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The Writing on the Climate Wall

Businesses and industries can read it

A recent virtual Open Newsroom discussion, sponsored by thejournal.ie, was held on “The climate crisis and COP26.”  Hosted by Christine Bohan, it featured enviro journalists John Gibbons (think_or_swim) and Niall Sargent (Noteworthy.ie), and Lauren Boland and Orla Dwyer of The Journal.  The focus was on an assessment of the current status of climate and biodiversity actions and the expectations of what may or may not happen at the UN COP26 talks in Glasgow in early November.

Comparisons were made to the results of the Copenhagen (2009) and Paris COPs (2015), the former generally recognized as a failure and the later offering more promise, as yet unmet.   Several were encouraged by the increased  focus on biodiversity, and its critical interplay with climate breakdown.  Positive signs were seen in more actions being taken on climate actions since Paris, including in Ireland; the development of concrete solutions for aspects of climate problems; a more informed public, again notable in Ireland; growing data on the costs of actions and inaction; and the climate youth movement.  There was general agreement on a “cautious optimism” for the COP26 talks.

We suggest there is another force at work that receives little attention, or any credit, but which is becoming more helpful in dealing with climate breakdown.  As surprising as it sounds, the credit goes to the business/industry community.

Many companies, and their reactionary political supporters, continue to resist efforts to switch to renewable energy and other sustainable climate actions.  Much time and effort is spent trying to convince these reactionaries to mend their ways and go green, but there are large economic benefits accruing to the old carbon-rich ways.  The entrenched resistance of the fossil fuel interests is a constant reminder.

But many companies are reading the writing on the climate wall:  almost every credible scientist (now up to 99%) and reliable study demonstrates the reality of climate breakdown, resulting from GHG emissions, especially from the burning of fossil fuels. And all the experts agree that the only way forward must rely on turning away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources and sustainable practices.

 

 

 

 

Cambridge University – L.Tan

 

These messages have been burned into the consciousness of all of us by the increasing number and severity of extreme weather events over the past several decades.  And these extreme weather events support the recent IPCC special reports in October 2018 and August 2021(Code Red), and the shifts in public awareness in Ireland as reflected by the Citizens’ Assembly, the growing proactive work of the Climate Advisory Council and EPA, the Oireachtas Joint on Climate Action, and the new Climate Bill that is beginning to unfold.   Recent US studies by military and intelligence agencies warn of increased conflicts within and between nations, increased dislocation and migration of millions, and heightened military tension as a result of climate breakdown.

No wonder businesses and industries increasingly understand what is happening with the climate.  Like it or not the world has changed and will change even more and faster, and there is no going back. If they want to survive and prosper, they have to build and operate for a world run by renewable energy and sustainable practices.  It is in their own best interest.  And ours.

Even the most intransigent fossil fuel interests know their carbon time is limited, though many will still fight like demons, and spend like a profligate to extend their carbon time on earth.

In a recent interview in The Guardian, Jane Goodall acknowledges the implications of this quickly forming consensus.  She points out that companies will continue to grow more supportive of climate action because a more sustainable ethic is “creeping in” and younger people (the future consumers) are ”growing up with a different understanding.”  And there is the writing on the wall.  She gives the example of the soft drink manufacturers who contribute to water shortages. As she notes, “If they go on using water the way they are using water, they won’t be able to make their drinks anymore. So they have to find methods which are more saving.”

Hoping that such a development continues, what do we do to make use of it.

First, don’t get bent out of shape when some regressive business or industry fights back.  Look around for those who have joined the consensus, form alliances with them, and work with them.  We have the example of local governments stepping in and assuming the lead for climate actions when national or regional governments fail to do so.

Second, even if the UN COP talks deliver less than we could hope for, trust that as long as the people at large continue to demand more proactive climate actions, businesses will pay attention and plan their own future to survive in a renewable energy world.

