SORROWS IN BATTALIONS 1907 CXXXVII

SORROWS IN BATTALIONS

It’s been an eventful few weeks.

Teresa May has now gone as Tory Party leader and Boris Johnson is the clear favourite to succeed her (7 to 1 on with the bookies). He and one other candidate will battle it out, with up to 160,000 Conservative Party  members deciding the winner.

Ireland is now in somewhat of a phoney war situation regarding Brexit. The pantomime antics in the House of Commons over recent months saw agreement possible on nothing beyond the emergence of a clear majority against a No Deal Departure. This has now to be factored in with the looming likelihood that Johnson, who has declared in favour of exiting the EU by Halloween, deal or no deal, will shortly become Britain’s Prime Minister. There are rumours that, to circumvent Parliamentary opposition to a no deal exit, the Commons might be prorogued, which could precipitate a constitutional crisis. Would Johnson do it? He’s been carefully non –committal on just about everything, bragging that he will renegotiate the deal May agreed with Brussels, despite the flat negatives from there. What happens next is anybody’s guess. Irish politicians can only watch and wait – and make what contingency plans they can. Two alternative budgets are being prepared. We live in interesting times.

In early June Ireland survived a visit by Trump, who appeared in good mood following his state visit to Britain. He overnighted twice at his Doonbeg Golf Resort in Clare, with a visit to Normandy for the seventy fifth anniversary of D Day sandwiched in between. The only “official” aspect of what was a private visit was a brief meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Shannon Airport. The exchanges seem to have been good natured, though Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin attended, which may have been significant -the US Treasury recently added Ireland to its “watch list” of countries running large trade surpluses with the USA. It probably did Ireland no harm to have the pro-Irish Irish American Presidential chief of staff Mike Mulraney also in attendance. At the moment Trump appears not to take us too seriously and to be well disposed – but that could change. Something few have remarked on is that this brief visit has got the Taoiseach off the hook – lightly – of his open invitation to Trump to visit. There will be no visit in 2020, an election year, and in 2021 hopefully no Trump!

The visit did not go unprotested. An anti-Trump demonstration took place outside Shannon Airport on his arrival and a much larger one was held in Dublin the following day.  These were hardly unexpected. There has been some opposition and demonstrations for a number of years at Shannon  over its use as a stopover for US troops, while Trump in Ireland was always likely to act as a lightning rod for anti-Trump protesters as well as usual anti-US protesters, over Palestine, Latin America and now the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. The Trump family received a warm welcome from the local villagers – hardly surprising given that the Golf Resort is by far the area’s major employer, directly and indirectly. The visit, the demos, the reception, the media reaction all point up again the sometimes ambivalent nature of Ireland’s relationship with the USA.

In May Ireland voted separately three times.  Irish Citizens only could vote on a proposed Constitutional amendment, Irish and EU citizens could vote in the European Parliament elections and all Irish residents could vote in the local elections.  The turnout in all three polls was around 50%, with the European poll the lowest at 49.2%. In Northern Ireland, where two of the three seats went to pro-EU candidates, probably reflecting the 56% “Remain” vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum, turnout was down over 6% to 45.14%.

Electoral practice in Ireland requires that voting be on paper ballots by pencil with counting of votes done by hand. An attempt some years ago to introduce electronic voting machines was eventually abandoned after political controversy amid doubts about the security of the process. Counting  is therefore a lengthy and painstaking process with the type of voting system actually used – proportional representation using the single transferable vote – sometimes resulting in marathon counting sessions stretching over several days.  The system works well apart from the time element, though controversy, challenges and recounts can be regular features. Importantly also the system scores high on public  acceptability; there are never allegations of vote rigging or fraud, with, on occasion, some fascinating election “contests”  and unexpected results from the quirks in the PR system. This occasion proved to be no different, with one of the European constituencies – Ireland South – taking almost a week to produce a final result.

There was no such marathon determining the outcome of the Constitutional Referendum, which was a simple Yes or No issue. The Referendum, which proposed making divorce easier by removing the four year advance separation requirements and recognising foreign divorces, was carried by an overwhelming (82%) vote to remove, another outcome in line with the changing nature of Irish society as demonstrated by other recent poll results. It was a far cry from that in the landmark 1995 referendum which removed the ban on divorce by a meagre 9,114 votes, just half of 1%. On that occasion with”Hello Divorce Goodbye Daddy” the slogan of the “No” lobby ,  809,728 voted No, with the results showing also a clear urban/rural split. This time, even with a much greater (30%) electorate the number voting No was down by two thirds to 302,319.

It will be interesting to see just what effect removing the required waiting period will have on Ireland’s very low divorce rate (0.7 per 1000 population – the lowest in Europe). With four years to wait many couples just abandoned the idea and opted to live apart or to become judicially separated, or – if finances dictated – to share the same house, but not-cohabit (the Urban Dictionary’s “Irish Divorce”).  Societal changes in recent decades have led also to many thousands of couples opting to dispense with marriage altogether and just live together. The annual rate of marriages (21,083 in 2018), at 4.3 per thousand is as low as it has been anytime in the last half century.

The results in the two elections will be pored over for pointers for the next General Election, due before 10 April 2021. Whether any accurate conclusions can be drawn is another matter, particularly given the uncertainty over Brexit.  The big story, among the main parties, was the sharp decline in support for Sinn Fein. Apart from that it was nip and tuck in the local elections between Fine Gael (25.26%) and Fianna Fail (26.92%), an outcome almost a repeat of that five years earlier. (All percentages quoted are for first preference votes). The results in the European Parliament elections, if they signify anything, show that the most high profile candidates do best, with party affiliation not as important.

There seems little incentive from these results to encourage Leo Varadkar to call an election. The magic number some pundits thought might persuade him to cut and run would have been 30% plus together with a substantial lead over Fianna Fail. He got neither where it mattered, in the local elections. Indeed the most recent opinion poll suggests Fianna Fail’s slight lead has solidified.

