The UN and EU, taken over by ‘corporate capture’, aren’t doing enough to tackle climate change. Non-governmental organisations are concentrating their efforts on fostering a broad movement that will go beyond Paris 2015, because if governments do fail to deliver, action to tackle climate change will remain essential.
Can the UNFCCC Deliver Action on Climate Change?
Two decades of climate negotiations on how to bring down the emissions of CO2 in order to avoid drastic and dangerous climate change haven’t brought the action we need. Indeed, emissions have gone up instead of down. Bearing this in mind, it is fair to question the process; and to ask ourselves why our governments cannot agree on a binding agreement that would then be implemented in practice. Even if they do agree to have a new protocol covering the period post 2020, this leaves us with a vacuum of five precious years of inaction, and the question is whether such an agreement would deliver a quick enough reduction of emissions to prevent disaster. The danger too is that any post-2020 deal agreed will be so weak as to be not worth the paper it is written on.
Scientists tell us that the window of opportunity is closing and that we need to act quickly with drastic reductions in emissions. So the question is why our governments are acting in this very unreasonable way? And why we fail to deliver on climate agreement, when we have managed to have a quite successful agreement on ozone depletion?
Answers to these questions might vary, but perhaps the most important is that in the last 20 years we have had a process of corporate influence over the states and the UN system. The corporate sector has heavily influenced our governments and UN structures so much so that we can speak of “corporate capture”, with lobbyists having a major impact on decision-making. By saving business as usual, instead of the climate, our governments are prioritising profit over people and natural ecosystems.
At COP 19 in Warsaw in 2013, this influence was so obvious that the majority of civil society literally walked out the meeting place with the message: “polluters talk – we walk”. While the walk-out was only temporary, the question is how we can gain back the power of the people over corporations in UN spaces and on the national level. Focusing on COPs alone has not delivered results, and shouldn’t be the only space we work on and talk about climate change in. We should take the issue into the mainstream – it has to be a topic of debates in cafés, the reason for protests on the streets and the basis for communities to organise around projects such as sustainable transport, community energy and other forms of sustainable living.
We must build a movement that goes beyond Paris 2015, because if governments do fail to deliver, as we suspect they might, we still need action to tackle climate change.
We must also talk about the dirty energy that not only causes climate change but devastates and pollutes local communities and diverts finance from clean energy alternatives. Only mass mobilisation will put enough pressure for our governments to finally act. In this sense, I hope that the hundreds of thousands of people marching on September 20th in New York was just a start. The more pressure we create, the more our governments will be willing to act. And we need this action to be a new binding global agreement to reduce CO2 and introduce ambitious measures on national levels.
Not only do we need a new globally-binding agreement, but such an agreement must be ambitious and based on the scientific evidence, not politics, in order to avoid dangerous climate change. What we now have is saving business as usual, not the climate.
The agreement also needs to take into account the historical responsibility of developed countries that have the means and responsibility to carry the biggest burden in cutting the emissions, due to accumulated “climate debt”.
We also need to tackle consumption issues and the unfair distribution of resources. For instance, the current distribution of energy use is also fundamentally unjust. One fifth of the world’s population, or 1.3 billion people, have no access to electricity, while another fifth has limited access. At the same time, energy consumption per head in the USA and Canada is roughly twice that of Europe or Japan, more than ten times that of China, nearly 20 times that of India, and about 50 times as high as in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa. In short, we need to have binding, fair and mandatory international legislation urgently, and it is up to social movements to push our governments to achieve this.
Some argue that we have witnessed the death of multilateralism and that’s why we cannot reach an international agreement. To me, it seems we have a problem of skewed values and priorities, since in the case of international trade agreements there is the will to agree on mandatory rules with strong punishments for states that do not obey the agreements. This shows that we do have tools at the international level, but there is a lack of political will, vision and courage to act.
Contrary to popular belief, changing the socio-economic system is much easier and cheaper than changing the climate of the planet and devastating its ecosystems beyond recovery.
We must build a movement that goes beyond Paris 2015, because if governments do fail to deliver, as we suspect they might, we still need action to tackle climate change. We cannot have another post-Copenhagen moment where the climate movement collapses because of failed negotiations. We must build a sustainable movement beyond the negotiations that tackles dirty energy and its financing, that builds true solutions to the crisis like sustainable community power.
Is the EU Doing Enough?
European emissions targets are far from enough to deal with what science tells us, and are delaying the cuts too far in the future. EU policies rely too much on market mechanisms, e.g. trading schemes such as the EU-Emissions Trading Scheme, which has proved a failure in recent years. Pushing for more market-based solutions, both on a European and international level, would not lead to the cuts in emissions needed, as it is enabling polluters to get an easy way out and to continue polluting. The EU should and could be a global climate leader, by increasing energy efficiency, cutting down consumption and shifting towards renewable energy. To achieve this, priority should be given to other policy options – not market mechanisms – such as regulation, taxation and subsidies, which are able to deliver the scale and speed of emissions reductions that are necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. Carbon markets cannot be a replacement for mandatory targets under a binding international climate agreement, and adequate and appropriate public funding for climate finance in developing countries.
Time to Dis-invest and Boycott Fossil Fuels
A total of 57% of greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels. Burning coal is the largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions in the world. In 2012, 43% of CO2 emissions from fuel combustion were produced by coal, and abandoning coal would reduce Greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 25%. Rapidly abandoning the burning of coal should be the first priority. While electricity needs could be fulfilled by renewables, we still use coal and waste a lot of energy on heating and cooling energy inefficient buildings. Investment in retrofitting and better building and urban re-design will lead to drastic cuts in energy consumption.
At Friends of the Earth International, we argue that we must move away from dirty energy (not just fossil fuels – read Good Energy, Bad Energy to learn more) towards a just, sustainable, climate-safe energy system. Our vision is guided by the principle of energy sovereignty, which is the right of people to have access to energy and to choose sustainable energy sources and sustainable consumption patterns that will lead them towards sustainable societies.
Such a system should provide energy access for all as a basic human right, would be climate-safe and would be based on locally appropriate, low-impact technologies. Moreover, it would be under direct democratic control and governed in the public interest, and would ensure the rights of energy sector workers and their influence over how their workplaces are run. It would be small-scale and as decentralised as possible and would ensure the right to free, prior and informed consent and rights of redress for affected communities. We need a system in which energy use will be fair and balanced with minimal energy waste.
The EU should and could be a global climate leader, by increasing energy efficiency, cutting down consumption and shifting towards renewable energy.
Aside from the energy sector, we need to readdress other sectors too, in particular, food production and agriculture, transport and urban planning. We need to tackle issues of overconsumption and equitable access, use of resources, and historical responsibility. We do have both knowledge and technology to address the issue of climate change and other environmental problems and we can create sustainable societies. But in order to do so, we need to get our priorities right. We need to redesign our socio-economic system in a way that sustains rather than devastates the Earth’s ecosystems. Contrary to popular belief, changing the socio-economic system is much easier and cheaper than changing the climate of the planet and devastating its ecosystems beyond recovery. Climate change will change our societies and economy, not for better but for worse, so it is wise to do it the other way around.
To put it simply, we have a choice to make – either we will save the lives of many or continue to profit the few. Either we kill neoliberalism, or neoliberalism will kill us. It is time to create our future, it is time to act, and we need everybody everywhere to do so.