But we’re not delusional about any fundamental transformation of how business is conducted across the globe.  While we argue that certain changes are inevitable, that only means they are “certain to happen; unavoidable.”   But it is not clear just when they will happen.  And with climate breakdown things can turn deadly quickly.

So keep highlighting the writing on the climate wall and work with those who can read, and continue to push against the climate illiterate.

 

Sources:

Dominic Rushe, ‘Reading the writing on the wall’: why Wall Street is acting on the climate crisis: The industry has backed polluters for decades. Now, amid growing pressure, Wall Street says it’s going green,” The Guardian (16 March 2021).  bit.ly/3G7ZMA3

Emine Saner, “Jane Goodall on fires, floods, frugality and the good fight: ‘People have to change from within’,” The Guardian (20 Oct 2021).  bit.ly/3aTjIs7

Christopher Flavelle, Julian E. Barnes, Eileen Sullivan and Jenifer Steinhauer, “Reports Lay Out Climate’s Threat to U. S. Security,” The New York Times (22 Oct 2021). www.nytimes.com/2021/10/21/climate/climate-change-national-security.html

Jon Chorley, “Businesses Must Step Up On Climate Change—and Tech Innovations Are Key,” Forbes (18 Oct 2021).  bit.ly/3muK8qZ

Business Strategies to Address Climate Change, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions  bit.ly/3Ct3ulF

See, also, Andrew Phillips and Charles Seaford, “The Climate Consensus. The Public’s Views on How to Cut Emissions: Results from the Climate Calculator,” DEMOS in the Commentary section of the current (November 2021) issue of www.irishenvironment.com

Lobbying in favor of those who would destroy the earth

Is that ethical?

Lobbying has always had its dark side.  In a classical instance of lobbying to lower taxes for businesses, we see this dark side at work:

For six years, Audrey Ellis and Adam Feuerstein worked together at PwC, the giant accounting firm, helping the world’s biggest companies avoid taxes.

In mid-2018, one of Mr. Feuerstein’s clients, an influential association of real estate companies, was trying to persuade government officials that its members should qualify for a new federal tax break. Mr. Feuerstein knew just the person to turn to for help. Ms. Ellis had recently joined the Treasury Department, and she was drafting the rules for this very deduction.

That summer, Ms. Ellis met with Mr. Feuerstein and his client’s lobbyists. The next week the Treasury granted their wish  — a decision potentially worth billions of dollars to PwC’s clients.

About a year later, Ms. Ellis returned to PwC, where she was immediately promoted to partner. She and Mr. Feuerstein now work together advising large companies on how to exploit wrinkles in the tax regulation that Ms. Ellis helped write. (See New York Times below).

In many such cases the end result is that a company or industry pays less in taxes (and makes more profit) or obtains some economic benefit as a result of manipulating the regulations.

But now the stakes are much higher. It is not just money that is at stake.  It is also the fate of the planet.

Over the past several decades there have been exposés about how business and industries have spent small fortunes attempting to reduce or eliminate governmental regulations that support environmental protections. Most at risk are efforts to fight climate breakdown.  Exxon Mobil has often stood as the poster child for these efforts.

While the focus has been on the companies involved, it is time to also focus on the lobbyists who serve the interest of those working to destroy environmental regulations.

In the Commentary section of the current issue of this magazine is a copy of a speech by the EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, “Ethical lobbying in a post-COVID world,” given to a group of global public affairs specialist, or lobbyists.  Many of those at the talk represented tech, energy, transport, farming and similar companies.

Her speech explores how the Covid-19 pandemic (and the associated massive recovery plans) and plans to deal with recent extreme weather events are being impacted by lobbyists.  The Ombudsman raises the question: “Can what some lobbyists do ever be considered ethically neutral if it is knowingly directed at watering down regulations designed to tackle the climate crisis.”   As she notes, “Thanks to skilled lobbyists and receptive politicians, EU environmental law often emerges weaker than their initial draft. Just Google EU environmental law and ‘watered down’ and you will find a graveyard of failed ambition.”

