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An idea whose time has come: Green Politics

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Authors: Anurag Mishra and Aaditya Vikram Sharma*

As the world forages wide and digs deeper to discover the origin of the latest Public Enemy Number One, the widely believed conjecture among the public is that it originated from a wet market in Huanan, China. Scientists across the world are having a tough time finding the exact source of the virus, and world leaders are demanding a probe to look into its origins. Still, the zoonotic origin of the virus holds firm ground. Whether it was a horseshoe bat, a civet cat or a pangolin is a mystery yet to unravel.

The zoonotic origin of the virus once again brings to the fore, most compellingly this time, the questions which our leaders have long been avoiding. These questions are manifest in the four epidemics the world has seen in the last 20 years or so. Apposite among those questions is the ecologically unconcerned economic development and its wide-ranging concomitants. The very idea of sedentary urban human settlements is based on the clearing of forests and its transformation into fertile croplands. But, ever since economic growth became the cornerstone of human development and “mass production – mass consumption” the widely accepted way to sustain the burgeoning population, humans have pushed their domain more and more into the forests, thinning the line that exists between the humans and the wildlife.

To put things into perspective, the atmosphere never had carbon dioxide gas concentration of more than 300 ppm in the last half a million years or so. In 2019, it was more than 410 ppm, a direct consequence of decimating forests and increasing industrial activity. This event, among others, has been in the making for quite some time.

In the wake of the scientific developments taking place in the early 1970s, environmental concerns started to translate into political agendas. With the United Tasmania Group, the first Green Party contesting the 1972 state elections of Tasmania, Australia, the era of green politics had formally hit the road. Cut to 2020, the political experiment of green politics has been a nominal success. Even though the Greens have a presence in almost 90 countries across the world, it is a peculiar case of “a mile wide, an inch deep”.

In this series of articles, the authors set out to make a case for the need of a more assertive green politics while encapsulating the history of the Greens, the scientific developments and simultaneous accretion of environmentalism into environmental politics. This instalment covers the inception of international environmental politics since the second world war and traces the beginning of the green political movement.

The New World Order

Environmental issues have become one of the predominant points of discussion in international politics. Today, UN environmental summits are held, reports are generated by committees formed national and internationally to understand and mitigate climate change and other environmental problems, and citizen activism is at an all-time high. There is blunt awareness about the impact of human activity on the planet. In fact, in 2016, scientists recommended that the current epoch on Earth be labelled as ‘Anthropocene.’ However, this awareness is a recent phenomenon– it was not always so.

As the second world war ended in 1945, a new world order emerged. New institutions and agendas were created to instil adherence to international law and respect for human rights. To achieve the former objective, the United Nations (UN) was created. Under Article 1 of the UN Charter, “The Purposes of the United Nations are: 

To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;

To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;

To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; and

To be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.”

As can be seen above, none of the aims refer to the protection of the environment. This is not to say that the environment had not been harmed. As the Second World War raged from 1939 till 1945, environmental damage had been caused on an unprecedented scale. The war ended when the United States (US) used atomic weapons on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This caused destruction, likes of which had not been seen before, to the cities and their people, as well as the environment, the effects of which are still seen today.

Until the 1960s, environmental protection was not considered an issue. The world would instead concentrate and move on to an unprecedented era of development. The US economy grew exponentially as its left-over wartime industrial base was tapped by the civilian industry. Europe had been left devastated by the war, and the US aided its allies’ economic growth via the Bretton Woods System and the Marshall Plan (formally the European Recovery Program). The Soviet Union developed and became the other superpower, alongwith the United States. This ‘development’ was achieved through massive industrialisation and development of new technologies. It is pertinent to note that the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa were more or less left out of this phase of development. 

“Discovery” of Damage

Man-made greenhouse effect, capable of having a significant impact on Earth’s temperature was suggested by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius as early as in 1895; the Swede believed that equable climates would appear across the Earth which would lead to an agricultural bounty across the planet. Ironically, Arrhenius’ anticipated boon turned out to be a menacing villain. In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm Conference) cemented environmental issues as an agenda in international politics. It led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “it laid the foundation for global environmental governance.”

