant data gaps and uncertainties and these limited their ability to make a full assessment of the impacts on drinking water supplies. The EPA did find that hydraulic fracturing can have an impact in certain scenarios. These impacts can be more ‘frequent or severe’ when it is conducted in areas with low or declining groundwater supply; when accidental spills occur; when wells have inadequate ‘mechanical integrity’; when hydraulic fracturing process wastewater is discharged to surface waters; when this wastewater is stored inadequately and leaches into water supplies; and when drill fluids are directly injected into groundwater reservoirs.

Healy (2012, Irish EPA report) concluded that groundwater contamination from shale gas hydraulic fracturing occurs primarily when there are poor cement jobs on well bore casings close to the surface and also from leakages from hydraulic fracturing-related waste water above ground. The quality of the casing and cement job are also among the most important factors that limit the release of volatile organic and inorganic compounds in water and the atmosphere. Besides poor practice, negligence and accidents at the surface, another important factor determining the environmental risk that has emerged from research is the operational depth below the surface (for example the enhanced risks associated with coal bed methane hydraulic fracturing). Other risks include: the release of toxic chemical additives; blow outs from pressure release occurring in the direction of the (or nearby) well bore; ecological damage and altered hydrology from water bodies use for water extraction; and environmental/health impacts from associated infrastructure and traffic arising from hydraulic fracturing activity.

The debate for and against hydraulic fracturing in Ireland has been ongoing over the past number of years. The controversial activity has already been banned in France (2011), Bulgaria (2012) Germany (2016), the Australian state of Victoria. The Netherlands placed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing until 2020 and Scotland will decide whether to ban or lift its moratorium by mid-late 2017, based on evidence gathered over the past year and a public consultation period. It appears now that Ireland may be narrowing in on a conclusion to the debate that has been ongoing over the past few years. The Prohibition of the Exploration and Extraction of Onshore Petroleum Bill 2016 was supported by the Dáil in October and the EPA provided a detailed report to the Joint Committee in December. The Joint Committee is now considering this bill, the EPA’s report, and the public’s consultation until 10th February.

The EPA report concluded that many of the activities associated with hydraulic fracturing could be achieved in Ireland while protecting the environment and human health by using best practices and applying current regulations. However, the impacts associated with groundwater contamination by failed borehole casings, groundwater contamination from migration of pollutants through fractures created by hydraulic fracturing, and long-term leakage of methane from capped wells following cessation of production lack insufficient data. The EPA therefore concluded that hydraulic fracturing should not be authorised without additional information on these impacts. In addition to the EPA report, the Sustainable Water Network (SWAN) published a report which assessed the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on Ireland’s water resources. Among a number of risks mentioned above, SWAN found that existing legislation would be inadequate to regulate hydraulic fracturing activities and protect the environment, and are not consistent with EU and Irish leglisation to protect water resources. The SWAN report concluded that hydraulic fracturing should be banned for these reasons and by invoking the precautionary principle,

“Applying the philosophy of the precautionary principle … in conditions of uncertainty, decision-makers should prevent potentially serious or irreversible environmental harm. Large uncertainties remain about many areas of shale gas operations, and the effects of environmental degradation could yield a deterioration in the WFD status of water bodies in the proposed regions”

There is no doubt that we need more data and research regarding the risks to groundwater, surface water, agriculture and the biosphere before hydraulic fracturing should be authorized in Ireland. In any case, it appears that the economic benefits may be minimal. Evidence from Scottish research estimated that between 100 million GBP and 4.6 billion GBP would be added to the Scottish economy between now and 2062 (BBC new report here). While opinion was divided and this is quite a range, these figures appear to be relatively low for a 4 decade period. This would likely be the case in Ireland also. Added to that, the depth of deposits of interest and the complex geology compared to the vast US basins, means that hydraulic fracturing would invariably be much more complex and risky (for gas companies and the public) in Ireland.

Finally it has been argued that investing in hydraulic fracturing and increasing our reliance on non-renewable energies now, especially considering the recent COP21 Paris Agreement (see previous blogpost), is a step in the wrong direction when it comes to mitigating climate change and the projected future energy portfolios for most countries. Thus, overall I agree with the conclusions made in the EPA and SWAN reports that the precautionary principle applies here and that hydraulic fracturing should not proceed in Ireland at present. This should remain the case until we have significant evidence telling us that we can minimize adverse impacts on our environment and public health and if we can demonstrate that it is a viable step for Ireland towards a sustainable future energy mix that can help mitigate climate change. It remains to be seen how our government will act  in the coming weeks.