Fine Gael almost made their target in the European Parliament elections, winning four out of the eleven “real” seats (and 29.6% of the vote  to Fianna Fail’s 16.6%), but this was due as much to the superiority of their strong candidates over Fianna Fail’s nominees, as to any party political preferences. Moreover the European Parliament is not strictly a Parliament in the sense of a legislative body, something the electorate knows well, so voting is more candidate than policy focussed. Strong independents tend to do well and this time was no exception, with two of the most high profile Dail Deputies winning election. Three of Ireland’s eleven MEPs are now independents.

For Sinn Fein the results were a disaster, echoing its performance in last year’s Presidential election. In the European elections its vote slumped to 11.7% from 19.5% in 2014, with the party losing two of its three seats. In the local elections it took another drubbing with its vote dropping below 10% and its seats halved to 81. Only in the North did its support hold up relatively well. The party is clearly at a crossroads. Its relative success in the Noughties came from vacuuming up much traditional Republican support, augmented by a pitch for votes from the left.  It supplanted Labour as the third force in Irish politics and for a while there seemed even the possibility that it might challenge and overtake Fianna Fail (as it had done to the SDLP in the North).

However the economic recovery and the surprising durability of the FG-FF Confidence and Supply arrangement underpinning the Government put paid to that notion.  While there is little focus nowadays on its past IRA links, the party still appears to have a credibility issue. It is all very well to be constantly negative, but this automatically constricts options and the possibility of alliances.  Moreover whatever about disenchantment with the two main parties, support for the Left in Ireland remains limited. A merger between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael would undoubtedly help Sinn Fein by opening the possibility of a fundamental realignment of Irish politics along Right/Left lines. This might well happen – who knows what will emerge from the cauldron of Brexit and/or another recession – but right now Sinn Fein needs to decide whether it will remain a party of the left or begin to move towards the centre and seek to broaden its support base.

The election issue which dominated media coverage did not concern the three main parties, but the relative success of the Greens, on the coattails of the current flavour-of -the -year topic (and indeed of the decade) – Global Warming and Climate Change,  a trend evident also in most of the older (prior to 2004) EU countries. The Greens had been virtually wiped out in the 2011 General Election, punished for their role in government when the Crash happened. Now they’re back, though not to the extent portrayed by the media. In the European elections they secured 11.4% of votes cast winning two seats (out of thirteen) and coming fourth, while in the local elections they got 5.5%, quadrupling their seats to 49 and coming fifth, this time just behind Labour, which continues to flounder.

The Greens polled particularly well in Dublin, winning a seat and coming second in the European elections with 17.54% and third in all three Council elections, gaining over 10% in each. They polled well also in Ireland South (10.56%), winning a seat, and in Midlands NW (8.58%), where their candidate, a woman from Achill, became something of a media favourite after taking on Peter Casey, second in the Presidential election last year,  over the immigration issue. (Casey failed to win a seat, but did win almost 10% of the vote). Interestingly, in the North the Greens secured only 2.2%, as against a Green vote throughout the UK of 11.4%. Tactical voting was clearly at play here, as the eventual outcome saw a second pro-EU MEP elected with a seat going to the Alliance Party.

Whither the Greens next?   They have been thrown a lifeline by the current concern over the Environment, something which is not going away anytime soon. They are a niche party, overwhelmingly middle class, which has had mixed political success in recent decades. Right now they are on the up but the danger is that their policies could be hijacked by the major parties – particularly on this issue (it wouldn’t be the first time).  They clearly reflect a growing concern for the future of the Environment, particularly among the young. There is no doubt that Climate Change is now centre stage and will feature as an issue in all future party manifestoes. The Taoiseach’s first comments were to acknowledge public concern and that the clear message from voters was that “they want us to act faster.”

And indeed there has been a start at least.  On 17 June the Government launched its comprehensive Climate Action Plan 2019, providing an aspirational roadmap and timetable to move to a carbon neutral society by 2050. The lengthy document is strong on rhetoric, proposing 183 measures covering all aspects of the economy. Inter alia targets and dates have been set for banning petrol and diesel cars, domestic oil and gas boilers, and for increasing renewable energy sources, overhauling waste management and controls, introducing new building regulations and proposing ambitious retro-fitting for older homes.

There is, however, a distinct shortage of detail and no reference to the cost and who would pay, beyond setting down a marker that the taxpayer could not pay it all and that it was “essential that the burdens borne were seen to be fair and that every group is seen to be making an appropriate level of effort.” The plan has been well received – as a start, but the first hurdle it will face will be an increase in the Carbon Tax in the October budget .This will be a difficult one, particularly against the uncertain background and future regarding Brexit, but not to act would invite charges of hypocrisy.

Whatever about the achievability of these goals, no one doubts their desirability. But, to a certain extent the proposals, and the national debate, are taking place in a universe parallel to what is happening elsewhere in the world. “Reducing the carbon footprint” has now become a mantra. The EU targets for 2020and 2030 are being treated like tablets of stone, with the accompanying comfortable assumption that if only Ireland achieves the 2030 (we’ll miss 2020) target and the more ambitious one of carbon neutrality by 2050 everything will be all right. It won’t. The EU Twenty Eight (including Britain) contributes only 10% of the world’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions. The issue is global not national or even regional. I refer anyone who doubts this to Wallace-Wells’ book “The Uninhabitable Earth.”

Finally, one virtual certainty about 2050.By then the world’s population will be roughly 9.3 billion, 1.5 billion more than it is today – and none of the increase will be in Europe.

In 2050 Boris Johnson will be eighty five.

