Right2Water: some questions for the protesters

There is a major contradiction at the heart of the Right2Water campaign, the latest protest of which takes place in Dublin today. Though Paul Murphy TD, speaking as a spokesperson for the campaign, has stated that the objective is to overthrow the government and force a general election, and marchers speaking on Morning Ireland this morning seemed more focused on marching against austerity, the stated objective is to force a total abolition of water charges and of Irish Water itself. This is being done in the name of a right to water.

A right to water has been enshrined in international conventions and it is certainly a most important right worth fighting for. Yet, as the UN has clarified, the essence of the right is the provision of water, namely a universal entitlement 'to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses'. On the basis of numerous reports from around the country about the poor quality of domestic water supplies and of sewage infrastructure in many areas, there is good evidence to show that this right is not sufficiently guaranteed to many Irish people. Furthermore, large amounts of water are being wasted due to leaks in the system, indicating the lack of sufficient investment in the system over a long period. 

A campaign around the right to water is therefore long overdue and badly needed. However, the paradox is that the current campaign, with its aims of abolishing water charges and the public utility established to invest in and improve our water supply and infrastructure, is on the face of it actually undermining the right to water. Apart from vague mention of funding water supply out of general taxation, a policy has has proved ineffective in guaranteeing our right to water, no spokesperson for the campaign has offered any convincing proposal designed to vindicate in a credible and practical way the right for which it claims to be mobilising.

Three basic approaches to providing water are evident around the world today. The most traditional one, which still lives on in many communities including group water schemes in rural Ireland, is that a local community takes charge of its water supply and maintaining the necessary infrastructure. This is a demanding task and not always successful. For this reason, the state took responsibility for supplying water in most parts of the world, particularly in urban areas. Yet, as happened in Ireland, a lack of adequate investment often meant that both the supply and quality of water was far from adequate.

For this reason, in some parts of the world over recent decades, water supply was privatised. This caused much publicised protests in some countries, most famous among them the Water Wars in Bolivia that led to the nationalisation of water and to the collapse of the then government. This satisfied most of the protesters in Bolivia, though some wanted a return to a community-controlled system that had existed previously.

In Ireland, however, we now have a mass mobilisation that is offering no clear proposals as to how our grossly inadequate system is to be reformed and improved, thereby offering a means to vindicate our right to water. Instead, it is seeking a return to an obviously failed system. If this campaign succeeds, those many communities around the country which do not have a guaranteed right to water can only blame the so-called left-wing leaders and parties which have mobilised this campaign.

Choosing to campaign on this issue raises some important questions for these leaders and parties. If they are left-wing as they claim, then they should be espousing a strengthening of state capacity and resources to guarantee good quality public services and to regulate the private sector so that it serves the good of society. These are the core values of the left. Yet, here we have left-wing groups which do the very opposite, further weakening the state and depriving it of badly needed resources to seek to guarantee people's access to a social right.

Indeed, this campaign plays directly in to the hands of neoliberal interests that want to weaken the tax base, undermine the authority and capacity of the state, and see politics dominated by short-term self-interested issues designed to promote the electoral support of those promoting them rather than the wider good of society, particularly the most vulnerable. It is a disastrous politics that shows just how enduring is the poisonous legacy of decades of Fianna Fáil rule. With a so-called left like this, it no longer matters what happens to Fianna Fáil.





Latest Irish emissions data show steep road to be climbed

The publication of estimates of Irish greenhouse gas emissions for 2013 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week got very little media attention. Yet, as attention is more and more focused on the urgent need to begin reducing these emissions immediately, the latest data reveal in detail the immense challenges faced by Irish policy makers and the general public if we are to take seriously the messages emerging from the climate summit in Lima and from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The headline figure was good in that 2013 showed a slight drop in overall GHG emissions in Ireland, from 58.22 million tonnes (Mt) in 2012 to 57.81 Mt in 2013, a decline of 0.7% (though it was reported in The Irish Times as a fall of 0.4%!). However, almost all of the decline was due to a drop of 11.1% or 1.42 Mt in the energy sector while agriculture, transport, the residential sector and waste all showed significant increases in their emissions. This, therefore, gives us a good idea of where we need to focus our attention if we are to begin the steep downward trajectory so badly needed.

The EPA data is very precise in telling us exactly what the problem areas are. So, as is predictable, the significant reduction in emissions from the energy sector is due to a continuing reduction in the use of coal, peat and natural gas to generate our electricity and a growth in generation by renewables. Similarly, a modest decline in emissions by the industry and commercial sector was largely due to a significant reduction in oil use by the commercial services sector and a switch to biomass.

That is where the good news ends however. The 2.6% increase in agricultural emissions (0.48 Mt) is due to increases in synthetic fertiliser use and in cattle and sheep numbers. Agriculture remains by far the largest contributor to overall emissions at 32.3% of Ireland's total. The increase in agricultural emissions reverses their decline between 1999 and 2012 and, as the EPA states emphatically, 'reflects national plans to expand milk production under Food Harvest 2020 following removal of milk quota in 2015 [sic]'. Here we have one state agency telling us that a key element of state policy on agriculture is responsible for increasing emissions. 