At the moment we face a concerted onslaught within the UK against the “bonfire” of EU laws that had been vilified in the Brexit campaign and now face revision or extinction by the Johnson administration.  Regulations and laws on everything from genetically modified farming to medical devices to vehicle standards are on top of bonfire.  The aim is to review, modify or repeal (not to strengthen) the “legislative sausage machine” in Brussels, all to “improve growth and prosperity for everyone” (not to protect better the earth we live on).   It will all end in a “massive regulatory cull” and bonfire.

The use of bonfire as a metaphor carries loaded political associations for those in Northern Ireland where bonfires are lit on the night before the Twelfth of July, an Ulster Protestant celebration.

The Brexit minister in the Johnson administration also announced that the public could contribute to this conflagration through a standards commission that could get ideas from any British citizen.

Of course we know that those who will offer all sorts of ideas for the massive regulatory cull will be lobbyists for those with vested interests in the regulations.  The work of ploughing through massive amounts of regulations and revising them to fit the purposes of private business clients is time consuming.   And time costs money.  Since such lobbyists have substantially more assets and resources than environmental NGOs, it is hard to identify and to counter the influence of the private lobbyists.

While there has been some success in exposing the efforts of the fossil fuel companies, perhaps it is time to expose the work of the lobbyists as well.

Do lobbyists really want to be identified with efforts to destroy the earth?  Do their children?

 

Sources:

Jesse Drucker and Danny Hakim, “How Accounting Giants Craft Favorable Tax Rules From Inside Government:  Lawyers from top accounting firms do brief stints in the Treasury Department, with the expectation of big raises when they return,” The New York Times (20 September 2021).  nyti.ms/3izFqpx

EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, “Ethical lobbying in a post-COVID world,” re-printed in the Commentary section in the current, October issue of www.irishenvironment.com   The speech was originally published on the Ombudsman website at www.ombudsman.europa.eu/en/speech/en/146894

Lisa O’Carroll, “Rules on GM farming and cars to be top of UK bonfire of EU laws:  Minister reveals plans to change laws inherited from EU, with rules on medical devices also in crosshairs,” The Guardian (16 Sept 2021).  bit.ly/3iBMxxJ

Tom McTague, “Brexit boom for Britain’s lobbyists,” Politico (12 July 2017).  politi.co/3zS6LsA

 

Glasgow City Council bans polluters from public spaces during COP26

Thanks to Glasgow

 

The critical UN sponsored global climate talks known as the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP 26) take place in Glasgow Scotland in late October and early November 2021.  These talks are directly linked to the COP talks in Paris, in 2015, where countries committed to increasing their pledges to reduce global warming by the 26th COP.

At the COP talks, there are formal negotiations between governmental delegates in attempts to arrive at a consensus on how to move forward on tackling climate breakdown.  Any formal agreement or action has to be adopted by this body.  At the same time, there are meetings inside the COP event organised by delegations from governmental departments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).  Finally, there are thousands of representatives of civil society organisations and other interested entities from across the world who will stage meetings, talks, demonstrations, protests and possibly direct action to draw attention to climate issues and what is happening inside the COP.  This fringe action mostly takes place outside formal UN spaces, and it has often functioned as the annual meeting of the global climate movement.

Then there are, as always, the giant, heavily-funded fossil fuel companies and other big polluters who tend to get free reign to lobby openly and behind closed doors in the side events and corridors of the COP.   The lobbying is intended to water down any policy decisions that might infringe on the economic interests of fossil fuel companies.

Since these companies have been the main drivers of climate breakdown, there has always been a significant disconnect between their dark presence and the lofty goals and objective of the COP talks .  They are shadows that block out the sunshine that otherwise could penetrate the talks.

The host for the COP 26 is the UK government, with Glasgow serving as the local host for the events around the COP 26.

 

 

 

 

In an unprecedented action, the Glasgow City Council passed a resolution banning polluting companies from public venues under the City’s control during the COP 26.  It is the first example of a host city counteracting the presence of particular vested interests while the talks take place. The motion requires that the Council: “will take steps to ensure that venues and community spaces either owned or operated by the Council are not used for the benefit of those who deny, ignore or wilfully contribute to catastrophic climate change, for the duration of COP26.”