END

19/6

 

 

 

Advertisements

NO PLANET B: THE “CLIMATE EMERGENCY” 1906 CXXXVI

THERE IS NO PLANET B: THE “CLIMATE EMERGENCY”

STOP PRESS! As I write Teresa May has just announced her resignation.  Her successor is likely to   be a much more hard line “Brexiteer,” which does not bode well for Ireland. A hard Brexit threatens. More next time. More also on the European and local election results where early poll indications are that Green candidates are polling well.

This last is hardly surprising. Climate change has gripped the headlines in recent months. And our politicians have not been slow to seize the day – after a fashion. “Ireland becomes Second Country in the World to declare Climate Emergency” proclaimed one headline on May 10. “Government declares Climate Emergency” read another.” “Ireland is Second Country to declare Climate Emergency” was the “take” on RTE, the national broadcaster.

The facts were more prosaic. On May 6 another UN report on the environment caught the headlines – this one on biodiversity suggesting that upwards of one million animal and plant species were threatened with extinction, with the causes laid firmly at humanity’s door.  The report identified five main accelerative causes of species loss: habitat loss through urban expansion, overfishing, burning of fossil fuels, polluting land and water through dumping waste and the proliferation of invasive species. There followed the usual sorrow and anger pronouncements from the climate lobby, which happened to dovetail on this occasion with a May 9 Dail debate on the report of the Parliamentary Climate Change Committee, which included forty recommendations for action .

Cue a Fianna Fail amendment to the consensus report, endorsing the Committee’s report and additionally declaring “a climate and biodiversity emergency. “  Unsurprisingly this was agreed to by all parties without a vote.  The Minister (Richard Bruton) and opposition spokesmen welcomed the amendment, which, however, did not specify what the phrase meant and did not bind the government to taking any action. Indeed only six TDs were present when the amendment was adopted, none from Fianna Fail (the Greens were obliged to move it).

The seriousness and significance of the motion can perhaps best be assessed by the fact that on May 1 Britain became the FIRST country to declare an” environment and climate emergency.”  This when the House of Commons, which remains deadlocked over the most serious issue facing the country since World War Two –Brexit – adopted, without a vote, a motion tabled by no less a luminary than Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn ,who declared its adoption a “huge step forward.” His initiative followed a week of protests mounted by an environmental activist group, Extinction Rebellion, which had seriously disrupted traffic and movement in central London.

There are essentially two ways of considering the latest development here. The sanguine approach is to regard this as another step in sensitising public opinion to the reality of climate change and the urgent need to take whatever action Ireland can to do our bit to save the planet. There have been various pronouncements by successive governments since the Nineties on the need for action and warm endorsement of the EU’s ambitious goals for reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2020 and again by 2030 and beyond. The Citizens’ Assembly – derided initially but which is acknowledged to have played a significant role in clearing the air and clarifying the Abortion issue – has deliberated and made recommendations on Climate Change. And now there is the consensus report and recommendations from the all-party Climate Change Committee. In recent years there has been the successful tax on plastic shopping bags- the “witches’ knickers” of urban legend – and the equally successful smoking ban in pubs and workplaces – proof positive that the Irish public can, when convinced, act for the greater good.

The other approach is to see the resolution as hollow and hypocritical and as epitomising all that is wrong with Irish politics, and, because it is rooted in cynicism, might well damage the prospects for achieving the necessary popular support for the tough measures needed if Ireland is ever to achieve its GHG reduction goals. Stephen Collins, former chief political editor of the Irish Times, in an excellent piece on May 16, described the declaration as “pure guff” and went on to contrast the reality to the fine words being spoken. The article is well worth a read. Google it. In it he raised the additional concern that it would add “to the corrosive cynicism about politics which is fuelling anti-democratic forces across Europe.” Amen to that.

Brexit apart, there is no doubt that the “Climate Challenge” has now become the sexy political topic here and is likely to remain high profile for quite some time. For the Greens it is a lifeline. For the political opposition generally it is heaven sent – a golden political stick with which to beat the government now and for a long time to come. It is simply not going to be possible to meet the ambitious targets proposed without considerable pain where it will hit most, i.e. in the pocket. Already the Minister has flagged that Ireland’s failure to meet its 2020 targets for cuts (20% designated, 1% the expected outcome)  may well  require the government to spend up to €150 million to purchase “ carbon credits” to offset the national failure to meet the 20% target.

And more to come should the country fail to meet the even more ambitious targets for 2030. This is taxpayers’ money that could have been used elsewhere in cash strapped areas of which we have more than enough. Expect the opposition, particularly the left, to make hay on this one. The climate issue was widely aired on the doorsteps in the recent local and European elections, and featured prominently in the televised debates between candidates where it became evident that battle lines were being drawn on the first practical step – the Carbon Tax issue. This, affecting most fossil fuels is generally recognised as the measure most likely to get results in terms of cutting consumption (for results look at the hiking of cigarette prices and the pending minimum unit pricing for alcohol). But, and it’s a big but, Carbon Tax will bear most heavily on those on lower incomes and rural dwellers. Sinn Fein and the left are opposed to any increase, calling for significant and substantial exemptions. But then who would pay? Memories of the water charge debacle are still fresh.

The Government and the mainstream parties have had the wit to see the looming danger, with Leo Varadkar suggesting that the way to proceed is to develop a consensus approach among the politicians, thus “bringing the public along”. With one eye on the protests in France, and mindful of the mini rural revolt here before the last budget, he has also floated the idea that any increase in carbon tax should be funnelled back to the pocket in some way, rather than be subsumed into general taxation. Just how this would work is unclear. Certainly refunding money helped draw a line under the Irish Water mess, but this would be a different animal. Higher fuel costs should curb consumption, but the benefits could be negated if a bookkeeping exercise was all that was needed to get the money back. Let’s watch this one. Big Boys’ Games, Leo.

