The goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the mid-21st century. It calls on all countries, including the leading industrial nations, to slash their climate-altering carbon dioxide emissions, the major source of global warming. These emissions stem from fossil and bunker fuels used by vehicles, international shipping and energy production, and industries with highly adverse forms of pollution such as cement production.
The global plan to reduce carbon emissions also appeals for more sustainable land use, including a halt to the massive destruction of rainforests ranging from the Amazon in Latin America to the Southeast Asian islands of Indonesia, Malaysia and New Guinea. Governments representing the world’s leading – and most detrimentally polluting – economies have pledged to support developing nations in their climate mitigation and adaptation measures, all the while monitoring and reporting progress. These measures include investing in new sources of renewable energies, more efficient and less destructive forms of agriculture, reforestation, and adopting more intelligent urban development approaches, particularly in megacities where more than half the world’s population now live.
The Paris Agreement was meant to herald unprecedented and urgent action. Instead, the pace of implementation is slow and half-hearted. In some cases, political expediency and self-interest have led to startling and dangerous setbacks. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro recently accused his government’s own National Space Institute of ‘lying’ about the increasingly high rate of deforestation. Since coming to power in early 2017, US President Donald Trump has condemned climate change as ‘fake news’ and withdrew from the Paris Agreement, arguing that it unfairly penalized key US industries. He blithely rolled back one environmental protection law after another despite warnings from his own federal agencies.
Carbon dioxide emissions are still dangerously rising
The impact of such reckless behavior and attitudes is that in 2018 carbon dioxide emissions grew faster than at any time since 2011. Already, global emissions had increased by nearly 50 per cent since 1990. Against this backdrop of complacency, the alarm bells are getting louder. Last year, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Bonn issued dire warnings that the world had less than 12 years to keep global warming to 1.5 Celsius. Scientists pointed out that an additional 0.5 Celsius rise, the planet’s current trajectory, would be catastrophic, significantly worsening the likelihood of drought, floods and heatwaves. The message is stark and clear: the world must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 if we are to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius.
The May 2019 decision by the UK parliament to declare a climate change emergency – a breath of fresh air amid the quagmire of Brexit – is a step in the right direction. But simply stating that Britain will lower its greenhouse gas by 80 per cent compared to the 1990 baseline is not enough. It requires a massive public information campaign, designed to change consumers’ behaviour. It also needs to scale-up low-carbon, energy-saving approaches ranging from more effective – and cheaper – public transportation options to reduce vehicle use to alternative energy subsidies for individual homeowners. Luxembourg’s recent decision to make all public transport free is a welcomed initiative that could be emulated by other countries. The expansion of bike lanes coupled with free or cheap rentals in cities such as Paris, Copenhagen and Seattle is also encouraging.
Climate crisis action: time to get real
It is against this backdrop that UN Secretary General António Guterres called for the September 2019 Climate Summit. A high-level Summit, he reasoned, was needed to correct the course by re-engaging countries on a collective path to reduce climate emissions and thus, above all, to “save the planet.”
A dramatic overstatement? Not at all. Unfortunately, no one seems able to identify the golden bullet needed to put the Paris Agreement back on track. Bold new initiatives – and not just the usual declarations – are required with both rewards and punishments to propel countries to adopt the right measures. These urgently need to include climate sensitive development policies plus a more effective transition away from fossil fuel dependency.
But how easy will it be to persuade the leading oil, gas and coal-producing nations, such as the United States, China, India and Australia to embrace the change that is urgently needed?
The world’s leading oil companies need to be held accountable
Achieving the Paris Agreement could mean directing enforceable measures against the world’s one hundred or more fossil-fuel producing companies, such as Saudi Arabia’s ARAMCO (worth US 465.49 bn in 2017), China’s Sinopec, America’s Exxon/Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell. According to the Carbon Majors Database, such operations account for 70 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. While companies such as BP and Shell seek to present themselves as reformist and open to change, their bottom lines still represent fossil fuel profit.