In 1985, a remarkable discovery was made. The reputed science journal Nature published a paper by Joe Farman, Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin about the discovery of the “ozone hole” over Antarctica. Despite this, it was not until the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988 that climate change made news, a year after the Montreal Protocol had been agreed on.

Since Montreal, the world has made some significant strides in order to mitigate the crisis. However, what is unfortunate is that even the Paris Agreement makes climate action voluntary for the nations and the targets to cut down emissions of greenhouse gases nationally determined. The absence of a major emitter, the US, further jeopardises the realisations of the goals under the treaty.  Further, scientists suggest that even if the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming under 2 degree celsius are met with, it might not be able to avert wide-scale human-made natural disasters.

As stated above, in 2016, the Anthropocene Working Group voted for addition of the Anthropocene Epoch to the geologic time scale, citing the unprecedented and massive impact that humans have made on our planet. A formal declaration of the Anthropocene epoch by the International Commission on Stratigraphy might take some time, but it is now writing on the wall that the business as usual approach will take us to irreversible destruction. Our generation is already witnessing the rising of sea levels, increasing intensification of cyclones and dead zones in the oceans, and more vigorous incidences of forest fires.

Conclusion

Due to the events highlighted above, environmental issues came to the forefront. The United Tasmania Group of Australia was to become the forerunner of a movement that would span across continents. This ‘movement’ was the creation of new political parties and the growth of new leaders who aimed to mitigate the damage to the environment. These political parties are now known to us as green parties. Green parties function as flag bearers of environmental concerns in the political arena while also advocating social-democratic economic policies and social justice.

The next part of the series will deal with the inception of the green party movement and its relevance in the contemporary world and domestic politics.

* Assistant Professor, Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, New Delhi.

Anurag Mishra is an independent researcher. He holds an LL.M degree from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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Green Planet

Climate Change Problem: an Emerging Threat to Global Security

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Climate Change is one of the greatest challenges faced by humanity. The Greenhouse–gas emissions and over-exploitation of natural resources result in a rise in temperature which brings floods, droughts, a rise in sea level, and other destructive events. The problem is that climate change is a global bad, and it requires collective efforts and cooperation to limit its effects. One state cannot control Climate change alone because it does not take it into borders. Formally, the climate change issue was a matter of low politics, but the inception of the 21st century brought an understanding that it poses greater threats than traditional ones. The Covid-19 plays a major role in the realization of steps taken towards climate cooperation. States often make climate promises but cannot fulfill these promises because of the fascination with development and ignore climate change. But now world leaders have realized that the lessons of COVID-19 can tackle global climate change problems otherwise it will make this world difficult to live in.

 The newly elected President of the United States (US) Joe Biden inaugurated a virtual climate change summit with 42 world leaders. It includes leaders from Russia, China, Turkey, Israel, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Setting aside all the differences, he invited leaders from those countries that are a major contributor to Greenhouse gas emission and those who are most vulnerable to climate change risk. In this summit, the Biden administration asked the world leaders to take actions to combat climate change collectively as the climate is a global good and requires collective efforts to tackle climate change. Biden has announced an aggressive new goal policy for greenhouse gas emissions. 2030 committed the US administration to reduce its greenhouse gas emission to 50-53%. The National Intelligence Director of President Avril Haines told world leaders that the climate change issue is no longer remains a peripheral issue but at the center of foreign policy. Other states such as France and Russia also promised to limit their greenhouse gas emission to 42-46% by 2030. It also committed China to play its role in the summit by announcing its willingness towards coal reduction. India reiterated its target of 450 GW of non-renewable energy by 2030 and announced to launch the “US-India 2030 Climate and Clean energy Agenda 2030 Partnership”. The Brazilian Environment Minister argued they need funds to enforce their plan to eliminate deforestation and carbon emission from their country. Vice president Harris argued that climate actions are necessary to tackle climate crises and to promote job opportunities. . Now, the US has put climate change at the center of its security and foreign policy because climate change is not only changing the pattern of the environment but it speeds up the geopolitical competition, undermine security and provoking ethnic conflicts. The climate change results in cyclones, floods, the rising temperature that disrupts social and economic conditions that threaten food security and human security.