25/5/19

“NORMAL POLITICS” 1905(2) CXXXV

“NORMAL POLITICS”

WITH Brexit parked for the moment, Normal Politics is back – after a fashion. Not before time. There are other matters requiring attention, though clearly none with the potential toxic fall out from  a no-deal Brexit ( that with a deal will be bad enough).

We are now well into Year Four of the current Government, with an election due at the latest in February 2021. The original three-Budget Confidence and Supply arrangement between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael was extended into a fourth year to help assist that nothing would  side-track the Government from  the overwhelming  national priority of how to handle Brexit. That task is ongoing, and thus far few would dispute the deftness with which the issue has been handled, nor the 100% support Ireland has received from our EU partners.

Nevertheless the  countdown to the next election has begun and the European and local elections due on May 24 should give some indication at least of  popular support for the main parties. Recent opinion polls have given inconsistent, indeed at times contradictory, readings for three heavy hitters. While, as in the USA, mid- term elections are normally used to give the incumbents a kicking, this may not happen on this occasion, despite  the chronic unresolved issues of Homelessness, Health and Housing – the “dreary steeples” of Irish politics. Again, Brexit may have played its part in this, by concentrating the public’s mind on what is really important and helping to raise awareness that there is no magic bullet to solve any of the main issues.

May 24 might answer several questions. Should Fine Gael reach 30%, on the basis of judicious stewardship, party strategists may advocate an early election, before any nasty outcome to Brexit begins to bite (remembering also that last time around delaying until the end partly to help Labour rebounded badly and didn’t help Labour!). Should Fianna Fail come close to parity this will have justified the statesmanlike decision of Micheal Martin to continue to support the government “in the national interest.”  Sinn Fein will be watching closely its performance following a disappointing result in the recent Presidential election and to see how on this occasion its results in the local elections equate with its standing in the opinion polls.

The European elections, even though nothing national is at stake, will be watched with particular attention. Will Sinn Fein be able to repeat its 2014 performance (19.5%) and hold its three seats? Will Fianna Fail, the largest vote getter last time, improve on its single seat? How will the Independents fare? On this last attention will focus on how Peter Casey, runner up in last year’s Presidential election, does in the Midlands/North West constituency. His relative success last year was generally attributed to his anti-Traveller remarks, and he has most recently taken aim at some of the imperfections in Ireland’s immigration policy, including the direct provision system.

It’s worth remembering that, from a standing start, Casey received votes from ten per cent of all those eligible to vote – a percentage not too far off the levels of support for right wing parties elsewhere in  Europe. Ireland has thus far not produced a populist right wing movement similar to that in most other European countries and the USA. How Casey does may provide a partial clue to whether Ireland is immune or not to the current populist surges elsewhere. Conventional wisdom (heavily PC) has it that the Irish electorate is moderate by nature, eschews anything extreme and welcomes immigration because of our history of colonial rule and forced emigration. More cynical voices point to our relative isolation as an island behind an island, the fact that so far the numbers of immigrants from outside the EU have been quite small and that until recently the economic situation was hardly conducive to mass immigration.

What is undeniable is that, since the 2004 EU Enlargement, Ireland has experienced proportionately far more immigrants from the new member states than Britain, without apparently the resentment and antipathy which played a factor in the British vote to leave;  this despite at least equally harsh years of austerity.  One obvious reason is that, unlike the British, the Irish as a whole have “bought into” the European Project and accepted that Enlargement entitled the new EU citizens to come to Ireland. The relatively more generous safety net provisions of the Irish welfare system may also have helped here and there is no doubt that the systematic degrading of the British welfare state in recent decades was another factor, with the new arrivals perceived by some as further straining a creaking system  and as  undermining existing senses of entitlement .  That does not appear to be happening here, but with a rising population, inadequate state funding and chronic frailties in the three “Hs,” there are definite pressures on the system here. Public opinion can be volatile. As the Irish Water fiasco showed an issue can ignite and gain widespread support rapidly in this era of social networks.

Brexit related issues notwithstanding, including the recent violence in Derry, which will hopefully concentrate Northern political minds about the need to solve the current political impasse, the most immediate threat to the Government is the Housing situation in its totality There is no quick fix and the Government line has been consistent,  arguing that the underlying major cause is one of shortage of supply after years of stagnation  and that the problem will ease over time  as more houses and apartments are completed. True, certainly; but “in the long run we are all dead” and several factors are currently melding together in a manner that could create the perfect storm.

Media attention has focussed on the homeless issue, unsurprising given its immediacy and in particular the families involved. But the Housing issue transcends this embracing also factors including market prices,  a rising population, increased and pent up demand, a still inadequate level of construction,  deficiencies in the types of accommodation actually being built (not enough “social housing”), planning delays and NIMBYism and the imposition of rigid Central Bank credit controls on borrowing  to purchase property. This last an attempt to control house prices, dampen demand and avoid a repetition of the black hole of property price boom and bust in the Noughties.

The net result has been a dire and ultimately unsustainable situation. House prices have recovered, though not yet to the dizzy heights of 2008. In a situation where the national average house price country wide is €261,000 and over €380,000 in Dublin ( nine times the average salary), the capital required for a purchase down payment, 20% in most cases, i.e. €50 -80,000 cash, is becoming ever more difficult   to raise. Those unable to buy are obliged to rent, forcing already high rents higher. Additionally, with rental returns so profitable ,new players are entering the rental market – so called Cuckoo Funds, cash rich syndicates   purchasing whole new and existing property developments, exclusively for renting, thus reducing the numbers of properties available for the public who want to buy. Almost a vicious circle. Surely one requiring Government action. But what action? And when? Before the next election?  Time is running out. Banana skins anybody?

