Reflections on the Climate Change Conference in Durban November- December 2011

  • Durban: Last Chance to get it Right on Climate Change?
  • The United Nations Climate Conference
  • National Catholic Reporter
  • The End of the First Week
  • What has happened to the EU’s leadership
  • While the science is becoming more alarming, politicians are slow to act.
  • Is China being used as a scapegoat by countries
  • A Small breakthrough at Durban: Is it too little, too late?
  • Country Statements at COP 17 –Ireland
  • Country Statement – Islamic Republic of Pakistan

 

Durban: Last Chance to get it Right on Climate Change? Fr. Sean McDonagh, SSC

The United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change began yesterday, November 28th 2011in Durban,  South Africa.  Almost 10,000 people are expected to attend the conference which will continue until December 7th 2011.   Those attending include  representatives of the world’s governments, international organizations and civil society. The discussions will seek to advance, in a balanced fashion, the implementation of the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, as well as the Bali Action Plan, agreed at COP 13 in 2007, and the Cancun Agreements, reached at the Conference of the Parties to the UNFramework Convention on Climate Change. (COP 16) last December.

The Conference was opened by  the President of the Republic of South Africa, Jacob Zuma.  He called on all the parties involved in the negotiations to work diligently to find a solution to the climate issues at Durban.   According to President Zuma, “ for most people in the developing world and Africa, climate change is a matter of life and death. We are always reminded by the leaders of small island nations that climate change threatens their very existence.” [1] He went on to say that, “ recently the island national of Kiribati became the first country to declare that global warming is rendering its territory uninhabitable. They asked for help to evacuate the population.”[2]

But the devastation which climate change will bring will not be confined to small island nations or coastal cities in other countries.  President Zuma claimed that climate change will reduce agriculture output by 50 percent across the African continent.  He drew attention to the fact that “severe drought in Somalia is exacerbating an already volatile region causing displacement of populations and increasing refugee communities in Kenya.” If one includes that high level of population growth which is  predicted for African and with falling food production, then the future will be very problematic  unless significant action is  taken on climate change.  In South Africa itself, climate change has led to severe flooding in coastal areas.  As a result some people have lost their lives and others have lost their livelihood.

The impact of climate change is not confined to small island nations or the continent of Africa.  President Zuma said that, “In the Americas, we have also witnessed the frequency of intense hurricanes on the Gulf Coast from which the communities of New Orleans have yet to fully recover, five years after Hurricane Katrina. “

In some quarters the climate change debate is often divorced from eradicating global poverty.  The location of the conference in Africa should be a reminder to the delegates, “that solving climate change cannot be separated from eradicating poverty.”[3]

He went on to recall the progress which has made to date.  At COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009, there was a commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 34 percent by 2020 and 42 percent by 2025.  Reductions of this scale are essential if the average global temperature is to be kept  below a 2 degree Celsius rise.  The study released by the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences entitled The Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene   called the 2 degrees increase the ‘guard rail,’ though the scientists involved would prefer if the average increase was kept bellow 1.5 degree Celsius rather than 2 degrees.

At COP 16th in Cancun,  Mexico in late November and early December 2010,  the parties agreed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions but no number or time line was specified.  This is very worrying because a study by the United Nations Environment Programme  ( UNEP ) found that the pledges made by the Parties in Cancun are insufficient to realize the goal of the Convention. These pledges are not enough to stabilization greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at the level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate systems. UNEP assume that emission levels at 44 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide would probably keep the average temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius.  Under a business-as-usual scenario which is likely if there is no binding agreement at Durban,  carbon emissions could reach 56 gigatonnes of carbon which would create havoc in many parts of the world.

The stakes for the future of hundreds of millions of people and vital ecosystems are very high at Durban.  Towards the end of his address President Zuma said that, given the urgency at stake, parties should strive to find solutions here in Durban. “You must work towards an outcome that is balance, fair and credible.”

Whether this can be achieves is questionable.  COP 15 in Copenhagen received massive media coverage.  The media coverage of Durban thus far has been minimal.

The United Nations Climate Conference in Durban Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

One of the pitfalls which many of us who have attended the United Nations Climate Conference for years fall into is that we assume that the general reader has a good grasp of the history of these conferences and the issues which have been thrashed out during the past 20 years. On this the third day of the Durban Conference a brief history might be helpful.

RIO – Countries from across the globe began to address the problems associated with global warming and climate change at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1990.  At that meeting it was agreed to set up a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC). This body was tasked with setting out a framework for action aimed at stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic (human-induced) interference with the climate system.” Unfortunately, due mostly to the intervention of the United States under President George Bush (senior), no target or timelines were set. The Convention came into force in March 1994.

KYOTO – The next significant milestone took place at the UNFCCC Conference in Kyoto, Japan in December 1997. The delegates agreed to a Protocol which committed industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The target which was set was a reduction of between 5.2% and 7% below their 1990 levels in the period between 2008 and 2012. What became known as the Kyoto Protocol came into force on February 16th 2005.  It ends next year  in 2012.

In the run-up to the Kyoto Conference a group of industries known as the ‘Carbon Club’ ran advertisements in the US media aimed at blocking the US from signing the Kyoto Protocol. Many of these companies, especially those involved in the energy sector, were afraid that their profits would plummet if there was a drop in  fossil fuel consumption. Among them were household names such as Exxon-Mobile, Shell, Ford and General Motors. They used all kinds of tactics – corporate PR, psychology, mass media manipulation techniques and political muscle to force the Clinton administration to do their will.

Even though the US delegation which was led by Vice-President Al Gore signed the Kyoto Protocol, the Byrd-Hagel resolution which claimed that the Protocol would damage the US economy was passed by the US Senate by an overwhelming 95 votes to 0). Within a few months of being elected President, George W Bush repudiated the Kyoto Protocol. Document leaked to the press at the time of the Gleneagle meeting of  the G7 in June 2005 in Scotland made it clear that President George W Bush’s decision was due in part  to the pressure from Exxon-mobile, the world’ most powerful oil company. [4]

As the work of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol process became more intricate subsidiary bodies were set up to help those involved in various aspects of the negotiations.  One of these is called the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention (AWG-LCA). Another was the Subsidiary Body for Scientific Advice (SBSTA). These and scores of other acronyms are used constantly in negotiations and discussions to the point that even veterans who have attended UNFCCC meetings need a glossary to understand which is being said!

BALI – The next most significant UNFCCC took place in December 2007 on the beautiful island of Bali in Indonesia. There result of that meeting became known as the Bali Road Map.  It put the spotlight on the three areas which need to be addressed in any climate treaty.

First, given the dire consequences of a significant increase in global temperature, the primary focus of the UNFCCC is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. In the language of the UNFCCC this is called mitigation.

Secondly, the plight of those who are already being affected by climate change must be addressed. Many of the countries which did least to cause climate change will be most affected by it.  One has only to think what will happen to the water supply of Lima if the glaciers on the Andes disappear? Responding to this is referred to as Adaptations.

The final plank in the strategy is called Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM). During the past 200 years the prosperity of rich countries was based on having cheap fossil fuel readily available.  China and India are now following the same pathway.  Poor countries have a right to develop, but if they opt for the fossil fuel route it will be a disaster for everyone. To avoid this happening, rich countries must make clean energy technologies available to poor countries.

Durban: Last chance to get it right on climate change? Seán McDonagh National Catholic Reporter, November. 30, 2011

Fr. Seán McDonagh is in Durban, South Africa, reporting on the UN Climate Change Conference 2011. He will be providing updates throughout the conference. On Monday, McDonagh attended the opening address by South African President Jacob Zuma.

The United Nations climate change conference at the Conference of the Parties 17 (COP 17) began Nov. 28, in Durban, South Africa. Close to 10,000 people are expected to attend the conference, which will continue until Dec. 9.

Those attending include representatives of the world’s governments, international organizations and civil society. The discussions will seek to advance, in a balanced fashion, the implementation of the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, as well as the Bali Action Plan, agreed upon at COP 13 in 2007, and the Cancun Agreements, reached at COP 16 in December 2010.

President of the Republic of South Africa Jacob Zuma opened the conference, calling on all parties involved in the negotiations at Durban to work diligently to find a solution to the climate issues.

‘For most people in the developing world and Africa, climate change is a matter of life and death,’ he said. ‘We are always reminded by the leaders of small island nations that climate change threatens their very existence.’

He continued, ‘Recently, the island nation of Kiribati became the first country to declare that global warming is rendering its territory uninhabitable. They asked for help to evacuate the population.’

But the devastation that climate change will bring will not be confined to small island nations or coastal cities in other countries.

President Zuma claimed that climate change will reduce agriculture output by 50 percent across the African continent. He drew attention to the fact that ‘severe drought in Somalia is exacerbating an already volatile region causing displacement of populations and increasing refugee communities in Kenya.’

If one includes the high level of population growth, which is predicted for Africa, and with falling food production, then the future will be problematic, unless significant action is taken on climate change. In South Africa itself, climate change has led to severe flooding in coastal areas. As a result, some people have lost their lives and others have lost their livelihood.

The impact of climate change is not confined to small island nations or the continent of Africa.

President Zuma said, ‘In the Americas, we have also witnessed the frequency of intense hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, from which the communities of New Orleans have yet to fully recover, five years after Hurricane Katrina.’

In some quarters the climate change debate is often divorced from eradicating global poverty. The location of the conference in Africa should be a reminder to the delegates, as Zuma said, ‘that solving the climate problem cannot be separated from the struggle to eradicate poverty.’

Zuma then summarized the progress that has been made to date. At COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009, there was a commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 34 percent by 2020, and by 42 percent by 2025. Reductions of this scale are essential if the average global temperature is to be kept below a 2 degrees Celsius rise. A May 2011 study released by the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, called the 2 C increase the ‘guard rail,’ though the scientists involved would prefer if the average increase was kept below 1.5 C rather than 2 C.

In 2010, at COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico, the Parties agreed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but no number or timeline was specified.

This is very worrying because a study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found that the pledges made by the Parties in Cancun are insufficient in order to realize the goal of COP 17. These pledges are not enough to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at the level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate systems. UNEP assumes that emission levels at 44 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide would probably keep the average temperature rise below 2 C. Under a business-as-usual scenario, which is likely if there is no binding agreement at Durban, carbon emissions could reach 56 gigatonnes of carbon, creating havoc in many parts of the world.

The stakes for the future of hundreds of millions of people and vital ecosystems are very high at Durban. Toward the end of his address, President Zuma said that, given the urgency at stake, the Parties should strive to find solutions here in Durban.

‘The expectation is that you must work toward an outcome that is balanced, fair and credible,’ he stated.

Whether this can be achieved is questionable. COP 15 in Copenhagen received massive media coverage, while the media coverage of Durban thus far has been minimal.

The End of the First Week at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Durban Fr. Seán McDonagh,SSC  December 3, 2011.

The Meeting of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change or COP17 here in Durban is similar to many of the other COPs which I have attended in Nairobi, Bali, Poznans, Copenhagen and Cancun and yet, I discern a very different mood among the participants in Durban. Organisations from civil society are here in force, challenging the politicians to come up with a fair, ambitious and binding treaty which will secure the future for ordinary people.  But the question is; are politicians listening to climate change concerns anywhere across the globe? Are the distractions of the current financial and banking crises just too overpowering?

At breakfast this morning here in St. Philomena’s Conference Centre in Durban where I am staying, more than 40 women from a variety of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) were preparing to join in the March to the Conference Centre which is scheduled to begin around 1 pm. Their conversations were animated and focused as these people, many from a rural background here in South Africa, are already feeling the effects of climate change in their lives.  They are fearful about what the future might bring, and well they might be, as the momentum which drove previous COPs seems to be waning. Everyone knows that, if the Durban Conference fails, it will be difficult to get a satisfactory international agreement on the measures which will be necessary to prevent an average rise in global temperature of between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. This would be a disaster for almost every country and ecosystem in the world.

United States of America

The United States is the largest economy in the world and its citizens are the largest per capita emitters of greenhouses gases in the world. While the US signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the US Senate never ratified the treaty. During the Presidency of George W. Bush, the US negotiators spent much of their time at the various COPs either trying to deny climate change was happening or, in the later years of his presidency, espousing scepticisms about its consequences.

The election of President Obama seemed like the dawning of a new era.  In his campaign speeches he undersood and accept the scientific underpinning for global warming. He appeared to grasp the seriousness of climate change for many countries both in the global South and even for the US itself and, above all, he promised to lead rather than impede an international consensus for dealing with it.

Unfortunately, those bright hopes of 2009 have now turned to dust.  Local politics in the US and the rise of the Tea Party candidates has effectively pushed climate change off the political agenda. On the third day of the Durban Conference, the US chief negotiator Jonathan Pershing, himself a scientist who was formerly involved with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), made the implausible statement that the current collective mitigation targets are sufficient to avoid a rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius.  In addition given its greenhouse emission status the US’s own mitigation targets are woefully weak. They are set to achieve a 17% reduction below their 2005 level by 2020. It would appear that in the political calculus of the Obama administration, re-election is now the top priority, dealing with climate change is a task for someone else.

The unwillingness of the US to accept any binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions unless the newly emerging economies of China and India agree to similar measures is totally irresponsible and immoral. The US seems to forget that it and other Northern economies, are responsible for 75% of historic or accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The prosperity which many people in Northern economies experienced in the late 19th century and especially in the second half of the 20th century, depended directly on burning fossil fuel. The unfortunate consequence is that it increased the percentage of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which has led directly to our present crisis.  True, many people were unaware of the connection between burning fossil fuel, greenhouse gases and climate change, but that did not change the outcome.

In traditional moral terms the US and other Northern countries are being called to make restitution for the damage which their greenhouse gas emissions have caused to millions of poor people around the world. Unfortunately, the problem will continue and become more serious  unless there are ambitious and binding agreements to reduce greenhouse gases emissions in the next few years. Putting off such decisions for a decade or so will be disastrous.  The moral issues here come under a relatively modern category called intergenerational justice.  The core issue is that this generation has the power to increase global temperatures significantly and, as a consequence, make life difficult for every succeeding generation of human beings and the children of every other creature as Fr. Thomas Berry wrote many years ago.  Once a tipping point is reached it is difficult and even possibly in historical time to reverse the process. Runaway climate change will introduce a new geological era. This is highlighted in the title of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences’ recent document on climate change which is entitled The Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene.

Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are calling politicians to account

Members of CSOs in the United States are concerned about the Obama administration’s lack of leadership on climate change.  In the run-up to the Durban Conference, 16 major CSOs including Greenpeace, Oxfam America and the Worldwide Fund for Nature challenged the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton to alter the US stance on climate change.  The letter called on the US negotiators to withdraw the stringent preconditions it is expecting poor and emerging countries to meet in return for the US agreed to support a realistic mandate for negotiations on a long-term climate regime.  These include legal symmetry, a clear process for poor countries to gradually take on mitigations commitments similar to those which should currently apply to rich countries, such as the US.  According to these CSOs, the most negative element in the US’s negotiating position in Durban is its position on climate financing.

Since the Nairobi COP in 2006, there have been slow and painstaking negotiations about the best and most efficient way to make serious amounts of money available to poor countries which will have to adapt to the inevitable impact of climate change. For some countries it will mean, higher costs to deal with severe weather events, for other counties it will mean smaller food harvests, for others shrinking glacier will cause water shortages for major cities and vital agricultural crops. The Green Climate Fund seemed to have been agreed at Cancun in 2010. Here at Durban the US appears to want to reopen these negotiations. In contrast, the European wants the Green Climate Fund to begin delivering funds to poor countries next year.

