By Adrian Parr
In 2010 the world emitted 38.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). This is 48 percent more CO2 than in 1992, and 6.7 percent more than in 2009.1 In 1979 average atmospheric CO2 was 337ppm, in 2000 it grew to 369ppm, and on May 13, 2013 the Hawaii monitoring station recorded a daily level average of CO2 of 400ppm. The safe zone is 350ppm or less. Below, Adrian Parr discusses how the earth’s climate system is reacting.
From 2001 to 2012 extreme summer jet stream patterns have doubled as compared with the previous 22 years.2 Along with rising heat and moisture in the atmosphere comes heat waves and heavy rain. The 2010 heat wave in Russia killed more than 55,000 people. Since 2000 when the 132-year global weather record began, the nine warmest years have occurred with the two hottest being 2005 and 2010.3 In May of this year the station north of the Arctic Circle in Finland reached all time heat records, as high as 87 degrees Fahrenheit. Later in June US National Park Service thermometers recorded temperatures had risen to an astounding 129.9 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley National Park.
To stay within the scientifically recommended target of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, developed countries need to cut their emissions by 50 percent on 1990 levels by 2020.4 Global GHG emissions need to peak at 44 GtCO2e by 2020; then they need to dramatically drop at an average of 2.5 percent a year. By 2050 emissions need to have fallen 60 percent below 2010 levels if we are to remain on track.5
In 2010 global GHG emissions (50.1 GtCO2e) were 14 percent higher than what they should be to not surpass 2 degrees warming by 2020.5Even if countries adopt higher ambition pledges accompanied by rigorous accounting rules the estimated emissions for 2020 fall between 51-42 GtCO2e. The scenario is bleak if business continues as usual because this figure increases to 58 GtCO2e.5 As it currently stands we are looking at a shortfall of anywhere between 8-13 GtCO2e. Succinctly put, we are on course to significantly miss the scientific advice to stay within 2 degrees warming.
In recent years the world has been scorched dry by heat waves, starved and left thirsty because of drought, drowned by floods, and broken into bits and pieces from extreme storm activity. None of it has produced even a whiff of international political consensus over how much emissions need to be slowed or a binding agreement to enforce emissions targets. The main reason is that leaders are concerned about the economic impacts of emissions reductions.
Unsurprisingly then, one solution that is quickly gaining traction is to green the economy: create a clean, green, and efficient economy. This is done by opening up new markets in carbon trading, putting private enterprise to work to develop new green technologies and products, harness and use more clean energy (natural gas, solar, wind), all the while growing jobs and expanding profit margins.
There is a lot about the green economy to get excited about. That said, the opportunities a green economy hold need to be more than just another good business opportunity if they are to be sustainable. They need to also be equitable.
Who will own the patents on the new technologies? Will the new green technologies be affordable for poorer nations and communities? Will there be a monitoring agency that ensures the implementation of clean energy alternatives don’t carry negative social and environmental impacts? Such as the poisoned water resources as a result of fracking for natural gas; or the forest dwellers of Mount Elgon National park in Uganda who were left landless after being evicted to make way for a carbon offset scheme. Will the economic and energy benefits of the green economy be equitably distributed? What about other species, will their right to exist and flourish be respected?
Shifting Towards a Regenerative Economy
In order to achieve transparent and inclusive systems of governance and management working toward equitable outcomes, the same mechanisms and structures of exploitation that landed us in this mess in the first place will need to be transformed. Moving beyond business-as-usual will require more than greening a brown economy, it will mean changing how the global economy works. We need to shift toward a participatory, collectivist, regenerative economy that benefits everyone (both today and in the future) and all species.
In June President Obama delivered his ‘We Need to Act’ climate change speech. He stated ‘a low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come’.6Astonishingly, he held Walmart up as the poster child of the new green economy. The example was unfortunate but revealing. Walmart may be installing solar panels on some of its stores or ranking its suppliers on sustainability but its business model is not socially and environmentally equitable.
The energy used by one Walmart Supercenter equals the daily energy use of 1,095 US homes.7 The industrialised food system Walmart promotes carries a hefty carbon footprint that destroys local agriculture. Let us not forget the Walmart workers who neither earn a living wage, nor have steady full-time employment, or the 112 garment workers who burned to death in a Bangladeshi factory that produced goods for Walmart.
Walmart delivers a steady supply of cheap goods with a short life span. To do this it outsources production to the cheapest bidder, develops large stores on the outskirts of cities only accessed by car, and promotes consumption and waste. There is clearly a mismatch between the opportunities posed by a clean green economy and the social and environmental inequities produced by business operating on such a massive scale.