5/5/19

NO PLANET B : THE POPULATION FACTOR 1905 CXXXIV

THERE IS NO PLANET B: THE POPULATION FACTOR

With great fanfare the UN has announced the next annual Climate Action Summit is to take place in New York on 23 September next. It will be the latest chapter in the lengthening saga of UN involvement in combatting climate change and global warming. The Summit is to add impetus towards implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement a “year before countries will have to enhance their national pledges under” Paris. The advance publicity anticipates that over 100 Heads of State and Government will attend. Many will have been in New York in any event to attend the opening sessions of the 74th UN General Assembly, so at least the additional Carbon Footprint of the politicians and officials jetting in to attend the Summit will not be great.

By 23 September there WILL be one indisputable addition to the world’s collective Carbon Footprint since Paris 2015 – that attributable to the 300 million plus increase in the Earth’s population, which some estimates suggest could reach 7.7 billion by the year’s end ( it could be even higher).  This continued growth, currently a little (!) over 80 million per year – even though the rate of increase is slowing (from 1.29% in 2000 to 1.07% in 2009) – is a major factor inhibiting efforts to combat climate change and control carbon emissions worldwide. In many ways it could be described as the silent partner of climate change.

The reality of this climate change is with us. In the last century the world’s temperature has risen by 0.74C degrees. Twenty of the warmest years on record have occurred since 1996. By 2009 carbon dioxide levels had risen by 38% and methane levels by 148% since 1750 – the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution; the rate of increase of both has risen sharply since 1950, the period of the most intense human activity and development ever. In the course of the Twentieth Century, global emissions of CO2 grew twelvefold.  And, since 1950, the world population has trebled and shows every indication of continuing to grow.

The figures, from UN or US government studies, are sobering. Since 2000 the world’s population has increased by almost one and a half billion, or 25%. Among the ten most populous countries some percentages have been higher. Bangladesh has increased by 30.5% to 168 million, Mexico by 32.6% to 132 million, Pakistan by 34.2% to 204 million, Nigeria by 62.1% to 200 million and India by 36% to 1.368 billion. Of the other five, only Russia shows a small decrease, of 2.2% to 144 million. Brazil has increased by 21.8% to 212 million and Indonesia by 25.9% to 270 million. Even the USA has increased by 16.6% to an estimated 330 million, while China, still the most populous country, has seen an increase of 11.2% to 1.420 billion. Overall these ten countries account for around 58% of the world population, having increased by an average of 23.7%, or 850 million, since 2000.

By 2050, even allowing for demographics trending downwards, these ten are forecast to rise by a further half a billion, to just under five billion. While the Chinese population will have fallen by 100 million, the Indian population will have surged by perhaps 300 million more to a staggering 1.65 billion, with corresponding sharp rises in the numbers in Pakistan and Bangladesh; Nigeria, if present trends continue, will have doubled to an almost unbelievable 400 million.  The global forecast for 2050 is for a population 9.374 billion, or a further 1.5 billion plus over today’s figure.  The gap between the top ten and  the rest of the world, currently 1.15 billion, will have almost halved to 620 million, despite very little or no growth in many first world countries, reflecting higher birth-rates elsewhere. Fifty years further on the population could be nudging ten billion, the upper limit most studies suggest that the Earth can support and feed.

The impact of this population explosion – no other phrase adequately covers it – on the planet’s resources, and on the environment, including global warming, is or should be, self-evident.  With the global priority now to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and, at an individual level, the priority the pressing need to monitor and where possible reduce everyone’s carbon footprint, the implication of these population increases should be of central attention and concern. Yet it appears the population factor has rarely featured in the debates and in the plans for action announced and endorsed since the world woke up to the threat of rising temperatures.

Indeed at the 2015 Paris Agreement conference, population was the elephant in the room, ignored or glanced at only in passing. It’s not hard to see why. What has bedevilled attempts to tackle global warming effectively since 1992 has been the political failure to agree on measures and on effective enforcement mechanisms, evident again in the Paris outcome. The reasons for inaction have included political differences, national ambitions and rivalries, friction and the blame game between the have and have-not countries, internal political considerations in a number of states, and increasing pressures from populist elements. Getting even a bland agreement on “voluntary” measures has involved ducking the major questions on population.

One outcome has been a sad series of milestone moments since the world became climate aware. The total human population was 1.6 billion in 1900, 2.5 billion in 1951, and is now 7.7 billion. In 1962, when Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” sensitised US public opinion to the harm being done to the planet, it was 3.15 billion. In 1968, when the seminal Stanford Report on “Gaseous Atmospheric Polluters” appeared, it was 3.55. It was 5.05 by 1987 when the landmark Montreal Protocol to tackle Ozone levels was adopted, and in 1992, when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted, it was 5.5 billion.  In 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, putting the onus (and historical blame) on developed countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it was 5.9. By 2003, when Greta Thunberg was born, it was 6.38 and it was just under 7 billion (6.95) in 2009/2010, when the ineffectual Copenhagen and Cancun meetings were held.

The impact of a rising population goes far beyond the numbers to be fed. It is an all embracing dynamic process with an ever widening ripple effect.  The numbers of consumers and the scale and nature of their consumption become relevant in terms of national and global carbon footprints. The developing Asian and other economies are following first world models, consuming and boosting GHG emissions. Just two examples. Since 1981 India, with a growing middle class, has added a massive 480 million people – half of them by now well into adulthood – almost equal to the population of the EU. In the same period China has added just over 400 million. However small the individual carbon footprints of these additions, collectively they more than negate any savings or reductions EU member states might make, even fully reaching their 2020 and 2030 targets for cuts in GHG emissions. We can lead by example. But will it be enough? And who will take heed? No Planet B indeed!