By exploring the climate solution, the virtual summit announced the need to increase the public finance for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. Biden emphasized the importance of investment in the public and private sectors to achieve the collective goal of net zero-emission. Further, climate actions require cooperation at the national and sub-national governments to speed up efforts to transform communities in line with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Another change that needs to be highlighted at the national level is that the government must not subsidize renewable energy industries and keep their prices high to contain their over-exploitation.  It is easy to make promises as states do, but the problems emerge in its implementation. For decades, climate change has raised concern but states often prioritize development over the environment. This is real-time for states to limit their emission and comply with the promises they have made in the summit otherwise it will lead to never-ended consequences.

COVID-19, a super-fast placed event that emerged from one part of the world and quickly spread throughout the entire world. By its speed of diffusion, it reduced all the emissions at an expensive cost, thus halting the global economy. So still we have time to think about other efficient means of emission reductions to prevent countries from the intolerable burden of Climate Change. But the challenge is how to keep that emission reduction after the pandemic. Second, just an as sharp and instant change of behavior is possible with COVID-19 so to deal with climate change a behavior change is also possible, thus shifting to the low carbon emission all depends on seriousness and credibility to the mortal threat. Third, a key implication of COVID-19 to climate change is that how to reorganize the economy so, in the post-pandemic world, it is the human interaction that would determine the organization of the economy. Thus future will determine whether a low contact economy with a clean environment would be a lower carbon emission economy or not. Further, states must focus on how to open up the economy in the Green Revolution. Another major issue which the world leaders failed to address is the global problem of Covid-19. Despite the technological advancement and huge development, zoom diplomacy began with a distorted voice from the most advanced countries of the world. There is a need to cooperate on a matter of Covid-19 so that states think on the wider notion of climate actions. Thus we have to use all these lessons in the context of climate change to make this world a better place to live in.

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Rails, Roads And Emissions

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It is common knowledge that emissions affecting climate are least for rail travel in comparison with airplanes or road vehicles.  Consequently the $80 billion allocated to rail in an otherwise laudable budget appears paltry. 

Why is the US not investing in rail?  The usual reason given is that distances are so vast that it’s a no-brainer for business travellers to rely on commercial airlines.  But the way the technology is advancing, and as Europeans (and the Chinese) have demonstrated, a network of high-speed rail can offer a greener alternative. 

Trains are getting faster and new innovations like tilting trains lower the cost of replacement tracks.  If 200 mph is being breached more often, then 250 mph should be in our sights.  And Elon Musk has proposed vacuum tubes to remove wind resistance and reach even higher speeds. 

Yet a 250 mph rail network with average speeds in excess of 200 mph would revolutionize the concept of travel.  New York to Chicago in five hours and east to west coast overnight with the possibility of visiting neglected areas out of reach with expressways and airplanes would bring new growth and dynamism where it is needed. 

A point to note is prevailing interest rates.  They are so low historically that railroad bonds at a competitive interest rate would be snapped up  especially if they were guaranteed by the government. 

While one can agree with the aims and compassion clearly evident in the president’s proposals, the process to achieve them is less clear.  In particular on climate change the goal of net zero emissions within a decade is laudable.  But a speedy switchover to electric vehicles raises questions: Simply, how?

The system is geared to internal combustion engines.  Mechanics train for years to become proficient.  Aside from that, has anyone wondered what happens to all those large electric car batteries when they have to be replaced?  Since lithium used in them is a finite resource, it would have to be recovered or the 80 million tons estimated to be the world’s store would eventually be depleted.  

Another issue is the electricity used to charge the batteries.  If it comes from a coal-fired plant, are we back to square one?  Currently about a quarter of the electricity generated in the US comes from coal. Of course dealing with pollution at the source (like a coal plant) is easier. 

The number of Americans living paycheck to paycheck (roughly half) is just one more reason the changeover to electric vehicles might take a while; they just don’t have the funds.  Add to these numbers the elderly living on fixed incomes or the ranks of the unemployed and one can understand the scale of the problem.  

One can laud the US president’s goals but we need to see some action (even proposals) to facilitate them. 