Tomorrow I will look at what seems to be happening on the EU front.

What has happened to the EU’s leadership on Climate Change? Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC  (December 5th 2011)

In the early years of the Conference of the Parties (COPs) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the European Union along with the Nordic countries was generally seen to be in the vanguard of both climate science and of dealing with the crisis through binding agreements to reduce greenhouse emissions, such as the Kyoto Protocol. Even someone as politically conservative as Margaret Thatcher gave leadership on the climate issues, at least, verbally.  In her now famous speech to the Royal Society on September 27th 1988 she told the assembled scientists, “For generations we have assumed that the efforts of humankind (mankind) would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world’s systems and atmosphere stable. But it is possible that with all these enormous changes (populations, agriculture, the use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the systems of the planet itself.”

The European Union  was also in the forefront of countries which were tackling greenhouse emissions and were also willing to make significant funding available to poor countries to protect themselves against the massive problems which climate change is, and will continue to cause to poor countries.  During the Presidency of George W. Bush when the US negotiators were denying the reality of climate change, European research centres such as  The  Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany and the U.K. Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Change Centre constantly conducted  seminars and briefings during the various COPs debunking much of what the US negotiators were saying. In the process many people, including myself were educated about the finer points of climate change.

The Impact of the Financial Collapse in 2008

But things began to change, especially after the financial collapse in 2008. The global financial crisis overshadowed both COP 14 at Poznan in Poland and COP 15 at Copenhagen.  Copenhagen was supposed to deliver a fair, ambitious and binding deal on climate change.  Over 100 hundred leaders from countries around the world, including the newly elected President Obama, descended on Copenhagen in what was expected to be a victory parade. In fact it turned into a political nightmare. Presidents and Prime Ministers had to return to their countries with nothing in their hands expect a toothless Copenhagen Accord.

Things have become much worse economically in Europe in the run up to COP 17 in Durban this year.  European leaders and many of their people are now almost entirely focused on their own financial woes and even their survival.   For example on the third day of the Durban Climate Conference, almost every item on the front page of the Financial Times was devoted to the financial crisis which is sweeping through European.  Not a word about COP17.

Already Greece, Ireland and Portugal have been forced into punitive bail-out deals with the International Monetary Fund (IMF),  the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission.  These swinging cuts are eroding the living standards which these countries have achieved during the past two decades.  The headlines on the front page of the Financial Times on December 1, 2011, “Central  Banks’ move lifts markets,” made it clear that politicians around the world are afraid that the problems in European economies would spread across the Atlantic and  even on to the new Asian Tigers of China and India. They fear that this will plunge the world, not just into another recession such as experienced in the 1970s, but into a depression like the one which swept across the world in the late 1920s and lasted through much of the 1930s, in some places right up to World War II.

Britain is also on the rope, financially

European financial problems are not confined to the euro.  On the same front page, Sean O’Connor and Sarah Neville report on a recent study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies in Britain. The headline says it all “Britons will be worse off in 2015 than in 2002.” What people find most worrying is that politicians and economists do not seem to be able to devise a viable system which will lift countries of out the mess which was caused by reckless lending by banks which were poorly regulated.  When the bubble burst, the taxpayer was left to pick up the costs which run in to hundreds of billions of pound.  Most people do not believe in the current financial mantra which claims that drastic cuts in expenditure will pave the way to economic growth in three or four year.  Ordinary people believe that those who lent money recklessly should now share the burden of solving the current financial crisis before it further crushes people and exacerbates environmental damage.

Tens of thousands of people marched in various cities across Britain on November 30th 2011 to express their angry at the government’s austerity initiatives – tax hikes, reduced pensions and poorer public services. They are angry at being forced to pay for a financial crisis which they did not cause. Many are what The Guardian called ‘strike rookies’ who until now would not support industrial strikes. Now they are fearful about what the future holds for them and possibly their children. Seamus Milne wrote in The Guardian that “when real incomes are being forced down for the majority, as directors’ pay has risen 49% and the bank bonuses have topped £14 billion, that’s an aim most people have no problem identifying with. Across the entire workforce there’s little disagreement about who’s been ‘reckless’ and ‘greedy’ and it isn’t public sector workers.” [5]

Were will the money to deal with climate change come from?

Furthermore, in the light of the precarious condition of the public purse right across Europe, finding the vast sums of money to meeting climate targets and obligations is going to be difficult. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that holding global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius means cutting emissions by 85% by 2050. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that this will require an investment of $18 trillion by 2035.[6] Convincing ordinary people who are already hurting to commit vast sums of money to reducing emissions will not be easy.  It calls for leadership qualities which few of our politicians actually possess.

A Collapse of the Euro would be a disaster for climate policy

Sadly, the focus of European political leaders this week is not on the climate negotiations in Durban but on whether the euro, and even the union itself, will survive. The collapse of either would have a profound effect on the architecture of European climate policy. Writing in the New Scientist in October 2011, David Strahan, who is a former BBC correspondent, stated that “for a start the Emissions Trading System would be unlikely to survive. True, the ETS has been widely criticised as ineffectual, but the system at least imposes an international framework which could be strengthened and expanded. That would all be swept away, along with any obligation for countries to deliver their 2020 targets on emissions, renewable and energy efficiency.” [7]

Europe adopting a more hard line position

One of the first disappointments for many participants from CSOs organisations here at Durban is in the figures for latest mitigation targets which have already been submitted by the EU. They are certainly not ambitious.  The EU has pledged a 20% cut in emissions by 2020. But emission reductions in the EU in 2009 were already 17.3% below 1990, so a 20% target for 2020 is practically already achieved.  In addition, if the EU implemented its existing renewable energy and efficiency targets, this would result in a domestic emission reduction of 25% by 2020 as acknowledged by the European Commission in the Low Carbon Roadmap published in March 2011. Where are the ambitions of a 30% or even 40% reduction by 2025 which were floated in Bali four years ago gone?

Abandoning the Kyoto Protocol

It also appears that the EU has gone wobbly on the Kyoto Protocol (KP), even though it was one of the architects of that Protocol back in 1997. Countries such as Russia, Canada and even Japan have indicated that they will not sign up to a second phase of the KP unless other developed and newly industrialised countries such as China, India, South Africa and Brazil also come on board.   Joanna Mackowia-Pandera, the Polish undersecretary of state for the environment, has said that, “It’s very important that other major economies join in the effort (to combat climate change).  It would not make sense for only the EU to take on a second commitment under the Kyoto Protocol,”

Most environmental organisations here at Durban are alarmed at the prospect of the KP being buried here at Durban.  They are pushing for a second phase of a legally binding treaty with the negotiations between the parties to be concluded by 2015, so that the treaty can come into effect by 2018.  The EU seems to be stalling on this and supporting an eight year second commitment but the sting in the tail is that  it would only come into effect by 2021. The scientists are clearly saying that such delays could be disastrous.

Not everyone in Europe is happy with the role being played by the US and EU here at Durban.  The ‘Old Labour’, straight talking and often straight punching Lord John .  Joanna Mackowia-Pandera, the Polish undersecretary of state for the environment, has said that, “It’s very important that other major economies join in the effort (to combat climate change).  It would not make sense for only the EU to take on a second commitment under the Kyoto Protocol,”[8]

Prescott called a spade a spade when he told the BBC on December 2nd 2011, that those who are attempting the scupper Kyoto are hurting the poor.

While the science is becoming more alarming, politicians are slow to act. (December 6th 2011). Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

Three years ago a claim in the Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that the glaciers in the Himalayas were receding faster than in any other part of the globe and that they could disappear completely by 2035 was seized upon by climate deniers as an example of the questionable science behind climate change. The source for the claim was quotation from an Indian glaciologist which appeared in the NewScientist.  The data had not been peer-reviewed.

The story behind this mistake received extensive coverage in news media across the globe. Many people, who were beginning to take the science of climate change seriously, reverted back into a sceptic mode.  Pressure was brought to bear on Rajendra Pachauri, the chairperson of the IPCC, to resign.

The Impact of Climate Change on the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau

While the 54,000 glacier covering an area of over 60,000 square kilometres in the Himalayas may not disappear  in 35 years, they are under serious threat which will only get worse if politicians here in Durban fail to deal effectively with greenhouse gas emissions.  The tragedy is that, despite a greater knowledge of the dangers of climate change and considerable efforts to invest in non-fossil fuel energy sources, little enough has been achieved.  This somewhat depressing data has emerged in a recent study conducted by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change based at the University of East Anglia. Professor Corinne Le Quéré, who is the director of the Centre found that fossil fuel emissions rose by about 3.1 per cent globally since the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1997. In 2010, for example, fossil fuel emission rose by 5.9 per cent [9]  The study predicts that, unless real changes are put in place, greenhouse gas emissions will grow by 3 per cent over the next number of years.  One of the most depressing elements in the data according to Julia Steinberger, a lecturer in ecological economics at the Sustainable Research Institute at the University of Leeds, is that emission do not seem to decrease much even during a recession.  “The worst economic crisis in decades was apparently a mere hiccup in terms of carbon emissions.”[10]

Professor Le Quére warned that it was necessary to do something urgently about the 80 per cent of our energy which still comes from burning fossil fuel.  Unless this is tackled urgently there is very little hope of holding global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Any increase beyond that will result in catastrophic and irreversible climate change. Most frightening of all, given the slow pace of the negotiations here at Durban, is the judgement of these scientists  that emissions need to peak by 2020 at the latest.

This, of course, brings us back to the Himalayas. A Swedish-funded study by the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development found that of there was doubling of ice and snow lost in the 10 glaciers which have been studied for the past 30 years.  The report claimed that there was a shrinking in both the central and eastern Himalayas.  It seems that glacial erosion has increased in recent years. The study found that there was a depletion of 22 per cent in the Bhutan glaciers and 21 per cent in Nepal. The loss of volume was even greater in the higher altitude central Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau.  In the iconic area around Mount Everest the data showed a marked loss in glacial mass of between 2002 and 2005, in a period of three years.  One of the reasons for this speeding up of the loss of glaciers is that the rise temperature in the Himalayas has been significantly above global average of 0.74 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years.

Serious depletion of ice and snow from the  Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau will have devastating consequences for people in Asia.  All the great rivers of Asia – the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yangzi and Yellow River – all begin in the Himalayas or the Tibetan Plateau.  A major reduction in the volume of ice and snow on these mountains will mean that there will be much less water for drinking, personal hygiene and agriculture for almost 2.5 billion people who depend on these rivers

In today’s (December 6th 2011 –  ECO – the daily news report from the Climate Action Network(CAN) there is a letter addressed to the Ministers who have arrived for the final few days of negotiations.  It begins, “the disconnect between the climate talks and the scientific reality is stark. In the UNFCCC process, progress is being made, but in real life yours negotiators have been sleepwalking as the world burns.”  I think that quotations capture what most of us feel about the slow pace of the negotiations at this point.  One ray of hope  was an announcement from Beijing that China would put limits on its emissions – the world’s largest – as early as 2020. Until now, China has only measured its emissions in terms of energy intensity per unit of Gross Domestic  Product  (GDP). Although Japan has said it would not join the EU in renewing the Kyoto Protocol, its climate envoy, Masahiko Horie, said it wanted to start discussions and adopt, as soon as possible, a comprehensive international agreement that would involve all major economies.

Is China being used as a scapegoat by countries which are unwilling to make significant cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions? Fr Sean McDonagh SSC

For a number of years the United States and other countries such as Canada, Russia  and more recently Japan, have stated that they are unwilling to sign any binding treaty to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions unless China does the same.  In support of their position, these countries point to the fact that China is now the number one emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.  In 2005, its greenhouse gas emissions reached 7,232 megatonnes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Carbon Emissions between 1850 and 2009

At first glance this argument looks plausible enough. However, it overlooks some very important data on a number of fronts, which undermine the validity of the argument and upholds the position of the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) which states that countries have common but differentiate responsibilities in solving climate change.  Any equitable approach to lowering carbon emissions global must first examine the historical pattern of  greenhouses gases releases into the atmosphere.

Equity in determining the Right to Emit CO2

In a recent paper Martin Khor, the Executive Director of South Centre, has calculated that, in the period between 1850 and 2009, about 1,214 Gigatons of  CO2 was released into the atmosphere. Of this amount, Annex 1 countries (rich countries many of which signed up to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997) were responsible for 878 Gigatons.  If one set out to determine what a fair share of the right to emit greenhouses gases during that period, based on their population as a percentage of the global population, it would amount to 336 Gigatons or 28% of the total amount.  In fact, Annex 1 countries have overshot their fair amount by a massive 568 Gigatons.

The scientific consensus is now adamant that, if we wish to keep the average global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, we can only emit 750 Gigatons of carbon (equivalent)  into the atmosphere between now and 2050.  In the light of the historic carbon debt, how should these allocations be made?  Given that Annex 1 countries only comprise 16% of the world’s population, the equitable allocation for these countries should be 120 Gigatons. But since there is a debt overhang of 568 gigatons, their fair share ought to be a negative budget of 448 Gigatons.    According to Khor, “to fulfil the environmental goal of a global cut to 50% to 85%, it is clear that developed countries will have to go into the territory of “negative emissions”, in order that the developing countries will have a decent level of “development space” sufficient to cushion their path to low-emissions growth.”[11]

A second consideration which needs to be looked at seriously is the fact that China, during the past three decades, has become the work shop of the world.  It is manufacturing many of the consumer goods which benefits people in Europe, the US and elsewhere by providing a plethora of gadgets at a very low cost.  Both the computer which I am using to write this article, and the memory stick which I am using the save the text, have been manufactured in China. Should China alone be saddled with accounting for these greenhouses involved in manufacturing these goods, or should the burden be shared by those people and countries which benefit from this low cost manufacturing?

Is China still a developing nation or has it graduated to the developed category?

In a recent article Martin Khor has argued convincingly that China is still a developing country and that it should not be bullied into joining a new category which does not square with the true facts of the situation.[12]  At a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) in Bali in November 2011,  President Barack Obama told the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that China had “grown” up and must accept its international obligations.  Among these would be China’s willingness to sign up to binding commitments similar to those which would be undertaken by the US, Europe or Japan.

The question is, are we comparing like with like – apples with apples but not with oranges?  China is a huge country, its economy is now the second biggest on the planet and growing, its foreign reserves stand at US$3 trillion and its greenhouse gas emissions have now exceeded those of the US.  Those headline figures might seem to put it into the category of a developed country.  But that would be deceptive, since it fails to take into account the population of China.

Khor points out that the International Monetary Fund in its latest World Economic Outlook classifies China as a developing country with a per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$4,382.  In this league table it comes in at number 91, out of the 184 countries covered in the survey.  Many will find it strange that six African countries – Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Botswana, Mauritius, South Africa and Namibia  – have higher GDP per capita levels than China.

The next measure used by Martin Khor is the  “ gross purchasing power” per capita.  This covers that fact the cost of living in some countries is lower than in others and that this has a knock on affect on living standards.  Here again China comes in at number 95, lower than Ecuador.  Many people involved in development work are critical of the traditional economic measurement of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Product (GNP).  They rightly argue that these can give a lopsided view of the economic and social well-being of a country.  As result of these criticisms the United Nations publishes a Human Development Report each year which assesses the quality of life in broader terms which include income, schooling, life expectancy etc.  In the Human Development Report for 2011, China is ranked 110 out of 187 countries.