18/4/19

 

 

ESTONIA IN THE EU : FIFTEEN YEARS ON 1904(3) CXXXII

ESTONIA IN THE EU: FIFTEEN YEARS ON

SOME PERSONAL REFLECTIONS

I was appointed the first resident Irish Ambassador to Estonia in late 2001, opening the Embassy in Tallinn in November 2001. I left Estonia in August 2004, shortly after the country’s accession to the EU. There follow some personal observations on the Accession.

I had previously served in the Irish Permanent Representation in Brussels from 1995 to 1999, servicing the Central and Eastern European Working Groups, and, after 1997, the Enlargement Group. During this period I got opportunities to get to know and visit – together with the Group – all of the Candidate Countries – as they were then termed – apart from Malta and Cyprus. The Central European States were linked to the EC fifteen by what were termed the Europe Agreements, structures designed to ease the process of development ( political, economic and institutional)  of the transition states to the point where they were deemed ready to  enter into formal negotiations for accession to the EU.

The Baltic States, having emerged from fifty years of Soviet occupation and annexation were not sufficiently developed institutionally to be covered by a Europe Agreement and initially relations with the EU were through Free Trade Agreements (the background to this is covered in detail in        “Estonia’s Way into the EU,” an excellent collection of essays published by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2009).  Estonia, the smallest but most progressive and prosperous of the Baltic States, was to the fore in pressing for an Association Agreement with the EU, thus ensuring that, despite this difference in status, the EC would treat the Baltics in similar fashion to the Central Europeans.

In fact by the time of my arrival in Brussels, Estonia, because of its dramatic success in transforming a former Soviet economy, had become virtually the Commission’s poster boy for the applicant states. Not surprisingly Estonia was among the first tranche of applicants approved for formal accession negotiations – this before the regatta style approach to bring all candidates forward together. Thereafter negotiations between the Commission and Estonia commenced, in March 2008. The format was to verify the compliance of Estonia with the various chapters of the Acquis Communautaire, with negotiations formally concluded when all had been complied with, the Commission notifying Member States of progress as chapters were closed.

By the time of my arrival in Estonia accession negotiations were well advanced and the Nice Treaty, signed in February 2001, had endorsed Enlargement, to include Estonia. It’s worthwhile pointing out that the Ambassador sur place has no role or function in  the accession negotiations. However, there was one fly in the ointment which served to propel me, and I suspect my colleagues in the other Candidate countries, into a higher than usual profile. This was that Ireland, in a referendum in June 2001, had voted to reject the Treaty, thus putting a brake on any enlargement. I spent much of my first year as Ambassador fielding and explaining this issue. What might be termed “Official Estonia” – the governing elite and the chattering classes – was bemused. They could not comprehend why Ireland, which many had regarded as the role model for success for a small nation in the EU, had voted as it did. President Ruutel, when I presented credentials, simply asked me “What happened?”

There was however very little hostility towards Ireland over the vote, though I was confronted on several occasions with the rather blunt assertion that it appeared that Ireland, having got the most out of its EU membership, had decided to pull the ladder up behind it preventing poorer or less advanced countries getting in. My response was to stress that Ireland was not opposed to Enlargement, to explain the circumstances, the low turnout and the various reasons which could help explain the vote and to explain that the Irish Government was in discussions with the Commission and interested Member States to see if there were grounds for asking the Irish people to vote again.

As we know the Irish people DID vote again in October 2002 on the basis of some clarifications received and endorsed the Treaty by a significant margin. As it happens I hosted a dinner for the Estonian Prime Minister Siim Kallas several days after the vote. He congratulated me on the outcome and asked what I would have said to him had the result been unfavourable. My response, at which he was highly amused, was to state that in that case it would have been a case of the Crucifixion coming before the Last Supper! The Treaty was duly ratified and came into force, paving the way for Estonia to join the EC in 2004. I need hardly add that the Yes vote for Nice made my posting in Tallinn more comfortable.

There was one more major obstacle to be overcome – the referendum in Estonia, which took place in September 2003. While it was carried by a two-to one majority the result was by no means as foregone as the margin suggested, with the electorate  laid back and fears therefore of voter apathy  and a low turnout. The country was doing well, which is not necessarily conducive to raising passions or interests in any direction. Although “Official Estonia” was strongly in favour, the country’s largest party, the (slightly populist and left-of-centre) Centre Party advocated voting NO. Additionally there was opposition from those who argued that Estonia should keep its freedom of action and that the country, having got out of membership of one union – the USSR, which had been a disaster – should not rush to join another union – the EU. A prominent opponent of EU membership and an advocate for this viewpoint was Mart Helme, a former Estonian Ambassador to Moscow, who had played a part in securing the withdrawal of the Russian armies from Estonia. As I write, his far-right Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (which made major gains in the recent General Election) seems poised to enter the new Estonian government, which would be a breakthrough for right wing populist parties in the EU.

The first half of 2004 was for me an exciting, busy and satisfying time. There were my EU Presidency duties with all that that involved in terms of chairing meetings, hosting lunches and dinners and entertaining Estonian politicians and Ministers from Ireland. The country was fairly relaxed about joining the EU, which for most Estonians was just one manifestation –though an important one – of a process which saw Estonia emancipated from Russian dominance and influence. Another part of this process was joining NATO, which took place also in early 2004. At the time there seemed little threat from a Russia that was still recovering from the Yeltsin years but most Estonians with whom I was in contact expressed relief and satisfaction  at having, as they saw it, the safety umbrella of NATO membership over them.

With NATO membership tucked away, May 1 was greeted by most Estonians phlegmatically. The country was seen as entering a new phase in its independence and most were comfortable with it. I often heard from Estonians around that time that they had lost half a century but that now that past was behind them. There were some celebrations but for the most part reaction was muted. For the political figures with whom I was friendly, including Prime Minister Parts and his predecessor, Kallas, who was to become Estonia’s first European Commissioner, there was a mixture of joy and relief that the milestone had been passed. Juhan Parts, as he often did, called to see me after work and then we agreed to have a quiet celebration as midnight was reached. Which we duly did. He was to fly to Dublin in the small hours so his celebration with me was undoubtedly a sign of the high regards with which Ireland was held. My own personal feelings were also relief plus a certain satisfaction at being present at a milestone event in the history of a country. I cannot say I played a major part but I was there.