Supporters of the resolution reasoned that it made no sense to allow those who continue to profit from climate breakdown be given any access to try to perpetuate those profits at the expense of the people most affected by the adverse impacts of that breakdown.

To implement the ban, the Council has produced criteria for identifying the climate culprits.

No one is deceived that this ban will stop the monied lobbyists for the fossil fuel interests from doing what they do behind closed doors, and in back alleys.  But they will be curtailed from doing it in public spaces.  Just as the talks are intended to protect our natural resources from the pollution by fossil fuels, the ban is there to protect our public spaces against the verbal pollution from lobbyists.

One article characterized those subject to the ban as ”climate laggards.”  Perhaps the next step is to consider banning those countries that remain “climate laggards” from participating in further talks.

 

Sources:

Glasgow Calls Out Polluters, COP26: What’s at Stake?  www.gcop.scot/cop26-whats-at-stake/Glasgow

Brendan Montague, “Polluters banned from COP26 public venues,” Ecologist (20 August 2021).  bit.ly/3DgIcIU

Sarah George, “Climate laggards to be banned from booking Glasgow’s public venues for COP26,” edie (20 August 2021).  bit.ly/3zgDIj5

EU’s “Fit for 55” and the carbon border tax

Is the fitness program more than an exercise in alliteration?

The recent EU plan for meeting its target of a 55% net emission reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030 is titled “Fit for 55.”  The plan is part of the EU Green Deal and includes a wide range of policies and plans, totaling thousands of pages.

While the alliteration — “fit” for “fifty-five” — is clever, and we think cleverness in writing is helpful, it does raise a question as to whether the plan is an exercise in public relations or a meaningful step toward the GHG emission reduction target.

A preliminary assessment of the EU fitness program by the European Environmental Bureau is entitled “Why EU’s ‘Fit for 55’ is unfit and unfair.”  See EEB report in Commentary section of this issue of irish environment magazine.  The title certainly sets the tone for EEB’s assessment and the EEB rightfully points out the weaknesses of the plan.  A Podcast by the German media company DW on the “Fit for 55” is also available in this issue, and presents varying views of the fitness program.

 

 

 

Maritime Cyprus

 

We note some key contributions made by the fitness program at this time.  It cannot be lost that the Fit for 55 plan comes as everybody is gearing up for the 26th UN Conference of the Parties (COP), scheduled for Glasgow in late November.  In Fit for 55, the EU has laid down a marker for other political bodies and countries with specific and wide-ranging plans for advancing the global discourse on achieving net emissions by 2050.  The plans are, at times, ambitious and, at other times, timid.  And the fitness plan has to survive rounds of legislative and executive action in the EU structure before it can be implemented.

At the same time, the EU is viewed, rightfully, as one of the more progressive voices on global warming talks, and the fitness plan can serve to raise the threshold for others in the COP talks. Certainly the UK as host of the COP talks and as newly emerging from the EU should feel some pressure to engage in a meaningful discourse at the COP.  But Boris Johnson can be as unpredictable, and as evasive, as Trump so we shall see.

Another example of how the fitness plan can be useful is inclusion of an EU carbon border adjustment mechanism (“carbon border tax”).  The border tax is designed to counter carbon leakage which occurs when industries in country “A” are subject to a carbon price on their goods and they lose business to goods imported from Country “B” where the carbon price is lower or non-existent.  For example, any such carbon tax within the EU would have significant implications for iron, steel and aluminum coming into the EU from Russia and Turkey.  It has been estimated that Russia exported about €8 billion worth of covered goods in 2019.

The proposed carbon border tax is scheduled to come into effect in 2023, with a 3-year transition which would be subject only to reporting requirements, and the payments under the tax would be phased in over another 10 years.  Initially only 5 sectors would be affected:  iron and steel; aluminium; cement; fertilisers; and, electricity.