China’s per capita greenhouse gas emission are one-fourth of per capita emissions in the US

While China is now the world’s number one emitter of greenhouse gases, China’s per capita emissions of CO2 (e) is 5.5 tonnes which places it at 84 in the list of per capita emissions for other countries across the globe.  In fact, from the beginning of the current phase of industrialization in Chine in the early 1980s until the late 1990s, energy intensity in China grew only half as fast as its GDP (Gross Domestic Product).  (Energy intensity is a measure of the amount of energy required for every dollar produced in the economy. It is often used to compare the productivity of different economies, and says some about the cost and resource efficiency of production. The lower the energy intensity of an economy, the more energy efficient it is per unit of production).  Since about the year 2000, a change has taken place. The per capita income increase is now accompanied by an increase, rather than decrease, in energy intensity. This has led to a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions.  Nevertheless, the per capita emissions in the US by contrast are 23.4 tonnes, which is over 4 times that of China.

What people forget when they look at the enormous strides which China has made economically since the mid-1980s, is the size of its population.  At present it stands at 1.3 billion.  People who visit China are amazed at what has been achieved in a relatively short period of time, especially in cities, many of which are heavily polluted.  Tens of millions have benefitted from the double digit economic growth of the past three decades and a significant number have become millionaires or even billionaires.  What people forget is that 700 million of China’s 1.3 billion live in villages far removed from the more prosperous cities. Many of these people live in grinding poverty.  Khor quotes a United Nations study which estimates that there are 150 million people in China living on less than US$1 per day.

Khor argues that despite an extraordinary economic success story, which has many negative ecological and even social consequences, China is a middle-level developing country with similar socio-economic and ecological problems faced by most developing countries.  Martin Khor, who has been championing the cause of poor people across the globe for three decades through his involvement in the Third World Debt movement from the late 1970s onwards, concludes “ that if China is pressurised to take on the duties of a developed country and to forgo its status and benefits of a developing country, than many other developing countries that are ahead of China (at least in per capita terms) may soon be also asked to do the same.”[13]

China leads the solar revolution

This does not mean that China does not have obligations to reduce its greenhouse gas emission.  While the Chinese economy is still very much dependent on coal, huge strides have been made in the area of renewable energy. At side event here at Durban last week Eric Usher, of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said China now is the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels. According to him “renewable energy has now reached a tipping point where it is becoming an important part of the global energy mix….. The price of these technologies is dropping.  For example, the cost of solar panels has dropped by about 65 percent, largely because of production in China.”[14]

 A Small breakthrough at Durban: Is it too little, too late? Fr. Seán McDonagh,SSC

COP 17, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was scheduled to end on Friday December 9th 2011.  At that point there was no agreement on a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol (KP) nor a willingness to accept legally binding cuts to greenhouse gas emissions by either the United States, India or China. On Thursday, December 8th 2011 and through much of Friday, December 9th 2011, it appeared as if the conference was going to end in a disaster similar to what happened in Copenhagen in 2009.

Some momentum, initiated by the Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s climate chief, entered into the discussions on Friday afternoon.  She held private talks with small and large countries  in order to secure a deal.   As a result, the negotiators decided to extend the conference throughout Saturday.  Finally, on Sunday morning a compromise agreement was reached.  Included in the accord was the extension of the Kyoto Protocol for another five years.  The Kyoto Protocol was due to end in 2012.  This new agreement will extend that date to 2017. The Kyoto Protocol is the only legally binding treaty requiring rich countries (in the jargon of the COP Annex 1 countries) to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent on 1990s levels.  Though the United States signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, it was never ratified by the US Senate and once George W Bush became president he withdrew US support for the Kyoto Protocol. Throughout the Durban talks the developing countries were united in their demand that the Kyoto Protocol must be extended for a second period.  Many of the countries which had signed the KP, such as Russia, Canada and even Japan, where it was negotiated, indicated that they would not support a second period for the KP unless other developed and developing countries agreed to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. While securing a second period for the KP, it is important to remember that KP countries are only responsible for emitting 15 precent of global greenhouse gas emissions.[15] So, while it is being presented as a victory for poorer countries, in the larger scheme of things it is a very small victory.

In 1997, though the both the Indian and especially China economy had been growing spectacularly over the previous decade, they did not rate as major emitters of greenhouse gases.  All of that changed in the past decade, and in 2005, China, as a country, became the number one emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet.  However in  per capita terms the average Chinese person only emits one quarter as much as the average US citizen.  The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, commits all countries to work towards a new legally binding agreement to cut greenhouse gases to be decided by 2015. This agreement would then come into force in 2020.

Much of the hard negotiation centred on the semantics of what legally binding commitments actually mean. The language game continued through most of Saturday.  The term “legal framework” was dropped in preference for “protocol or legal instrument.” This was further diluted to “legal outcome.” The EU  negotiators were thoroughly frustrated at this point and began to challenge counties such as India and China to assume their responsibilities for climate change.  This led to an angry response from the Indian minister for the environment, Jayanthi Natarajan who stated that “India will never be intimated by threats.” She in turn was supported by the Chinese delegation who thought that India and China were being strongarmed by the EU into a deal that might not suit them.  Connie Hedegaard kept her nerve and after some huddles among the negotiating parties the two women agreed to accept the phrase “agreed outcome with legal force” was accepted.  But even Christiana Figueres`, the UNFCCC Executive Secretary admits that what the phrase means has still to be decided. The fact that an agreement was finally reached was seen as a victory for the EU as a corporate body with all the component nations acting together.  The outcome was very different from what happened at Copenhagen when initiatives from the EU were cast aside.

The Green Climate Fund which has been under negotiations during the past few COPs was set up at Durban.  This fund will be used to channel US$100 billion each year to countries which are affected by climate change.

Karl Hood who is both foreign minister of Grenada and the chair of the alliance of small island states, which could be swamped by rising sea levels as a result of climate change was ambivalent about what had been achieved in Durban.  On the positive side it was the first time that a legal framework had been agreed outside of the KP process and it is destined to apply to all nations.  On the negative side, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action is vague and will not come into effect until 2020.  The scientific consensus is that carbon dioxide emissions need to peak by 2015 if the goal of keeping the average global temperature rise to less than two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level is to be achieved. Beyond that climate change can become both catastrophic and irreversible in historical time.

Just to give a sense of the perilous situation which we face, on December 13th 2011, Russian scientists found unprecedented plumes of methane bubbling up to the surface in the Arctic Ocean.  Methane is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  The sheer scale of what is happening astonished the Russian research team which have been monitoring these waters for the past 20 years. According to Steve Connor writing in The Independen, scientists believe that here are hundreds of millions of tonnes of methane gas locked away beneath the Arctic permafrost.   The permafrost extends from the mainland into the shallow waters of the East Siberia Arctic Shelf.  With the disappearance of Arctic sea-ice in the summer and the gradual increase in temperature across this area of the Arctic, scientists fear that the trapped methane in the permafrost could suddenly be released into the atmosphere. This “time bomb” release of methane from the Arctic region would lead to severe climate change much further beyond the 2 degree Celsius rise the UNFCCC is  trying to prevent. [16]

Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) share a similar perspective regarding the limitations of the Durban Platform.  Tony Rawe from the Charity Care USA said that the negotiators “had failed the planet and especially the world’s poorest who are already suffering from the devastating impacts of climate change.”[17]

According to Andy Atkins Executive Director of Friends of the Earth, “The UN climate change process is still alive but this empty shell of a plan leaves the planet hurtling towards catastrophic climate change. If Durban is to be a historic stepping stone towards success the world must urgently agree ambitious targets to slash emissions.”[18]

Country Statements at COP 17 –Ireland Fr. Seán McDonagh

In recent days government Ministers or other officials have been making statements about their countries’ experience and perspective on climate change. On Wednesday, December 7th 2011, I listened to what Mr. Phil  Hogan, the Irish Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government had to say.

He noted that the “world is far from a pathway to meet the goal of keeping the global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius. The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) latest gap analysis shows that current pledges could only take us about half-way there.

In reality the impacts of climate change are already clear. The World Health Organisation  ( WHO) has declared climate change to be the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century. The seriousness and urgency of mobilising an effective global response cannot be overstated.

While the Cancun Agreements were an important step forward, the time has now arrived for us to address the difficult outstanding political issues, not least in relation to –

The legal form of a future international agreement.

The timeframe for agreement and a roadmap to get us there, and

The need to increase the level of ambition on mitigation action to respond tot the 2 degrees Celsius objective.

We must also strive for an agreement on a common international accounting system, so we can truly keep track of what everyone is doing.

A balanced Durban package should also address issues that are of increasing importance in our climate constrained world, including the establishment of new market-based mechanisms, addressing the international aviation and maritime sectors, and agreement on a work programme on agriculture.

Food security remains a key issue in Ireland’s engagement with this and other global multi-lateral processes. Our historical experience of famine has left an indelible mark on our national psyche and has ensured that our overseas development assistance programme has a particular focus on hunger. Recognising the right to food as a key fundamental human right, we are acutely aware that climate change is already impacting on global agricultural systems.

Whether you look at analysis by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FA0), UNEP or the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC), the message is consistent and clear regarding the inextricably linked challenges of climate change, agriculture and food security. Building the scientific and technological knowledge base in the agricultural sector is essential and a work programme must be developed that fully addresses both adaptation and mitigation aspects……….. We fully recognise that it is the people of the developing world – who contributed least to global warming – that are first to suffer its punishing impacts.  I believe that there is a compelling case for Climate Justice and I am determined that Ireland will continue to demonstrate solidarity with developing countries in their efforts to tackle the effects of climate change and respond to food security challenges.

For our part in the global mitigation effort, Ireland is on course to meet its Kyoto commitment.  Together with our fellow Member States of the EU, we are pursuing an ambitious mitigation agenda in the period to 2020. Nationally, the Government is prioritising the climate policy agenda to ensure that we realise our 2020 climate ambitions on a pathway to a low carbon economy in the longer term.”

Country Statement – Islamic Republic of Pakistan, December 8th 2011

It is a profound pleasure and honour to represent Pakistan at the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 7th Meeting of the Parties in the Kyoto Protocol……

Pakistan has come to Durban with not only hope and determination to  propel the current negotiations towards a definitive outcome, as envisaged in the Bali Plan of Action, but also with serious and immediate concerns about the extreme climate induced impacts that our country faces.

Climate change for Pakistan is an impending and unavoidable reality which is currently impacting the country with all its ferocity. The increased frequency and rising intensity of natural extreme events, triggered by climate change, have exposed us to unavoidable risks.

In the past decade, nine out of the top ten natural disasters in Pakistan have been climate related and each time they have struck with rising intensity and cost. The past two years can truly be termed as the years of “climate catastrophe” in Pakistan with back to back floods in 2010 and 2011, rapid glacial melting, a drought in 2010, threatening cases of Glacial Lake Outbursts (GLOFs) and the recent incidence of a dengue fever epidemic in the country.  As stated already, all these impacts come with a heavy price tag for an already strained and stretched economy.

Last year, with the help of the UNFCCC, Pakistan carried out a study to estimate its climate finance needs. The resulting adaptation cost figures range from between US$6 billion to US$ 14 billion per year that Pakistan would  need in the 2010- 2050 time frame to cope with the effects of climate change. Ironically, the natural disasters striking the country in the past two years, have already established that these are not just future projections but costs which are very real and already upon us.  The country no longer has an exit strategy for climate change. It has no other option but to face the issue head-on and bear the associated costs.

While the current negotiations grapple with the definition of vulnerability, it comes as no surprise that a number of independent climate bodies undeniably categorize Pakistan among the highly vulnerable countries. A reputed body, German-Watch recently placed Pakistan as the country  “most impacted” by climate change in the year 2010.   Pakistan is, therefore, of the view that we need to revisit the current global vision of climate vulnerability and develop a more holistic approach. Such an approach, we believe, would allow for more effective and equitable allocation of resources to deal with climate change.

Given this extreme vulnerability to climate change, the success of these negotiations is not just important but rather and imperative for Pakistan. Our commitment to this global process is a result of the harsh realities that the people of Pakistan are facing today due to climate change. In our view, the only path is to overcome our difference in achieving an outcome that arrests and reverses these negative climatic trends. Together we bear a huge responsibility. We are here to make the right choices for our collective future and survival.

Notwithstanding our own vulnerability, Pakistan is particularly concerned at the existential threat that climate changes poses not only to the whole South Asian region but also to the many Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and the enhanced risks it poses to the Least Developing Countries – all of whom are least prepared to cope with this imminent challenge. Pakistan wishes to assure its SIDs and LDCs partners that it remains committed to ensuring an outcome which prioritises their needs.

With only two days of negotiating time left, Pakistan would urge all parties to show flexibility in evolving agreements to make this conference a watershed in our quest to meet the challenge of climate change.

Pakistan strongly supports the notion of a fair, equitable and balanced set of decisions. I have instructed my delegation to undertake intensive consultations with our partners, with your team and members of the Group of 77 and China to ensure that we can build upon the trust that was rekindled in Cancun and move forward in a positive manner.

Pakistan strongly supported the adoption of decisions at Cancun, which in our view were a timely and pragmatic measure to move towards long-term cooperative action. Regretfully, the follow up progress has been extremely slow and dismal. We, thus, share the urgency in settling all pending and ensuring that negotiations under the two tracks culminate in positive and agreed decisions at Durban.

Under your able leadership, Pakistan looks forward to a balanced and comprehensive agreement at Durban, which ensures completion of the Bali Road Map. In this regard, the following decisions are crucial

Successful completion of negotiations under the Kyoto Protocol to agree, at least, on a mandate to avoid any “gap” in commitments which could provide certainty and avoid a derailment of the growing carbon markets.

Durban should operationalize the building blocks initiated in Cancun including the Standing Committee on Finance to improve the governance of climate finance: Operationalision of the empowered Adaptations Committee which should report directly to the Conference of the Parties; the operationalization of the technology executive committee and the technology network and, most importantly, the operationalization of the Green Climate Fund to start delivering much needed climate finance to countries like Pakistan.

The future flow of sustainable and predictable climate finance needs to be realized at Durban which should also address the associated “gap” of financing between 2012 when fast track finance ends and 2020 when the promised US$100 billion of long term finance begins.

Pakistan also supports the establishment of a Reduced Emission from Forest Degradation and Deforestation (REED + Mechanism. We are open to the establishment of a REDD+ Window in any new Climate Change Fund/Mechanism. Pakistan believes that there is a need to strongly reflect the recognition of the special needs of the low forest cover countries in the evolving REDD+ architecture.

I would also like to affirm that despite resource constraints amid a very difficult security environment, the present Government is undertaking considerable action at the national level in evolving a national framework on climate change.

The recent floods in Pakistan have highlighted the need for integrating climate change – particularly adaptation – in our national economic policy and planning. Following the release of the National Task Force on Climate Change last year, we are now finalizing the process of approving our National Climate Change Policy and a National Adaptation Plan in close partnership with the United Nations in Pakistan.  We are also cognizant of the requirement to develop a receptive infrastructure and capacity in the country to assimilate our future climate finance needs. On the development of such an enabling environment and conductive capacity, we will continue to seek international assistance.

