For Peat’s Sake: Bogs, Bord na Móna and the Climate

My skull hibernated
in the wet nest of my hair.

Which they robbed.
I was barbered
and stripped
by a turfcutter’s spade

who veiled me again
and packed coomb softly
between the stone jambs
at my head and my feet.

-Seamus Heaney

Abbeyleix bog in Co. Laois is a rare example of a bog that has not been utterly destroyed by industrial peat extraction. Many of the peatlands I saw from my window on the bus down here were not so lucky. The barren and lifeless landscape of bogs that have been stripped bare is a common sight in the Irish midlands, and it is becoming more common every day. Abbeyleix very nearly met the same fate back in 2000. If it were not for the dedication and quick thinking of the community, the thousands of species in the bog would be homeless and hundreds of thousands of tonnes more carbon would be in the atmosphere instead of in the ground where it belongs. 

Bogs and Irish culture have been intimately linked for centuries, cropping up in everything from our traditional songs to the work of our most beloved poets. They have provided us with energy, clean water, jobs and a home for our wildlife. Globally, degraded peatlands account for a quarter of all carbon emissions from the land-use sector despite covering only 3% of the land. They also contain 30% of the world’s soil carbon; that’s twice as much carbon as is stored in all the world’s forests. It is estimated that more than 80% of Irish peatlands have been damaged in some way.

Peat forms because the water-logged and acidic conditions of a bog significantly slow the decomposition of bog mosses, also called sphagnum, causing a build-up of organic matter. Emissions from peatlands don’t just come from the burning of the peat; they also come from drainage. When the level of water in a bog (known as the water table) is reduced, this exposes more of the peat to the air. In this dry, oxygen-rich environment, the peat decomposes, releasing all that carbon back into the atmosphere.

Despite owning only 7% of Irish peatlands, the organisation primarily responsible for the industrial extraction of Irish peat is Bord na Móna, a semi-state company which was set up by the government in 1934 under the name ‘the Turf Development Board’. Since the inception of Bord na Móna proper in 1946, the company has been responsible for the development of 80,000 hectares of Irish bogs. Back in 2016, Bord na Móna rebranded themselves with the slogan ‘Naturally Driven’ and tried to position themselves as environmental stewards. The journalist John Gibbons called this campaign “profoundly, irredeemably dishonest” and “an exercise in cynicism”. He also quoted An Taisce as saying “We suggest they drop their new ‘Naturally Driven’ slogan and replace it with the phrase ‘Profit Driven’. Then Bord na Móna would at least be able to sell its business plan with a straight face”.

Abbeyleix bog had been owned by the De Vesci family since the early 1700s. In 1987, Tom De Vesci, who had previously attempted to have the bog designated as a heritage site, was coerced by Bord na Móna into selling the bog. “I was approached many times by Bord na Móna to sell it after my father died in 1983 and I always refused” Tom said in an interview. “But eventually I was informed that Bord na Móna would be taking ownership via a compulsory purchase order at a somewhat lower level of compensation than I would get if I sold it ‘voluntarily’ a few weeks earlier”. In 1989, Bord na Móna cut 66km of drains into the bog in preparation for future peat harvesting.

On Thursday, 20th of July 2000, Chris Uys, a member of the Heritage Company and now development officer for the Community Wetlands Forum, met with Jimmy Dooley of Bord na Móna to discuss plans for a walkway through the bog and to inform Jimmy of concerns regarding its development. The following day, locals noticed unfamiliar pieces of machinery on the bog, which had been delivered to the site by Bord na Móna overnight. Chris Uys raised the alarm in the community that development of the bog was about to begin. That Sunday, local resident Gary O’Keeffe parked a crane in the entrance to the bog under the guise that it had broken down during a bird-watching session in order to keep the rest of the machines out of the bog. By Monday morning, at least 50 people had gathered at the entrance to protest the development, with numbers swelling to around 100 by lunchtime.

After much pressure from the community, Bord na Móna finally agreed to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in April of 2001. They found that the Abbeyleix site was of “little or no conservation value”, an assessment which both the Abbeyleix community and the Irish Peatlands Conservation Council (IPCC) considered “incomplete and inaccurate”. An ecologist by the name of Doug McMillan was invited to carry out an independent assessment of the bog. Having only surveyed 20% of the land, Doug had already found over 500 species, and could reasonably conclude that the bog was home to thousands of species, including a butterfly which was protected by the EU. If Bord na Móna really had carried out an EIA, they had either done a poor job or they had lied about the results.

In 2002, An Bord Pleanála found that Abbeyleix bog was not exempted from the requirement for planning permission. This was the first time in Irish history that a peat development went through the planning permission process. Bord na Móna, in true form, took high court action against both the Laois County Council and An Bord Pleanála. In 2008, an ecologist by the name of Jim Ryan carried out another survey, finding that only 1% of the raised bog was still intact and forming peat. I am stunned when Chris tells me that, like in Abbeyleix, only 1% of active raised bog in the country remains. In other words, we have degraded 99% of carbon-rich raised bog nationwide through drainage and peat extraction. In April of 2009, more than 20 years after they were cut, work began to block the drains in Abbeyleix. In April of 2012, the Abbeyleix community signed a lease agreement which meant that the bog would be in their control for the next 50 years, provided that it was primarily used for habitat restoration. David had beaten Goliath.