18/4/19

THERE IS NO PLANET B : PART ONE 1904(2) CXXX11

THERE IS NO PLANET B: PART ONE

On March 15 an estimated 1.5 million schoolchildren in over 100 countries worldwide demonstrated to demand government action to combat global warming. It’s easy to be cynical. While the turnout was impressive and a mass movement appears to be developing, it could be dismissed as predominantly a middle class and First World phenomenon. Which it is. Yet in so far as it represents doing something as opposed to nothing on an issue of universal concern, it surely merits approval.

The schoolchildren’s movement grew out of a “Climate Strike” around the opening of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, and focussed initially on the three aims of clean energy, keeping fossil fuels in the ground and helping climate refugees.  It went viral last year partly inspired by  Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, who went “on strike” from school last autumn, has maintained a high profile since  and told  world leaders at Davos in January “We must change almost everything in our current societies. The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility.” Ms Thunberg, (sixteen on January 3) has now been nominated for the Nobel peace Prize.

On March 1 the Guardian  published an open letter, in advance of the demonstrations, attacking politicians for failing to address climate change, and claiming that the young (50% plus of the global population) were “not included in the local and global decision-making process.”  The piece continued “We, the young, have started to move. We are going to change the fate of humanity, whether you like it or not. United we will rise until we see climate justice. We demand the world’s decision-makers take responsibility and solve this crisis.”  Stirring and idealistic words. Whether they will prove effective in pressurising governments worldwide to take decisive action is another matter.

It’s not as if the issue is unimportant. With the exception of Trump and fellow flat-earthers who deny the reality, and the wealthy and influential lobbies and oil producers which benefit and profit from the current situation, there is virtual consensus among scientists on the clear and soon-to-be present danger to humanity global warming poses, with only a limited number of years left to take effective remedial action. There seems little doubt that the tipping point for irreversible damage to the Earth’s environment IS fast approaching, certainly by 2100 and probably well before. Indeed last October a UN body – the IPCC – suggested  as desirable limiting  the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees rather than the more modest two degrees advocated by the  2015 Paris Conference, with a deadline of 2030 for action to achieve this.

Ruling elites do tend to take action in respond to pressure, and constant lobbying from a variety of environmental groups, including Thunberg’s supporters, may prove instrumental eventually in securing meaningful action. But getting political leaders to focus on the future threat to the environment in the face of current pressures and demands is never easy. Faced with an immediate domestic, social or economic crisis, what MIGHT happen several decades later will not get priority.  Any change will come slowly, episodically and incrementally. That is the way government policy normally evolves.

In political terms moreover the issue is one to which two quotations apply. First, the “Juncker Curse.” The current President of the EC and former Prime Minister of Luxembourg famously remarked in 2007 that “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.” He was speaking of economic reform but the remarks can be applied with a vengeance to taking effective action on global warming.  Equally pertinent is Keynes’ dictum that “in the long run we are all dead,” a quotation famously modified by Harry Hopkins, one of FDR’s close advisers in 1933. Responding to a Senator’s remark criticising New Deal relief programs that “the economy will work itself out in the long run.” Hopkins retorted “People don’t eat in the long run Senator, they eat every day.” And that, ceteris paribus, is the rub. Politicians will – indeed must – respond to present pressures.

The simple truth is that the short term effective action of the type required and being advocated by the environmental lobbies would involve such fundamental alterations in the lifestyle of the populations of the First World and the affluent classes elsewhere that consumer resistance would be such as to delay, water down and postpone the measures advocated. Pain today for the benefit of future generations does not entice. While some actions have already been taken and ambitious plans are being talked up in various capitals, how much, how painful and over what time frame effective measures will be enacted are very much open questions. Factor in the pressures imposed by democratic elections, the siren sounds of populism (Trump’s election an ominous example), and the eagerness of politicians to avoid harsh decisions and pander to the aspirations, ambitions and demands of their supporters, and actions on global warming are likely to be limited and dictated by available resources, whatever the rhetoric politicians spout.

Even the EC, which has been to the fore in setting ambitious and legally binding targets for cutting greenhouse gases by 2020 and by more in 2030, is experiencing consumer resistance.. The rioting in France in recent months was sparked initially by dissatisfaction among rural dwellers at hikes in gasoline prices introduced specifically to meet national environmental targets, while, even closer to home, the Irish government, facing similar  rural opposition, had to jettison plans last October for gasoline hikes and carbon tax increases  only weeks after Taoiseach Varadkar had announced them. They are to be applied in next October’s budget. We shall see, given the possible effects of Brexit and a pending general election.

The fatal flaw in the ambitious cuts in harmful emissions the international community signed up to under the Paris Agreement of 2015 is that the cuts will be voluntary, with no mechanism to ensure compliance. The Agreement itself suffered an early body blow when Trump announced that the USA, the world’s second largest polluter, would pull out in 2020. And anyone who googles the targets countries have pledged will find that many of the so called pledges have the caveat that they will be dependent on international assistance, i.e. that they will be funded whole or in part by wealthier countries.

And here’s the other rub. Central to the climate debate – and one that has raised temperatures (ouch!) – has been the notion of Climate Justice. In summary the attitude of the less well-off countries, however defined, is one of righteous indignation  and a demand that, morally,  the countries of the first world, which, having  industrialised earlier, caused or initiated the problem,  must therefore shoulder the blame, bear much of the burden of  adjustment, compensate, assist and make allowances for the less well-off to catch up. Not an easy one, on any front. Perhaps Greta and her supporters born since 2000 might reflect also on the fact that, since 2000, the world’s population has increased by nearly 25%, from 6,145,006,969 to 7,632,819,325 in 2018, an increase of almost 1.5 billion souls. Something surely has got to give! No Planet B; indeed!

