Governments Unable to Take Climate Responsibility Seriously

Viewpoint by Roberto Savio

The writer is publisher of Other News, a vehicle for “voices against the tide”, and founder of IPS-Inter Press Service News Agency. This article is being reproduced courtesy of Other News with the writer’s permission. He can be contacted at and his articles and comments can be read on Facebook @robertosavioutopia

ROME (IDN) – With any high-sounding pledges that have been made to combat climate change remaining empty words, it is now clear that we have lost the battle to keep the planet as we have known it.

Now while this can, of course, be considered my own personal opinion, devoid of objectivity, I intend to offer some data, history and facts to give substance to this opinion.

Let us take, for example, the 2015 Paris Agreement to set a goal of limiting global warming at below 2°C compared with pre-industrial levels. Few of the people who met in Paris and made a solemn engagement in the name of all humankind to save the planet will be alive 30 years from now, when change in the global climate will have become irreversible.

The Paris Agreement was adopted by 195 countries, of which 171 have already subscribed to the treaty in just two years. Now this is fine, except for the fact that the agreement is just a collection of good wishes, without any concrete engagement. To start with, it does not set up specific and verifiable commitments. Each country will set its own targets, and will be responsible for their implementation. It is like asking citizens to decide how much taxes they want to pay and then leaving to them to comply, without any possible sanctions for non-compliance.

In Paris in 2015, Europe undertook to reach a figure of 27 percent for the use of renewable energies (by scaling down the use of fossil fuels), fixing a target of 20 percent for 2020. Well, from 27 percent, it fell to 24.3 percent. In addition, ministers decided to keep subsidies for the fossil fuel industry until 2030, instead of 2020 as planned. And while the proposal of the European Commission was that fossil fuel plants would lose subsidies if they did not cut their emissions to 500 grams of CO2 per tonne by 2020, ministers extended subsidies until 2025.

Finally, the Commission proposed cutting the use of biofuels (fuels made with products for human consumption, such as palm oil) to 3.8 percent. Nevertheless, despite all their declarations about the fight against hunger in the world, ministers decided to double that to seven percent.

Now let us look at the real flaw in the Paris Agreement. Scientists took two decades to conclude with certitude that climate change is caused by human activities, despite a strong and well-financed fight by the coal and fuel industry, to claim otherwise.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an organisation under UN auspices, members of which are 194 countries, but its strength comes from the more than 2,000 scientists from 154 countries who work together on climate change. It took them from 1988 (when the IPCC was established) to 2013 to reach a definitive conclusion: the only way to stop the planet deteriorating more rapidly was to ensure that greenhouse gas emissions should not lead to an increase of 1.5oC over the Earth’s temperature in 1850.

The Industrial Revolution is considered to have started in 1746, when industrial mills replaced individual weavers. But it started on a large scale in the second half of the 19th century, with the second industrial revolution. This involved the use of science in the production, through the invention of engines and railways, and the creation of factories and other means of industrial production. This was when we started recording temperatures with thermometers.

Looking back, we can see how coal, fossils and other fuels started to interact with the atmosphere then.

What scientists have now concluded is that if we exceed a 1.5oC centigrade rise over the temperature in the mid-19th century we would irreversibly cross a red line: we would be unable to change the trend and the climate would be out of control, with very dramatic consequences for the planet.

In other words, our planet is deteriorating and we cannot revert the situation. We have emitted too much gas and pollution, which are already at work. By halting this process, we can stabilise it but never cancel what we have caused, at least for thousands of years.

The Paris conference was the final act of a process which started in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 with the UN Conference on Environment and Development (widely known as the Earth Summit), the first summit of heads of state on the environment.

Incidentally, it is worth recalling that Maurice Strong – Secretary-General of the Rio summit and a man who spent his life making environment a central issue – opened up the conference for the first time to representatives of civil society, beyond governmental delegations. Over 20,000 organisations, academics and activists went to Rio, starting the creation of a global civil society recognised by the international community.

