John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas


Former Irish premier John Bruton  is interviewed by Xinhuanet during the 2011 Kubuqi International Desert Forum held in the Kubuqi Desert, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China, July 9, 2011. (Xinhuanet/Chen Jingchao)

I  delighted and honoured to take  to take part in this Kubuqi International Desert Forum here in Qixinghu,  Ordos,  Inner Mongolia, on  the  vitally important topic  of desertification, and to  share a platform  with so many distinguished guests, notably Mr  Liu Yandong, politburo member  of the CPC Central Committee, Mr Wan Gang, Minister for Science and Technology,  Mr Bater, Chairman of the Peoples Government of Inner Mongolia,  with  Mr Soo Sung Lee, former Prime  Minister of South Korea and with  Mr Mohan Munasinghe , vice  Chairman of the UN Intergovernmental  committee on Climate  Change.
This is the third Forum to be held and it has won worldwide recognition as one the most important gatherings of its kind in the world. This Forum is considering how advances in technology can be used to halt and reverse desertification, and thus directly to alleviate poverty, and in some cases, to prevent starvation. 
The speakers you will hear are amongst the foremost experts in the world, from places as far apart as Oregon State University in the United States,  the state forest Administration of the Slovak Republic, the Burundi Ministry of Trade, The Ministry of Natural Resources of the Baikal Region of Siberia,  and the Ministry of Environment of Nepal.
I have learned much from the work I, and other visitors, have been shown prior to today’s Forum meeting. The work of planting trees to prevent the advance of the desert, the river basin protection work, and the botanical research , are most impressive.


They set an example for other parts of the world, including my own continent of Europe, which also face the problem of desertification, and of water conservation.
 I note that 5000 square kilometres of the Kubuqi  desert have been planted with  trees in the past 20 years.   This not only halts the advance of the desert, but it also sequesters carbon and thereby mitigates climate change as well.
 If, by international agreement, a realistic global price could be placed on carbon emissions, enterprises like this here in Inner Mongolia would become even more profitable, and more  widespread.
 Coal is a hugely important part of the economy of Inner Mongolia and I believe you have doubled  coal output within  a five year period.
Carbon Capture and Storage at all coal plants will , sooner or later,  be   necessary if  we are not to  face a global  catastrophe as a result of the release of  carbon into the  atmosphere through coal burning, but carbon  capture and storage  is very expensive,  and will impose significant  costs on families by adding to their energy bills. 


Water is a vital resource for China.
According to the World Bank, the amount of water available per person in China is  only a quarter of the world average.
Power generation from coal is a heavy user of water.
I have heard of one estimate that 40% of the future increase in water consumption in China will be due to its use in coal fired power generation.  Northern China has 40% of China’s population but only 15% of its water supply, so this represents a big challenge. It also make the work to conserve water, and combat desertification, central to securing the economic future of the whole country.
Reafforesting the desert mitigates the effects of carbon emissions and thus reduces global warming problem. Unlike carbon capture and storage, it will not add to the energy costs to be  borne by  families. In fact, by protecting food production capacity, it eventually contributes to lower food prices than would otherwise be the case.
China is home to half of all the energy intensive industry in the world. As a result, China became a net importer of coal in 2007. Power generation will account for 68% of China’s additional coal consumption.


 Ensuring that the climate damage of all this power generation is minimized will require a global agreement, perhaps including the banning of certain practices. That may be easier to enforce than purely   market based approaches.
 If China is making big and costly efforts to minimize emissions, it should not find itself  undercut on  global markets by  other countries, who are less  scrupulous or  who think they will are less affected by climate change than China will be. 
While decarbonising power generation through carbon capture and storage will be immensely costly, it is technically becoming more feasible.  Decarbonising transportation, particularly air transport, will be even more difficult and we not even begun to do anything at all about that.


As someone who has a deep business interest in the development of Traditional Chinese Medicine, I note that you have   developed herbal medicine, drawing on desert resources. The pollution free  growing  herbs for medicine, on ground that was previously unproductive, shows how traditional knowledge ,dating back thousands of  years, can be  supplemented by  the most modern  agricultural techniques and the most advanced  soil science. Congratulations on this work. It is all the more important because of the big increase that has  taken place in the price of herbs used in  Traditional Chinese medicine
I am also very impressed by the way you have developed desert tourism.  This resort attracts 300,000 tourists a year.  Just as I hope to see many more Chinese tourists coming to Europe,  and to  my own  green island of Ireland in particular, I hope many Europeans  will come   as tourists to the  resort you have  developed here in the  desert. They will be interested to see that the carbon dioxide released by the hotel is reabsorbed by the rare plants growing in the Desert Plant Centre.