I met with Chris Uys in the lobby of the picturesque ‘Abbeyleix Manor Hotel’ on the outskirts of the bog. He has brought with him a textbook on peatlands and a folder packed to the brim with documents. When I ask him why peatlands are so important for biodiversity, he tells me that “the interesting thing about the biodiversity in peatlands is that the combination of plants and… the way they interact has a wider role to play than just purely the biodiversity that is there because it helps to retain water content, it has to do with carbon sequestration, and it supports other ecosystems”. He tells me that bogs are very important for breeding birds and that they link different ecosystems together like a natural corridor.

A walk through Abbeyleix bog feels like a walk through the history of this country. There is a calm here that soothes your aching bones like a hot bath. This is what is known rather robotically as a ‘cultural service’; one of many ‘ecosystem services’ provided by bogs like Abbeyleix. These somewhat stomach-churning terms are used by some environmentalists as an attempt to reframe the ecological crisis we have caused in the parlance of capitalism and thus convince business and industry to act. Gazing out over the endless beauty of this ancient landscape, I can’t help but think that it is downright insane to try and put a price on something that existed for so very long before our self-centred species ever dreamed up the concept of money.

Back in 1997, peat fires forced both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to close their airports for several days. The peat in question was burning over 1,000km away in Indonesia. Scientists have estimated that the CO2 released during this one fire was equivalent to 13-40% of the mean annual global emissions from fossil fuels. The carbon is not the only issue; the vast quantities of smoke released by the fire had serious effects on health, with studies showing decreased lung function in children who were present during the event. According to a study in Archives of Environmental Health, 527 people died in 2 months as a result of the smoke, with 58,000 cases of bronchitis and 1 and a half million cases of acute respiratory infection reported.  Fires like this have happened periodically over the last few decades, with one 2010 event in Russia leading to carbon monoxide levels in the capital that were 6 times the maximum acceptable level.

To the Irish, this all may seem like a distant threat, but were the Wicklow bogs to catch fire, the prevailing wind would carry all that lethal smoke right into the heart of Dublin. John Reilly, the head of the renewable energy branch of Bord na Mona, told me in an interview that “the biggest risk of wildfires is not posed by active peat production areas on drained peatlands, but rather the risk is high on virgin peatlands which are generally covered in vegetation such as gorse and heather”. He said that the major concern when it comes to fires was actually stockpiles of cut peat.

DCU-based peatlands expert John Connolly tells a slightly different story. “In one way he is right that the risk of fire (i.e. fire starting) on a drained industrial peatland may be less if all vegetation is removed. However, a lightning strike could start a fire and in that case drained peatlands are much more vulnerable than virgin (i.e. wet) peatlands”. Dr Connolly sent me a link to a 2016 study in ‘Nature’ which states that “the high burn severity of drained tropical/temperate peatland fires suggests that large-scale peatland drainage and mining in northern peatlands over the last century has also likely made managed northern peatlands more vulnerable to wildfire than natural (undrained) peatlands”. While there is an element of truth in what John Reilly told me, then, it seems that it was not the whole truth.

In 2006, an area of dried and cut peat the same size as Abbeyleix bog caught fire in the Irish midlands, leading to the evacuation of several Longford residents. While it was the stockpiles that caught fire rather than a bog itself, the incident shows how damaging peat fires can be. Smoke from the fire travelled 10 miles north. One Rooskey resident who had suffered from respiratory problems in the past was quoted in the Irish Times as saying “at the moment I am closing my windows and hope that will be enough”. A 2002 study of the Indonesian haze disaster, however, suggests that staying indoors only gets you so far in a situation like this.

They found that indoor concentrations of particulate matter were about half of what they were outside. That was a form of particulate matter known as PM10 because the individual particles are 10 micrometers or smaller in diameter. They could not find any difference, however, in the concentrations of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, which are particles 2.5 micrometers or less. The researchers said that “perhaps the size of particulates was so small as to travel and intrude into any space; the concentration of pollutants was extremely high, and the indoor environments of buildings in Indonesia were rarely exempt from these pollutants”.

When asked about Mr Reilly’s claim that the presence of vegetation increases the risk of wildfires, Chris Uys replies that “from that point of view yes, that is so. But if you are talking degraded peatlands, degraded means that you have dried. For me, there is a higher risk… when the peat below the surface is dry and there is an ignition of anything above, it starts to smoulder underground as well”. Chris tells me that Abbeyleix has suffered from this very problem; “we had a fire at one stage, and you could just see smoke. On nearer investigation it was actually starting to simmer underground. It just keeps going”. While vegetation fires on the surface are manageable, the dried peat below can keep burning for a very long time and release a lot of carbon before it is extinguished.