Pakistan strongly believes and supports the establishment of inclusive climate regimes that integrates the voluntary mitigation actions of the developing countries in a global effort to reduce emissions subject mission subject to the provision of finance and technology and in accordance with the fundamental principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. This is the spirit of Bali and Pakistan remains committed to it. Pakistan is ready to undertake measureable, reportable and verifiable nationally appropriate mitigation actions in the frame work of Nation Communications.

Already, we are unilaterally committing significant climate resources towards climate change. In this regard, the country committed US$4.5 billion towards climate costs in the years 2007-2009 alone out of its national budgetary finance. This includes projects supporting low carbon development as well as establishing a climate resilient infrastructure in the country.


[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4]  John Vidal, “Revealed: which oil giant influenced Bush,” The Guardian,  June 8th 2005, page 5.

[5][5] Seamus Milne, “This strike could start to turn the tide of a generation,” The Guardian, December 1st 2011, page 43.

[6] David Strahan, “The Real Greek Tragedy,” NewScientist October 15th 2011, page 16

[7] David Strahan, “The Real Greek Tragedy,” NewScientist October 15th 2011. Page 28.

[8] Fiona Harvey, “Developing nations must meet tough terms on climate says EU,” The Guardian, December  1st 2011, page 10.

[9] Fiona Harvey, “Carbon dioxide emissions show record jump,” The Guardian,  December 5, 2011, www.guardian.co.uk

[10] ibid

[11] Martin Khor, “The Equitable sharing of atmospheric and development space: Summary” Climate Policy Briefing,  No. 4.* December 2010. www.southcentre.org

[12] Martin Khor, “Is China still a developing nation?” The Star, November 21, 2011,  page 27.

[13][13] ibid

[14] Suren Naidoo, “China leads the solar revolution,” The Mercury Network, December 7th 2011, page 1

[15]  Pilita Clark and Andrew England, “Battle loom over detail of climate pack,” Financial Times, December 12, 2011, page 7.

[16]  Steve Connor, “Shock as retreat of Arctic sea ice releases deadly greenhouse gas, The Independent, December 13th 2011, page 2

[17]  ibid

[18] Natasha Kertesz,  “ Durban Platform provides a vague roadmap for climate change action,” December 12th 2011, http://therandomfact.com/durban-platform-provides-a-vague-roadmap-for-climate-change-action/2210806

 

 

Durban: Last chance to get it right on climate change? by Seán McDonagh on Nov. 30, 2011

The United Nations climate change conference at the Conference of the Parties 17 (COP 17) began Nov. 28, in Durban, South Africa. Close to 10,000 people are expected to attend the conference, which will continue until Dec. 9.

Those attending include representatives of the world’s governments, international organizations and civil society. The discussions will seek to advance, in a balanced fashion, the implementation of the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, as well as the Bali Action Plan, agreed upon at COP 13 in 2007, and the Cancun Agreements, reached at COP 16 in December 2010.

President of the Republic of South Africa Jacob Zuma opened the conference, calling on all parties involved in the negotiations at Durban to work diligently to find a solution to the climate issues.

“For most people in the developing world and Africa, climate change is a matter of life and death,” he said. “We are always reminded by the leaders of small island nations that climate change threatens their very existence.”

He continued, “Recently, the island nation of Kiribati became the first country to declare that global warming is rendering its territory uninhabitable. They asked for help to evacuate the population.”

But the devastation that climate change will bring will not be confined to small island nations or coastal cities in other countries.

President Zuma claimed that climate change will reduce agriculture output by 50 percent across the African continent. He drew attention to the fact that “severe drought in Somalia is exacerbating an already volatile region causing displacement of populations and increasing refugee communities in Kenya.”

If one includes the high level of population growth, which is predicted for Africa, and with falling food production, then the future will be problematic, unless significant action is taken on climate change. In South Africa itself, climate change has led to severe flooding in coastal areas. As a result, some people have lost their lives and others have lost their livelihood.

The impact of climate change is not confined to small island nations or the continent of Africa.

President Zuma said, “In the Americas, we have also witnessed the frequency of intense hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, from which the communities of New Orleans have yet to fully recover, five years after Hurricane Katrina.”

In some quarters the climate change debate is often divorced from eradicating global poverty. The location of the conference in Africa should be a reminder to the delegates, as Zuma said, “that solving the climate problem cannot be separated from the struggle to eradicate poverty.”

Zuma then summarized the progress that has been made to date. At COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009, there was a commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 34 percent by 2020, and by 42 percent by 2025. Reductions of this scale are essential if the average global temperature is to be kept below a 2 degrees Celsius rise. A May 2011 study released by the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, called the 2o C increase the “guard rail,” though the scientists involved would prefer if the average increase was kept below 1.5 C rather than 2 C.

In 2010, at COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico, the Parties agreed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but no number or timeline was specified.

This is very worrying because a study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found that the pledges made by the Parties in Cancun are insufficient in order to realize the goal of COP 17. These pledges are not enough to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at the level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate systems. UNEP assumes that emission levels at 44 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide would probably keep the average temperature rise below 2 C. Under a business-as-usual scenario, which is likely if there is no binding agreement at Durban, carbon emissions could reach 56 gigatonnes of carbon, creating havoc in many parts of the world.

The stakes for the future of hundreds of millions of people and vital ecosystems are very high at Durban. Toward the end of his address, President Zuma said that, given the urgency at stake, the Parties should strive to find solutions here in Durban.

“The expectation is that you must work toward an outcome that is balanced, fair and credible,” he stated.

Whether this can be achieved is questionable. COP 15 in Copenhagen received massive media coverage, while the media coverage of Durban thus far has been minimal.

A brief history: the UN climate change conference by Seán McDonagh on Nov. 30, 2011

 

.One of the pitfalls that many of us who have attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference for years fall into is that we assume that the general reader has a good grasp of the history of these conferences and the issues that have been thrashed about during the past 20 years. On this, the third day of the Durban conference, a brief history might be helpful.

Countries from across the globe began to address the problems associated with global warming and climate change at the Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro, in June 1990. At that meeting it was agreed to set up a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

This body was tasked with setting out a framework for action aimed at stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic (human-induced) interference with the climate system.” Unfortunately, due mostly to the intervention of the United States under former President George H. W. Bush, no target dates or timelines were set. The Convention came into force in March 1994.

The next significant milestone took place at the December 1997 UNFCCC Conference (COP 3) in Kyoto, Japan. The delegates agreed to a Protocol that committed industrialized countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The target was set for a reduction between 5.2 percent and 7 percent below their 1990 levels, in the period between 2008 and 2012. What became known as the Kyoto Protocol came into force on Feb. 16, 2005. It expires in December 2012.

In the run-up to the Kyoto Conference, a group of industries known as the Carbon Club ran advertisements in the U.S. media, aimed at blocking the U.S. from signing the Kyoto Protocol. Many of these companies, especially those involved in the energy sector, were afraid that their profits would plummet if there was a drop in fossil fuel consumption.

Among them were household names such as Exxon Mobil, Shell, Ford and General Motors. They used all kinds of tactics – corporate PR, psychology, mass media manipulation techniques and political muscle – to force the Clinton administration to do their will.

Even though the U.S. delegation, led by then-Vice President Al Gore, signed the Kyoto Protocol, the Byrd-Hagel resolution, which claimed that the Protocol would damage the U.S. economy, was passed by the U.S. Senate by an overwhelming 95 votes to 0 votes.

Within a few months of being elected president, George W. Bush repudiated the Kyoto Protocol. Documents leaked to the press at the time of the Gleneagles, Scotland, meeting of the G-8 in July 2005 made it clear that Bush’s decision was due in part to the pressure from Exxon Mobil.

As the work of the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol process became more intricate, subsidiary bodies were set up to help those involved in various aspects of the negotiations. These included the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA) and the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA).

These and scores of other acronyms are used constantly in negotiations and discussions to the point that even veteran attendees of UNFCCC meetings need a glossary to understand what is being said!

The next most significant UNFCCC took place in December 2007, on the beautiful island of Bali, in Indonesia. The result of that meeting became known as the Bali Road Map. It put the spotlight on the three areas needed to be addressed in any climate treaty.

Given the dire consequences of a significant increase in global temperature, the primary focus of the UNFCCC is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. In the language of the UNFCCC, this is called mitigation.

Secondly, the plight of those who are already being affected by climate change must be addressed. Many of the countries that did the least to cause climate change will be most affected by it. One has only to think what will happen to the water supply of Lima, Peru, if the glaciers on the Andes disappear? Responding to this is referred to as Adaptations.

The final plank in the strategy is called Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM). During the past 200 years the prosperity of rich countries was based on having cheap fossil fuel readily available. China and India are now following the same pathway.

Poor countries have a right to develop, but if they opt for the fossil fuel route, it will be a disaster for everyone. To avoid this happening, rich countries must make clean energy technologies available to poor countries.

 

While the science is becoming more alarming, politicians are slow to act. (December 6th 2011). Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

 

Three years ago a claim in the Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that the glaciers in the Himalayas were receding faster than in any other part of the globe and that they could disappear completely by 2035. This was seized upon by climate deniers as an example of the questionable science behind climate change. The source for the claim was a quotation from an Indian glaciologist which appeared in the NewScientist.  The data had not been peer-reviewed.

The story behind this mistake received extensive coverage in news media across the globe. Many people, who were beginning to take the science of climate change seriously, reverted back into a sceptic mode.  Pressure was brought to bear on Rajendra Pachauri, the chairperson of the IPCC, to resign.

The Impact of Climate Change on the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau

While the 54,000 glaciers covering an area of over 60,000 square kilometres in the Himalayas may not disappear  in 35 years, they are under serious threat which will only get worse if politicians here in Durban fail to deal effectively with greenhouse gas emissions.  The tragedy is that, despite a greater knowledge of the dangers of climate change and considerable efforts to invest in non-fossil fuel energy sources, little enough has been achieved.  This somewhat depressing data has emerged in a recent study conducted by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change based at the University of East Anglia. Professor Corinne Le Quéré, who is the director of the Centre, found that fossil fuel emissions rose by about 3.1 per cent globally since the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1997. In 2010, for example, fossil fuel emission rose by 5.9 per cent [1]  The study predicts that, unless real changes are put in place, greenhouse gas emissions will grow by 3 per cent over the next number of years.  One of the most depressing elements in the data according to Julia Steinberger, a lecturer in ecological economics at the Sustainable Research Institute at the University of Leeds, is that emissions do not seem to decrease much even during a recession.  “The worst economic crisis in decades was apparently a mere hiccup in terms of carbon emissions.”[2]

Professor Le Quére warned that it was necessary to do something urgently about the 80 per cent of our energy which still comes from burning fossil fuel.  Unless this is tackled urgently there is very little hope of holding global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Any increase beyond that will result in catastrophic and irreversible climate change. Most frightening of all, given the slow pace of the negotiations here at Durban, is the judgement of these scientists  that emissions need to peak by 2020 at the latest.

This, of course, brings us back to the Himalayas. A Swedish-funded study by the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, found that there was a doubling of ice and snow lost in the 10 glaciers which have been studied for the past 30 years.  The report claimed that there was a shrinking in both the central and eastern Himalayas glaciers.  It seems that glacial erosion has increased in recent years. The study found that there was a depletion of 22 per cent in the Bhutan glaciers and 21 per cent in Nepal. The loss of volume was even greater in the higher altitude central Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau.  In the iconic area around Mount Everest, the data showed a marked loss in glacial mass  between 2002 and 2005, in a period of three years.  One of the reasons for this speeding up of the loss of glaciers is that the rise temperature in the Himalayas has been significantly above the global average of 0.74 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years.

Serious depletion of ice and snow from the  Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau will have devastating consequences for people in Asia.  All the great rivers of Asia – the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yangzi and Yellow River – all begin in the Himalayas or the Tibetan Plateau.  A major reduction in the volume of ice and snow on these mountains will mean that there will be much less water for drinking, personal hygiene and agriculture for almost 2.5 billion people who depend on these rivers

In today’s (December 6th 2011 –  ECO – the daily news report from the (Climate Action Network(CAN) there is a letter addressed to the Ministers who have arrived for the final few days of negotiations.  It begins, “the disconnect between the climate talks and the scientific reality is stark. In the UNFCCC process, progress is being made, but in real life yours negotiators have been sleepwalking as the world burns.”  I think that quotations capture what most of us feel about the slow pace of the negotiations at this point.  One ray of hope  was an announcement from Beijing that China  which is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases would put limits on its emissions  as early as 2020. Until now, China has only measured its emissions in terms of energy intensity per unit of Gross Domestic Product  (GDP). Although Japan has said it would not join the EU in renewing the Kyoto Protocol, its climate envoy, Masahiko Horie, said it wanted to start discussions and adopt, as soon as possible, a comprehensive international agreement that would involve all major economies.


[1] Fiona Harvey, “Carbon dioxide emissions show record jump,” The Guardian,  December 5, 2011, www.guardian.co.uk

[2] ibid

The End of the First Week at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Durban Fr. Seán McDonagh,SSC December 3, 2011.

 

The Meeting of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change or COP17 here in Durban is similar to many of the other COPs which I have attended in Nairobi, Bali, Poznans, Copenhagen and Cancun and yet, I discern a very different mood among the participants in Durban. Organisations from civil society are here in force, challenging the politicians to come up with a fair, ambitious and binding treaty which will secure the future for ordinary people.  But the question is; are politicians listening to climate change concerns anywhere across the globe? Are the distractions of the current financial and banking crises just too overpowering?

At breakfast this morning here in St. Philomena’s Conference Centre in Durban where I am staying, more than 40 women from a variety of  Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) were preparing to join in the March to the Conference Centre which is scheduled to begin around 1 pm. Their conversations were animated and focused as these people, many from a rural background here in South Africa, are already feeling the effects of climate change in their lives.  They are fearful about what the future might bring, and well they might be, as the momentum which drove previous COPs seems to be waning. Everyone knows that, if the Durban Conference fails, it will be difficult to get a satisfactory  international agreement on the measures which will be necessary to prevent an average rise in global temperature of between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. This would be a disaster for almost every country and ecosystem in the world.

United States of America

The United States is the largest economy in the world and its citizens are among the largest per capita emitters of greenhouses gases in the world. While the US signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the US Senate never ratified the treaty. During the Presidency of George W. Bush, the US negotiators spent much of their time at the various COPs either trying to deny climate change was happening or, in the later years of his presidency, espousing scepticisms about its consequences.

The election of President Obama seemed like the dawning of a new era.  In his campaign speeches he understood and accepted the scientific underpinning for global warming. He appeared to grasp the seriousness of climate change for many countries both in the global South and even for the US itself and, above all, he promised to lead rather than impede an international consensus for dealing with it.

Unfortunately, those bright hopes of 2009 have now turned to dust.  Local politics in the US and the rise of the Tea Party candidates has effectively pushed climate change off the political agenda. On the third day of the Durban Conference, the US chief negotiator Jonathan Pershing, himself a scientist who was formerly involved with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), made the implausible statement that the current collective mitigation targets are sufficient to avoid a rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius.  In addition, given its greenhouse emission status the US’s own mitigation targets are woefully weak. They are set to achieve a 17% reduction below their 2005 level by 2020. It would appear that in the political calculus of the Obama administration, re-election is now the top priority, dealing with climate change is a task for someone else.

