- Lifestyle & Sports
- 13 Aug 19
As part of our Sustainability Special, we take a look at 10 key topics, from overtourism to plastic addiction, that we all need to address.
1. Global warming, climate change, climate crisis, climate emergency… what’s going on anyways?
It’s hard to solve a problem when we aren’t even sure what to call it.
In the 1970s, scientists first discovered that the Earth was warming due to excess greenhouse gasses in the Earth’s atmosphere. The term global warming was coined to refer to this discovery. It was the first classification of the problem which we are facing with far more urgency today, in relation to sustainability.
The term global warming quickly became misleading, though.
Although the net temperature of the Earth is increasing, the effects of this can cause some climates to become cooler due to changing ocean patterns, which heavily impact on the temperature regulation in parts of the planet. Hence, global warming can actually make some places colder.
Counterintuitive, right? Too much so for the likes of President Donald Trump, who uses every snowstorm as an opportunity to say “I thought there was supposed to be global warming!”
However, as researchers expanded their scope over the past 50 years, the US space programme, NASA, was able to confirm links between global warming and rising sea levels, loss of ice mass, flora bloom pattern changes, and extreme weather events.
In order to account for the vast scope of the impact of global warming, the term climate change was coined. Climate change is accepted as an all-encompassing term for the environmental issues the Earth faces as a result of global warming.
Simply put, the long term weather patterns of the planet – the climate – is changing due to the excess greenhouse gasses that are currently being emitted into the atmosphere as a result of the actions and activities of the human race.
More recently, the terms climate crisis and climate emergency have entered the mainstream, with many media outlets deciding to consciously switch to the exclusive use of one or the other, all the better to call immediate attention to the gravity of the situation.
The use of these terms has proliferated since the release of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body charged with assessing scientific developments and studies related to climate change. In it, it was revealed that all corners of the Earth would likely feel the effects of climate change if warming were to surpass a 1.5°C increase since pre-industrial temperatures.
Ireland was reported to be at a heightened risk of flooding, more intense heatwaves, lower labour productivity, and higher rates of injuries, disease, and even death, due to the effects of climate change. And, reading it confirmed, Ireland was among the parts of the world least likely to be least affected.
So perhaps we aren’t looking down the barrel of a full-blown emergency here at home yet. But, out there in the bigger world, things are getting very scary indeed.
2. No matter the name, resiliency is the game.
An integral part of building a sustainable future is investing in resilient solutions. That’s to say, current and future structures must take into account the effects of climate change, in order that they can withstand predicted threats.
Last year, Ireland saw a net decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. However, in the two previous years, emissions had increased by a greater magnitude.
Simply put, Ireland’s current emissions rate puts us on track to be complicit in the world surpassing the 1.5°C maximum global average temperature warming target decided by the IPCC (see 1 above). This limit, they say, is critical in preventing drastic changes to the global climate. If we surpass it, the damage will likely be enormous, extremely costly and difficult to undo.
In the case of Ireland, crossing that threshold means a high probability of increased rainfall and flooding, according to the latest IPCC report. But, there are ways to mitigate this risk before its onset through building resilient flooding infrastructure.
Cities like New York and Boston, which also are at a heightened risk of flooding, have started to implement waterfront parks as a potentially cheaper and more effective form of flood protection than traditional flood walls.
Instead of trying to block water, waterfront parks are designed to be flooded and then absorb the excess water to feed the ecosystem of the park.
“They capture, store, and use floodwater to reduce the harm that floods cause,” according to the World Economic Forum. “In dry seasons, they provide green space for people to enjoy and offer habitats and breeding grounds for wildlife.”
In the case of flooding, literally “going green” seems to be a plausible solution. But that addresses only one part of the problem. In Ireland, as elsewhere, coastal erosion is an ongoing menace, and houses or villages close to the sea are hugely at risk. The time to address those issues is now.
3. Carbon isn’t the only culprit
As early as the 1970s, scientists had shown that radiation was being trapped inside the Earth’s atmosphere as a result of the increased amount of chemicals creating a greenhouse effect that warms the globe. You may have heard this referred to as the greenhouse effect. And those chemicals that cause it are referred to as greenhouse gases (GHGs).
According to the EPA, greenhouse gases consist mainly of carbon dioxide. But methane, nitrous oxide, and F-Gases (hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulphur hexafluoride) must also be taken into account. CO2 has achieved the greatest notoriety, because there’s more of it.
