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Ireland’s hypocrisy shames us all

Section 18 of Ireland’s Electricity Regulation Act 1999 forbids the building of nuclear power stations.  This apparently “environmental” measure hides a multitude of sins.  Most notably, as Germany has recently discovered, banning a low-carbon source of electricity without dramatically lowering demand tends to result in the use of high-carbon electricity as a substitute.  In Ireland’s case, peat – a fuel far dirtier than coal or wood burning – filled the gap until recently; when Ireland’s unprotected peat bogs were depleted.  In any case, banning the generation of nuclear electricity in Ireland did not mean banning its consumption.  In periods when Ireland’s demand for electricity outstripped domestic supply – and when the carbon belching coal plants in Northern Ireland couldn’t deliver – Ireland was content to import nuclear electricity from the UK and France via the network of European interconnectors.

Given its location in the path of the Gulf Stream, it is no surprise that Ireland has turned to wind power for some of its electricity needs.  Small scale biogas projects have also made use of the waste products of Ireland’s large dairy industry.  Although even lush green Ireland does not produce enough cow poop to scale these projects up.  A large electricity generating rubbish incinerator in Dublin began operations in 2017 (although there are concerns that Ireland doesn’t produce enough combustible waste to meet capacity.  What Ireland lacks, though, is a source of firm 24/7 electricity… which is where the Kerry liquid natural gas processing terminal comes in.

For the moment, natural gas is an unwanted waste product of the US fracking industry.  For the best part of a decade, a lack of transport infrastructure in the USA has left oil companies with a choice between attempting (and failing) to store excess waste gas or to simply flare it; on the grounds that carbon dioxide is less damaging than methane.  With the development of export facilities and infrastructure, the USA has – for the time being – become a source of cheap(ish) gas; with Britain’s Grangemouth chemical facilities becoming an early importer. 

As with nuclear power, Ireland is not too keen on domestic hydraulic fracturing; but its government is more than happy to import fracked gas from the USA.  This has gone down badly with anti-fracking groups in the US, as Ciara Murphy at American Magazine reports:

“Climate activist groups, aided by several high-profile anti-fracking campaigners, including Mark Ruffalo and Cher, have pleaded for the Irish government to reconsider including this project on the P.C.I. list. Many have accused the Irish government of hypocrisy on the subject of fracked gas, a process it outlawed domestically in 2017…

“The opposition to the Shannon L.N.G. facility is grounded in a realization that local actions have global implications. Fossil fuel emissions do not respect national borders. And the fracking for the L.N.G. imported by Ireland will primarily take place in Pennsylvania, further increasing the risk of poisoning aquifers and water tables for low-income communities in that state.

“How do we make sense of a country that protects its water supply by banning fracking within its own borders but is willing to contaminate waters in another country?”

This question exposes the many myths that we all live with when it comes to the destruction of our environment.  The UK famously touts its “green” credentials to anyone dumb enough to listen uncritically.  No doubt this year’s COP conference in Glasgow will provide another opportunity for the UK government to wax lyrical about how it has curbed carbon emissions and subsidised a world-leading deployment of wind turbines.  No doubt Britain’s propagandists in the mainstream media will be on hand to count the number of days in 2020 when the UK didn’t burn any coal (don’t mention the gas and wood that was burned to replace it) while ignoring the carbon footprint of the circus of high profile celebrities flying into Glasgow airport to lecture the rest of us on cutting our carbon emissions.

Like Ireland – only on a much bigger scale – Britain’s main contribution to environmentalism is a large dose of hypocrisy.  We discovered recently – when China stopped taking our rubbish – that our recycling efforts amounted to little more than out of sight, out of mind.  The fact that most of what goes into our recycling bags is material that cannot be recycled, and the fact that even the potentially recyclable proportion was often too contaminated to recycle, was overlooked – as, of course, was the fact that China either burned or dumped most of what we were sending them.  Nor is this Britain’s only embarrassing environmental connection with China.

Britain runs a massive trade deficit with the rest of the world.  As statistics at Global Edge reveal, Britain is 117th of 119 counties, with just India and the USA (which uses the luxury of printing the world’s reserve currency to pay its debts) running even bigger trade deficits.  The latest figures from the UK Office for National Statistics shows that Britain ran a trade in goods deficit of £2.4bn in the three months to January 2019.  This was offset financially by a trade surplus in services (including the money-laundering income from the City of London) of £1.1bn.  The environmental consequences are simple enough though – Britain has cut its carbon emissions primarily by getting other countries to manufacture the goods we consume.  According to the Organisation of Economic Complexity, Britain consumes 3.1 percent of India’s export goods; 2.4 percent of China’s; 2.4 percent of Vietnam’s and 1.5 percent of South Korea’s.  We also import 3.7 percent of the USA’s export goods and 6.8 percent of Germany’s – so next time you are tempted to complain about Trump’s lack of concern about the environment or Merkel’s insane decision to use coal to phase out nuclear, just remember that your consumption is part of what is driving it.

There is a reason we talk about global warming rather than, say, Irish warming or British warming.  In an interconnected global economy in which materials, components and finished good travel millions of miles around the planet, calculating national carbon footprints is little more than an accounting trick designed to make the developed states look much greener than they actually are.  When we look at the carbon footprint of emerging Asian economies or the environmental consequences of resource depletion in Africa and South America, we should really be adding those costs to the developed economies’ green balance sheets.  But as with our trade, that would leave us with a huge deficit.

As you made it to the end…

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