The unwillingness of the US to accept any binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions unless the newly emerging economies of China and India agree to similar measures is totally irresponsible and immoral. The US seems to forget that it and other Northern economies, are responsible for 75% of historic or accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The prosperity which many people in Northern economies experienced in the late 19th century and especially in the second half of the 20th century, depended directly on burning fossil fuel. The unfortunate consequence is that it increased the percentage of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which has led directly to our present crisis.  True, many people were unaware of the connection between burning fossil fuel, greenhouse gases and climate change, but that did not change the outcome.

In traditional moral terms, the US and other Northern countries are being called to make restitution for the damage which their greenhouse gas emissions have caused to millions of poor people around the world. Unfortunately, the problem will continue and become more serious  unless there are ambitious and binding agreements to reduce greenhouse gases emissions in the next few years. Putting off such decisions for a decade or so will be disastrous.  The moral issues here come under a relatively modern category called intergenerational justice.  The core issue is that this generation has the power to increase global temperatures significantly and, as a consequence, make life difficult for every succeeding generation of human beings and the offspring of every other creature as Fr. Thomas Berry wrote many years ago.  Once a tipping point is reached it is difficult and even impossibly in historical time to reverse the process. Runaway climate change will introduce a new geological era. This is highlighted in the title of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences’ recent document on climate change which is entitled The Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene.

Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are calling politicians to account

Members of CSOs in the United States are concerned about the Obama administration’s lack of leadership on climate change.  In the run-up to the Durban Conference, 16 major CSOs including Greenpeace, Oxfam America and the Worldwide Fund for Nature challenged the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton to alter the US stance on climate change.  The letter called on the US negotiators to withdraw the stringent preconditions it is expecting poor and emerging countries to meet in return for the US to agreed to support a realistic mandate for negotiations on a long-term climate regime.  These include legal symmetry, a clear process for poor countries to gradually take on mitigation commitments similar to those which should currently apply to rich countries, such as the US.  According to these CSOs, the most negative element in the US’s negotiating position in Durban is its position on climate financing.

Since the Nairobi COP in 2006, there have been slow and painstaking negotiations about the best and most efficient way to make serious amounts of money available to poor countries which will have to adapt to the inevitable impact of climate change. For some countries it will mean, higher costs to deal with severe weather events, for other counties it will mean smaller food harvests, for others shrinking glacier will cause water shortages for major cities and vital agricultural crops. The Green Climate Fund seemed to have been agreed at Cancun in 2010. Here at Durban the US appears to want to reopen these negotiations. In contrast, the European wants the Green Climate Fund to begin delivering funds to poor countries next year.

Tomorrow I will look at what seems to be happening on the EU front.

 

 

 

Is China being used as a scapegoat by countries which are unwilling to make significant cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions? Fr Sean McDonagh SSC

 

For a number of years the United States and other countries such as Canada, Russia  and more recently Japan, have stated that they are unwilling to sign any binding treaty to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions unless China does the same.  In support of their position, these countries point to the fact that China is now the number one emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.  In 2005, its greenhouse gas emissions reached 7,232 Megatonnes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Carbon Emissions between 1850 and 2009

At first glance this argument looks plausible enough. However, it overlooks some very important data on a number of fronts, which undermine the validity of the argument and upholds the position of the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) which states that countries have common but differentiate responsibilities in solving climate change.  Any equitable approach to lowering global carbon emissions must first examine the historical pattern of  greenhouses gases releases into the atmosphere.

Equity in determining the Right to Emit CO2

In a recent paper Martin Khor, the Executive Director of South Centre based in Geneva, has calculated that, in the period between 1850 and 2009, about 1,214 Gigatons of  CO2 was released into the atmosphere. Of this amount, Annex 1 countries (rich countries many of which signed up to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997) were responsible for 878 Gigatons.  If one set out to determine what a fair share of the right to emit greenhouses gases during that period, based on their population as a percentage of the global population, it would amount to 336 Gigatons or 28% of the total amount.  In fact, Annex 1 countries have overshot their fair amount by a massive 568 Gigatons.

The scientific consensus is now adamant that, if we wish to keep the average global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, we can only emit 750 Gigatons of carbon (equivalent)  into the atmosphere between now and 2050.  In the light of the historic carbon debt, how should these allocations be made?  Given that Annex 1 countries only comprise 16% of the world’s population, the equitable allocation for these countries should be 120 Gigatons. But since there is a debt overhang of 568 gigatons, their fair share ought to be a negative budget of 448 Gigatons.    According to Khor, “to fulfil the environmental goal of a global cut to 50% to 85%, it is clear that developed countries will have to go into the territory of “negative emissions”, in order that the developing countries will have a decent level of “development space” sufficient to cushion their path to low-emissions growth.”[1]

A second consideration which needs to be looked at seriously is the fact that China, during the past three decades, has become the work shop of the world.  It is manufacturing many of the consumer goods which benefits people in Europe, the US and elsewhere by providing a plethora of gadgets at a very low cost.  Both the computer which I am using to write this article, and the memory stick which I am using the save the text, have been manufactured in China. Should China alone be saddled with accounting for these greenhouse gases involved in manufacturing these goods, or should the burden be shared by those people and countries which benefit from this low cost manufacturing?

 

Is China still a developing nation or has it graduated to the developed category?

In a recent article Martin Khor has argued convincingly that China is still a developing country and that it should not be bullied into joining a new category which does not square with the true facts of the situation.[2]  At a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) in Bali in November 2011,  President Barack Obama told the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that China had “grown” up and must accept its international obligations.  Among these would be China’s willingness to sign up to binding commitments similar to those which would be undertaken by the US, Europe or Japan.

The question is, are we comparing like with like – apples with apples but not with oranges?  China is a huge country, its economy is now the second biggest on the planet and growing, its foreign reserves stand at US$3 trillion and its greenhouse gas emissions have now exceeded those of the US.  Those headline figures might seem to put it into the category of a developed country.  But that would be deceptive, since it fails to take into account the population of China.

Khor points out that the International Monetary Fund in its latest World Economic Outlook classifies China as a developing country with a per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$4,382.  In this league table it comes in at number 91, out of the 184 countries covered in the survey.  Many will find it strange that six African countries – Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Botswana, Mauritius, South Africa and Namibia  – have higher GDP per capita levels than China.

The next measure used by Martin Khor is the  “ gross purchasing power” per capita.  This covers that fact the cost of living in some countries is lower than in others and that this has a knock on affect on living standards.  Here again China comes in at number 95, lower than Ecuador.  Many people involved in development work are critical of the traditional economic measurement of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Product (GNP).  They rightly argue that these can give a lopsided view of the economic and social well-being of a country.  As result of these criticisms the United Nations publishes a Human Development Report each year which assesses the quality of life in broader terms which include income, schooling, life expectancy etc.  In the Human Development Report for 2011, China is ranked 110 out of 187 countries.

China’s per capita greenhouse gas emission are one-fourth of per capita emissions in the US

While China is now the world’s number one emitter of greenhouse gases, China’s per capita emissions of CO2 (e) is 5.5 tonnes which places it at 84 in the list of per capita emissions for other countries across the globe.  In fact, from the beginning of the current phase of industrialization in Chine in the early 1980s until the late 1990s, energy intensity in China grew only half as fast as its GDP (Gross Domestic Product).  (Energy intensity is a measure of the amount of energy required for every dollar produced in the economy. It is often used to compare the productivity of different economies, and says some thing about the cost and resource efficiency of production. The lower the energy intensity of an economy, the more energy efficient it is per unit of production).  Since about the year 2000, a change has taken place. The per capita income increase is now accompanied by an increase, rather than decrease, in energy intensity. This has led to a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions.  Nevertheless, the per capita emissions in the US by contrast are 23.4 tonnes, which is over 4 times that of China.

What people forget when they look at the enormous strides which China has made economically since the mid-1980s, is the size of its population.  At present it stands at 1.3 billion.  People who visit China are amazed at what has been achieved in a relatively short period of time, especially in cities, many of which are heavily polluted.  Tens of millions have benefitted from the double digit economic growth of the past three decades and a significant number have become millionaires or even billionaires.  What people forget is that 700 million of China’s 1.3 billion live in villages far removed from the more prosperous cities. Many of these people live in grinding poverty.  Khor quotes a United Nations study which estimates that there are 150 million people in China living on less than US$1 per day.

Khor argues that despite an extraordinary economic success story, which has many negative ecological and even social consequences, China is a middle-level developing country with similar socio-economic and ecological problems faced by most developing countries.  Martin Khor, who has been championing the cause of poor people across the globe for three decades through his involvement in the Third World Debt movement from the late 1970s onwards, concludes”  that if China is pressurised to take on the duties of a developed country and to forgo its status and benefits of a developing country, then many other developing countries that are ahead of China (at least in per capita terms) may soon be also asked to do the same.”[3]

China leads the solar revolution

This does not mean that China does not have obligations to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.  While the Chinese economy is still very much dependent on coal, huge strides have been made in the area of renewable energy. At side event here at Durban last week, (December 4th 2011)  Eric Usher, of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said China now is the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels. According to him “renewable energy has now reached a tipping point where it is becoming an important part of the global energy mix….. The price of these technologies is dropping.  For example, the cost of solar panels has dropped by about 65 percent, largely because of production in China.”[4]

 


[1] Martin Khor, “The Equitable sharing of atmospheric and development space: Summary” Climate Policy Briefing,  No. 4.* December 2010. www.southcentre.org

[2] Martin Khor, “Is China still a developing nation?” The Star, November 21, 2011,  page 27.

[3][3] ibid

[4] Suren Naidoo, “China leads the solar revolution,” The Mercury Network, December 7th 2011, page 1

A Small breakthrough at Durban: Is it too little, too late? Fr. Seán McDonagh,SSC

 

COP 17, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was scheduled to end on Friday December 9th 2011.  At that point there was no agreement on a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol (KP) nor a willingness to accept legally binding cuts to greenhouse gas emissions by either the United States, India or China. On Thursday, December 8th 2011 and through much of Friday, December 9th 2011, it appeared as if the conference was going to end in a disaster similar to what happened in Copenhagen in 2009.

Some momentum, initiated by the Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s climate chief, entered into the discussions on Friday afternoon.  She held private talks with small and large countries  in order to secure a deal.   As a result, the negotiators decided to extend the conference throughout Saturday.  Finally, on Sunday morning a compromise agreement was reached.  Included in the accord was the extension of the Kyoto Protocol for another five years.  The Kyoto Protocol was due to end in 2012.  This new agreement will extend that date to 2017. The Kyoto Protocol is the only legally binding treaty requiring rich countries (in the jargon of the COP Annex 1 countries) to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent on 1990s levels.  Though the United States signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, it was never ratified by the US Senate and once George W Bush became president he withdrew US support for the Kyoto Protocol. Throughout the Durban talks the developing countries were united in their demand that the Kyoto Protocol must be extended for a second period.  Many of the countries which had signed the KP, such as Russia, Canada and even Japan, where it was negotiated, indicated that they would not support a second period for the KP unless other developed and developing countries agreed to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. While securing a second period for the KP, it is important to remember that KP countries are only responsible for emitting 15 precent of global greenhouse gas emissions.[1] So, while it is being presented as a victory for poorer countries, in the larger scheme of things it is a very small victory.

In 1997, though the both the Indian and especially China economy had been growing spectacularly over the previous decade, they did not rate as major emitters of greenhouse gases.  All of that changed in the past decade, and in 2005, China, as a country, became the number one emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet.  However in  per capita terms the average Chinese person only emits one quarter as much as the average US citizen.  The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, commits all countries to work towards a new legally binding agreement to cut greenhouse gases to be decided by 2015. This agreement would then come into force in 2020.

Much of the hard negotiation centred on the semantics of what legally binding commitments actually mean. The language game continued through most of Saturday.  The term “legal framework” was dropped in preference for “protocol or legal instrument.” This was further diluted to “legal outcome.” The EU  negotiators were thoroughly frustrated at this point and began to challenge counties such as India and China to assume their responsibilities for climate change.  This led to an angry response from the Indian minister for the environment, Jayanthi Natarajan who stated that “India will never be intimated by threats.” She in turn was supported by the Chinese delegation who thought that India and China were being strongarmed by the EU into a deal that might not suit them.  Connie Hedegaard kept her nerve and after some huddles among the negotiating parties the two women agreed to accept the phrase “agreed outcome with legal force” was accepted.  But even Christiana Figueres`, the UNFCCC Executive Secretary admits that what the phrase means has still to be decided. The fact that an agreement was finally reached was seen as a victory for the EU as a corporate body with all the component nations acting together.  The outcome was very different from what happened at Copenhagen when initiatives from the EU were cast aside.

The Green Climate Fund which has been under negotiations during the past few COPs was set up at Durban.  This fund will be used to channel US$100 billion each year to countries which are affected by climate change.

 

Karl Hood who is both foreign minister of Grenada and the chair of the alliance of small island states, which could be swamped by rising sea levels as a result of climate change was ambivalent about what had been achieved in Durban.  On the positive side it was the first time that a legal framework had been agreed outside of the KP process and it is destined to apply to all nations.  On the negative side, the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action is vague and will not come into effect until 2020.  The scientific consensus is that carbon dioxide emissions need to peak by 2015 if the goal of keeping the average global temperature rise to less than two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level is to be achieved. Beyond that climate change can become both catastrophic and irreversible in historical time.

Just to give a sense of the perilous situation which we face, on December 13th 2011, Russian scientists found unprecedented plumes of methane bubbling up to the surface in the Arctic Ocean.  Methane is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  The sheer scale of what is happening astonished the Russian research team which have been monitoring these waters for the past 20 years. According to Steve Connor writing in The Independen, scientists believe that here are hundreds of millions of tonnes of methane gas locked away beneath the Arctic permafrost.   The permafrost extends from the mainland into the shallow waters of the East Siberia Arctic Shelf.  With the disappearance of Arctic sea-ice in the summer and the gradual increase in temperature across this area of the Arctic, scientists fear that the trapped methane in the permafrost could suddenly be released into the atmosphere. This “time bomb” release of methane from the Arctic region would lead to severe climate change much further beyond the 2 degree Celsius rise the UNFCCC is  trying to prevent. [2]

Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) share a similar perspective regarding the limitations of the Durban Platform.  Tony Rawe from the Charity Care USA said that the negotiators “had failed the planet and especially the world’s poorest who are already suffering from the devastating impacts of climate change.”[3]

According to Andy Atkins Executive Director of Friends of the Earth, “The UN climate change process is still alive but this empty shell of a plan leaves the planet hurtling towards catastrophic climate change. If Durban is to be a historic stepping stone towards success the world must urgently agree ambitious targets to slash emissions.”[4]


[1]  Pilita Clark and Andrew England, “Battle loom over detail of climate pack,” Financial Times, December 12, 2011, page 7.

[2]  Steve Connor, “Shock as retreat of Arctic sea ice releases deadly greenhouse gas, The Independent, December 13th 2011, page 2

[3]  ibid

[4] Natasha Kertesz,  “ Durban Platform provides a vague roadmap for climate change action,” December 12th 2011, http://therandomfact.com/durban-platform-provides-a-vague-roadmap-for-climate-change-action/2210806

 

 

The Catholic Church and Nuclear Power, the Philippines and Japan Fr. Seán McDonagh

 

In February 2009, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) issued a statement opposing the rehabilitation of the Bataan Nuclear Power (PNPP) station. In a pastoral statement, the CBCP urged the Philippine Congress to “completely and irrevocably reject the opening of the nuclear plant as the  most dangerous and expensive way to generate electricity.”[1]  The statement was issued by the then CBCP president Archbishop Angelo Lagdameo of the Archdiocese of Jaro. He went on to state that, the multiple risks and possibilities of corruption outweigh the dreamed benefits. We recommend with other groups anti-BNPP congressmen and the Greenpeace Forum that the facility in Morong be mothballed.