Thankfully, Bord na Móna have been trying to get out of the peat business for over a decade, with over half of their revenue coming from non-peat-related activities in 2019. John Reilly, who has been doing excellent work building renewable energy infrastructure with the company, tells me that “Bord na Móna developed the first commercial wind farm in Ireland back in 1992, on a joint venture basis with the ESB, so we have some considerable experience in the sector”. They also announced last year that they were closing 17 of their active bogs, with the remaining 45 bogs to be closed within 7 years. However, some have said that this amounts to greenwashing, since the planned closures are of bogs that have been exhausted and are no longer profitable. As UCD peatlands expert Dr Florence Renou-Wilson put it in an interview with the Guardian, ““It’s a bit of a smokescreen. It’s all revenue-driven… they’re are all done and dusted”.

Bord na Móna is not the only company extracting Irish peat, though it is the largest. A company called Harte Peat has come under fire recently for carrying out large-scale peat extraction without a license in the Derrycrave bog in Westmeath. Photos released last year by ‘Friends of the Irish Environment’ showed that Harte had been cutting the peat right down to the mineral layer below, leaving almost no possibility of recovery. Peat that had formed at a rate of about 1 millimetre a year until it was several meters thick was stripped down to the bone in the geological blink of an eye, depriving animals of their homes and future humans of their right to security. This tragedy has played out countless times across the country over generations, leaving us with little more than a silhouette of the beautiful and important landscapes which once dominated the Irish midlands.

The degradation of Ireland’s peatlands doesn’t just threaten our health, it also threatens our wallets. New regulations require that we start reporting the emissions from our peatlands to the EU from 2021. Ireland is already facing hundreds of millions of euro in fines for failing to meet our emissions targets and this will bring us further off target. Chris tells me that “We were fined 150 million for this already… and we’re gonna be fined again until these people stop… Bord na Móna don’t get fined. It’s the government that gets fined. They merrily go on. They can go on for another 30 years if the government allow them. But we get that fine”.

When asked to what extent Ireland will be able to cope with these changes to EU law, Dr Connolly tells me that “the government and the EPA have made some investments in funding research and research infrastructure over the past few years. These investments will allow scientists to provide some of the detail that is required in the legislation, however much more investment is needed in research, infrastructure and rewetting/restoration as peatlands in Ireland are severely degraded and emissions are unknown in many areas”. But does this mean more fines for the Irish government? “It depends. If peatland emissions can be reduced to zero by the start of the 2026 reporting period, then no. However, current emissions are estimated to be about 11 million tonnes of CO2 … The reduction of these emissions to zero over the next six years will be very challenging.”

I ask Chris if Abbeyleix bog became a net source of emissions following the drainage and, if so, if it is back to being a net sink. “Possibly we are not a net sink yet… the higher the water level the less carbon emissions,” he tells me. “Then it gets to a point where it changes and it starts to give out methane emissions. There is a sweet spot where you have the least emissions. The other problem with degraded peatlands is that if you don’t have vegetation formation, (sphagnum), then it does not negate the methane”. The blocking of the drains has not been in vain, however. Whereas only 1% of the active raised bog remained in 2009, Chris reckons that as much as 10-15% has recovered in the intervening decade.

It takes time for peatlands to regenerate; all the more reason to block as many drains as we can as soon as we can. The light is beginning to fade from the grey clouds overhead as I slip and slide across the wet wooden walkways. The first few drops of rain begin to fall once more on the mounds and ditches of Abbeyleix. This beautiful landscape serves as both a cautionary tale and a beacon of hope. It showcases the terrible consequences of degrading our bogs, but is also a reminder that with elbow-grease, dedication and time we can undo some of the wrongs we have inflicted on the natural world.

The Small Change Quarantine Quiz

Hi all. I’ve made a short general knowledge quiz that is designed to be played on Zoom. You can also download an empty template and have the fun of writing the questions yourself. Quizzes are a fun way to get some human contact in this extremely difficult time.

Instructions: One person is the quizmaster. When the zoom call has started, the quizmaster opens the Powerpoint presentation below and presses the ‘share screen’ button at the bottom of the zoom interface. Instruct your contestants to switch to ‘grid view’ in the zoom call. This can be done by pressing the icon furthest to the right at the top of the window where you can see the other people on the call. Instruct them to drag the edges of the window to enlarge it until it fits the box marked ‘Put Friends Here’. All that should be visible is the other people on the call and the bar at the bottom of the screen marked ‘Read Questions Here’. If the contestants are having trouble switching to grid view, I think it is because it is only available when there are 6 people or more on the call. If there are 5 or less, simply place the small bar over the words ”Put Friends Here’. When all that is sorted, the quizmaster can press the spacebar on their keyboard to move from question to question. The arrow keys can also be used to go back and forward. The answers will appear one by one after all the questions have been asked. Contestants mark themselves using the point system that appears next to the answers at the bottom of their screens.

Enjoy!

(By the way, the brief ‘Rhyme Time’ round is not an original format. It was taken from the excellent BBC show ‘Richard Osman’s House of Games’.)

