Poverty and the ecological crisis are different symptoms of the same crisis Europe and the world are experiencing. Only a responsible commitment based on social justice, eco-development and sustainability can assure a safe common future. The case of Portugal illustrates the challenges faced worldwide.
Little Time For A Major Challenge
The United Nations Conference taking place in Lima December 2014, to prepare the post-Kyoto process and achieve a global agreement on climate change in Paris 2015, is quite likely to be the last opportunity to adopt a global commitment to deal with this major challenge of the 21st century.
The many promises, deadlocks and failures witnessed throughout this process are well known, but can’t be tolerated anymore. This was the impulse behind the global action last September 21st. Millions of people worldwide rose up to protest in impressive street demonstrations calling for action and a responsible agreement to save the planet; a commitment for the future.
Incertitude is no longer an alibi. The scientific evidence proved climate change is a concrete phenomenon mostly caused by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.
There Is No Alibi
The conference takes place in a peculiar context.
- Incertitude is no longer an alibi. The scientific evidence proved climate change is a concrete phenomenon mostly caused by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is a consistent scientific analysis, a reference that everybody should be aware of.
- The business-as-usual attitude has caused unsustainable economic, social and human costs, and twice the investment needed to reduce emissions and develop measures for mitigation and adaptation to protect the climate system;
- Environmental degradation and biodiversity loss are immense and impossible to even quantify;
- New climate refugees and the terrorist threat are strong reasons enough to look for a new energy paradigm which is oil free and sustainable;
In short, the only way for humanity to get out of the dangerous situation that the financial and ecological crisis caused, with its unbearable levels of poverty, inequality and environmental degradation, is adopting a radical and different political agenda, based on social justice, eco-development and sustainability.
Different Signals, Same Problem
The Portuguese reality is extremely complex in terms of climate change, adding specific problems and dimensions to the general impact, particularly in terms of water resources, coastal zones, human health, soils, forests, agriculture, biodiversity, oceans, and fisheries.
The scenarios and effects studied and developed in models for the Iberian Peninsula, compared with other European regions, are very disturbing. In Portugal they are aggravated by wrong-headed politics, geographical issues and the existence of a huge Atlantic Ocean front. Climate change is a national problem and a challenge we should face.
In short, the following is expected and indeed is already occurring:
- A temperature increase, with peaks along the year, alongside the related morbidity and mortality; the worsening of extreme events; heavier rainfall, often in concentrated periods and areas, causing more floods and damages and alternating with more usual periods of drought. The outcome is the degradation of drinking water quality, scarcer water resources in some regions, and new diseases.
- The degradation of the soils, with severe erosion; and the dangerous increase in the risk of wildfires in the forests, resulting from global warming and the significant spread of exotic fast-growth species (e.g. eucalyptus).
- A significant degradation of air quality, resulting from traffic pollution and industrial emissions, causing health problems. Heavy human and economic care costs are associated with this.
- Extreme weather events along the Atlantic coastal areas, where 80% of both population and economic activity are concentrated, with the warming and rising of sea water, the significant narrowing of shorelines, the growing violent impact of the waves, and changes in the coastal systems. This results in economic damage (urban areas, tourism and insurance), but also environmental damage, since the most significant wetlands, habitats, lagoon systems and estuarine areas (some protected by international conventions) are located there.
The Non-Debate in the World Debate
Despite the severity of climate change and the quite obvious economic and human impacts, Portuguese society seems to stand on the sidelines of this debate. Everybody, from the government, to the media, the Parliament, the public institutions and the political parties (both left and right), the NGO´s, the trade unions, enterprise, the universities and so on remain focused on the national agenda, ignoring the subject completely and the international debate going on as if it was an insignificant one.
A Eurobarometer report from 2014 provides interesting and contradictory elements for reflection. The evolution of Europeans’ perception (from 2011 to 2014) regarding climate change shows that most of them recognise climate change as a serious problem. However, since 2011 there has been a decline in this proportion, which indicates there is a notable increase in the number of Europeans for whom poverty, hunger and lack of drinking water have become the main areas of concern. The economic situation is ranked as the second highest priority, instead of climate change.
In Portugal, that negative tendency seams especially clear as only 6% of the Portuguese people – the lowest proportion of all European countries – perceive climate change as a serious problem.
In fact, austerity politics and its dramatic consequences for people´s lives eclipsed the other national problems and discussions. All the political rhetoric – official or not, from left to right parties – is concentrated on unemployment and growth. The short-term perspective on problems has been reinforced. Therefore, the out of date and perverse approach to environmental issues as if they were an obstacle to prosperity, i.e. growth, has been rediscovered and exacerbated.
Despite the severity of climate change and the quite obvious economic and human impacts, Portuguese society seems to stand on the sidelines of this debate.
Signals of hope, however, can be identified through the belief that the efforts to use energy differently and fight climate change can help to boost growth and jobs within the EU. So, while poverty and the economy are seen as a more immediate concern by more Europeans, the majority of them agree that tackling climate issues, reducing our fossil fuel imports and improving energy efficiency can bring important economic benefits. Among the countries where this view is held particularly strong are Spain, Sweden, Portugal, Malta, Ireland, Cyprus and Greece, several of which have been significantly affected by the economic crisis.