On March 17th 2011, the Catholic bishops of the Philippines  issued a statement claiming that the crisis at Japanese nuclear power plant vindicated their opposition to the development of peaceful nuclear power. Bishop Deogracias Iñiquez, who is the chairperson of the Filipino bishops’ public-affairs committee, said that “what is happening Japan right now has confirmed our fears.” The bishops’ conference has consistently opposed building nuclear power plants. [2] There are no nuclear power plants active in the Philippines today.

 

 

The current president of the Philippines,  Benigno Aquino III is on record as saying that the mothballed Bataan nuclear reactor will never be used for its original purpose.

The Philippines is under a 25-year moratorium on the use of nuclear energy which expires in 2022. The government says it remains open to harnessing nuclear energy as a long-term solution to growing electricity demand, and its Department of Science and Technology (DOST) has been making public pronouncements in favour of pursuing nuclear energy since the Fukushima accident.

Given the opposition of the Catholic Church and many civil society organization the  DOST officials acknowledge that the accident has put back their job of winning the public over to nuclear by four or five years. This has not stopped the Philippine government from attempting to build capacity in various aspects of nuclear science and technology. The country lacks, for example, the technical expertise. Carmencita Bariso, assistant director of the Department of Energy’s planning bureau, says that, despite the Fukushima accident, her organisation has continued with a study on the viability, safety and social acceptability of nuclear energy.

Japan

 

In an interview with  Joshua J. McElwee of  the National Catholic Reporter,  August 4th 2011, Bishop  Paul Otsuka of the Kyoto diocese, spoke in advance of the annual gathering in Hiroshmia  to commemorate the dropping of the atom bomb  66 years ago. He said that  this event takes on a new significance in the light of the accident at Fukushima.  As a result he felt that it  is an appropriate time for the Japanese people to reflect on their relationship with nuclear power.  The bishop referred to a letter sent from the Tokyo diocese to the entire Japanese Church.  The bishop wrote that “ Japan, “which is the only country in the world to have been attacked with atomic weapons,” now “stands in danger of becoming a country fundamentally damaged because of atomic energy generation.”[3]

 

The military use of atomic weapons and the impact on the nuclear accident at Fukushima calls on the Japanese to “discern whether atomic energy, which threatens mankind and the environment, comes within the acceptable limits of our legitimate use of science and technology.”[4]  Bishop Otsuka has called for discernment about nuclear energy use and a new approach to world energy thinking.

 

In the interview, the bishop was asked for his reflection for the on-going disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.  In reply he stated “I wanted to write about nuclear energy because the damage from March’s accident at the Fukushima plant continues. And many people sincerely wonder if it is possible for humankind to use nuclear energy safely. Until the incident we believed it is possible for humankind to use our nuclear knowledge for peaceful use safely. It is good to use our nuclear knowledge for peaceful use if we have perfect technology to protect our planet. But this incident shows this is impossible. The perfect technical system is impossible.” [5]


[1] Dona Pazzibugan, Alcuin Papa Christian V. Esguerra and Leila B. Salaverria “Recommends Bataan facility ‘must be dismantled, ’” Philippine Daily Enquirer, February 27, 2009.

[3] Joshua J. McElwee,  “Nearing Hiroshima Day, Japanese bishop calls for discernment on nuclear energy,” National Catholic Reporter,  August 4th 2011,  http://ncronline.org/print/26025

[4] ibid

[5] Ibid…

The Catholic Church and nuclear power Fr. Seán McDonagh

 

Soon after the Fukushima disaster the Japanese bishops issued a statement stating their continued concern about the Fukushima nuclear accidents that followed the March 11th 2011, earthquake and tsunami. A Japanese bishop told the Fides news agency that he opposes the construction of nuclear power plants worldwide. “The issue about the direction we are taking, to build other nuclear power plants, is an important question,” said Auxiliary Bishop Michael Goro Matsuura of Osaka. “Together with the Justice and Peace Commission of the Japanese Bishops, which I headed up until last year, we have raised awareness to fight the construction of new nuclear power plants in Japan and globally. I believe that this serious incident should be a lesson for Japan and for the entire planet, and will be an incentive to abandon these projects. We call on the solidarity of Christians worldwide to support this campaign.” [1]

Canada

In June 2009, the Catholic Bishops of Alberta in Canada issued a document entitled Pastoral Reflections on Nuclear Energy in Alberta. The bishops pointed to the “serious ethical questions that must be adequately addressed before a decision (on nuclear power) is reached and implemented. [2] They questioned whether there was sufficient river water available to meet the needs of the proposed nuclear power plant in Alberta.  They argued that there are other ways to reduce greenhouse gases.  In the face of the potential risks to human beings and the environment, the Bishops called attention to the “precautionary principle.” This moral principal states that, if an action can potentially cause major harm to human beings or the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that the action will not be harmful, the burden of proof that it will not be harmful lies with those who are proposing the action not with those who are opposing it. The bishops are aware that nuclear power plants or trains carrying nuclear waste are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. They raise the cost and value for money of going down the nuclear route and there has been a cost overrun in building many nuclear reactors. [3]  The pastoral calls attention to the lack of a permanent place to store nuclear waste. This means that future generations will have to deal with this carcinogenic and toxic legacy.  They also point out that the risk posed by nuclear reactors is such that it is impossible to get full insurance cover for a nuclear reactor.

Germany

Four days before the German government agreed to phase out all Germany’s nuclear reactors by 2022, the German Bishops’ conference published a 52 page document in which it repeated its call to the government to shut down their nuclear reactors as soon as possible. They stated that the production of nuclear energy was “unethical.” The document was published on May 26th 2011 was prepared by a commission of experts under the leadership of Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich. The cardinal was also a member of the German Government’s Ethics Commission of safe energy which recently published a report calling for an end to the use of nuclear power. [4]  Writing in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung  on May 29th 2011, Cardinal Reinhard  said  that he felt a technology that had incalculable consequences for entire generations could not be trusted.[5]

Korea

In an article in the monthly magazine Kyeonghyan, the president of the Korean Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Peter Kang U-il of Cheju, wrote that nuclear power is a monster which cannot coexist with living things.  He said it is a lie to say that nuclear power is a green or clean energy. He urged the Korean government to review its energy policy.  He said a visit to tsunami-hit Saitama and Sendai dioceses in Japan last month to deliver aid, made him question whether nuclear power is really safe.[6] He went on to say that everyone needs to pay attention to nuclear power as it could lead to a catastrophe. Citing Pope Benedict’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, he said: “Our natural environment is God’s gift to everyone, and we must take care of it as we have a responsibility towards the poor, future generations and humanity as a whole.” Bishop Kang said the God-given right to rule the earth is not absolute. “We must limit ourselves when it comes to nature,” he said, adding that nuclear power is beyond that limit.

 


[2] http://www.caedm.ca/book/export/html/145 downloaded on April 5th  2011.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Christa Pongratz-Lippitt, “Bishops applaud nuclear phase-out,” The Tablet, June 4th 2011, page 30.

[6]  Nuclear power ‘monster,’ Bishop warns

Posted By Ivan On May 18, 2011 @ 4:58 pm In UCAN News  http://www.ucanews.com/2011/05/18/check-nuclear-power-a-monster-bishop-warns/print/

Trees and ‘God Talk’ Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

 

I grew up in rural Ireland in the 1950s, surrounded by trees.  A ribbon of horse chestnuts lined both sides of the road that linked the Killaloe and Limerick roads.  In summer their intertwining canopies shut out the light which gave the road its name – the Dark Road. In the fields around our house there were stands of oak, birch and sycamore. About 40 yards away to  the south and west my father planted  a shelter belt of  leylandis.  We had different varieties of apple trees in the orchard and two pear trees.

I entered St. Columbans seminary at Dalgan in 1962. The estate in which the seminary was built had extensive woodlands, full of indigenous trees such as oak, hazel, holly, ash, Scots pine, willow, elm and rowan.  The woods also contained a number of exotic species, including a number of sturdy Cedars of Lebanon and a few Californian Redwoods.  The trees had been planted in the 1820s by General Taylor who had fought alongside Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo.  According to local the woodlands were planted to mark where different British regiments were lined up to do battle with Napoleon.

During my seven years in the seminary I heard very little that might increase my love or respect for trees.  Students were not allowed to walk in the  woodlands and we were not even encouraged to give the trees the basic respect of knowing their names.  There was one ceremony each year which gave prominence to a tree. It was the beautiful, plaintive melody which was sung during the Exaltation of the Cross on Good Friday. As the celebrant unveiled the Cross, the celebrant sang, Ecce lingnum crucis in quo salus mundi perpendit (Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the saviour of the world). The faithful answered, Venite Adoremus ( come let us adore).  The truth is that we were not being asked to focus on the Cross, but on the figure of Christ which was nailed to it.  Unfortunately, the natural world did not figure at all in our education for ministry in the 1960s.  Little has changed in the intervening four decades in seminaries.  Theology and scripture presentations focus almost exclusively on the divine and human realms with little consideration for the rest of creation.

Ministry in Mindanao in the 1970s

My generations of missionaries were blessed for a number of reasons. The main one was that we were given an opportunity to learn local languages in a professional way, using the insights of modern linguistics.  After studying the local language, Cebuano in the autumn of 1969 and the first half of 1970, I was assigned to the parish of Oroquieta in northwest Mindanao, Philippines.  It was quite a peaceful place, but there were significant pockets of grinding poverty, especially among those living in the barrios.  The Catholic Church in Mindanao was dedicated to promoting the well being of people through a number of initiatives, especially in the area of land reform.

Everything changed in September 1972 when, the then president,  Ferdinand  Marcos declared martial law.  Many Church workers, especially those who were involved in promoting social justice, were arrested and some were murdered. For the next 14 years, the energies of Church people were focused on protecting the human rights of the people against both the military and the guerillas as well as promoting social justice. During this time I had little knowledge of or concern for the environment.  The only time environmental degradation crossed my mind was when Panguil Bay in northwest Mindanao turned chocolate brown  after a day or so of monsoon rains or a typhoon. Even then, my concern was more for the farmers who had lost the precious topsoil than for the integrity of the forest and the well-being of other creatures in the web-of-life.

Working among the T’boli

My interest in trees and forests blossomed during the twelve years I spent working among the T’boli people in the province of South Cotabato in Mindanao.  The rainforests are a world of beauty, colour and fruitfulness which encircle the globe in the tropical areas of Africa, Central and South America and Asia. At least half, and possibly as many as 80% of the world’s animal and plant species live in the rainforests of the world.  Unfortunately, this has not spared them from the bulldozers and chainsaws of global logging companies, In Mindanao, international and local logging companies plundered the rainforests, especially in the years following World War II. A few companies and individuals became extraordinarily wealthy.

Ethno-linguistic communities such as the T’boli, who for many centuries had depended on the tropical forests for all their needs, including food, building material, medicinal plants and inspiration for their music, poetry and religion, were devastated by the destruction of the forest. The destruction of the tropical forests in the Philippines has greatly impoverished the country from the perspective of biodiversity and many species have been driven over the precipice of extinction.

Importance of Forests for the local climate

A study carried out in Central America in the 1980s showed that a single rainstorm can dislodge up to 150,000 kilogrammes of top soil from one hectare of hillside once the trees have been cut.  The comparable figure from a forested hillside is a mere 44 kilogrammes. Intact forests regulate water run-offs and thus mitigate risks of flooding and droughts.  Destruction of forests also impacts on rainfall. Cutting  trees leads to a reduction in evapotranspiration which in turn leads to less rainfall.  Much of the rainfall in southern Brazil, northern Argentina and Paraguay is a direct result of the water recycling activity of the Amazon basic. According to James Astill in The Economist,, “a decrease in regional precipitation would be calamitous, but the actual effect could be much worse.”[1] On hydrological grounds alone, protecting forests is essential for the future of agriculture.

Soon after arriving in the T’boli  ancestral territory in the Philippines, I realized how important the forest was for these tribal people. It became clear to me that, unless the remaining area of forest was protected, the T’boli would literally have no  future. So, one of the major goals of my 12 years working among the T’boli was geared towards helping them to protect what was left of the forest. I was also involved in initiatives to replant indigenous species of trees in areas where the forest had been destroyed. That meant learning as much as I could about the rainforest from the T’bolis themselves and also from the writings of biologists, botanists and entomologists.  It was an exciting but often dangerous journey.  In April 1988, Fr. Carl Schmitz,  a 70 year old Passionist missionary was murdered partly because he spoke out against illegal logging. In July of that year, Fr. Mario Escoba a Divine World Missionary was murdered in Butuan city in northern Mindanao.  He had documented atrocities committed by logging companies against local settlers in the local area.

 

 

Rainforests under attack across the globe

 The rainforest are under attack, not just in the Philippines but right across the globe from the Amazon to   New Guinea.  In 2011, only 60 percent of Earth’s original tropical forests remain.  According to Astill writing in the Economist, “ Despite many campaigns by NGOs, vigils and rock concerts for the rainforests, and efforts to buy it, lease it, log it and not log it, the destruction proceeds at a furious clip. In the past decade, the FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation) records show that around 13 million hectares of the world’s forests, an area the size of England, have been lost each year. Most of this was tropical rainforest, razed for agriculture.”[2] Astill reports that the destruction of rainforests has slowed down in recent years in Brazil, Indonesia, Costa Rica and Guyana.

Climate change will also have a negative impact on global forests. While forests  will thrive in high northern latitudes such as Finland, this will be off-set by increased forest dieback elsewhere, caused by “rising aridity, drought, pests and fires – all symptoms of global warming. Melting permafrost will also release billions of tonnes of methane into the atmosphere.  Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas.  Scientists also warn that if the average global temperatures increases by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius by the end of 2100, this will effectively destroy all rainforests and release 50 gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. [3]

A viable theology of creation

As a religious person, I believe it is important to have an adequate  “God Talk” or theology about, trees, forests and the natural world. When I began writing about ecology and theology in the early 1980s there was very little treatment of the subject in Catholic Social Teaching. In fact, despite a number of initiatives by Pope John Paul II, Pope  Benedict XVI and bishops conferences, concern for ecology and  trees is still very much on the margins of Catholic though. For example, in the  in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Chapter X on “Safeguarding the Environment,” is the weakest chapter in the book. There is only one reference to the plight of forests.  No 466 which states that, “in this regard, each person can easily recognize, for example, the importance of the Amazon, one of the world’s most precious natural regions, because of its biodiversity which makes it vital for the environmental balance of the entire planet,”[4]  

Cedars of Lebanon (Dedus liban)

In reality, it is not difficult to find a theology of trees and the environment in the Bible and the experience of Christians down through the centuries. In the Bible trees can, set the moral and religious context for the life both of the individual believe and the community,   For example, the Cedars of Lebanon grew to a height of 120 feet. Many cedars were more than a thousand years old. The long life and erect stance of cedars represented a symbolic challenge for humans. “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar of Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. In old age, they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap showing that the Lord is upright; He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.” (Ps. 92: 11–15).  The cedar tree was chosen for the construction of the temple of God in Jerusalem probably because the wood was resistant to a variety of insects and that that it lasted for a long time. (I Kings 6: 9-20).