Carbon Neutral Lent: Week 1 – Food

Welcome to the first week of Carbon Neutral Lent! The pancakes are gone, which means the time has come for spreadsheets. This week we will be looking at the messy and complicated topic of the carbon footprint of food. Don’t forget to head over to the CNL landing page to download the tracker spreadsheet which will allow you to estimate your carbon ‘foodprint’ at the end of each week by asking you one simple question! Also, come on down to our event in the Landmark pub in Dublin on the 3rd of March, where CNL founder Darragh Wynne will be joined by a variety of guests to talk about the carbon footprint of food. Come for the information, stay for the music!

Ireland’s carbon footprint is an unusual one. At 34% of the total national emissions, agriculture has a greater impact on our emissions profile than any other European country. For comparison, waste (which includes the footprint of all our plastic) is responsible for just 1.5% of our emissions. Even so, it seems like businesses and well-meaning citizens are far more concerned with ditching plastic straws than they are with reducing the footprint of the foods that we eat.

Our unusually high agricultural footprint is not, however, necessarily a result of our eating habits. It is because we make our money producing extremely high-carbon foods and then exporting them to other countries. To be precise, it is because we produce a whole lot of beef and dairy. Dairy cow numbers increased in Ireland by 27% between 2013 and 2018, in large part due to the removal of the milk quota in 2015.

This goes to show that the types of food we grow and eat can have a massive effect on our emissions. A kilogram of locally grown, in season carrots comes in at 0.25 kgs of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). The same weight of beef is a whopping 17kg CO2e. In other words, pound for pound, beef produces 68 times more carbon than locally grown carrots.

Of course, the comparison is not so simple as this. A kilogram of beef contains about 5 times more calories and about 25 times more protein than a kilogram of carrots. Still, 5 times the calories for 68 times the carbon is a monster trade-off. Getting 1 calorie from beef produces around 14 times more carbon than one calorie from a carrot. Plus, carrots contain far more fiber and carbohydrates and far less fat than beef.

As for protein, how much you need depends on how much you weigh and how active you are. The rule for a sedentary person is that you need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. As a 70 kilo man, I would need 56 grams of protein per day. Conveniently, that is exactly the average recommended intake for a sedentary man. That’s about 3.2 Tesco beef burgers of 84 grams each.

Alternatively, you could get that protein from non-animal sources for a fraction of the carbon price. Quorn burgers, for example, contain 18g of protein per hundred grams. In other words, I’d need 3.7 Quorn burgers of 84 grams each to get my daily dose of protein. What’s more, the carbon footprint would be reduced by 90%!

Quorn is far from being the only low-carbon source of protein. We get protein from almost everything we eat. 100 grams of chickpeas, for example will give you 20 grams of protein. Soybeans are also a great source, with 100 grams containing 16.6 grams of protein.  It is easy to see how, over the course of a day, we can take in as much protein as we need without the help of meat.

It is important to note, however, that the recommended protein intake for someone who partakes in a strenuous physical activity like weight lifting or endurance running is considerably higher. Nearly twice as high, in fact, with strength and endurance athletes recommended to take in 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. If I were to spend all day in the gym, then, I would need 119 grams of protein per day. For active people such as this, protein shakes can provide the rest of the daily protein that you are not getting from food. Plus, there are vegan options available!

That brings us nicely to the question of how much better veganism is for the environment than vegetarianism. One study found that you can cut 1.82 kilograms of CO2e per day by switching from a medium-meat diet to a vegetarian one. The same study found that switching from a vegetarian to a vegan diet would save nearly a kilogram more carbon per day. In other words, going vegan is a fair bit better for emissions.

Cheese is the third highest-emissions food after beef and lamb. That’s right, a kilo of cheese produces more emissions than a kilo of pork or chicken, although it must be said that cheese is usually eaten in much smaller quantities. Vegan food also uses less land and water to produce than eggs and dairy, further reducing a vegan’s impact on the environment. Whether or not food comes from animals is perhaps the best indicator of how high-carbon it will be. If you hadn’t guessed, animal products are almost always worse. But why is meat so bad for the environment?

The simple answer is that growing crops and eating them is a far more efficient process than raising animals for food. That is because you have to grow a lot of crops to feed to the animals while they grow big enough for slaughter. It uses much less land and water and produces far fewer emissions to cut out the middleman and go straight to the source of the nutrition; the plants.

Plants build their bodies using carbon they take from the air, water they take from the ground and energy they take from the sun. They don’t need to move, digest food, pump blood around their bodies or keep themselves warm and that saves them a lot of energy.

Animals, on the other hand, burn up most of the energy they take in from plants by walking around, breathing and keeping warm. If you feed a cow 100 calories in the form of grain, only 3% of those calories will be returned in the meat. That means that you have to feed them a whole lot more over their lifetime than you will get back in the end.