In 1997, as a result of Rio Conference, the Kyoto Protocol (an international treaty committing State parties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) was adopted. The results show that during the nearly two decades between Rio and Paris, the results were very modest. Use of coal fell from 45.05 percent in 1950 to 28.64 percent in 2016, also because of new technologies, but that of petrol increased from 19.46 to 33.91 percent, and renewables were a negligible reality.

So, Paris was left with a very urgent task, after having already lost two decades. In order to bring as many countries as possible on board, it is a little known dirty secret that the United Nations decided to set as a goal the not very tight 1.5oC but a more palatable 2oC.

Unfortunately, the consensus is that we have already passed the 1.5oC mark and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has estimated that, if not changed, the commitments made by countries in Paris will take us to 6oC, an increase that the scientific community says would make a large part of Earth inhabitable.

In the last four years we have had the hottest summers since 1850, and in 2018 we have had the highest record of emissions in history, because they have reached 41.5 gigatons. Of those, 90 percent comes from activities related to human actions, while renewables (the cost of which has now become competitive with that of fossil fuels) still account for only 18 percent of the energy consumed in the world. And now for another important dirty secret.

While we talk on how to reduce the use of fossil fuels, we are doing the opposite. At this very moment, we are spending 10 million dollars a minute to subsidise the fossil fuel industry. Direct subsidies alone are between 775 billion and one trillion dollars, according to the United Nations. The official figure for the G20 countries is 444 billion.

But, as economists argue, subsidies do not only take the form of cash: they come from the use of the Earth and society, including the destruction of soil, use of water and political tariffs (the so-called externalities, the costs of which exist but are external to the budget of the companies). If we do that, we reach the staggering amount of 5.3 trillion dollars (they were 4.9 trillion dollars in 2013). That is 6.5 percent of the global Gross National Product and is what it costs governments, society and the Earth to use fossil fuels.

That was nowhere in in the news media. Few know the strength of the fossil fuel industry. US President Donald Trump wants to reopen  mines, not only because that brings him votes from those who have lost an obsolete job, but because the fossil fuel industry is a strong backer of Trump’s Republican party. The billionaire Koch brothers, the largest owners of coal mines in the United States, have declared that they spent 800 million dollars in the last electoral campaign.

Some might say that these things happen in the United States but, according to the respected Transparency International, a global movement with a vision of a world in which government politics, business, civil society and the daily lives of people are free of corruption, there are over 40.000 lobbyists in Europe, working to exercise political influence. The Corporate Europe Observatory, a research and campaign group working to expose and challenge the privileged access and influence enjoyed by corporations and their lobby groups in European Union policy-making, found out that corporations spend 120 million dollars a year just in Brussels and employ 1.700 lobbyists. It found that they lobbied against regulations, with more than 700 organisations, which outnumbered trade unions and civil society organizations, by a factor of seven.

The power of the fossil fuel industry explains why, in 2009, governments helped the sector with 557 billion dollars, and only 43-46 billion dollars for the entire renewable energy sector (International Energy Agency estimates).

It is clear that citizens have no idea that part of their money is going to keep alive, with good profits, a sector which is well aware that it plays a key role in the destruction of our planet; a sector that knows well that it is now emitting 400 particles of CO2 per million, when the red line was considered 350 particles per minute. But people do not know this, and this is a spectacular feast of the hypocrisy that is going on.

In 2015, the United Nations conducted an extensive poll, with the participation of 9.7 million people who were asked to choose six themes out of 16 as their priorities. The first of the themes presented was climate change. Well, the first one chosen, with 6.5 million preferences, was “a good education”. The second and third, with over five million preferences, were “a better health system”, and “better opportunities for work”. The last of the 16 themes, with less than two million preferences was “climate change“.

This was also reflected in the preferences of people from the least developed countries, who are going to be the major victims of climate change. The 4.3 millions poorest participants from the least developed countries also put education first (three million preferences); climate change was last, with 561.000 preferences. Not even in Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia – islands which could disappear – was climate change in first place. This is an ample proof that people do not realise where we now stand: at the threshold of the survival of our planet.

So, if citizens are not aware, and therefore not concerned, why should the politicians be? The answer is because they are elected by citizens to represent their interests and make more informed decisions. How does this ring in your ears? With lobbyist all over fighting for interests, what can be sold as well as jobs and stability?