A Missed Opportunity
The efforts made in Portugal some years ago, to give a certain priority to the renewable energy sector, despite lacking an integrated political strategy, proved – even with its limits – to be a good option, with considerable results in the reduction of energy dependence, while increasing GDP growth and employment. This is the main conclusion of a recently published study promoted by the Portuguese Association of Renewable Energy, (APREN).
Renewable energy in Portugal, nowadays representing 27% of the total of energy – mostly wind, hydro, solar, biomass – has increased rapidly and in 2013 alone created 40,000 new jobs (more than the previous year) nearly 38.000 of them stemming from the sector’s indirect impact in other sectors. According to the same document, other significant impacts can be identified, in terms of GDP growth, and decreases in energy dependence, greenhouse gas emissions and imports.
Much more can be done. The potential to obtain much better results is there, as the same study confirms, for instance in terms of employment, with 26,000 new jobs by 2030, but also in many other important economic areas, providing better social and economic standards.
That´s why it is unacceptable, especially in the present national context, that public policies have been suspended or even scrapped. Some strategic sectors, like energy, have been privatised (the Troika adjustment programme) and taken over by a Chinese corporation. On the other hand, it´s not reasonable that the Portuguese government, as well as the European authorities, insist on failed austerity measures, imposing programmes and restrictions not compatible with the necessary investment to implement strategic public policies able to solve some of the important challenges Portugal and Europe are facing, such as, the climate change.
Many ambitious policies were stopped and need urgently be maintained and improved, now in a different and global perspective and for the public common benefit. For instance: to stimulate a sustainable system of public transport policies, unlike those the European austerity policies recommends; to implement a public national energy saving and efficiency programme for housing, services, transport, the public sector, small enterprises, industry – that could represent more than 1% of GDP growth and with the potential to achieve better standards (30% less energy consumption and imports). We obviously need to keep the attention in the previous renewable areas, in order to increase their export (no longer to assure rents for a minority) but also to provide the missing means to develop the enormous potential the renewable sector still has, in terms of wages, solar and geothermic, improving their use (since they have been underestimated by the private sector). Also to ensure a sustainable land and forest use – no longer orientated towards the cellulose industry profit – but for climate control and preservation of biodiversity.
These are the main questions that an ambitious and coherent national and European political agenda should support, in the international forum and inside its own institutions to face climate challenge, keep the leadership in this process and to assume the ethical responsibility in relation to next generations. But, also to find a way to emerge from the deep social, economic and political crisis we are living.
To obtain good results we need, however, to assure the existence of strong and healthy companies, the preservation and reinforcement of public institutions, the participation of civil society, and to keep knowledge and capacity inside the country. We also need a stable scientific research setting, the engagement of universities, and a sustained effort in terms of investment in R&D. Yet today we have the opposite conditions.
The efforts made in Portugal some years ago, to give a certain priority to the renewable energy sector, despite lacking an integrated political strategy, proved – even with its limits – to be a good option.
People Can Make the Difference
The new global agreement for eco-development and to stop climate change means our way of living, producing and consuming needs a different political, economic, legislative, educational and fiscal agenda. It also requires, as a result of the ethical and cultural dimension it carries, information, transparency and public participation, in order to change attitudes and the process in general.
It is fundamental that we mobilise everybody to this cause. The time has come to speak openly about climate change, to explain to ordinary people – free from technical language – the values, reasons, impacts and deep connections existing between all these problems, which appear to be almost invisible and occurring in completely different and distant regions of the planet. The complex commitments the international community nees to achieve before the Paris Conference to assure a global and real common government programme, with a clear agenda and schedule which is orientated to save the planet and assure sustainable living conditions, depends mostly on our capacity to influence the policymakers.
A small number of big corporations and some states, the biggest polluters, will certainly be major obstacles which only be overcome by the pressure of the public opinion worldwide. The planet is in danger. Unfortunately the European institutions, as we have just seen, among many others, are playing with our future, our survival and dreams. The wake-up call has rung. Time is a scarce resource.
Let us take the floor to express our claims and proposals. Our strength is enormous, as in a certain way we are the 99% of the people really engaged in this challenge, fighting for the survival of humankind no matter how difficult it might be. This is our commitment, as long as we stay active and creative. Together we can do it. Together we shall overcome the social crisis and the climate crisis, I would like to believe.
- 5th Assessement Report of the Intergovernamental Panel on Climate Change, published in April 2014
- A Blueprint For a Safer Planet : How to Manage Climate Change and Create a New Era of Progress and Prosperity, Nicholas Stern (2009)
- The Living Planet Report, (W.W.W.), (September 2014)
- Climate Change in Portugal Scenarios, Impacts and Adaptations Measures, SIAM PROJECT I (2002). F.D.Santos, K. Forbes, R. Moita (editors). SIAM II is being developed.
- Special Eurobarometer 409 Climate Change Report (December 2013)
- Study promoted by APREN Association of the Enterprises of the Renewable Energy, (September 2014 author Deloitte) About the Macro Economic Impact of Renewable Energy in Portugal, the Evolution and the Perspectives Until 2030