T0O LATE ON THE ENVIRONMENT?
Could March 15 2019 prove to be a watershed date in the battle to control the damage to the global environment caused by greenhouse gases? On that day an estimated 1.5 million schoolchildren in over 100 countries worldwide demonstrated to demand government action to combat global warming. The schoolchildren’s movement, which had been bubbling along since it was founded en marge of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, went viral last year, partly inspired by Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, who went “on strike” from school last autumn, has maintained a high profile since and told world leaders at Davos in January “We must change almost everything in our current societies. The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty. The bigger your platform, the bigger your responsibility.” Ms Thunberg, (sixteen on January 3) has now been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
On March 1 the Guardian published an open letter, in advance of the demonstrations, attacking politicians for failing to address climate change, and claiming that the young (50% plus of the global population) were “not included in the local and global decision-making process.” The piece continued “We, the young, have started to move. We are going to change the fate of humanity, whether you like it or not. United we will rise until we see climate justice. We demand the world’s decision-makers take responsibility and solve this crisis.” Stirring and idealistic words. Whether they will prove effective in pressurising governments worldwide to take decisive action is another matter.
The movement could be dismissed as predominantly a middle class and First World phenomenon yet in so far as it represents doing something as opposed to nothing on an issue of universal concern, it surely merits approval. It pushes all the right buttons from the environmentalist and liberal left-of-centre point of view, including the notion of “climate justice.” This last is code, inter alia, for requiring “developed”, i.e. richer countries, to take the strongest and most painful measures to curb and control their greenhouse gases, while cutting poorer developing countries some slack in terms of greenhouse gas production to develop economically, that slack to include also financial assistance with control of pollution.
There’s general agreement that something needs to be done, and quickly, but there agreement ends. The warnings from scientists about the dire state of the Earth’s climate and the need for drastic action have been quite clear for years. There is widespread agreement on the reality of global warming and the threat it presents, with the flat earth lobby in denial reduced to Trump and other clowns who dispute global warming, or, if they acknowledge it, spout inanities about the cyclical nature of climate change ( “In the long run,” as Keynes remarked, “We are all dead.”). But translating this recognition into meaningful and effective action is another matter. The various accords and international agreements to date have yielded some improvements but overall have failed to produce a global solution that sticks.
The latest attempt, the Paris Agreement of 2015, to which 194 states have acceded, and from which Trump has announced US withdrawal in 2020, set the aspirational goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2C over those of the preindustrial era by 2100, and a more ambitious goal of 1.5C, to restrict environmental damage to a minimum, without, however any legally binding enforcement mechanisms. Paris relies on voluntary measures by individual countries, its Achilles heel. A recent UN report (from last October) suggested that to achieve the higher target of 1.5C, there were only a dozen years left (i.e. by 2030) to take decisive action. And this action would hurt big time, involving reductions in carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 and their total elimination by 2050 (rather than the 20% and 2075 targets for 2C).
The problem with getting every country on board to tackle global warming effectively is that it involves dealing with several different, interrelated and complicated themes. Firstly are the actual facts in terms of the global annual amounts of greenhouse gases generated. Secondly the breakdown of greenhouse gas production by country, and also by per capita by country. Next there is the breakdown between gas types and how this is distributed between countries. Interwoven with these are the highly political and emotionally charged issues of the relationships between richer and more developed counties and those poorer and less developed as well as the uneven distribution not only of available energy sources but of ameliorative alternative resources to fossil fuels. There is also the Blame Game. The West was the first to industrialise and any blame for the early human contribution to global warming has to be laid firmly at its door. What price or penalty should it now offer by way of recompense?
A few facts. Half a dozen countries account for roughly 60% of the world’s annual production of greenhouse gases and carbon dioxide emissions. These are China, the USA, India, Russia, Japan and Brazil in that order, with China and the USA between them accounting for 40%. The European Union 28 (soon to be 27), with about 7% (500 million) of the Earth’s population, accounts for about 9%, with Germany predictably leading the way with roughly 2%. Within the EU, the Nordic countries (including Sweden, home of Ms Thunberg) contribute together one half of 1% of the global total. Ireland is in the same range, accounting for 0.13%, a figure in part accounted for by methane emissions from the Irish herd of 7 million cattle – agriculture accounts for around one third of our greenhouse gas emissions. Worldwide, agriculture, with 1.5 billion cattle and other ruminants, contributes 18% to annual global emissions!
Moreover, in the background, and not always given due recognition, is the reality of population growth and the collateral pressure it puts on the environment even in the most benign scenario. When Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring” – that early warning of how mankind was damaging the planet – in 1962, the Earth’s population was roughly 3 billion. It is now 7 billion and rising; even though the rate of increase is slowing, it is projected to reach 10 billion shortly after 2050. Think about it: all these people with needs, wants and aspirations. Moreover, it is not just the poorest populations which are expanding rapidly: India, very much an emerging economy, saw its population increase by 40%, or 350 million people, between 1990 and 2010, while emerging economies Brazil and Indonesia each saw increases of 30%, 45 and 55 million respectively. This is not Malthus. This is reality.
We should not of course allow the best to become the enemy of the good, and should for our part ensure that we live up to our commitments as EC members and as a responsible nation, curbing, where possible both individual and collective carbon footprints. Armageddon, if it comes, will not happen overnight. The situation is dynamic and evolving. But even were all the other countries of the first world to meet the 1.5C target, the actual cumulative effect would not be enough. Similar action by the Six is the essential for Saving the Planet. Don’t hold your breath!