Climate change is wreaking havoc. But skeptics remain, while economic and political instability make it hard for political leaders to take tough decisions.
By Sue Landau
The world is stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Three years ago, almost every country in the world agreed to work on limiting global warming to avert a permanent, life-threatening shift in our planet’s climate. Thus the ground-breaking Paris Climate Accord was born.
It appeared to herald meaningful international cooperation to halt rising emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases, after decades of stalling and tentative moves.
But many voices are now clamoring that not nearly enough is being done.
Two top-level reports have just been published warning that countries are not yet even on the road towards the Paris goal, and worse, the goal itself is far from adequate.
Besides that double whammy, climate deniers have been elected in two key countries – in the United States two years ago and in Brazil just a month ago. Climate scientists and activists deplore the inertia they confront even in ostensibly climate-friendly countries.
It is hard to fathom why the world is reacting – or rather, not reacting – like this.
It is incomprehensible if seen purely in terms of the emergency – the droughts, heatwaves and storms now threatening livelihoods and health in different parts of the world, the headlines that regularly tell of dramatic air pollution, freak weather, devastating fires and oceans and wildlife dying off.
Without carbon taxes, how can we cut emissions enough?
So it may help to understand what other factors are at work to better defuse them. For one, the default position has always been business as usual, and this continues, although it leads to climate disaster.
A big part of such inertia is the weight of existing infrastructure. Coal is a prime example of this. To keep a human-friendly climate, we must stop using it. But coal power plants are still being built, and it still provides most of the world’s energy, especially in Asia.
Governments are emerging as a weak link in the climate battle, vulnerable to pressure from industrial lobbies and reluctant to pilot the deep changes needed. Industries are often slow to shift gear and supply practical alternatives. So things go on as before.
There is also a misfit in time scales that pushes climate action down the list of priorities. A week is a long time in politics, a salary is supposed to last a month, but changing energy sources takes decades, and geopolitics plays out on a long-term stage.
Another factor may be the deepening of social inequalities, which is breeding disillusion among those left behind. This can boil over into opposition to ecological changes – as it has in France, where an angry grass-roots movement emerged in November protesting against a carbon tax on heating fuel, diesel and gasoline (petrol).
Carbon taxes are seen as a powerful tool to encourage non-polluting behaviour, but political opposition is strong in many parts of the world. However, without them, how to cut emissions enough?
Big emission cuts are needed.
Emissions must be slashed even more drastically than previously thought.
The Paris Accord aims to keep warming between 1.5°C and 2°C by the end of this century. So far, humans have pumped out enough greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide, to hike the world’s average temperature by 1°C since the first industrial revolution. So energy, transport, industry and agriculture must be weaned off fossil fuels by 2050 – a truly vast undertaking.
But those at the pinnacle of monitoring climate are now warning that the 2°C limit is too lax and would leave swathes of the population lacking water and food from mid-century.
In October, a report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said adopting the tougher target of 1.5°C is the only way to avoid that, and the world has about 12 years left to do what it takes.
Just weeks later, the United Nations’ Emissions Gap Report said countries must rein in emissions three-fold to achieve the 2°C goal and five-fold to achieve the 1.5°C limit. If this is not done, warming will reach about 3°C by the end of the century.
This is the context for the COP24, this year’s meeting of the world’s climate diplomats, taking place December 2-14 in Katowice, Poland – a country incidentally wedded to burning coal for electricity. The meeting is tasked with finishing rules for implementing the targets set in Paris in 2015. Activists are hoping for meaningful road maps to guide actions in different sectors.
Economic and political instability make for a tough environment.
Against this backdrop, the protests in France against President Emmanuel Macron’s carbon tax are almost a technicality.
By far the most serious climate threats come from President Donald Trump’s systematic actions to increase emissions in the United States, the world’s second biggest polluter, and the damage Brazil’s newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro promises to wreak on the Amazon Forest, the world’s biggest carbon sink.
Another potential disaster awaits in China, the world’s biggest polluter, if the country does not remedy a disconnect between central government’s climate promises and the actions of local officials, according to a report from Endcoal.org.
Hundreds of new coal power plants got approval between 2014 and 2016, and now appear to have been rescheduled by local authorities rather than abandoned. They are roughly equivalent to the entire U.S. coal fleet.
But the French case is different because of the line-up of actors as well as the issue. Here, rural, low-paid people who depend on their cars are challenging a government that sought to make an initial small adjustment towards a low-carbon economy.
The protesters say they are not anti-ecology, just anti-taxes, but they want the carbon tax withdrawn. Their movement is being compared with the unrest of May ’68. Yet it also recalls President Trump’s electoral base and the constituencies that voted for Britain to leave the European Union.
Some economists discussing the protests on French TV suggested another factor may be ripples from the digital revolution and now the unfolding fourth industrial revolution, which heralds massive economic shifts. The benefits are very unevenly shared, and segments of the population are left behind, which drives political resentments.
Just how such economic upheaval could affect the transitions needed to avert climate change is not clear. But economic and political instability make for a tough environment for ecological transformations.
Sue Landau is a freelance writer and translator based in Paris. She worked in financial and business journalism for 25 years at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle, chiefly in London and Paris. She reported on energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development.