Here is the rub. According to a 2014 study published in the science journal, Nature, Methane is roughly 30 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. Even more alarmingly, Nitrous oxide is 300 times more harmful than carbon dioxide, according to a 2007 IPCC report.
How can this be addressed? On the one hand, by reduced consumption of fossil fuels, red meat and so on. In addition, there is a growing move towards sustainable infrastructure that can combat the excess GHGs in the atmosphere, mostly carbon dioxide.
According to Ervia, this technology – commonly referred to as carbon capture and storage – can collect up to 90% of excess carbon released during the GHG-emitting production processes required to generate electricity.
Using this technology, Carbon is collected (rather than released), contained, and subsequently stored underground. Critics have argued this is a bandage-style solution for the overarching problem of overconsumption and excessive resource depletion. However, until carbon neutral production processes are in place, carbon capture offers a potentially useful fix for excessive CO2 emissions.
4. Turning off the lights is good… but are the bulbs energy efficient?
Turn off the lights! Recycle! Take public transport! The sustainable mantras we’ve heard for years have now solidified their place in the mainstream, and rightly so. The sheer scale and stupidity of many forms of excess consumerisation beggar belief. The status quo is no longer enough. We have actively strive to make things better.
The reality is that turning off the lights, recycling, and using public transport are only part of the picture when it comes to living more sustainably. So what are the other simple, everyday things we can do?
Enter the notion of carbon footprint: a tool that identifies and measures the multifaceted sources of our personal carbon emissions in daily life and then highlights personalised solutions to reduce emissions in the biggest problem areas.
The EPA recommends numerous resources for determining your personal carbon footprint – that is, how much carbon you emit annually – and identifying areas for improvement.
Carbonfootprint.com is an in-depth analysis of emissions in the housing, transportation, food, and clothing sectors, among others. It calculates your estimated impact in real time, so that you can see how good or bad each individual action of yours is. There are also opportunities throughout to offset your emissions by donating cash to different carbon-neutralising initiatives.
The WWF’s footprint.wwf.org site offers a simple, graphic breakdown of your emissions and compares your footprint to the UK average and the global average. At the end, they offer suggestions for reducing your emissions, including installing energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances, and offsetting emissions from flying.
Of course this exercise does not allow for the harsh reality that some people simply have to commute to work in cars. Nor for the fact that farmers are not in a position to cull an entire herd o cattle. But if everyone contributes in small but significant ways, then the overall result will surely be different. We revolutionised our lives before to make them more sustainable. So let’s go for another round?
5. The Mount Everest of sustainability is over-tourism… or is over-tourism unsustainable for Everest?
We’ve all seen the astonishing photos of the human traffic jam that plagued the route to the summit of Mount Everest this spring. Eleven people died in that fabled spot, including an Irishman.
What does that have to do with sustainability? It is surely symbolic of what is happening all across the world that the swell of hikers at the world’s highest summit caused over ten deaths, left abundant waste and damaged what is a precious natural landmark.
Plainly put, this catastrophe distilled the argument that over-tourism is unsustainable.
British comedian John Oliver devised a ‘solution’ to over-tourism at Everest by creating the company Adventures Indoor Luxepeditions.
“Here at AIL, we believe that climbing Everest should be reserved for qualified climbers only,” Oliver asserted on an episode of Last Week Tonight. “But that doesn’t mean that you can’t visit the top of Mount Everest. Simply visit thetopofmounteverest.com.”
The website allows people to add their face to stock photos of mountaineers that they can then share to social media. Cheaper than an actual trip? Yes. More fun? Er, certainly not. And do we want to encourage people to live hopelessly ersatz lives? No.
The reality, however, is that over-tourism is not an issue that we can – or should – ignore. It is causing all sorts of problems in cities from Venice to Machu Picchu, both of which have recently imposed limits on the number of tourists that are allowed to come. Of course, the issue is not just the threat that historic cities are being turned into theme parks at the expense of the lives of local people and communities. It is also the huge amount of carbon overload and pollution that is caused by the aviation industry. It is, of course, one of the greatest achievements of modern man that we can travel the length and breadth of the world. But , where holidays and weekend breaks are concerned, we really do need to start thinking local again. If every second foray we make is by train rather than plane, then getting to our carbon goals will get a whole lot easier.