One proposal that is gaining traction is a basic carbon tax. Currently businesses and individuals can “dump” carbon into the atmosphere at little or no cost. Attaching a price tag to such emissions could yield concrete results. Yet, to date, barely 40 countries have priced carbon in some form or another. Other proposals include drastically increasing fossil fuel taxes both at source and at the gas pump or distribution point. For such efforts to succeed, however, public education is required as is the political will to withstand the likely public outcry at the higher prices.
Unfortunately, there are too few politicians willing to shoulder the political consequences for tackling climate change head-on. Australia’s Scott Morrison was recently re-elected Prime Minister after a divisive campaign dominated by climate change. The image of Morrison brandishing a lump of coal in parliament is a reminder of the lengths politicians will go to demonstrate their commitment to the fossil fuel industry.
Burning coal represents the world’s biggest single source of carbon dioxide emissions and nothing less than a hard and fast U-turn on retiring all existing coal-fired power plants is needed. The Green Climate New Deal, promoted by freshman US congresswoman, Alexandra Ocasia-Cortez, aims to limit US reliance on oil, gas and coal. It has been derided as “socialist” by President Trump, and largely ridiculed by many parts of the American political establishment as naive and cost prohibitive.
World-wide, however, there are glimmers of hope. Cities such as Barcelona, London, Paris, Cape Town, Hong Kong and San Francisco are being recognized for their leadership and climate action. California has introduced climate change measures that are beginning to have an impact. Faced by increasingly frequent wildfires, droughts and floods, it updated its ‘Safeguarding California Plan’ in 2018 and is implementing 300 different actions to reduce greenhouse gas reduction emissions ranging from promoting hybrid cars and rooftop solar energy initiatives to more efficient water use and forestry management.
Heavily criticized for its use of waste dumping and use of heavy residual ‘bunker’ fuels, the world shipping industry, through the International Maritime Organization (IMO), has developed a strategy to reduce by 50 per cent of its carbon emissions by 2050. While difficult to monitor, standards are being set. Maersk, the world’s biggest shipping company, even announced a goal to be carbon-neutral by 2050.
Select airlines, too, are making distinct efforts to reduce carbon emissions. According to a London School of Economics report, EasyJet stands at the top of the list aiming to halve the passenger per kilometre emissions rate by 2020 compared to some of its rivals (75gm of CO2 per passenger/kilometre) compared with 172gm for Korean Air and 112gm expected for International Airlines Group, which includes British Airways. Companies with the weakest plans include Air China; China Southern; Korean Air; Singapore Airlines and Turkish Airlines.
Young people have got it right
Perhaps the most encouraging, however, is the rising concern of young people who are mobilizing to demand immediate action to safeguard their futures. It is, after all, they who will be forced to inherit the next several decades of our failure to respond. Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager, started a global school walkout meeting. In London, protesters have taken to the street demanding climate action.
Yet, despite much of the good work and momentum, the most realistic future scenario remains bleak. Whether in the United States, Hungary or Nepal, far too many politicians still have not understood – or are unwilling to acknowledge the magnitude – of the crisis. Key global political decision-makers need to wake-up and assume their responsibilities as their current half-measures and go-slow approaches are leaving the planet dangerously – increasingly – exposed to disasters and peril.
According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) in Geneva, the world is experiencing one climate related disaster a week. Without a serious and concerted effort to reduce carbon emissions, the world has little choice but to brace itself for the likely consequences. The recent flooding in Iran, hurricanes in the Caribbean, heatwaves in Europe and India, and landslides in Bangladesh all attest to the need for ambitious adaptation and disaster risk reduction strategies. However, even such actions are not enough. The real question at hand is whether the 2019 Climate Summit will result in a real “leap in collective national political ambition” or simply result in more public and politically-correct declarations of concern. Nothing less than a tsunami of political change, perhaps one fueled by an outraged younger generation, is needed to reach the 2050 objective of net zero carbon emissions.
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