The 2.1% increase in emissions from the transport sector (0.23 Mt) is also revealing as it is the first such increase since 2007. This is the greatest increase seen in the data for 2013 and again the EPA states clearly that it is due to economic recovery - 'general economic prosperity, increasing population with a high reliance on private car travel as well as rapidly increasing road freight transport.' What they don't say is that it also reflects the priority that public policy for many decades has given to road construction over investment in public transport, especially the electrification of the railway network.

The residential sector showed an increase of 2.6% (0.16 Mt) mainly due to increases in the use of coal, oil and natural gas for home heating. This draws attention again to the need to promote higher levels of insulation and a switch to renewables for home heating. Waste showed a 15.2% increase (0.19 Mt) due to a reduction in landfill gas utilised or flared and to emissions from incineration. 

Between them, transport and agriculture account for over half of Ireland's emissions, and both increased in 2013. Though the country is in compliance with EU targets for last year, what is worrying about these figures is evidence that a return to economic growth coupled with state agricultural policy is driving emissions in the opposite direction to what is needed over the longer term. It is to be hoped that the Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly, may return from his visit to the climate summit in Lima this week with a greater understand of and commitment to the urgent need to reduce emissions. Then he will have to convince his government colleagues of the need for some serious policies adequate to the scale of the challenge for Ireland.

Lima summit enters decisive days on positive note

A week after it began, the 20th global summit or Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Lima, Peru, has managed to maintain a sense of optimism and urgency as Ministers from around the world begin to arrive for the decisive negotiations, Ireland's Environment Minister Alan Kelly among them. Meanwhile, as the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) announced that 2014 is shaping up to be the warmest since records began and as the Philippines braces itself for yet another potentially disastrous typhoon, delegates' minds are being focused on the realities of climate change and its consequences.

As always happens at these annual summits, week one is dominated by officials doing preparatory work while the real negotiations only begin in week two. Hence, the serious talking only begins next week. But some promising ideas emerged out of the talks that offer hope that next week can lay the foundations for a draft climate agreement that will have credibility. The key issue here is whether the emissions pledged will be sufficient to move the world to a low-carbon society by 2050 which scientists urge.

Speaking on behalf to the 39-member Association of Small Island States (AOSIS), some of which face extinction as rising sea levels threaten to make them uninhabitable, Marlene Moses of Nauru told developed countries that 'Progress is not nearly enough.' This insistence, repeated annually by spokespersons for AOSIS, is widely shared despite the pledges of the three greatest greenhouse gas emitters - the US, China and the EU - to substantially cut emissions. But one idea that emerged this week holds out hope that targets can be made more robust over time. This is the proposal from a group of experts called the ACT 2015 initiative that all national emissions reduction targets be reviewed every five years by experts who would advise how they could be strengthened. If this gets written into the draft agreement to be adopted in Paris in a year's time, it offers a mechanism to strengthen targets progressively. 

The agreement by US and China announced by both countries' presidents in Beijing recently now puts the focus on India to announce how it intends to cut emissions. India, like so many developing countries, continues to insist that it is up to developed countries to bear the brunt of emissions reductions as they have been mostly responsible for the problem. But expectations are high that India will go further and make a major announcement over the coming days.

Another issue that has been an obstacle relates to the legally binding nature of the agreement. The US is fearful that any agreement that has the force of law will not be ratified by its Congress. An interesting idea emerged this week that the targets could be legally binding without the agreement having the force of law. It will be up to the lawyers to decide if this might work but it shows the constructive nature of this week's work, seeking to find a way forward to a strong agreement rather than getting bogged down in fruitless arguments as has often been the case in the past.

The pledge of funding by Norway to the Green Climate Fund this week brought it within a whisker of its $10 billion target. This comes as a relief and again marks a constructive engagement by developed states. But it is a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the funding that will be needed from 2020 onwards. This has been put at $100 billion annually to help developing countries meet emission reduction targets. But the UN revised upwards this week its estimates of the likely costs involved, doubling or even tripling them. Contributions of this extent by developed countries seem highly unlikely given the scale of contributions to date. 

However, a proposal by Brazil this week to develop a new grouping of emerging countries at the climate change talks may offer a way forward if these large developing countries that include, as well as Brazil, such giants as China, India, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina, Nigeria, and Indonesia might also be in a position to contribute to these costs. 

Next week's negotiations will therefore be fascinating to watch. The future of humanity hinges on our government representatives facing the scale of the challenges and having the courage to be audacious. Let's hope they measure up.


CoP20 in Lima: cop out or breakthrough?