President Obama’s exemplar of the clean green economy is revealing on two fronts. First, social and environmental inequities are not necessarily resolved by replacing dirty energy with clean energy. Second, it is the premise of growth at the heart of how we assess economic outcomes that needs challenging. Economic growth and exploitation are two sides of the same coin. Taken together, these constitute business-as-usual.
Cap-and-trade is another popular example of a free market solution to climate change. Carbon credits are assigned based on an agreed quota; credits are then traded. They can be purchased from entities that did not use all their quotas or rewarded through a project-based crediting mechanism such as carbon offset schemes (forestation programs that sequester carbon or the development of wind or solar energy projects).
The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is one example of a cap-and-trade program and there have been numerous pitfalls. At the outset, strong lobbying led to the over allocation of carbon permits to some of the worst polluters. Carbon Point research estimates windfall profits for the EU energy sector amounting to over 71 billion Euros because of the allocation of free carbon credits, that has in turn de-incentiviszed investment in low-carbon initiatives.8 Unsurprisingly the ETS has not prompted greater investment in low-carbon infrastructure or clean energy. Overall emissions have risen along with the price of consumer energy and the EU’s reliance on coal. When one throws into the mix the falling price of EU carbon then the green economic strategy of leaving climate change up to the market to solve has proven to be naive at best.
The energies, emotions, and passions of people drive and shape economies. In this way economies are inherently social. They are formed and directed by desires, fears, hopes, panic, and anxieties. No amount of greening the economy is going to change the skewed power relations that underpin complex political realities; realities that emerge as different social affects connect and organise.
We are yet to see if President Obama’s recent climate change speech is going to move beyond the realm of mere rhetoric at the next round of climate change talks. The US is not a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol and has consistently derailed UN COP (Conference of the Parties) climate negotiations. Obama’s announcement that he intended to institute a ‘new national climate action plan’ by invoking his executive power to overcome the ‘partisan gridlock’ of Congress and use the full force of the Clean Air Act (1970) to regulate and limit CO2 emissions from current and future power plants is cause for hope. Furthermore, his call for an ‘ambitious’ international agreement is certainly promising.
Of concern, are the two caveats to Obama’s plans to engage ‘international partners in reaching a new global agreement to reduce carbon pollution through concrete action’. First, he called for ‘an inclusive agreement’ where ‘every country has to play its part’. Second, he appealed to a ‘flexible’ agreement, explaining ‘different nations have different needs’.6 The caveats deserve closer attention.
The first caveat runs the risk of initiating the familiar domino effect that has characterised international climate talks in the past. Talks continuously stall as individual nations disagree over what is fair – one country refuses binding targets on the basis that another has refused and is therefore not playing its part.
Vis-à-vis the second caveat, what constitutes ‘different needs’ has also slowed progress at climate talks. Because of their ‘developing country’ status the Chinese are not bound by GHG restrictions and yet they are currently the world’s largest national emitter (not on per capita emissions). At the last COP 18 talks in Doha, Qatar, the Russians along with the Poles demanded their hot air credits (pollution permits) be honored. Russia is the world’s fifth largest emitter. The European Union sided with Poland’s demand to keep its hot air credits, and went on to dig its heals in over raising its 20 percent emissions target.
Meanwhile the countries that have desperately different needs are poorer countries because they are more climate-vulnerable. In 2010 the Green Climate Fund was established with the goal of collecting US$100billion annually from wealthier countries by 2020. The Fund would compensate poorer countries for loss and damage they incur from climate change, assistance with adaptation and the development of a low-carbon economy. A fast start finance of US$30billion was instituted to immediately begin assisting poorer countries, yet the majority of the money administered has been in the form of loans not grants. Basically, the fund represents a new system of financing the poor and making money off them in the process. To add insult to injury, allegations have been made that the money is being used to support the export markets of donor countries.9
We urgently need to develop systems and ways of organising that support and nurture international collaboration if we are going to have any hope of equitably slowing emissions. The neoliberal approach is not working because it uses the logic of the free market, privatisation, and an ethos of competition and consumption. This only fractures us as a global community at a time when the world’s leaders urgently need to come out of their sovereign silos and join the world community. Below are five suggestions on how to start this process.
Five steps forward
1. The Rights of Nature articles in Ecuador’s new constitution and Bolivia’s Law of the Rights of the Mother Earth can serve as a guide to revise international law so that the rights of the earth are legally recognised.10 International legislation of this kind would invoke a collectivist view of rights, directly challenging the notion of individual rights at the core of neoliberal thinking and policy. An International Law of the Rights of the Earth would protect the Earth from exploitation and the endless extraction of natural resources. And it would provide the legal framework needed to protect against the privatisation of the Earth’s bounty (seeds, genetic material, water).
2. A new UN legislative body of 15 members needs to be created, one devoted to addressing the social and environmental issues raised by climate change. The veto powers of the climate UN legislative body could be held by five permanent nation-states most vulnerable to changes in climate.