And now, let us come to a last dirty secret showing how far we are from really addressing control of our climate. Whatever discussion there has been has focused almost exclusively on emissions by the fossil fuel industry, leaving out other types of emission.

Cowspiray: The Sustainability Secret, a 2014 documentary film executive-produced by Leonardo di Caprio, which explores the impact of animal agriculture on the environment, and investigates the policies of environmental organisations on this issue, looks at the impact of animals in climate change. The data presented have been considered exaggerated but their dimensions are such that they add another nail to our coffin.

Animals emit not CO2 but methane, which is at least 25 percent more damaging than C02. There is recognition by the United Nations that while all means of transportation – from cars to planes – contribute to 13 percent of emissions, cows are responsible for 18 percent.

The real problem is the use of water, a key issue that we have no way of addressing here. It is considered, even by military strategists, that water will soon be the cause of conflicts, as petrol has been for a long time. One pound of beef uses 2,500 gallons of water, meaning that a hamburger is the equivalent of two months of showers. For one one gallon of milk, you need 100 gallons of water.

Worldwide, people use one-tenth the water of cows. Cattle use 33 percent of all water, 45 percent of the soil, and are the cause of 91 percent of Amazonian deforestation. They also produce 130 times more waste than human beings. Pig raising in the Netherlands, for example, is creating serious problems because pig waste acidity is reducing usable land.

And consumption of meat is increasing in Asia and  Africa, very rapidly. It is considered a sign of achieving the choices of rich societies.

Beside this serious impact on the planet, there is also a strong paradox of sustainability for our human population. We are now 7.5 billion people and will reach soon nine billion. Total food production worldwide could feed 13 to 14 billion people; of this a considerable part ends up as waste and does not reach people (subject for an article in itself). But food for animals could feed 6 billion people … and we have one billion people starving. Meanwhile, the number of obese has reached the number of those starving. This is proof how far we are from using resources rationally for the people living on Earth. We have enough resources for everybody, but we cannot administer them rationally.

Given this situation, the logical solution would be to reach agreement on global governance in the interest of the planet of humankind, but we are going in the opposite direction. The international system is besieged by nationalism, which makes it increasingly impossible to reach meaningful solutions.

I think we now have sufficient data to confirm the inability of governments to take their responsibilities seriously because they have the necessary information to know that we are heading for a disaster.

In a normal world, Trump’s declaration that climate control is a Chinese hoax and has been invented against the interests of United States should have caused more global emotion. Also because, while Trump’s internal policies are an American question, climate change is affecting all 7.5 billion inhabitants of the planet; Trump was elected by just over 63 million voters, less than one-quarter of the more than 235 million eligible US voters: too few to take decisions which affect all humankind.

There are now many who are preparing to speculate on climate change. With the Earth having lost 70 percent of the ice of the North Pole, the maritime industry is gearing to use the Northern Route, which will cut costs and time by 17 percent.

And since warming of the planet has become a major issue, the UK wine industry has been increasing production by five percent every year. The United Kingdom is already producing five million bottles of wine and sparkling wines, all of which are sold. This Christmas in the United Kingdom, local sparkling wine will exceed champagnes, caves, proseccos and other traditional Christmas drinks.

We have all seen, to no avail, the increase in hurricanes and storms, also in Europe, and a record spread of wildfires. The United Nations estimates that at least 800 million people will be displaced by climate change making several parts of the world uninhabitable. Where they will go? Not to the United States or Europe, where they are seen as invaders.

When citizens awake to the damage wrought by climate change, it will be too late. But why worry now? That is a problem for the next generation, and companies will continue to make money with the complicity of governments.

So, let us ride the climate change tide. Let us buy a good bottle of British champagne, drink it on a luxury cruise across the Pole, and listen to the orchestra play … as they did on the Titanic until the last minute! [IDN-InDepthNews – 20 November 2018]

Photo: Small remnants of thicker, multiyear ice float with thinner, seasonal ice in the Beaufort Sea on September 30, 2016. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Alek Petty

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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