"We are losing the battle against climate change and global warming," French President Emmanuel Macron warned recently. His words resounded dramatically in the ears of political leaders and civil society groups worldwide. But others seem to be deaf.
Anxiety and haste in Paris
One interpretation of Macron’s words is that they convey anguish at governments lack of will to efficiently implement regulations on reducing carbon emissions and are resisting the adoption of global standards that would restructure productive sectors. But above all, they show the difficulty in maintaining approved commitments. As in the US, changes in government can result in the rejection of signed agreements - meaning “government” policy takes precedence over state policy.
Secondly, the US strategy of “denying” climate strategy has been incorporated into to President Donald Trump’s isolationist “America first” slogan. This could thwart multilateral commitments and pulls out the rug out from under the US’ previous approach to climate talks, which focused on co-responsibility. As the world’s second largest global emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG), the US’ unilateral U-turn sets a bad example on climate action.
Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is a position totally contrary to that of his predecessor Barack Obama. In 2015, Obama described global warming as “a growing and urgent threat” to US national security. Perhaps a change of posture on the part of the US government is just a matter of time, but Trump’s firebrand leadership style and the aftereffects it will have on foreign policy present great difficulties for establishing a global consensus on climate change.
Thirdly, Macron’s statement seems to demonstrate a strange permissiveness on the part of developing and developed economies in relation to pollution. Nations such as the US assume there is a machinery behind global impositions on emissions that seeks to erode its power and primacy. For their part, even though high-emitting “emerging economies” such as India and China may be in the process of adjusting their long-term strategies towards improvements in emissions reductions, they are also creating imbalances at home and overseas, which, as they accumulate, will take decades to correct.
China is inclined toward implementing global commitments, and accepts the multilateral rules of the game. It is making a radical change in its energy matrix, introducing clean technologies and hoping to reduce the level of pollution in its urban centres by the middle of this century. At the same time, it has launched the largest carbon emissions trading market in the world. This will force energy companies to pay for each tonne of CO2 emitted. The scheme will, however, only cover 10% of the carbon dioxide that the global energy sector emits on an annual basis.
In India, pollution has become a serious urban and rural problem. Delhi is the eleventh most polluted city in the world. The environment ministry has said that burning solid waste and crops, vehicle emissions and dust from construction works are the main contributors to smog in the city. In 2016, the Indian government declared a state of emergency in Delhi owing to severe levels of toxic air pollution in the city.
At the “One Planet” summit in Paris, requests for the speedy application of commitments on emissions reductions locked horns with global corporate and geopolitical interests. Changing the global energy matrix involves modifying global production systems and their supply lines. This also threatens the geostrategic value of regions such as the Middle East and empowers others that supply renewable energy, or those that have the technological capacity to make the transition.
These changes to the productive order lead to the emergence of new global balances of power, favouring clean industries over contaminating ones that, in the current global economic scenario, generate millions of jobs, including in the automotive, iron and steel industries. For those opposing these radical changes, not even the historical natural disasters of 2017 can persuade them to end the era of fossil fuels and favour the development of a green economy.
Yet modifications in productive, corporate and labour structures, such as those mentioned above, would define a new institutional map, on which the sustainability of such strategies would rest. This situation has been rejected by governments and transnational firms that are wary of giving up consolidated power quotas and favour maintaining the status quo. The liberal institutional system inherited from Bretton Woods is in a time of “existential crisis”, shaken in its foundations by economic and political jolts affecting international regimes and multilateral organisations such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Macron is undoubtedly aware of the existing contradictions within the European Union (EU) regarding climate change and its medium- and long-term impacts. The recent summit held by the EU-28 exposed these tensions. Prior to agreeing to progress at a faster rate, the consensus eventually reached degraded expectations and “lowered” state and intra-community hopes regarding reductions in energy emissions over the next decade. The introduction of exceptions by various countries confirmed discord in the approaches of intra-European institutions (Council, Commission and Parliament), delaying goals on, for example, the reduction of aid to coal and gas plants, among other sensitive points. This will be debated again in 2018.
Buenos Aires: uncertainty and challenges
The recent (World Trade Organisation) WTO Ministerial Summit held in Buenos Aires also raised concerns – even before the event took place. The Argentine government banned the entry into the country of 64 people belonging to civil society groups. The ban, which was later reversed, was aimed directly at non-government representatives that already been officially accredited by the WTO.
The multilateral trade negotiations did not yield a successful outcome due to continuing differences on the trade in industrial goods, services and agri-goods. Countries such as Argentina continue to call for open access to European and Asian markets for agricultural exports, arguing that they have clean and non-polluting production methods. Yet these arguments have not been able to silence protectionist proposals coming from European, Asian, Canadian and US economies, among others.
Countries such as Argentina focus their foreign trading strategy on the sale of agricultural products and food. This has expanded the agricultural frontier in Argentina (as it has in Brazil), mainly at the expense of forests.
Argentine agro-exporters are also among those with the greatest water and carbon footprint. This is as a result of both the large quantities of water needed to produce, say, a tonne of soya beans, and the intensive use of agrochemicals, including herbicides and fertilizers. The most widespread of these is glyphosate – a herbicide used to eliminate weeds, described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2015 as “probably a carcinogenic substance for humans”. However, its use is increasing and it is associated with the production of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Argentina is the country with the third largest number of hectares covered with GMOs.
Pesticide use has generated tension and social protests in the Argentine provinces of Córdoba, Gran Rosario and Santa Fe. Residents in these areas have begun to suffer from various diseases - particularly children and the elderly. Recent measures banning their use by authorities or neighbourhood councils have been revoked due to pressure from large agricultural producers.
But if the present is worrying, the medium-term appears to be even more so. Pro tempore G-20 president, Argentina’s Mauricio Macri announced that the country will adopt a “friendly and welcoming agenda with all governments”, taking on a leadership role that will permit lobbying for the interests of Latin American economies. These statements are worrying because they confirm that the G-20 chapter on climate change will only be addressed in specific meetings held later in the year – not as part of the central G-20 agenda. The Argentine government assumed that, had it been organised in this way, it would have generated tensions with the US, which it considers an important political ally.
The side-lining of climate change in multilateral platform such as the G-20, confirms dissenting views expressed during the Hamburg summit (July 2017) in which the US president refused to support the Paris Agreement guidelines. Contrary to previous national commitments, Trump reiterated his decision to encourage the exploitation of fossil fuels despite their harmful effects. It should be remembered that although G-20 resolutions are not binding, they become guidelines and recommendations for member countries to later enshrine them in public policies.
Urgent action needed
Paris and Buenos Aires provide backdrops for misgivings and disagreements on the pressing global issue of climate change.
Despite resistance from some political and corporate bodies, sub-national players including cities, regions, and civil society organisations and such interest groups as indigenous people, conservationists and citizens continue to show their commitment to encouraging practices contrary to those currently prevailing among polluting industries and “denialist” governments. The financial sector also has an important role to fulfil. As is often the case, much of the response to challenges and possible solutions lies in educating the younger generations.
Before the next meeting of the G-20 in Buenos Aires, wise and rapid action can pave the way for stimulating greater awareness of the risks and effects of climate change, the impacts of which are already apparent.