What we note here about the border tax merely scratches the surface.  The details required to implement a carbon border tax are complicated, extensive and far from settled.

It is the very complexity of the carbon tax plan that underlines its importance.  It is clearly not a pie-in-the-sky notion; it is not vague.  Rather the seriousness of the plan can serve as a model for others.  With the EU Fit for 55 on the table, already the American, Canadian and even the British are exploring the notion and what they might need to put forward in response.

The idea of a carbon border tax has been bouncing around climate talks for some time.  It is a specific application of a carbon tax, with geopolitical ramifications by using trade policies to advance climate action.

At least the EU commitment to such a plan takes the idea to a new level and hopefully the 26th COP will buzz with such talk.

Sources:

‘Fit for 55’: delivering the EU’s 2030 Climate Target on the way to climate neutrality, COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE AND THE COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS (14 July 2021).  bit.ly/3f9lHLg

 

 

Lessons from the COVID pandemic for climate breakdown

First of all, trust the scientists

 

Over this past year lots has been written and spoken about what lessons we might learn from the COVID pandemic for dealing with climate breakdown.  They both affect the health of millions, with over 3.5 million dead from COVID-19; they disrupt the economies of almost every economy; and, they are subject to being distorted in political discourse.  We also found that delaying to confront a critical problem is dangerous and costly.  There is deep inequality with poor and disadvantaged communities suffering more than privileged people.   Both crises are global in nature and scope and require international cooperation.

A critical lesson has been about science.  In the midst of the COVID pandemic, scientists were center stage everywhere for much of the time, especially when matters were unclear.   Of course, there were exceptions in the Trump White House and a few other regressive and repressive regimes, although even Trump could not entirely ignore the scientists.

We relied on the health scientists to explain what this COVID thing is, what we might be able to do to slow it down or minimize it (masks and social distancing), and how we might stop it (vaccines).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay

 

Aligned against the health scientists were money interests that pushed to reopen local economies despite the grave risks in doing so.  The tension between the advice by the health professionals and the lobbying of the money interests was obvious and continues as we write.  Of course the money interests pushed the health community to support the economic actions, or at least minimize the public opposition to reopening.  But the public paid particular attention to the health professionals, and their judgments, and it was clear that even Trump could not prevail in reopening what he wanted to reopen without endorsement of the health professionals.  That has been largely true for other national, state and local governments across the world.

At the end of the day, Dr. Fauci in the US was trusted far more than was Trump and others like him.

In a similar vein, the general public, and even to some extent national governments, are relying more and more on panels of experts to define the nature and scope and extent of climate breakdown, and the need for corrective action.  For instance, the Climate Change Committee in the UK has been a clear and powerful voice in advocating for more proactive responses to the climate risks by the UK government.  In Ireland, the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) has become increasingly more outspoken about the failures of the Irish government, a known laggard on climate action.  This CCAC has served as a model for even the Irish EPA, the Citizens Assembly and the Oireachtas (legislature) Joint Climate Committee for pushing for more climate action.

At the international level, the long-term consensus of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reinforced by increasingly frequent and extreme weather events, has effectively silenced the climate denialists in most countries.

While these lessons are instructive, we also have to admit that one of the crowning achievements of the scientific community in the fight against COVID-19 was the development of the vaccines.

Unfortunately there is no vaccine for climate breakdown.

 

Sources:

World Health Organisation (WHO), Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Climate change (22 April 2020).  bit.ly/33AU73n

Editorial, “Climate and COVID-19: converging crises,” The Lancet (9 Jan 2021).  bit.ly/3txF316

“Covid-19 and Climate Change,” Climate Central (28 April 2021).  bit.ly/3o2LcBo

Klenert, D., Funke, F., Mattauch, L. et al. Five Lessons from COVID-19 for Advancing Climate Change Mitigation. Environ Resource Econ 76, 751–778 (2020). doi.org/10.1007/s10640-020-00453-w