Monday, October 08, 2007


One of the cardinal rules of journalism relates to statistics. Don’t drizzle them all over your articles, wizened news editors will tell you. Use no more than a pinch and
even then sparingly.

But then they are the selfsame news editors who will tell you that there’s a story lurking out there at every corner. Sadly there is not. Not that they would know. Because they don’t’ have to go out and brave the elements like the poor gom of a junior reporter.

But let’s stick with the rule. No statistics unless it’s an emergency. Except in sports reporting where anything goes. The more statistics the merrier. And it must be pointed out that some of my friends who argue that they are bored to tears with all the detail of the Anorak-in-Chief’s 18 hours at the Mahon Tribunal are the same friends who bore me to tears with hole-by-hole and stroke-by-stroke accounts of their last epic round of golf.

But you’ve got the message by this stage. Stats are for Prats. I’m very sorry to have to disappoint you but they are central to the following discussion. The figure in question is 3%. Keep it in mind. It gets worse. The debate will also include a number of phrases that will make readers desert this column quicker than the sight of a sergeant’s uniform will clear a country pub long after closing time. They are (brace yourselves): Global warming; climate change; and (ouch) carbon emissions.

It may feel complicated. But it’s important. Because that one statistic (3%) is going to determine the fate of this government on the political score (Bertie Ahern’s continuing encounters with the Mahon Tribunal will create its own dynamic on the personality front). Or to be more specific, the Green part of the Government. The 3% in question is the annual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions the Government has set as a target ovr the next five years. Cumulatively that’s a 15% reduction between now and 2012. No matter which way you look at it, it’s a huge ask.

That little 3% statistic is going to become one of the litmus tests for this new government – similarly to the O.7% of GDP going to overseas aid; the 14,000 cops; or the 3,000 extra hospital beds. If it’s not achieved it won’t be the end of the line for Fianna Fail but it could be for the Greens.

The argument about global warming is undeniable at this stage. Yesterday’s New York Times carried an article that revealed that the ice floating on the surface of the Arctic fell to 1.6 million square miles on Sept. 16, a massive drop from the previous low of 2.05 million square miles, reached in 2005. Sure it will increase again in the winter but not by so much – the polar ice cap is definitely receding.

The challenge facing this Government in achieving this target is enormous. Even if it does, it will mean that other European countries with much more tardy records on the environment may steal a competitive edge on us in the short term because they are unwilling to endure the necessary pain.

And there are a couple of other tangled questions. The 3% reduction, it’s a reduction of what? The figures for this year will not be be available until 2009. The latest year for which figures are available is 2005, when just under 70 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents were emitted.

Let’s give a little meaning to that figure. When we signed up to the Kyoto Agreement, Ireland pledged that by 2012 its carbon emissions would be 13% higher its emissions in 1990. For a couple of years at the start of the century it looked like we were bringing them under control and we actually reduced carbon emissions. But the figures for 2005 made for grim reading – it represented a substantial rise of 2% from 2004 and meant that our emissions were running at over 25% more than our 1990 emissions (or 12% above the Kyoto target).

I know: we’re overladen with stats here. But the picture could be worse last year and worse again this year. The reason: there has been a huge increase of emissions from road transport because of higher car ownership and more freight being carried on the road. There is nothing to suggest (especially with the Government’s ambitious road-building programme) that there has been any reduction in that.

It’s true that agriculture – methane produced by cattle and sheep – remains the single biggest contributor at 27% (Michael O’Leary and others have made the argument that the Government will need to target farting cows before they target the transport and aviation sector). That is a fair point. But our dependency on cars, our addiction to cheap flights, all our road-building (with all those emissions from the cement factories); and our lack of insulation in our homes (even modern ones) will come at a cost.

Those cosy middle class solutions - Switching off lights, recycling, stand-by buttons, changing light bulbs – are not enough.

It could mean higher taxes on cars; fuel levies, huge costs to improve insulation in homes; big capital costs for converting to solar or to other alternative energy technologies in homes; congestion charges for our bigger cities; carbon taxes; and punitive levies for those who collect a lot of air miles.

Doesn’t sound that impressive on first hearing of it, that teensy weensy 3% target. But it’s going to inflict a lot of pain.

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