3. Replace the proposed cap-and-trade model with a global GHG tax. The use of GHGs, the amount emitted, and the extraction of fossil fuels would all be taxed under the International GHG Tax. Money from the tax could provide grants to poorer communities that are most vulnerable to changes in climate and assist them in moving toward a low-carbon economy. In addition, money could be used to develop and support green energy solutions and technologies. A system of participatory ownership would manage the rights to access the new technologies developed through the use of International GHG Tax funds.
4. Use the full force of the UN’s power to institute sports, diplomatic, and if necessary economic sanctions against nation-states that do not comply with emissions targets. An international environmental crimes court needs to be established to try government, business leaders, and organisations accused of crimes against the environment.
5. Within the business-as-usual model public policy is a misnomer; it is private not public interests that inform and influence policy. The international community needs to make public policy more public by placing it in the service of the common good – for all species and for the benefit of both current and future generations. In this respect, it might be more appropriate to start developing common policies. Common policies would recognise the systemic nature of climate change as both a social and environmental challenge. Again, Ecuador’s Articles for the Rights of Nature serve as a wonderful guide: to protect nature; recognise that nature has the right to restoration; stop activities that lead to species extinction and ecosystem degradation; and protect environmental services from privatisation so that all have the potential to benefit from nature’s services.
Lowering emissions is a transnational problem that traverses the borders of cities, regions, and nation states. It is a transgenerational problem that demands we consider the wellbeing of lives not yet born. It is a trans-species problem that requires systemic thinking and non-anthropocentric solutions. If individuals, communities, and nations fail to work together on implementing effective solutions to slow emissions then extreme weather events, water scarcity, species extinction, biodiversity loss, sea level rise, and crop failures will worsen. Given the daunting social and environmental costs of climate change we need to remember inaction on this issue is a form of action, albeit one with disastrous consequences. But actions for the sake of action, such as those that fail to address the deeper social and environmental inequities climate change exacerbates and produces and which merely see the crisis as a new business opportunity are just as problematic.
About the Author
Adrian Parr is the Chair of Taft Faculty and the Director of the Charles Phelps Taft Research Center at the University of Cincinnati. She was recently appointed as a UNESCO Co-Chair of Water Access and Sustainability. She has the published extensively on social theory, environmental politics, and cultural criticism. Her most recent book, The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politics, was published by Columbia University Press in 2013.
1. US Energy Information Admini-stration, ‘International Energy Statistics’. http://www.eia.gov/cfapps/ipdbproject/iedindex3.cfm?tid=90&pid=45&aid=8&cid=regions&syid=1980&eyid=2010&unit=MMTCD. Accessed May 21, 2013.
2. Vladimir Petoukhov and Stefan Rahmstorf, Stefan Petri, Hans Joachim Schnellnhuber (2013) ‘Quasiresonant amplification of planetary waves and recent Northern Hemisphere weather extremes’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (14): 5336-5341.
3. James E. Hansen and Thomas R. Karl, ‘2012 Global Temperatures’, NOAA/NASA, January 15, 2013. http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/719354main_NOAA%20NASA%20Climate%20Briefing.pdf. Accessed June 15, 2013.
4. Michael G.J. den Elzen, Andries F. Hof, Mark Roelfsema. ‘Analyzing the greenhouse gas emission reductions of the mitigation action plans by non-Annex 1 countries by 2020’, Energy Policy, vol. 56 (May, 2013): 633-643.
5. UNEP, The Emissions Cap Report 2012, p.3., p.1, p.2 http://www.unep.org/pdf/2012gapreport.pdf. Accessed June 1, 2013.
6. Tom Randall, ‘We Need to Act’: Transcript of Obama’s Climate Change Speech’, June 25, 2013. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-06-25/-we-need-to-act-transcript-of-obama-s-climate-change-speech.html. Accessed July 1, 2013.
7. Sierra Club, ‘What is Walmart’s True Environmental Footprint?’ ttp://www.sierraclub.org/pressroom/media/2011/2011-06-walmart.pdf. Accessed July 1, 2013.
8. Point Carbon, ‘EU ETS Phase II – the potential and scale of windfall profits in the power sector’, Point Carbon, March 2008.
9. ‘Meeting calls for durable, effective post-15 impact’, Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, May 10, 2013. http://www.pacja.org/index.php/component/content/article/22-pacja/news/43-meeting-calls-for-durable-effective-post-2015-pact. Accessed July 3, 2013.
10. Rights of Nature Articles in Ecuador’s Constitution.http://therightsofnature.org/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/Rights-for-Nature-Articles-in-Ecuadors-Constitution.pdf. Accessed July 2, 2013.