In the case of ‘ruminant’ animals like cattle and sheep, there is the added problem of methane. Ruminants are hoofed mammals that have a 4-chambered stomach, one of which is called the rumen. Microbes break down the ruminant’s food in a process known as ‘enteric fermentation’, which produces a lot of methane. To be precise, it produces 30% of all anthropogenic methane emissions.

Water use is another major consideration, with a 2003 study finding that “Producing 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein”. I worked out for a previous article that eating a pound of beef wastes about as much water as leaving your shower on for about 15 hours.

Eating plants is not just low-carbon. It is also gives a much higher yield per hectare than producing meat. In a much-cited study from 2013, Emily Cassidy et al. found that “given the current mix of crop uses, growing food exclusively for direct human consumption could, in principle, increase available food calories by as much as 70%, which could feed an additional 4 billion people”.

In other words, if it were not for the fact that we waste plant nutrition by feeding it to livestock, the population could grow to 10 billion by 2050 (as projected) and we could still feed every person on earth with ease. According to the same study, “36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are being used for animal feed, and only 12% of those feed calories ultimately contribute to the human diet”. That is a huge amount of waste considering how many people do not have enough to eat.

That brings us very neatly to the incredibly important topic of food waste. In Ireland, over a million tonnes of food are wasted each year. The excellent Climate Queens podcast figured out that that’s enough to fill Croke Park with food waste twice each year. Globally, one third of all food produced goes to waste. That is more than enough to feed the roughly 11% of people in the world who are chronically malnourished.

If food waste were a country, it would have the third highest emissions of any country on earth after the US and China. That is because approximately 10% of all carbon emissions globally come from food waste, costing the world about €550 billion per year.

Food waste is a win-win area in which we can both seriously cut emissions and increase the total food available for consumption. Try keeping a journal of which foods you are throwing out. If you find that you are regularly throwing out half a tub of coleslaw, for example, you can start buying a smaller tub. It really is that simple!

There is so much more we could say about the carbon footprint of food. I haven’t even touched on the emissions from fertilizers, how different types of feed affect the emissions profile of livestock or the very important topic of animal cruelty in agriculture.

If you take two things away from this piece, however, let them be that
a) you should cut down on meat and dairy as much as possible and
b) you should eat the food that you buy.

If we all made these two simple rules a priority when it comes to which food we choose to buy, we could massively cut emissions of CO2, methane and nitrous oxide. In the process, we would also increase the land available for crop production, forests, wetlands and renewable energy projects. Plus, we would save a whole lot of money and water.

What are you waiting for?

Carbon Neutral Lent

Hello and welcome to Carbon Neutral Lent! This year, CNL is joining forces with Preserve Ireland and Small Change to bring you a series of podcasts, blog posts, resources and events that will help you to measure your carbon footprint this lent and find out which areas you can improve on. Every fortnight, we’ll be tackling a different topic in the events, podcast and blog posts. The four topics will be transport, electricity, heating and food.

Below is a free downloadable tool created by CNL founder Darragh Wynne which will help you keep track of your carbon in a way that is detailed enough to be accurate, but still simple enough to be doable. Thank you to Ellen Hegarty for the Irish version of the tracker!

“For people who want to take climate action but don’t know where to start, this is a great way to dip your toe in. Climate change is such a huge problem that it makes it difficult to stay motivated to make small changes, especially when you don’t even know how much of a difference it’s making. With our spreadsheet, you answer a few questions about electricity, heating, transport and food at the end of each week. It calculates your carbon footprint. You can make a change for the next week and see how much it brings your footprint down” – Darragh Wynne

FAQs

Does this carbon tracker give me my entire carbon footprint?

No. Most things we spend money on have a carbon footprint such as clothes, electronics. So do more abstract things like a Netflix subscription, a mortgage and the taxes we pay. By choosing electricity, heating, transport and food, we selected 4 areas where people can realistically reduce their footprint over the course of 7 weeks.

How accurate is it?

Accuracy varies across categories. For example, if you keep track of the amount of petrol you bought for your car, it can give you a very accurate reading of those emissions. For food, it’s based off the average footprint for different types of diets so the person’s actual footprint may differ from the measured one.

If it’s not 100% accurate, what’s the point?

Pedometers are not 100% accurate in measuring steps or calories burned but they are still useful to give people an understanding of general exercise trends and something to work towards. The carbon tracker will still be able to show you broad trends of your emissions and show you where you can
make reductions.

Do I have to go vegan, cycle everywhere and sit in the cold and dark at home to do this?

No. You don’t have to change anything about your lifestyle if you don’t want to. You can just use it to learn about your current emissions if you wish.

How is it Carbon Neutral?

At the end of Lent, when you see what your total emissions are, you have the option to contribute to an offsetting project.

How long does it take to use the tracker?

You answer a few questions before Lent starts and then answer around 10 questions at the end of each week.

Do I have to do all of it all the time?

No. You can just do one section if you wish and put as much or as little effort in as you want.

Who has access to my information?

Nobody. Once you download the tracker, only you will see the information.

Do I have to be religious to take part?

No. The project materials and events have no religious connotations other than using the concept of Lent itself.

