Hague Conference on Climate Change

Hague Conference on Climate Change – by Ciarán Cuffe,  Irish Independent 21st November 2000

“A make or break opportunity” is how Conference Secretary Michael Cutajar describes the meeting in the Netherlands of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change. As the thousands of delegates move into their second week of discussions in The Hague, it is time for the participating countries to show their hands. Yesterday diverse groups ranging from the Amazon Alliance to the World Bank addressed the Conference; today,  organisations including Oxfam and Friends of the Earth are scheduled to speak to delegates. The core issue at stake is how to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases being released into the Earth’s atmosphere. Every year the average Irish person adds ten tons of carbon dioxide as their personal contribution to Climate Change. While this is less than half the contribution of those in the United States, it far exceeds the emissions of most developing countries. While people joke about climate change bringing warmer summers, the reality might not be quite so rosy.

In Ireland, higher rainfall seems more likely. Our climate might become similar to that of Newfoundland in Canada, where foggy summers and chilly winters are the norm. Extreme weather events such as the floods of two weeks ago might occur more frequently. Farmers could suffer from crop failures such as potatoes rotting in waterlogged fields, and barley being knocked down by unseasonable gales. The fishing industry could also suffer if salmon and other species stop following their traditional migrations, upset by climate fluctuations.

A rising sea level would bring problems for coastal communities. In Dublin’s Docklands planners have already been forced to raise the ground level of proposed new apartment developments. This should help ensure that future residents don’t get their feet if sea levels rise a predicted half a metre by the year 2100. Such a rise would lead to more frequent flooding in Cork and other seaside cities and towns.

All of this pales into comparison compared to what other countries are facing. Most of Bangladesh is low-lying, leaving it vulnerable to any change in water levels. A small sea-level rise could leave vast tracts of land uninhabitable, and leave its citizens prone to disaster. Entire island nations such as the Maldives in the Pacific could disappear under the waves if the worst predictions come true.

Meanwhile all eyes are on the United States to see what commitments their country’s delegation will make at The Hague. They alone contributes about 25% of all greenhouse gases, so any commitment by them to reducing emissions would have a huge affect. However, the uncertainty over the presidential election will make it difficult for clear decisions to be made. While George Bush is seen as being aligned close to the oil lobby, Al Gore wrote a book on the perils of Climate Change entitled ‘Earth in the Balance.’ In it, he argued the case for more attention to be focussed on planetary issues. Environmentalists will not sleep easy if Bush wins the presidency.

The discussion over the last few days in The Hague has focussed on richer countries funding the planting of forests as ‘sinks’ that would help offset emissions by absorbing greenhouse gases. However, there has not been enough research on this issue, and no one has tackled the issues of what happens if the forest goes up in flames.

Perhaps the best contribution that developed countries such as Ireland could make would be to introduce ecotaxes to tackle the problem at source. John Fitzgerald of the ESRI has argued that carbon taxes could deliver a double dividend for Ireland. Greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced, while simultaneously growth and employment might be increased. Industry would be forced to become more efficient, and the taxes could fund better education and healthcare. If people balk at the prospect of more taxes, the carbon tax could be offset by a reduction in PRSI and VAT. Such a move could increase GNP by .5%, according to Fitzgerald.

Detaching economic growth from environmental damage has been the Holy Grail of economists, and it would be a real achievement if Ireland signalled such a move at the Hague Conference. While Ireland’s Climate Change Strategy does refer to carbon taxes, it fails to specify the level of such a tax and defers it to 2002,only then introducing it on a phased basis. Ireland has a long tradition in offering aid to developing countries. It would send out a strong message to the world of Ireland was to make commitment to cutting emissions immediately at the Climate Change Conference. ENDS

Irish Independent 21st November 2000, page updated 10th January 2018