26/3/19

 

TOO LATE ON THE ENVIRONMENT?1904 CXXXI

T0O LATE ON THE ENVIRONMENT?

Could March 15 2019 prove to be a watershed date in the battle to control the damage to the global environment caused by greenhouse gases? On that day an estimated 1.5 million schoolchildren in over 100 countries worldwide demonstrated to demand government action to combat global warming. The schoolchildren’s movement, which had been bubbling along since it was founded en marge of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, went viral last year, partly inspired by Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, who went “on strike” from school last autumn, has maintained a high profile since and told  world leaders at Davos in January “We must change almost everything in our current societies. The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility.” Ms Thunberg, (sixteen on January 3) has now been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

On March 1 the Guardian  published an open letter, in advance of the demonstrations, attacking politicians for failing to address climate change, and claiming that the young (50% plus of the global population) were “not included in the local and global decision-making process.”  The piece continued “We, the young, have started to move. We are going to change the fate of humanity, whether you like it or not. United we will rise until we see climate justice. We demand the world’s decision-makers take responsibility and solve this crisis.”  Stirring and idealistic words. Whether they will prove effective in pressurising governments worldwide to take decisive action is another matter.

The movement could be dismissed as predominantly a middle class and First World phenomenon yet in so far as it represents doing something as opposed to nothing on an issue of universal concern, it surely merits approval. It pushes all the right buttons from the environmentalist and liberal left-of-centre point of view, including the notion of “climate justice.” This last is code, inter alia, for requiring “developed”, i.e. richer countries, to take the strongest and most painful measures to curb and control their greenhouse gases, while cutting poorer developing countries some slack in terms of greenhouse gas production to develop economically, that slack to include also financial assistance with control of pollution.

There’s general agreement that something needs to be done, and quickly, but there agreement ends. The warnings from scientists about the dire state of the Earth’s climate and the need for drastic action have been quite clear for years. There is widespread agreement on the reality of global warming and the threat it presents, with the flat earth lobby in denial reduced to Trump and other clowns who dispute global warming, or, if they acknowledge it, spout inanities about the cyclical nature of climate change ( “In the long run,” as Keynes remarked, “We are all dead.”). But translating this recognition into meaningful and effective action is another matter. The various accords and international agreements to date have yielded some improvements but overall have failed to produce a global solution that sticks.

The latest attempt, the Paris Agreement of 2015, to which 194 states have acceded, and from which Trump has announced US withdrawal in 2020, set the aspirational goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2C over those of the preindustrial era by 2100, and a more ambitious goal of 1.5C, to restrict environmental damage to a minimum, without, however any legally binding enforcement mechanisms. Paris relies on voluntary measures by individual countries, its Achilles heel. A recent UN report (from last October) suggested that to achieve the higher target of 1.5C, there were only a dozen years left (i.e. by 2030) to take decisive action. And this action would hurt big time, involving reductions in carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and their total elimination by 2050 (rather than the 20% and 2075 targets for 2C).

The problem with getting every country on board to tackle global warming effectively is that it involves dealing with several different, interrelated and complicated themes. Firstly are the actual facts in terms of the global annual amounts of greenhouse gases generated. Secondly the breakdown of greenhouse gas production by country, and also by per capita by country. Next there is the breakdown between gas types and how this is distributed between countries. Interwoven with these are the highly political and emotionally charged issues of the relationships between richer and more developed counties and those poorer and less developed as well as the uneven distribution not only of available energy sources but of ameliorative alternative resources to fossil fuels. There is also the Blame Game. The West was the first to industrialise and any blame for the early human contribution to global warming has to be laid firmly at its door. What price or penalty should it now offer by way of recompense?

A few facts. Half a dozen countries account for roughly 60% of the world’s annual production of greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide emissions. These are China, the USA, India, Russia, Japan and Brazil in that order, with China and the USA between them accounting for 40%. The European Union 28 (soon to be 27), with about 7% (500 million) of the Earth’s population, accounts for about 9%, with Germany predictably leading the way with roughly 2%. Within the EU, the Nordic countries (including Sweden, home of Ms Thunberg) contribute together one half of 1% of the global total. Ireland is in the same range, accounting for 0.13%, a figure in part accounted for by methane emissions from the Irish herd of 7 million cattle –  agriculture accounts for around one third of our greenhouse gas emissions. Worldwide, agriculture, with 1.5 billion cattle and other ruminants, contributes 18% to annual global emissions!

Moreover, in the background, and not always given due recognition, is the reality of population growth and the collateral pressure it puts on the environment even in the most benign scenario. When Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring” – that early warning of how mankind was damaging the planet – in 1962, the Earth’s population was roughly 3 billion. It is now 7 billion and rising; even though the rate of increase is slowing, it is projected to reach 10 billion shortly after 2050. Think about it: all these people with needs, wants and aspirations. Moreover, it is not just the poorest populations which are expanding rapidly: India, very much an emerging economy, saw its population increase by 40%, or 350 million people, between 1990 and 2010, while emerging economies Brazil and Indonesia each saw increases of 30%, 45 and 55 million respectively. This is not Malthus. This is reality.

We should not of course allow the best to become the enemy of the good, and should for our part ensure that we live up to our commitments as EC members and as a responsible nation, curbing, where possible both individual and collective carbon footprints. Armageddon, if it comes, will not happen overnight. The situation is dynamic and evolving. But even were all the other countries of the first world to meet the 1.5C target, the actual cumulative effect would not be enough. Similar action by the Six is the essential for Saving the Planet. Don’t hold your breath!

SF 31/3