The Olive (Olea europaea)

In the bible the olive tree is seen by St. Paul as a symbol for the nation of Israel (Rom. 11:15-25).  Olive oil was widely used for cooking in Israel.  It was also used at night as a fuel for lighting a room. Olive oil was used in the tabernacle both as a fuel for lighting an area and also for the ceremonial anointing by the priests of God (Exod. 30: 24- 25; Lev. 24:2-4).  In Psalm 52: 8, the psalmist compares himself to an olive tree in the house of God. “But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.”  The olive tree even plays a role in the book of Genesis.  When the dove returned to Noah’s ark with an olive leaf in its mouth, Noah knew the waters had receded from the earth.

Vines (Vitis vinifera)

In the New Testament in chapter 15 of his gospel, John presents Jesus as the true vine.  “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. (Jn. 15:1) The believers are the branches, but they cannot bear fruits unless they are joined to and sustained by the  vine tree.  “ Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you re the branches.”(Jn 15: 1-5).  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit because apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn. 15: 5).  Being cut off from the vine has serious consequences for the believer. “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.”  (Jn. 15:6).

The Palm tree, (Phoenix dactylifera)

The date palm tree is one of the most useful and beautiful trees in the Bible. Its deep tap-root system means that it can grow where there is very little water.  Not alone did it produce dates, it also produced sugar, oil, wine, thread, tannin and dyes. The seeds could be fed to animals, especially cattle and leaves were used as roofing material. The popular belief that the fruit became sweeter as the tree aged, is reflected in Psalm 92. Mats and bags were also made out of the fibre of the palm trees.  The inhabitants of Jerusalem waved palms and placed them on the road when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on an ass’s colt. (John 12:13; Matthew 21:8).

In the Book of Revelation, the great multitude of the redeemed will greet the resurrected Lord Jesus. They will be “clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands”; crying, “Salvation belongs to our  God who is seated on the throne and to the  Lamb” ( Rev 7: 9-10).

 

Trees used as Satire.

The author of the book of Judges uses the contrast between useful trees such as the olive, the fig and the vine, and ‘problems’ trees such as brambles to ridicule the ambition of Abimelech to become king. (Judges 9: 7-15).

 

Susanna and the Judgement of Daniel.

Daniel saved the life of Susanna who was accused by two judges of having sex with a young man.  Daniel separated the judges and asked them,  what tree did they see Susanna and her supposed lover lying under? One said a mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus) the other a holm oak (Quercus ilex). Both were seen to be lying, so Susanna life was saved and the wicked judges put to death.   (Dan. 13: 50-59).

 

Parable of the Mustard Seed (Brassica nigra)

 

This is one of the shorter parables of Jesus. It appears in three of the Canonical Gospels of the New Testament. The differences between the Gospels of Matthew (13:31–32), Mark (4:30–32), and Luke (13:18–19), are minor, and the three parables may be derived from the same source. At the most obvious level the parable suggests the growth of the Kingdom of God from tiny beginnings to worldwide Church. .

Matthew’s version, “He set another parable before them, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.

The plant referred to here is generally considered to be black mustard, a large annual plant up to 9 feet tall, but growing from a proverbially small seed (this smallness is also used to refer to faith in Matthew 17:20).

The nesting birds may refer to Old Testament texts which emphasise the universal reach of God’s Kingdom. However, a real mustard plant is unlikely to attract nesting birds, so that Jesus seems deliberately to emphasize the notion of astonishing extravagance in his analogy.  In the natural world trees do support an enormous amount of biodiversity. Both species of the oak tree (Querus petrea) and Quercus robur) support 284 species of insects.[5]

Some commentators claim that, there is a “subversive and scandalous” element to this parable, in that the fast-growing nature of the mustard plant makes it a “malignant weed” with “dangerous takeover properties.”

Ben Witherington notes that Jesus could have chosen a genuine tree for the parable, and that the mustard plant demonstrates that, “though the dominion appeared small like a seed during Jesus’ ministry, it would inexorably grow into something large and firmly rooted, which some would find shelter in and others would find obnoxious and try to root out.”[6]

The drama of redemption is played out between two trees at the beginning and end of the bible.

 

Finally, the drama of human history is framed between two very significant trees, In Genesis, the first book of the Bible we find that God planted,” the tree of life and the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the Garden of Eden” ( Gen. 2:9). In chapter 3, Adam and Eve were admonished “not to eat of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. You must not eat it or touch it under the pain of death.” (Gen. 3.3).  The serpent then told Eve that “No, you will not die! God knows in fact that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods.” (Gen. 3).  Eve and Adam disobeyed God’s command when they ate the fruit from the forbidden tree.  As a result, they were expelled from Paradise and  found themselves in need of  salvation and redemption. Their disobedience also affected their relationship with nature. “Accursed be the soil because of you. With suffering shall you get your food from it every day of your life. It shall yield you brambles and thistles and you shall eat wild plants. With sweat on your brow you shall eat your bread, until you return to the soil, as you were taken from it. For dust you are and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 4: 17-19).  In the  last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation we find that one of the signs that salvation has been achieved by the death and resurrection of Christ is the reappearance of  the “tree of life” planted in the new Jerusalem along the banks of the river and bearing leaves which bring healing and comfort.”(Rev. 22:1).

 

Nature in Celtic Christianity

Dr. John Feehan in his book, Farming in Ireland, History, Heritage and Environment, makes the point that, “the sacred places of pre-Celtic Ireland were not the caves and buildings of stone which Christianity inherited from Rome, nor were they like the temples of other great religions. For the Celts the sacred place was the nemeton; the grove of trees, living, full of spirit, whispering of things in our own spirit we can hardly comprehend and barely articulate.

 

Groves and individual trees played an important role in the lore of the Druids, and there is no doubt of the pre-eminence of the oak, tree which of all the trees was most full of symbolism for European druids and the Celtic people they served.”[7]

 

Feehan tells us that the sacred groves of the pre-Christian era were carried over into the Irish Christian Church of the 5th century. “It is more than likely that many or even most of the early Christian churches were founded on the site of druidic oaks or other sacred trees which still echo faintly in the names of these places; cill dara,(Kirdare), dair-mhagh (Durrow), doire Calgaich (Derry).”[8]

 

Columban and creation

If, in my theology courses in the 1960s,  I had been exposed to the thinking of our patron, St. Columban and other early Celtic saints instead of authors such as Adolphe Tanquerey, I would have been much better placed to have developed a theology of creation much earlier in my missionary work. In his Sermon, ‘Concerning the Faith,’ Columban wrote about the  presence of God in nature and the importance of understanding nature if we wish to know God. Amplius non requires de Deo; quia volentibus altam scire profunditatemrerus ante natura consideranda est.  (Seek no further concerning God; for those who wish to know the great depth of things must first know the natural world). [9]

 

Bishop Chamnoald, at one time a disciple of  Columban  tells that Columban would call out to the creatures when he went into the woods to fast or pray, and that they would come to him at once. He would stroke them with his hand and caress them: and the wild things and the birds would leap and frisk about him for sheer joy as pups jump on their masters. Even the squirrels would answer his call, climbing into the hands and onto the shoulders of Columban and running in and out of the folds of his cowl. Chamnoald said that he himself had seen this, and that we should not marvel that bird and beast should obey the command of a man of God. Animals are involved in several of his principle miracles including: escape from hurt when surrounded by wolves, and obedience of a bear which evacuated a cave at Columban’s command.

 

With this intense Celtic love for nature it is understandable that nature poetry developed in Gaelic almost one thousand years before it appeared in English or other European vernacular languages. One of the best known of these poems comes from the monk Marban. He feels nurtured and protected by nature, especially when he is alone. Trees figure very prominently in the poem.

 

For I inhabit a wood

Unknown but to my God.

My house of hazel and ash

as an old hut in a rath.

 

And my house small, but not too small,

Is always accessible:

women disguised as blackbirds

take their words from the gable.

 

The stag erupts from rivers,

brown mountains tell the distance;

I am glad as poor as this

Even in men’s absence.

death-green of yew,

huge green of oak

Sanctify,

and apples grow

close by new nuts;

Water hides.

 

Young of things,

bring faith to me,

guard my door;

the rough, unloved,

wild dogs, tall deer,

Quiet does.

 

In small tame bands

the badgers are,

Gray outside;

and Foxes dance

before my door at night.

All at evening

The day’s first meal

since dawn’s bread;

Trapped trout, sweet sloes,

and honey, haws

beer and herbs.

Moans, movements of

silver-breasted

birds rouse  me:

Pigeons perhaps,

and the thrush sings,

constantly.

 

Black-winged beetles

boom, and small bees;

November

though the lone geese

a wild winter

music stirs.

 

Come fine white gulls

all sea-singing

and less sad,

lost in heather,

the grouse’s song

little sad.

 

For music I

Have pines, my tall

Music-pines.

So who can I

Envy here my

Gentle Christ.[10]

 

The Christian community must begin to see itself once more as part of the wider community of life. Insights from biology, botany, zoology and entomology show us the wonderfully cooperative community of forests. These insights will help us celebrate the beauty and wonders of  forests and trees with poets, musicians and other artists.  They will also help shape an ethical consensus which will guide human interaction with trees, forests and the wider natural world.

 

Need for a relevant and viable theology of creation.

 

In the past two decades, both the late Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have addressed the ecological issue on a number of occasions. The most notable documents are :  Peace with God the Creator: Peace with All Creation (January 1st 1990),  Chapter 10 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004), Caritas in Veritate (July 2009), If you want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation (January 1st 2010)  and The Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to the Members of the Diplomatic Corps, (January 11th , 2010). But it is not all words.  The Vatican has installed photovoltaic panels on the roof of the Pope Paul VI auditorium.  In addition, it is funding tree-planting in Hungry as a way of off-setting its carbon omissions.  However, I will argue that despite the above writings and initiative it is difficult to support the claims that the documents are very competent and insightful from an ecological perspective.

 

True magnitude of the ecological crisis

Firstly, none of the above documents give any overall sense of the magnitude of the current ecological crisis facing the planet, humankind and every other creature living on the planet. The only document that has any sense of the overwhelming nature of the problem was an address by Pope John Paul II on January 17th 2001, in which he called for an “ecological conversion” for everyone. In that address he used the word catastrophe, and he stated that humanity needed to stop before the abyss. This document is not found in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nor have I seen it quoted in official documents since.  It seems to me that, if an individual or institution does not have an accurate appraisal of the true magnitude of the ecological challenges facing the earth, one cannot claim that that individual or institution understands the current ecological crisis. Furthermore, unless one understands the magnitude of a problem, one cannot design an appropriate response. So, despite an increased sprinkling of ecological language and concerns in addresses and documents from the Holy See, these still lack an accurate analysis of the problem.  One can make all kinds of excuses, for example, that the immediate problems facing the human community are so immediate and pressing that there is little energy left to look beyond this to what is happening to the wider earth community, even though such oversights will have dire consequences for every creature, including humankind.

Take the two most serious ecological issues facing the planet – climate change and the destruction of global biodiversity, or, in theological language, the irreversible destruction of global biodiversity, God’s creation. Both of these concerns merit only one paragraph each in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.  Given the enormous pain, death and destruction caused by these human-created global phenomena, and the devastation they will continue to wreak on the planet, every living creature and humankind, into the future, a single paragraph from the leadership of the Catholic Church is, in my opinion incompetent and not very responsible.

Urgency of Dealing with Ecological Crisis

The second element which must inform any ecological analysis is clarity about the urgency of tackling the issue.  Is it something that must be addressed on a massive scale immediately, or is it something that can be postponed until other issues, such as poverty or unemployment are first confronted and solved? Once again, in reading the above documentation, one gets no sense that the authors are aware of the urgency of the particular issue. On climate change, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it clear that, unless greenhouses emissions begin to drop by 2016, there will be no realistic chance of keeping the average rise in global temperature below 2 degree Celsius.  In the past two years, the scientific consensus has moved towards the conclusion that we will need to reduce carbon emissions to 350 parts per million if we want to achieve that goal.  The scientific consensus is also clear that, if the average global temperatures rise by more than  2 degrees Celsius, huge areas of the planet will be uninhabitable for humans and many other creatures.  This is why the failure to reach a fair, ambitious and binding treaty at Copenhagen in December 2009 was such a tragedy.

On December 6th 2009, after praying the Angelus, Pope Benedict XVI wished success to the world leaders who would gather in Copenhagen to seek an agreement on how to tackle climate change in a fair and just way.  In his brief remarks, the Pope recalled that the way to protect the earth was to include respect for God’s laws and the moral dimension of human life. He went on to say: “I hope that the work will help identify actions respectful and favourable to solidarity – development founded on the dignity of the human person and oriented towards the common good”   (www.zenit.org  December 6, 2009). He spoke about protecting the interests of the poor and future generations. It is regrettable that he did not include the public details of the Holy See’s position at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference.

At all the previous UN Climate Conferences, the Holy See was represented by the local Nuncio who could not be expected to have a detailed knowledge of the various strands of the negotiations.  In Copenhagen, the delegation of the Holy See was headed by Archbishop Celistino Migliore, the Permanent Observer for the Holy See at the United Nations in New York. He has written and spoken regularly about climate change within the UN.  The delegation included a climate expert Marcus Wandinger and Paolo Conversi, an official from the Vatican Secretariat of State, who also teaches human ecology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. The Vatican delegation lent its support to a robust treaty which involved sufficient curbs on greenhouse gas emissions to keep the average global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius. The target set for rich, industrialized counties was a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases before 2020.  It also championed a scaling up of the Adaptation Fund to at least, $195 billion per annum. This fund would be made available to economically poor countries in order to help them adapt to the climate change consequences which are already affecting the planet. I believe that it would have been very effective, in terms of moral pressure, if Pope Benedict XVI had included these figures and the rationale behind them in the Angelus address of January 6th or in Caritas in Veritate for that matter. As it is, very few people know what is the Vatican’s position on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, at the UNFCCC in Cancun in December 2010, the Vatican reverted to its previous practice of being represented by the local Nuncio. It also made no public statement.

Ecology is a science based on data

Thirdly, ecology is a science which is based on empirical data about what is happening in particular ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole. Despite this data-focused nature of ecology, none of the above documents based their ecological reflections on scientific data.  The drafters of these documents have available to them competent scientific data from reputable bodies such as the IPCC or, in the area of the destruction of Biodiversity, from the UN Convention on Biodiversity. There was no reference to these bodies or to any other scientific authorities in the documents.

The Vatican has no problem quoting UN documents on economics, social, political and historical data in dealing with almost every other aspect of Catholic Social Teaching. They have no difficulty referring to research conducted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Why is there one modus operandi when dealing with economics and a different one when it comes to looking at ecological issues? Other religious organisations such as the World Council of Churches include scientific data in their reflections on issues such as climate change. Similarly, Bishops’ Conferences in Germany, Ireland, the Philippines, the United States and Australia have written pastoral letters on ecological issues. The majority of these documents base their moral and religious reflections on ecological issues on a number of sources. These include empirical data on the topic in question, the new perspective we have gleaned in recent decades on the Universe and the Earth and the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

Archbishop Giampaolo Grepaldi’s defence of Caritas in Veritate

In a reflection entitled, “Benedict XVI Offers Middle Ground on Environment,”  on www.zenit.org (January 10, 2010).  Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace gave, what I consider, an extraordinary explanation for this lack of scientific data in Papal documents on the environment. He claimed that “in the countries of north-central Europe, and especially in Germany, Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” was the object of severe criticism, precisely in regard to the question of the environment, and particularly in regard to climate change.” Archbishop Grepaldi continued “So it was logical to look forward to the message of this year’s World Day of Peace dedicated to the theme “if you Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation.”  “Benedict XVI did not miss the opportunity to restate his teaching and, thus probably upset once again all those who tend to weigh down ideological themes with excessive ideological burdens.  The central point of the message is, in my opinion, found in paragraph 13, where the Pope says that ‘a correct understanding of the relationship between man and the environment’ will not end by absolutising nature or by considering it more important than the human person.”