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Global Environmental Governance and Biden’s Administration

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Being the largest emitter of greenhouse gas in the world, it is the responsibility of U.S to contribute expeditiously to manage the environmental issues at domestic and international level but the previous government, under the leadership of Trump, took back seat and reversed all the decisions of Ex-president Barack Obama to combat the climate change. Unlike this, New Elected President, Joe Biden, who is very enthusiastic and firm to fulfill all the promises regarding climate change which were done during the general election’s campaign. Moreover, he views climate change a thwart to national security. One of the biggest achievements associated with Biden’ administration regarding environmental issues is to bring U.S back into Paris Climate Accord and brought executive order’’ Protecting Public Health and the Environment and Restoring science to tackle the climate crisis’’ on the surface.

A flurry of changes to U.S environment policy is going to play a constructive role in global environmental governance under Biden administration. Even before elections, climate change was one of the top priorities and aimed to put the U.S on a path which leads towards ‘’ Zero Net’’ greenhouse gas emission. In the very early of His office days, He is very committed to deal with the climate change as they hosted ‘’ Climate Day’’ to introduce government climate centric approach to emphasize on the climate change.  Biden administration also ordered to revoke a permanent issued for Keystone XL oil pipeline which trump issued for extraction of oil and energy which is dangerous to national ecosystem. In addition to this, they are also very active to promote US role to tackle the climate change at domestic and abroad. At domestic level, Biden’s actions are speaking louder than the words as he has ascribed the climate crisis with a national emergency. At the time of his inauguration, Biden said: ‘’ A cry for survival comes from the planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any clearer’’. He also directed his cabinet to work on the policy of ‘’ social carbon cost’’ to measure the cost of actions and how costs will impact the climate change. He endeavors to control the climate change by keeping a strict eye on the big project’s reviewing process before working under the National Environmental Policy Act which calculates the social costs of greenhouse gas emissions.

On international level, Biden has been striving to improve the spoil image shaped by the previous government regarding global environmental governance as he has declared to rejoin the Paris Climate accord which would help to reduce the greenhouse gas emission. In the result of this action, Biden was welcomed by the General Secretary of the United Nations and French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron by saying ‘’ Welcome Back to the Paris Agreement’’. Moreover, Biden Administration is very determined to convene a global climate summit on the earth day to encourage leaders to align themselves with scientist to alleviate the impacts of climate change. On international forums, US need to cooperate and compel the economic trade partner to take actions to combat with climate crisis. One of the essential steps taken by the Biden administration is to manage the climate refugees which aim to make strategies to compensate the climate affected migrants.

The thin majority of democratic in the senate does not only limit the possibility for Biden to achieve climate change reforms along strong anti-climate lobbyist business group who are inimical to the reforms particularly relevant to vehicle, power plants and oil and gas drilling industries. Without new climate legislation from congress, it would be not an easy task to implement the climate agenda across the borders. The vocal resistance comes from the coal production sectors which result in burning of fossil fuels and caused of greenhouse gas emissions. Whereas, few sectors are opposing the agenda there are also companies specially electrical vehicles are exclusively offering assistance to Biden for the sustainable development. Undoubtedly, environmental organizations and scientists community applauded the Biden decisions but few business groups have also filed a lawsuit against Biden to not stop the new permit for oil and gas drilling. There are also concerned raised by the community that climate actions will delete many jobs and cause of upsurge in unemployment percentage across the federation.

It is very evident from the ambitions of Biden’s action regarding climate crisis that he is very interesting to mitigate and curb the climate change but it will require highly comprehensive strategy aims to manage the reforms in laws while taking congressmen in confidence because most of them are not in favor of climate actions due to clash of interests. On the other hand, there is need to work on renewable energy resources at domestic and international level and for this US should compensate the companies to compete with the old capitalized firms which do not want safe and peaceful planet. Moreover, there is need to bring reforms in existing environmental treaties and their compliance process which should be strictly followed by the harsh actions against the violators. The process of financing the agendas which are very environment friendly and transforming the resources to the periphery states should be done swiftly to improve the environment across the globe. The aims of achieving sustainable development should be promoted and supported by the US across the world.

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