The summit of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that opens in Lima on December 1st (the 20th Conference of the Parties or CoP20 in the jargon) begins the endgame of what is arguably the most important international negotiations ever held in history. It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of humanity hangs on the outcome. Lima is meant to produce a draft of the international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that will be unveiled at CoP21 in Paris this time next year. As the 20th annual global summit of the UNFCCC process, it shows that it has taken a long time to get the 196 states that are members of the process to the point of agreeing finally a treaty to bind all countries rather than just the developed countries as happened with the Kyoto Protocol (2005-2012).

With the three reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published over the past year emphasising the extreme gravity of the current levels of GHG emissions and urging radical and decisive action if we are to avoid catastrophic disasters, the world's political leaders are left in no doubt that the time has finally come to step up to the mark. If they fail this time to set ambitious targets for emissions reductions binding on all countries, it is very difficult to see how momentum could be generated again. The process would stumble on but it would effectively be rendered impotent.

Expectations are very high as Lima opens. The UNFCCC is upbeat with Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican executive secretary tweeting over the weekend that there has been 'an amazing groundswell of momentum this year'. The issues to watch out for are the following:

  • Mitigation (how to reduce emissions):
    • What levels of reductions will countries pledge?
    • Will they find common ground on a draft treaty to take to Paris in a year's time?
    • A practical plan to avoid further deforestation is vital (as forests act as a sink to take carbon out of the atmosphere)
  • Adaptation (how to build resilience in the face of growing climate disasters):
    • Will agreement be reached on funding National Adaptation Plans for developing countries?
    • CoP19 in Warsaw last year agreed a Mechanism for Loss and Damage which was being demanded by small island states whose very existence is under threat from rising sea levels. Developed countries agreed to fund a mechanism to compensate them for losses but this has to be made operational at Lima
    • Will developed countries give practical effect to pledges to transfer clean technologies to developing countries?
  • Finance:
    • The Green Climate Fund has almost reached its target with $9.6bn already pledged and a target of $10bn. But with $100bn needed annually by 2020, the difficulty of reaching the $10bn figure this year does not auger well.
    • Practical ways to scale up finance need to be identified
  • Means:
    • Lima is meant to agree on the role of carbon markets as a mechanism to reduce emissions. These began to be set up under the Kyoto Protocol (the EU's Emissions Trading System being the world's biggest) putting a price on a ton of carbon as an incentive to polluters to reduce emissions. It is generally seen as having been largely ineffective partly due to the collapse in the price of a ton of carbon. Can attempts to resurrect it make it more effective?

These, then, are the issues for Lima. But we have been here before, notably at Copenhagen in 2009 when expectations were high that a successor to Kyoto was going to be negotiated and these were bitterly disappointed. So expectations do not guarantee success. Over the 12 days of the conference, I'll be writing occasional blogs as news emerges, assessing the prospects for success.

How has the ecovillage achieved a 2 gHa ecological footprint?


Following the unveiling of the Cloughjordan ecovillage's ecological footprint (EF) last evening (Nov 24th), interest now turns to identifying the different elements that constitute it and how they compare to more average Irish towns and communities. This allows us to become more aware of the everyday practices of Irish people and households that constitute too heavy a footprint on the planet and that are therefore unsustainable. It also allows us take steps to reduce our footprint through changing such practices, both as individuals and as communities. Knowing our EF, therefore, is only the first step in a long process of moving towards a low-carbon society living within the boundaries of the planetary ecosystem. 

As a measure of our footprint on the ecosystem, the EF calculates the carbon intensity of our activities, in other words how much 'embodied energy' there is in them. So, for example, the calculation of an EF based on car usage doesn't only take into account the emissions from the use of the car but also from the building of the roads infrastructure required for car use, the manufacture of the car and its destruction or recycling when its useful life comes to an end. Or, to take another example, calculating the EF of a heavy meat eater not only includes the emissions generated by the animals themselves but also the emissions from the growing of the gain that they are fed and that is often transported over long distances before it gets fed to them thereby embodying many carbon miles.

Obviously, the calculations can only be approximations but the development of the EF as a globally used measure has had to develop formulae for such calculations. Based on these, our ecological footprint is the sum of the carbon intensity of the various activities it is based upon - car transport, air travel, water usage, energy usage, waste and food. The following pie charts give a comparison between Cloughjordan's EF and those of a range of other Irish towns and communities, taken from the existing literature. There is much to be learnt from examining them.

The challenge for Cloughjordan ecovillage now is to begin a process of planning to reduce our EF systematically over time, measuring it occasionally to find out how we are doing. In this context, we have to make decisions about what our objective should be. Should we be happy to reduce our EF to a level where it would require just one planet to live like we live (our current EF would require 1.1 planets) or should we be much more ambitious and decide to move to reducing our EF to a point where it would require just half a planet? These issue are sure to generate lively debate in the ecovillage over the coming months and years, debates that again will be a foretaste of what faces societies all over the planet in the decades ahead.