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.