6. The first step to treating our plastic addiction is admitting that we have one.
Say it with me, folks. I have a plastic addiction. No, really. Say it out loud: I have a plastic addiction.
It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Nobody is immune to an illness that we suffer from, largely out of necessity. The corporate society in which we live is largely unconducive to plastic sobriety. But, just like in treating any other addiction, the first step is admitting the problem.
Say it again: I have a plastic addiction.
Only 9% of all of the mountains of plastics that are produced end up being recycled, according to a study by University of Georgia’s Jenna Jambeck. And what doesn’t make it to the recycling plant often litters the natural landscape and can take hundreds of years to decompose. The plastic we use for just minutes will stick around nearly forever: stuck in the ground, floating in rivers and lakes, and littering the oceans everywhere. Killing fish. Poisoning people. And generally causing serious harm.
Why do we allow micro-plastic to be used in make-up and soaps? It is borderline insane, and yet it happens. Why does so much supermarket produce come wrapped in plastic? Why do we pay for water – usually a free commodity – when it comes packaged in a plastic bottle?
Then there’s department stores. Why do we attach plastic tags to plastic clothes (yes, polyester and nylon are forms of plastic) and put them in plastic bags? The only possible answer is that we are fed plastic by the corporations because it is cheap and therefore adds volumes to their profit margins.
Well, it is time for us to revolt. Luckily, there are many small, easy changes that can significantly reduce our plastic dependence. Shop in a local grocer rather than in supermarkets, and there will be a lot less packaging. Bring re-usable cotton bags to the store and put what you buy into them. Throw a re-usable stainless steel or glass straw in your bag so you don’t have to use a plastic straw for a soft drink. Bring a reusable coffee cup with you in the morning – many cafés will even give you a discount if you bring your own!
Our plastic addiction will cripple us until systematic change is made by the corporations that perpetrate it. We need to force that by letting them know: we don’t want plastic wrapping anymore. So do your bit…
7. Meat may be part of the problem – but is veganism the only solution?
Last year, Oxford environmental professor Joseph Poore famously hailed veganism as, “the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.” He had just issued a damning report on agriculture’s impact on the planet. In it, he concluded that 26% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the food supply chain.
So – in theory – we have to stop eating eggs, fish, meat. Even cheese and milk are off the culinary agenda. No wonder a lot of people suddenly lost their interest in making their diets sustainable.
Fortunately, there are myriad other ways to reduce our food footprint. For example, eliminating red meat alone would significantly decrease emissions. According to an article in the science journal, The Lancet, this must be our target, if we are to sustain the global food supply in a way that will support current population growth trends.
It poses an interesting dilemma. If everyone were to stop eating red meat tomorrow, what would happen to the world’s current population of cattle? Who’d care for and feed them? Would they be released into the wild to be preyed on by the feral beasts of the world?
Against that background, Meatless Monday and Veganuary (vegan-January) are hash-taggable trends that encourage people to make more immediately manageable dietary adaptations of a kind that will not be brutally destructive. If everyone does a bit, the cumulative effect becomes palpable. Or so the argument goes.
Meanwhile, scientists are working to meet people halfway when it comes to meat consumption – and where there’s life there’s hope. A study led by Professor John Williams of the University of Adelaide in Australia recently discovered that selective breeding in cows can hugely reduce their methane output. “Previously we knew it was possible to reduce methane emissions by changing the diet,” says Professor Williams. “But changing the genetics is much more significant – in this way we can select for cows that permanently produce less methane.”
Even Irish farmers are unlikely to complain about that.
8. Reduce, reuse, recycle, repeat
Sustainable practices are always evolving. Long ago, we realised that linear consumption – where an item is used and then thrown into landfill – was grotesquely wasteful.
When the recycling model of consumption starting making waves a few decades ago, the goal was to elongate the lifespan of goods by diverting them away from landfills. Different types of material – paper, cans, even some plastics – could be used multiple times before reaching their inevitable resting place.
Ireland has made great strides in its transition from the linear economy to the recycling economy. Although according to the EPA, Irish households produce an average of 1 tonne of waste annually, our dependence on landfills for waste management is decreasing; and recycling is on the rise.
Better yet, technology has also advanced to prevent many products from ever hitting the landfill in what is known as the circular economy, in which goods are perpetually repaired, reused, returned, or recycled.
To increase the reach of the circular economy, the aim is to transfer goods from the recycling model into the circular model.