Speaking about the papal document Crepaldi continues “the Church expresses misgivings ‘about notions of the environment inspired by eco-centrism and biocentrism’ because it eliminates the difference between man and other living things, favouring an ‘egalitarian vision of the dignity of all living creatures’”. He goes on to say that,“ this  gives rise to a new pantheism with neo-pagan accents which ‘would see the source of man’s salvation in nature alone, understood in purely naturalistic terms.’”

These same sentiments were already expressed in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Number 463 states that “a correct understanding of the environment prevents the utilitarian reduction of nature to a mere object to be manipulated and exploited. At the same time, it must not absolutise nature and place it above the dignity of the human person himself. In this latter case, one can go so far as to divinize nature or the earth, as can readily be seen in certain ecological movements that seek to gain an international guaranteed institutional status for their beliefs.” In the second paragraph of No. 463, it goes on to state that, “the Magisterium finds the motivation for its opposition to a concept of the environment based on eco-centrism and on biocentrism in the fact that, ‘it is being proposed that the ontological and axiological difference between men and other living beings is eliminated, since the biosphere is considered a biotic unity of undifferentiated value. Thus man’s superior responsibility can be eliminated in favour of an egalitarian consideration of the ‘dignity’ of all living beings. [11]

Vatican’s vision based on inadequate understanding of modern science

The problem with the above texts is that they are based on an inadequate understanding of modern science.  In his book, The Singing Heart of the World: Creation, Evolution and Faith, the Irish scientist Dr. John Feehan writes about the unity at the heart of the universe and, in a special way the unity that marks the living world.  He writes that “the animal, mammal or bird or insect or worm, is from its unique perspective the subject, each at the centre of a world, and all their worlds overlap and influence each other and this is what in the words of Albert Schweitzer is the ‘science of the architecture of creation.’…. “The differences that distinguish one species from another exist to the extent that each species is uniquely adapted to exploit the resources of one particular niche, which is different from another creature.” [12]

Earlier on in the book, he points out that “if you speak the language of belief in God and embrace what the revelation of science tells you, then no species is insignificant. Each is worthy in the eyes of God, deserving of our respect and study and admiration. Even and, perhaps especially, the most obscure.”[13] He quotes Saint Augustine “for heaven God has created the angels, for the earth creatures that crawl, and neither is superior to the other; because the hand of man can no more create a worm than an angel.”[14]

One might ask does the approach of people such as Fr. Thomas Berry or Dr. Feehan denigrate the human as the Vatican documents seems to fear. Not at all.  Feehan critiques the hubris of believing that we are the only beings on earth that have intrinsic value, but also celebrates what is truly unique about the human mode of being and the responsibilities which accrue to knowing our proper place in the scheme of things. He writes, “We are, of course, very conscious that we humans are unique. We are so aware of it that for a long time we thought of ourselves as altogether superior because of this special human talent, in the process losing sight of our place in creation, so firmly were our eyes fixed on a destiny that would see us enjoying eternity with God, in whose image we conceived ourselves to be made – unmindful of the fact that so is every other creature on the earth.” He goes on to write that “we can now ask the question of what is special about the human mode of being in a more essential way: what is this special human talent, and how are we meant to use it, knowing our place in creation as we now do, and having a better grasp of family history?

We are no less a part of the family than before, but we have been promoted to a new post of responsibility in the family, so to speak. If our living, in common with all that lives but in a way distinct to us, can in some sense be thought of as sharing in an incomprehensible well-spring of life that out of infinity infuses the cosmos (we might call it Divine Life), we can through this new human mode of apprehension be said in some sense to share in the Divine Mind.” [15]

I will agree, of course, that some of the ideas that the archbishop Crepaldi challenges are found in the Deep Ecology movement associated with the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. This movement insists that “all things in the biosphere have an equal right to live and blossom and reach their individual forms of unfolding and self-realisation with the larger Self-Realisation.[16]” I do not know of a single Catholic theologian who accepts this position. Many competent theologians such as Fr. Denis Edwards from Australia, Dr. Celia Dean-Drummond or Dr. Mary Grey from Britain, Elizabeth Johnson, Mary Ellen Tucker or Thomas Berry from the U.S, Leonardo Boff from Brazil or Dr. John Feehan , rightly situate humankind within an emergent cosmology and a living, evolving world. But even before modern scientific discoveries gave us an insight into the extraordinary age of the  universe and its evolutionary emergence,  Francis of Assisi was telling us that all nature are kin, in other words part of our family.  He expressed this most beautifully in the Canticle of the Creatures. All creatures are understood as kin. St. Francis was not a pantheist and he is the Patron of Ecology.

Donal Dorr on Caritas in Veritate

In an otherwise positive review of Caritas in Veritate, the Irish theologian Fr. Donal Dorr writes that “the whole encyclical is written from within an older anthropocentric paradigm, the ecological issues are treated almost entirely in terms of present-day human concerns. What is needed today, however, is a kind of Copernican revolution leading to a major paradigm shift. We need to locate all our human concerns – and especially our approach to economics – within the far wider context of an ecological and cosmic vision. Nothing would be lost and much would be gained if what the pope had written in this encyclical about economics and business were framed within this wider vision.” [17]

I am aware that the translation from the Italian of what the archbishop said may be crude and may distort his meaning.  I cannot see however what all this fear of an eco-centric approach to the biosphere and possible pantheism has to do with the fact that Pope Benedict XVI did not deal in any substantive way with climate change, in an encyclical issued five months before one of the most important conference of the 21st century. I do not understand how a scientific analysis of the causes of climate change, or the horrendous consequences which it holds for the future of all life, and the steps that need to be taken to avoid this catastrophe, could lead to pantheism.

An exclusively homocentric view of creation is understandable for people such as Archbishop Ussher of Armagh (1581-1656) who, using the Hebrew Scriptures and other ancient documents, calculated around the year 1630 that the earth began on October 23rd  4004,and that all the creatures which are now on earth were there from the beginning.[18]   According to Ussher Within this kind of cosmology it is easy to see how someone even as perceptive as Aristotle would place man at the pinnacle of the world and claim that everything else on the planet was there to serve man. In the book Politics Aristotle writes that “nature makes nothing without some end in view, nothing to no purpose, it must be that nature has made (animals and plants) for the sake of man.”[19]

What does ‘human ecology’ mean?

Right throughout the recent papal teaching on ecology we find a very strange and confusing notion called “human ecology”. Caritas in Veritate (51) states“when ‘human ecology’ is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits”. I presume that what the pope is saying is that societies which respect human beings, especially the most vulnerable – the unborn, the young and the elderly –  will also be more inclined to respect the environment. But, does one have to invert the scientific categories of the Linnaean taxonomy to make this point?

The Linnaean system, which is still used in biology, begins with the widest category called Biota (all life). The next step up is known as Domain. In that category we are Eukarya  since we are composed of eukaryotic cells. In terms of Kingdom we come under Animalia or animals. We fit into the Phylum  of Chordata. On the next step up we come under the Class  of mammalia or mammals. We are of the Order of primates, of the Family of Hominidae, or hominids, and the Genus Homo or humans. Finally, in terms of Species we are Homo sapiens.   Humans are at the end point of this evolutionary process which emerged over 3.8 billion years ago. The latest  research indicates that modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago and migrated out of Africa about 125,000 years ago.[20] Yet, the term “human ecology” claims that every facet of the evolution of life above, plus other aspects of ecology, such as the relationship between the biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere and atmosphere are subsumed by the term “human ecology” even though modern humans are probably less than 200,000 years old.

This notion seems totally at odds with what we know from the various sciences which is that the earth is almost 5 billion years old and that life on earth is about 3.8 billion years old. There were fully functioning ecosystems in the Lower Carboniferous period from 354 to 324 million years ago. At that time there were no flowering plants or birds, but there were giant horsetails and ferns and an array of creatures, most of which are now extinct. In religious terms I am sure that God would have spoken the Genesis words, “it is good” over this and other phases of the evolution of life on earth. God would not be waiting for home sapiens to arrive over one million years ago to give meaning to the broad sweep of creation. It is important theologically to remember that God has a history with nature which is independent of His/Her relationship with humanity.

In developing its teaching on the Earth the Holy See would do well to incorporate many of the insights from Bishops’ Conferences around the world, going back to the first pastoral letter on the environment entitled, What is Happening to Our Beautiful Land? that was written by the  Philippines Bishops as far back as 1988.  The Australian Bishops’ 2002 Social Justice Statement: A New Earth, The Environmental Challenge, contains a lot of insightful material. In 2007, the Committee on Domestic and International Policy from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops produced, Faithful Stewards of God’s Creation: A Catholic Resource for Environmental Justice and Climate Change.

In 2009, the Irish Bishops’ Conference wrote a Pastoral Reflection on Climate Change.       In dealing with issues such as “solidarity” that document avoids the homocentric language of Vatican documents. On page 21, it reads “As Christians we cannot consider ourselves or our obligations in isolation from others or from the endangered earth and its creatures. Further on in that paragraph they state, “ this responsibility extends to the whole creation and to all the finely balanced life-systems of our world, which may be threatened by even marginal changes in the earth’s climate.    One of the most effective ways for the Catholic Church to give leadership in the area of protecting the planet would be for Pope Benedict XVI to call a Synod for Creation.  Each local Church could begin to reflect on creation in its own area and see how Christians could give leadership in moving towards a more sane and sustainable world.  In preparing for such a Synod, everyone in the Church, young, old, farmers, industrial workers, bankers, scientists, fishermen, theologians, contemplatives, religious, teachers, doctors, liturgies, artists, poets and writers would be able to share their insights and wisdom.  This would give a great impetus to the tasks of caring for the earth that cares for every creature. I believe it would also give new life and focus to the Catholic faith in our contemporary society.

Promote the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

Some practical suggestions. Religious congregations should support the FSC. This is an independent, not-for-profit organization established to promote the responsible management of the world’s forests. The FSC label provides a credible link between responsible production and consumption of forest products, enabling consumers and businesses to make purchasing decisions that benefit people and the environment as well as providing ongoing business value. FSC’s forest certification standard is recognised as the global gold standard for responsible forest management.[21]   The Vatican and all religious congregations should pledge that they will only use FSC certified lumber in any building programme.

The REDD Debate

 

REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) has been part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for over a decade.  It is seen as vehicle to lower CO2 emissions since forest degradation accounts of 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. Apart from the carbon sequestration dimension of REDD, it  has the potential for reforesting countries, such as the Philippines, which had been denuded during the 20thcentury.  REDD could deliver multiple benefits in the area of climate change, protecting biodiversity and securing a sustainable agricultural base for many countries, where food security is becoming a major issue.

The recent UNFCCC conference in Cancun Mexico earmarked $60 billion dollars for REDD initiatives. I have suggested that Catholic Development Agencies such as Caritas Internationalis, CAFOD and Trocaire to get involved in REDD.  I think the Justice, Peace Ecology office of Religious and Missionary congregations might also monitor REDD.

Religions must support for the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CDB)

The Convention on Biodiversity emerged from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.  It objective is to protect biodiversity and to ensure that there is a fair and equitable distribution of any financial benefits derived from biological and genetic resources.  The Nagoya meeting wrestled with these questions and ratified the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits (ABS). Initially, governments from the global North and especially Northern biotech and pharmaceutical corporations were opposed to sharing the benefits of biological resources with countries from the global South where the biological and genetic resources originated. They feared that lawsuits might be brought against them for some products which they developed based on biological resources from countries in the South.  Under the Nagoya Protocol a multi-billion dollar fund will be set up to compensate countries in the Global South for any benefits which accrue from the commercial use of their biological resources. The Protocol is potentially worth billions of dollars to countries which are rich in biodiversity and could act as an incentive for them to protect the biodiversity of their forests and marine resources.

The Nagoya meeting also drew up a strategic plan to conserve biodiversity in the period between 2010 and 2020.  The delegates from the 193 countries agreed to protect 17 percent of the land area of the world and 10 percent of the oceans by  2020.  At the moment, about 13 percent of the land area of the world and only 1 percent of the oceans are protected areas.  Details of the roadmap to achieve the above targets by 2020 are quite vague and critics say that the targets are not ambitious enough.

Unfortunately, the United States, the richest country on the planet, has not signed the UN Convention on Biodiversity.  Organisations of civil society and Churches in the U.S. need to lobby their government so that it signs the CBD immediately.

Despite claiming to be a pro-Life Church, the Catholic Church has very little teaching on biodiversity.  Biodiversity only merits one half of a paragraph in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and the concern is completely homocentric.  No 466 states that, “the environmental value of biodiversity, (which) must be handled with a sense of responsibility and adequately protected, because it constitutes and extraordinary richness for all humanity.” Eight hundred years ago, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that each creature has the ability to represent the goodness of God in a unique way. Therefore the extinction of species does not merely impoverish the biosphere, it also diminished our understanding of God. Today the vast majority of creation theologians argue that species have intrinsic value, in other words value in themselves and not merely because they can be of benefit to humankind. In responding to the present ecological crisis the Catholic Church urgently needs to develop a viable theology of creation.

 


[1] James Astill, “Seeing the Wood,” The Economist,  September 25th to October 1st 2010, page 4

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Veritas, page 220-221.

[5] Our Trees: A Guide to Growing Ireland’s Native Trees in Celebration of A New Millennium, 2002, page 44.

[7]  John Feehan,  Farming in Ireland, History, Heritage and Environment, Walsh Printers, Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, page 304.

[8] Ibid

[9] Scriptores Latini Hiberniae, Volume II, Sancti Columbani Opera, ed. G.Sl M. Walker, School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1957 page 65.

[10]  John Montagues (ed.) The Faber Book of Irish Verse, Faber and Faber, London, 1974, pages 57-58.

[11]  Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church 2004, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

[12]   John Feehan, 2010, The Singing Heart of the Universe, Creation, Evolution and Faith, Columba Publications, Dublin, page 86.

[13]  Ibid page 76.

[14] Ibid 76. “Creavit in coelo Angelos, in terra vermiculos, non superior in illis, non inferior in istis, Sicut enim nulla manus Angelum, it nulla posset creare vermiculum. “ Augustin, Liber soliloquiorum animae ad deum.

[15]  Ibid, page 110.

[16]  Bill Davis and George Session,   Deep Ecology and Living as if Nature Mattered,  Salt Lake City, Gibbs-Smith, 1985, page 64.

[17] Dr. Donal Dorr, Theology, the Economy and Ecology, edited by James Noyes and Adrian Pabst, forthcoming this year (2010), SCM Press, London

[18] Mary Mulvihill, “Humane hanging and other stories,” The Irish Times,  June 27th 2009, page 6.

[19] Aristotle, Politics, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1985, edition. Page 79

[20] Ian Sample, “Out of Africa, 55,000 years early? Human migration backdated,” The Guardian, 28 January 2011, page 11.