Do I have to do complicated calculations?

No, you just have to check your electricity meter, gas meter, estimate how far you’ve travelled on public transport etc., put that into the spreadsheet and it calculates your footprint.

Can I use the spreadsheet for a full family?

Unfortunately, the current design takes account of just 1 person’s footprint.

If you have any further questions, please contact us on Facebook or Twitter.

Carbon Neutral Lent: Individual and Systemic Action

How do we solve climate change? Do we eat less meat? Turn off the lights? Fly less? ‘No!’, I hear you say, ‘we need systemic action!’ To a large extent this is true, but as with all things related to climate change, it is not quite so simple. In this piece, I will be playing devil’s advocate and putting forward some of the arguments for why individual action is also important. Please do not take this to mean that I am a puppet of the corporations.

Depending on who you ask, climate change is a policy problem, an engineering problem, a communications problem, an ethical problem; the list goes on. At its heart, however, it is a physical problem. Carbon is carbon. Climate change does not care about fairness. It will react to the quantity of greenhouse gases which are cumulatively released into the atmosphere, regardless of whether those emissions come from Exxon Mobil or from your meat, lights and planes.

The Guardian recently reported that just 20 companies are responsible for a third of all emissions since 1965. Those numbers can easily make one feel that individual action is a fool’s errand. Surely we can just shut down these companies and we’ll be fine? Again, it is somewhat more complicated than that. What does it mean for a company to be ‘responsible’ for emissions? Those who read past the headline of that Guardian article will have seen that while 10% of those emissions came from the extraction and transport of the fossil fuels, 90% of the emissions came from us, the consumer, burning the fuel for energy. The fossil fuel industry facilitates the burning of fossil fuels but we are the ones to pull the trigger.

Would these companies have produced those emissions if there was no one there to buy their oil and coal? Even now, would they be raking in the cash if we didn’t need their fuel for our cars or their energy for our homes? If there’s a market for it, then someone’s selling. If there’s no market for it, it stays in the ground where it belongs. That’s capitalism. Supply and demand. Don’t worry, I don’t like it either.

Of course, petrochemical companies like Shell do bear a disproportionate share of the blame, not least because they have between them spent vast sums of money trying to obscure the facts about climate change by funding right-wing think tanks, factually inaccurate media campaigns and the ‘research’ of a select few ethically suspect scientists. Think of the solar panels they could have built with that money.

Another major consideration is the massive gap in per capita emissions between the developed and developing world. There is a huge number of people in the developing world who emit next to nothing. The average emissions for the group of 47 countries categorised by the UN as ‘Least Developed Countries’ (LDCs) is 0.3 tonnes per person per year. The average for the rich 35 ‘Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’ (OECD) countries is 9.6 tonnes. That’s one hell of a difference.

The difference becomes even more stark when you look at individual nations. Per capita, the average annual carbon emissions in the US are about 20 metric tonnes. Burundi, on the other hand, are listed by the ‘World Bank’ as emitting 0.0 tonnes per person per year. In my view, there is no possible argument to be made that could justify that level of inequality.  

The fossil fuel industry is particularly culpable, yes, but so are normal people in the developed world. Our vast over-consumption precludes the possibility of an equitable redistribution of resources to the global south. We have gained a massive advantage over the developing world through colonialism and the burning of fossil fuels. We must now right those wrongs by fighting to restore some semblance of global equality. Perhaps that means sacrificing some of the things that we only have as a result of exploitation.

If we don’t reduce our individual footprints in the developed world, the very act of pulling people out of poverty in the developing world will lead to incredibly dangerous levels of emissions. The question is whether we should ask the rich kids to stop eating beef or ask the poor kids to stop eating at all. I know which seems fairer and more ethical to me.

Don’t get me wrong, individual action is not enough by itself. Not by a long shot. We do need systemic change. Among other things, we need governments to build renewable energy infrastructure and provide funding to retrofit houses. We need them to expand and green public transport, impose quotas on cattle herds, set targets for reforestation and protect marine habitats. Unfortunately, this all takes time that we don’t have. Especially at the pace we are going at. Again, climate change is a physical problem. While we argue over the wording of a document, carbon is accumulating in the atmosphere faster each year. Climate waits for no man.

While we fight for systemic change, we must also reduce our individual consumption in the developed world if we are to give people in the developing world time to improve their socioeconomic conditions. If you have quit the meat or stopped flying, that is a good thing. Your efforts have not been for nothing. You have reduced the global average per capita emissions, giving the developing world more time to reduce poverty before it has to start worrying about the resulting emissions.

In philosophy, a distinction is often drawn between necessity and sufficiency. While bread is necessary for a sandwich, for example, it is not sufficient. You also need a filling. I would argue that while both individual and systemic action are necessary in the fight against climate change, neither are sufficient in their own right. Systemic change takes time that we don’t have, and individual change does not give us the emissions reductions that we need. Together, they might have a shot.