 Desertification happens when land, that was previously capable of supporting life, is turned into infertile sand by erosion.  This   is a problem in all the continents of the world, except Antarctica.
Deserts , worldwide,   expand by about 50000 square kilometres  per  year, and desertification threatens the livelihoods of a billion people in  110 countries.  In Europe, Spain is particularly affected.
Desertification is a particular problem in China.
 During the 1990s, the Gobi desert grew by an area equivalent to half the size of Pennsylvania.  The immediate cause was wind eroding a soil that has become so dry and loose  that it is prone to be blown away.   Sandstorms from Northern China reach as far as Korea and Japan.  Ironically, flooding can also lead to desertification by physically loosening soil.
One Chinese study suggests that soil becomes prone to erosion for the following reasons

1.)    Overgrazing (30%). The number of sheep grazing here in Inner Mongolia trebled in the 1980s, and that reduced the  amount of  grassland  by almost  two thirds. I am told that a plague of rats also contributed to the problem.

2.)    Excess land reclamation of unsuitable soil (27%)
3.)    The collection of firewood (33%)
4.)    Water misuse (10%).   Excessive irrigation can make soil salty and infertile.

The pressure of providing food and fuel for an increasing population can lead people to overuse land in a way that eventually leads to the destruction of its fertility.
 We have also got to conserve water, because water demand is increasing rapidly. Urban societies consume more water than rural ones.  Meat production requires much more water than grain production, but as people get richer, they eat more meat.

The solution is to be found by 
      planting trees,
      managing grassland better and
      conserving water in river basins.
Curbing bad practices and initiating good practices requires effective political organisation.  It requires sacrifice and imagination. In the past ten years, China has begun to reverse the process of desertification.  This is a magnificent achievement.
I am sure it was not easy.
 Practices that cause desertification are often profitable in the short term, and practices that halt desertification will usually impose costs and losses in the short term.
The losses will often fall disproportionately on some groups in society, while the longer term gains will often  be  reaped by  others, who will have undergone none, or few,  of the  costs.


 Acknowledging these difficulties honestly is important. Compensating the losers, at least in part, is also important if reforms are to be implemented in a good and cooperative spirit. This is something that can usually only be done by Government.  The private sector, whose natural and proper goal is profit maximization, is not able to redistribute gains and losses across society as a whole, and over time,   in a ways that ensure the best long term outcome.
One of the reasons the United States has such difficulty coming to a global agreement on climate change is that its citizens distrust Government as such, and thus do not want to see their own Government taking resources form some people and giving them to others, even in the interest of combatting  climate change.  This is also one of the reasons the United states continues to wastefully deplete its water resources.
In the European Union, the public does not have the same problem with Government action as such, but the European Union consists of 27 sovereign states, who are pooling sovereignty on a voluntary basis. So the distribution of burdens between different states is liable to become subject to nationalistic disputes. This will become acute if countries, many of whom already have precarious fiscal positions, find themselves having  to pay fines,  because they have exceeded  carbon emission limits that they agreed to previously. 
No matter what ones political system is, these distributional issues are acutely political , and can only be resolved  by the use of political  skill,  and by persuading people that  they can trust their neighbours enough to make  sacrifices for them,  in the confident  expectation of being allowed  to share  in rewards later.
 In essence, that is also the problem at the heart of the difficulties the EU is experiencing with euro and Greece. A problem of trust, and a problem of distribution of burdens.  So combatting desertification and climate change, and preserving the euro, have something in common!
The world population is now 7 billion and will eventually reach 9 billion. We cannot afford to lose fertile food producing land if we are to avoid famine.  That is why this Forum is important to the world as a whole.

Speech by John Bruton, Former Prime Minister of Ireland, and  current President of the Irish International Financial Services Centre ,  in Qixinghu,  Inner Mongolia ,China  at  9.30 am on    9 July 2011  to the Kubuqi  Desert Forum

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