For example, instead of recycling an old glass jar, you can bring it to the bulk section of the grocery store and fill it up with whatever goodness awaits. Bonus points for this one since it helps us to avoid plastic, too!
On the plus side, the circular economy is becoming much more mainstream across Europe with corporations joining in to tout new circular sales strategies. Earlier this year, Swedish furniture giant IKEA announced a trial for their lease program allowing customers to lease furniture and return it once they no longer need it. IKEA then pledges to recycle the furniture for future projects.
Dutch denim brand MUD Jeans has also adopted a circular approach to their product – or, rather service, as they prefer – where people can lease a pair of jeans for a year and then return them for a new pair or keep them. The jeans that get returned are then either resold as vintage items or the fabrics are recycled into new products.
In Ireland, the National Waste Prevention Programme provides funding for research and innovation in the circular economy as well as advocating for waste prevention on the island. The EU, meanwhile, has also invested heavily in the circular economy with a stimulus package introduced by the Commission in 2015.
“Our planet and our economy cannot survive if we continue with the ‘take, make, use and throw away’ approach,” Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the Commission said in a statement. “The circular economy is about reducing waste and protecting the environment, but it is also about a profound transformation of the way our entire economy works. By re-thinking the way we produce, work and buy, we can generate new opportunities and create new jobs.”
9. Big talk from small people: the role of youth in climate activism
The effects of climate change inevitably expose the world to massive generational inequity. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers worked hard to re-build the world as we know it today and will leave it better off than they started. In many ways, they have made the world a better place too, as a result of radical scientific, medical and technical innovation.
But, the effects of the climate crisis will become increasingly evident as Generation Z and Generation Alpha step up. Understandably, fears are rising among young people that they will bear the brunt of the humanitarian, economic, and geopolitical issues – and potentially catastrophes – that will likely be born of the climate crisis. Oh, and they’ll be footing the bill too.
Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has become the best-known face of the global youth movement for climate action with her weekly school strikes outside the Swedish Parliament (Riksdag) in Stockholm. She argues that attending school is fruitless if she won’t have a safe world in which to apply what she learns.
Fridays For Future Ireland, the Irish branch of Thunberg’s international school strike movement has an online reach of thousands and is gaining traction. Their biggest event yet was the climate march, which took place on 15 March this year, and which drew over 10,000 participants in Dublin, as well as sister demonstrations all over the country. A second massive global strike is in the works for 20 September.
“Our aim is to force the Irish government into taking action on climate change in Ireland,” reads a statement from the group. “We want our government to align itself with its commitments to the Paris Agreement and to do their part in lowering our emissions to the point where we can limit global climate change to a 1.5 degree average warming target.”
Big talk from small people? Perhaps. But this rumble may soon become a roar.
“They say we children are exaggerating. That we are alarmists,” the 16-year-old Thunberg said in a recent speech to France’s National Assembly. “To answer this, I would like to refer to page 108, chapter two in the latest IPCC report. There you will find all our ‘opinions’ summarised,” she added, drawing air quotes around the word opinions.
10. We’ve averted a global environmental crisis before
Remember in the ‘80s when scientists found a gaping hole in the ozone layer and the fear erupted that the world was on the brink of burning to a pulp?
If you don’t, let me refresh your memories. In an unprecedented (well, at least by today’s standards) turn of events, world leaders recognised the gravity of the situation and convened to draft the most effective international environmental treaty to date: the Montreal Protocol.
Since then, measurable progress has been made in removing ozone-depleting substances from the air. And just last year, NASA established that the ozone hole is physically shrinking as a direct result of the Montreal Protocol.
Daniel Bodansky, an international environmental and climate change law professor at Arizona State University has suggested that the success of the Montreal Protocol was largely dependent on its “domestication.”
In other words, for the Paris Agreement to be equally effective in terms of averting the climate crisis, Ireland along with other countries, must introduce strong domestic policies to mirror their international commitments.
The truth is that we look at China, Russia, parts of Africa and places like Brazil and think: can a small island like Ireland really make a difference? We look at Donald Trump tearing up the Paris Agreement – and come close to despair. The US is the world’s biggest and richest economy. America burns vast amounts of fossil fuels and produces an enormous amount of carbon.
We need these huge economies on board. But we also have to show the sense of responsibility ourselves. We need to mount the pressure globally. But the only place we can start, for ourselves, is at home…