In the developed world, we must fight the powers that be and force widespread systemic change. That is the most important thing we can do. In the meantime, however, we must also reduce our own footprints. That is the only way I can see for us to achieve a truly just transition. We cannot be expected to live carbon-free lives in a carbon-rich system. We can, however, be expected to try. Why? Because the alternative is so much worse.

Short Change: Artificial Visionaries

First published in UCD College Tribune

Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland are investigating the possibility of partially restoring sight to the blind by using a device known as an optic nerve implant (ONI). The vision created by these ‘bionic eyes’ is known as artificial vision. The device works by bypassing the eyeball and sending electrical signals directly to the optic nerve, the pathway through which visual information reaches the brain. 

For cases in which this pathway is itself damaged, a device can be implanted directly into the visual cortex. One such implant, known as ‘Orion’, was recently used with great success to restore partial vision to 6 people who had been completely blind for a number of years. However, this surgery is quite risky. ONIs allow people with damaged eyes to recover sight without the need for invasive brain surgery. Macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa are examples of ocular afflictions that can be treated in this way.

The researchers at EPFL have shown that ONIs can produce specific and unique responses in the brain. This means that the artificial vision produced by the implant can theoretically inform the user about things like the location and movement of objects. When you close your eyes and put pressure on your eyelids, the flash of light that you see is known as a ‘phosphene’. In other words, phosphenes are the sensation of seeing light without any light actually entering the eye. This is roughly what artificial vision looks like, so people must undergo training in order to interpret what they are seeing. 

The WHO estimate that around 2.2 billion people worldwide suffer from some sort of vision impairment or blindness. That’s about 1 in every 3 and a half people on earth. It is easy to see how this technology could have a truly positive impact on the lives of countless real people. EPFL’s Diego Ghezzi has recently said that “from a purely technological perspective, we could do clinical trials tomorrow”. 

Kant Stop, Won’t Stop: Climate Action and the Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who is now famous for his concept of the ‘categorical imperative’. Similar to the ‘golden rule’ found in many religions (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), the categorical imperative works as a kind of handbook for determining whether an action is moral or immoral. The idea is that you should consider an action moral only if you could sensibly wish that all people in that situation would act in the same way. In other words, before you make a moral decision, you should ask yourself whether it would make sense for everyone to make the same decision.

This is known as the ‘test of universalisation’. If you can wish that a ‘maxim’ (a rule of conduct) be universalised, then that maxim is moral. If the universalisation of the maxim results in a logical inconsistency, however, that maxim should not be followed. This sounds like a complex idea, but once you start to analyse a few examples it becomes very clear. In this piece, I’ll be looking at some lifestyle decisions which are relevant to climate change through the lens of this rule to find out what Kant might have thought about climate action.

Consider the open-and-shut case of the maxim ‘I should kill people who irritate me in order to better society’. So what happens when this maxim is universalised? If everyone who was irritated resorted immediately to murder, society would break down. If irritation were a just cause for murder, I would’ve already killed several people today and I’m sure several people would’ve killed me. This is a society that is in no one’s best interests. More than that, it is the disintegration of society itself. The universalisation of the maxim ‘I should kill people who irritate me in order to better society’, then, is self-defeating, since it results in the breaking-down of the very thing it originally sought to improve; society.

Another example is that of lying. Kant thought that if everyone lied all the time, then truth itself would become meaningless. This generated what he thought of as a logical inconsistency. Usually people lie to gain some sort of advantage over the person they are lying to. If everyone lied all the time, that advantage would disappear and the reason you were lying in the first place would become null and void. A common criticism of Kant is that his rule is too strict and emotionless. People take the categorical imperative to mean that no one can lie at any time for any reason, since lying fails the test of universalisation. I think that this is a misinterpretation of Kant’s views. Consider this example:

Your friend knocks on your door, terrified. They tell you that a murderer is after them and ask for somewhere to hide. You agree. Sure enough, moments later a man wielding an axe shows up at the door and asks if you know where your friend is. People say that according to Kant, it is immoral to lie to the murderer because the categorical imperative forbids it and you must therefore tell the murderer where your friend is. I disagree with this interpretation. For me, the categorical imperative can be more specific than ‘should I lie’ or ‘should I kill’.

Consider the maxim ‘I should lie if it saves my friend’s life from a murderer’. I don’t think Kant would have any problem saying that a sensible person could wish that maxim to be a universal law. If everyone lied all the time, a logical inconsistency would be generated since truth would become meaningless. If everyone lied only to divert murderers from their victims, however, the only result would be a better world. Even if this interpretation misrepresents Kant’s actual views, I see no reason why this simple revision should not silence many of his critics.

Ok, now that we have a basic understanding of Kant’s idea, let’s try to apply it to climate action. Consider the maxim ‘I should drive to work every day’. Let’s universalise that. If everyone drove to work every day, the resulting emissions would have catastrophic consequences for the planet. Climate change would soon reach a tipping point and set off feedback loops that we would be powerless to halt. This would cause the economy to collapse, likely leading to the loss of your job.

