Sustainability is the way forward

July 6, 2007 at 9:21 am | Posted in Statements | 1 Comment

This is the last of the four key issues that I said I would address as part of the Seanad election campaign. My views on democracy, health and crime can be found below.

 Some years ago the debate around the concept of sustainability was still relatively marginal. It was seen largely as an environmental issue. That is no longer the case. Now, sustainability must be addressed as a mainstream economic and social question. 

The reason for this is straightforward. The age of fossil fuels is coming to an end. This is for at least three reasons. First, we are at, or close to, peak oil. This means that the cost of fossil fuels will inexorably rise and these costs will feed back into almost every component of our economy. Therefore, increasingly, fossil fuels will become uneconomic. Second, our reliance on fossil fuels is making us dependent on the political and social situations in countries all over the world and this dependence is drawing the Western powers into ill-advised and unethical military interventions. Therefore, fossil fuels are becoming a political liability. Finally, our use of fossil fuels is triggering a climate change sequence as yet with unknown consequences. For all our well-being, we must move to new energy sources. 

These type of arguments are well addressed in the report of Sir Nicolas Stern in the UK. 

It is clear that ‘business as usual’ is not an option. It is a matter of great concern that we are not having a full debate on this critical issue and that it barely featured during the last election. 

The irony is that a move towards sustainability offers the only viable way to trigger real economic growth in this country and greatly improve the quality of our social lives and community. Here are some specific proposals: 

  • Commit to a net zero-carbon status within the next twenty to thirty years.
  • Introduce a carbon-quota for each citizen which can be traded in an open market model. (For details on how this would work see www.feasta.org)
  • Introduce a carbon quota system for businesses along the same model.
  • Introduce carbon taxes in place of various motor taxes and VAT.
  • Provide incentives for investment in renewable energy systems. These should include significant research and development funding at our Third level institutions.

 There are an immense amount of additional measures required. We need a serious energy conservation programme. We need to greatly improve building standards. We need far greater public transportation networks particularly in rural Ireland. We need a major renewal of our agricultural sector so that can produce more high-quality foods and crops that can be used for energy and construction purposes.  

I believe that there is great excitement and potential in engaging on a national project like this. It would be the equivalent of the famous Whitaker plans of the 1950s. Not only would we build a sustainable economy and recover our environmental well-being, we could renew our societies and social infrastructure. But to begin this task what we now need are vision and leadership.

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  1. The penny certainly has not dropped yet in mainstream politics but we are heading into some seriously bad weather in the next few decades. The problems of fossil fuel depletion, insecurity of energy supplies and climate change will not be solved by putting in a few energy efficient light bulbs, as many politicians would have us believe. Essentially, it is a state of emergency. One hopes it will not result in martial law being imposed as the fabric of society disintegrates, but having failed to avail of the opportunities to prepare for these looming crises in a gradual and orderly mannner, I feel that choices are already becoming more limited.

    Possibly, poltical action should be focussed more on regional and local government bodies and community councils as it is inevitable that such organisations will have a much bigger role to play in decision making than they do at present.

    I don’t know whether net ‘zero carbon’ is achievable for a complex industrial society. To date the only societies to have met this criteria would be the hunter gatherer and simple agricultural communities. It implies that no fossil fuels are used at all, or at least they are used in such small amounts that the emissions resulting from burning them can be balanced by sequestration.

    Our ability to lock up carbon through sequestration is quite limited. Trees and other living matter provide no more than a temporary carbon bank of a few decades. It has already been demonstrated that increased levels of carbon dioxide in the oceans can have catastrophic effects for the marine ecosystem…hardly a solution to excesses of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The other great science fantasy, namely pumping massive amount of carbon dioxide back into disused gas and oil fields, hardly merits serious discussion. Firstly and foremost there is the the slight difficulty of capturing the carbon dioxide in the first place.. a bit more complicated than simply putting a bin liner over your car exhaust. Secondly, there is no guarantee the carbon dioxide will remain underground for very long… changing pressures underground may simply force it back to the earth’s surface again. Possibly these sequestration techniques may have some minor role to play but they are not THE solution.

    Taking a net zero carbon society as being one which is still far into the future ( unless Lovelock’s predictions come to pass and global warming reduces our species to a ‘few breeding pairs in the Arctic’) then the next best thing is a very low carbon society…one is which carbon emissions are reduced by some 80-90%.
    The 90% target is proposed by political writer and environmentalist George Monbiot. I would concur with this. Watered down targets are a waste of time, or worse, they give the impression the problem is solved while actually things may still be deteriorating.
    Back in the present however, politicians, including the Green ones, are still talking about continued economic growth as if this can somehow be completely divorced from carbon emissions… The Government’s (SEI’s) own energy predictions for the next 15 years show a continued upward curve in national energy use. It is hard to equate this with the urgent need to reduce energy use.


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