Climate Change is in the news. Global climate policy makers meet today, in Poland, for the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The assembled climate actors will talk of ambitious emissions reductions and how on earth we will adapt to the changes which are already baked in, as a result of greenhouse gas emissions that we cannot, easily or quickly, remove from the atmosphere.
With a sense of urgency to be expected where global environmental laws are concerned, this year the COP will seek to agree how to implement what was agreed, three years ago, in Paris. The USA has already withdrawn from the Paris Agreement and Brazil, under its new neo-fascist President, (who believes climate change science is a “marxist plot”), may well also leave.
Things are looking up though, even in the States. Two days after President Trump asked “whatever happened to Global Warming” after a record cold Thanksgiving holiday was predicted, his own administration, as if trolling its President, released a major new report - the Fourth National Climate Assessment - detailing how the USA will be devastated by the effects of climate change. Of course it’s possible that the President’s own staff (or at least the climate-denying ones) had tried to bury the report by releasing it on the Thanksgiving holiday in the hope that no-one would notice. That doesn’t seem to have been too successful though. The report is uncompromising in its language, the authors no doubt confident that the President wouldn’t be reading it:
“Observations collected around the world provide significant, clear, and compelling evidence that global average temperature is much higher, and is rising more rapidly, than anything modern civilization has experienced, with widespread and growing impacts (Figure 1.2). The warming trend observed over the past century can only be explained by the effects that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, have had on the climate.”
Closer to home, our own Met Office published its first new projections for how climate change will affect the UK, in almost 10 years. Summer temperatures could be over 5C higher than now, by 2070 - and if you thought this Summer was hot, that was only 1.7C higher than average. Temperatures this high will mean that the crops and livestock which currently grow and live in the UK will no longer be suitable. With the sea over 1m higher by 2070, our coastline will also be unrecognisable and millions will have to move. Higher temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns affect human health too - in fact it’s already happening, as this report shows. MPs had already criticized the Government for being woefully unprepared for the Summer’s heatwave and estimate 1 in 5 houses dangerously overheats in such conditions. Imagine what those houses will be like with a 5C Summer temperature rise.
It was encouraging, in a small way, to see Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, speak at the launch of the Met Office report. He clearly believes in the threat of Climate Change. It seems less likely that one of his predecessors, Owen Paterson, would have been so sanguine. Paterson oversaw savage cuts to the Environment Agency’s work on climate change adaptation when he led Defra. Shortly after he was sacked from Defra, he made a major speech to the climate change deniers of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. But despite Gove, this Government’s commitment to tackling climate change is - well let’s say, patchy, at best.
As chair of the Environmental Audit Select Committee Mary Creagh said last week, the Government’s commitment to climate action, was “incompatible” with its stated policy of supporting the extraction of fossil fuels from the Arctic - the most rapidly warming part of the Planet. What exactly is the Government doing, continuing to support the production of fossil fuels?
Meanwhile the backlash continues, against the Climate Change Committee’s proposals for massive land-use and dietary change in response to the Climate Crisis. The farming industry - particularly those involved in producing cattle and sheep - is still trying to argue that red meat is not a climate change villain. Those arguments are shaky. Producing red meat releases Methane - mostly from cow burps. Methane is a short lived greenhouse gas (it lasts 10-20 years) but during its time in the atmosphere it is 24 times as powerful as the more common Carbon Dioxide (CO2).
So, while in the long-term methane production and destruction in the atmosphere cancels out, we don’t have “a long term” to put off taking action. We are now at the point where short term dramatic action is needed to prevent climate catastrophe. It’s no use the livestock industry saying today’s Methane will have disappeared in 20 years time - by that time it will be too late. The livestock industry has a bigger climate footprint than just from cow burps too. Livestock produce muck, and when this decomposes, it releases CO2, Methane and Ammonia. When Ammonia breaks down it releases Nitrous Oxide, an even more potent greenhouse gas than Methane. (Nitrous Oxide is up to 300 times as powerful as CO2, and lives for even longer in the atmosphere.)
Apocalyptic visions spawn false prophets. One of these false prophets claims that we can replace fossil fuel gas - euphemistically known as ‘natural gas’ - with gas from renewable sources. And one source of renewable gas is to take waste from livestock and convert it into “biogas”, via the process of anaerobic digestion (AD). I have written before about the scam where very generous tax-payer funded subsidies are paid for growing Maize to produce biogas. Some analysts believe that the entire biogas industry is actually just a cover for the fossil fuel gas industry to continue to operate. After all, biogas will need a gas grid to distribute it; and that grid will also be needed if, for example, fracking really takes off in the UK - as this Government hopes will happen.
Recent investigations in Northern Ireland have exposed another scam - investors have been persuading small farmers to have large industrial AD plants built on their land. These plants then receive vast quantities of cattle and pig slurry, produced by a burgeoning livestock industry. In fact, as this File on Four programme, explained, the livestock industry works very closely with the AD plant developers to create more intensive livestock production factories, and build more AD plants to take their slurry. And the AD plants attract very generous subsidies, which are paid not to the farmers, but to large agri-businesses or London-based venture capitalists. It’s just another case of subsidies driving all sorts of unforeseen consequences, many of them horrendous.
Local activists are fighting back - such as this group campaigning against yet another massive pig production unit. But consider that Northern Ireland’s pigs already produce as much waste as six times the entire human population of the Province, and you can see the problem. And if anyone thinks this gas is “green”, the pigs are fed soya beans grown in Brazil or Argentina, on land that was previously a huge carbon store, which has now gone.
Northern Ireland also appears to be suffering from a bad case of regulatory capture, where large agri-industry businesses took over the role of government or its regulators to ensure government policy worked in their favour. Moy Park chicken farms (whose waste also went to AD plants) took over developing the Northern Ireland agri-food growth policy, when the DUP’s Arlene Foster was the Minister for Enterprise. Ms Foster is also caught up in the not entirely unrelated Cash for Ash renewable heating scandal, where empty chicken sheds were heated, just to receive the very generous renewable energy subsidy.
Subsidies can help shift behaviour and provide solutions to our problems. Subsidies which supported rooftop solar on domestic and commercial buildings have helped create a sustainable source of electricity, as did subsidies for wind farms. But for some reason the rooftop solar subsidies have been withdrawn and offshore wind farms have been actively discouraged by the Government. Despite this, on a relatively windy day last week wind farms provided a quarter of the country’s electricity and it could be far more, if more wind farms were built (onshore or offshore). Practically every house and every new building could have solar panels. Yet the money (public taxpayer money) flows, via fake renewables, into the pockets of agri-business and venture capitalists looking for easy returns. Meanwhile, the Government makes cosmetic efforts or pays lip service to the need for us all to change - how we travel, what we eat, the products we buy, and how we heat our homes.
When will we finally have politicians we can vote for, who realise the dramatic urgency of the situation, and take real action? Or will it be left to radical social action, like the Extinction Rebellion movement.
Miles King is an Ecologist, founder of People Need Nature and a regular columnist for Lush Times. These are his own views. Follow him on Twitter @MilesKing10.
Photo: Agustín Ruiz via Creative Commons