As in the case of lying, the universalisation of this maxim defeats the purpose of what the maxim was trying to achieve in the first place. It is not helpful to get to work quickly and hassle-free if your job no longer exists. What’s more, if everyone drove every day then we would soon run out of petrol and then nobody would be able to drive to work at all. Those sound like logical inconsistencies to me.

What about ‘I should eat meat every day’? This falls into the same problem. If everyone ate meat every day, the resources and land required to supply all this meat would most likely exceed the resources and land available on planet earth. Already, one third of all ice-free land is used to raise livestock and we are nowhere near everyone eating meat every day. More than that, the methane emissions from the livestock would greatly accelerate climate change, leading to desertification of land and rising sea-levels, further reducing the land available to raise livestock. The ultimate effect of everyone eating meat every day is that it would quickly become impossible to eat meat every day, thus defeating the original purpose of the maxim.

I think you probably get the point but I’ll do another one anyway. What about the maxim ‘I should leave my lights on when I’m not in the room’? The net result of universalising this maxim is that the resources required to generate the electricity to keep that light on would quickly run out. In addition, the increase in the severity and frequency of natural disasters that would occur would greatly increase the chance that your home would be destroyed by a hurricane or flood, thus rendering your lightbulbs kaput. The effect of everyone leaving their lights on is that pretty soon no one will be able to turn their lights on at all.

You may be thinking at this point that universalising any maxim at all will lead to logical inconsistencies. Not true. If you go back and try to universalise the opposite maxim to the examples above, you will find that none result in such an inconsistency. I can wish that no one drives to work every day, since this would only result in cleaner air, less global warming and ultimately a better world.

Universalising the maxim ‘I should not drive to work every day’ is logically consistent, since the maxim can still be followed in the world brought about by the universalisation. In other words, in a world in which no one drives to work every day, it still makes perfect sense to say ‘I should not drive to work every day’. This does not mean that there can’t be exceptions made for people with disabilities or no other means of transport. As in the case of the murderer at the door, we can simply alter the maxim to be more specific. For example; ‘I should not drive to work every day if a viable alternative is available to me’.

What about the maxim ‘I should not eat meat every day’? If no one ate meat, the planet would be far better for it. We would increase the food available to us, since crop agriculture is far more efficient than animal agriculture when it comes to land and resource use. If you give 100 grams of protein to a cow, the meat that you get back will contain only 10 grams of protein, since the cow will use up the rest by walking, breathing and maintaining its body temperature. In a world in which no one eats meat, it still makes perfect sense to say ‘I should not eat meat’. There is no logical inconsistency there, since the universalisation of the maxim does not cause it to fall apart.

I won’t bother re-analysing the last example, since I’m sure you have the gist by now. I will, however, take this time to head-off an objection that I’m sure people will have. You may argue that it is not the actions of normal people which are causing global warming, but rather the actions of a select few who are producing emissions on an industrial scale. It is true that 70% of all emissions since the industrial revolution have been produced by just 100 companies, but this line of reasoning only gets you so far. Who do you think corporations are producing the emissions for?

Corporations only stand to profit from polluting the earth because we continue to pay them for it. To go back to Kant for a second, if everyone made a conscious effort to reduce their energy usage, then the companies who generate that electricity from fossil fuels would have no reason to continue ramping up their operation. It’s really very simple; supply and demand. So long as the demand for things like electricity and beef remains high, it is still profitable to burn as much fuel and raise as many cattle as you possibly can.

If the demand were to drop by, say, 50%, then the only way to keep the operation profitable is to reduce the supply by 50% too. This is because it is expensive to produce electricity and beef, and there is no financial incentive to make that initial investment if no one is willing to pay for the finished product. So while corporations carry the responsibility for producing the emissions, every individual in the western world has facilitated these crimes against humanity by providing a financial motivation for their continuation. It is for this reason that we cannot simply dismiss the impact of individual actions.

Anyway, my point here is that according to one of the greatest moral philosophers who ever lived, every action which contributes to or accelerates climate change should be considered immoral. To be clear, I am not saying that everyone who drives to work every day, eats meat or leaves their lights on is a terrible person. Necessity, cultural norms and misinformation have created a world in which climate-damaging actions are seen as morally-neutral standard practice. What I am saying is that given some reflection, those people should come to the conclusion that taking the bus, eating plants and turning the lights off would be better moral choices. No one is inherently good or bad. Our moral value is determined not by who we are, but rather by the thousands of tiny choices we make day to day.

People have a tendency to become defensive when it comes to their morality. They are not willing to accept that what they have been doing their whole lives was immoral, since the implication would be that they themselves are an immoral person. Consider the person who does and says blatantly racist things, but recoils in anger and disgust when they are accused of racism. The truth is that there is something wrong with the way we have been living our lives in recent decades, as evidenced by the fact that if we continue on our current path, life will become a daily struggle for survival before you can say ‘drive-thru cheeseburger’. What is needed now is for us to put our pride aside and accept that we fucked up, rather than retreating into a tortoise-shell of denial. Why? Because by the time we finally come out of our shells, it may be too late to change course.