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.
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.
Researchers unveil roadmap for a carbon neutral China by 2060
Chinese president Xi Jinping told the UN general assembly on 22 September that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The announcement sparked a huge response and gave rise to speculation as to how this would be achieved.
On 12 October, research into a possible route to that target was published by Tsinghua University’s Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development (ICCSD) – the most authoritative roadmap to emerge since the commitment was made. If China follows the recommendations of the report, it could mean tougher energy-saving and emissions-reductions targets for the 14th Five Year Plan (FYP), a more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for 2030, with yet faster and deeper decarbonisation to come from 2030 onwards.
Decarbonising for the 1.5C target
The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to limit climate warming to 2C (compared to pre-industrial levels) at the end of the century, while pursing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5C. That 1.5C target has been controversial because it requires greater emissions cuts and it was only added to the text of the agreement at the last minute.
Professor He Jiankun, project leader of the new study and chair of the ICCSD’s academic committee, said at a press briefing on the research that “achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 essentially means a long-term deep decarbonisation process oriented at the 1.5C target”. The director of the ICCSD is Xie Zhenhua, formerly China’s special climate envoy. Xie was also overall supervisor of this research project.
According to the roadmap presented in the study, by 2050 China must achieve net zero carbon dioxide emissions, with emissions of all greenhouse gases down 90% on 2020 levels, if it is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. The authors did not offer a specific roadmap for reducing emissions between 2050 and 2060, but said that emissions cuts should be increased, with negative emissions growth in the energy sector and more capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide using carbon sinks and carbon removal technologies.
The roadmap implies that all greenhouse gases are included in China’s 2060 pledge – something that observers had wondered about. But one expert close to China’s policy on non-CO2 greenhouse gases told China Dialogue that for now it remains an academic assumption, and official documents would be needed to confirm the government position.
Although the recommended roadmap is ultimately closing in on the 1.5C target, this does not mean China will immediately fast-track deep decarbonisation. The roadmap has two stages: before 2030 China will cut emissions according to an “enhanced mitigation scenario”, with a tougher 2030 NDC target and increasing efforts to reduce emissions. But that alone would leave China far from even the 2C target. However, the researchers propose much tougher measures after 2030, which will bring China into line with the 1.5C target. Assuming these recommendations are adopted, China will see a later, but steeper decline in emissions than it would if it set out to hit the 1.5C target immediately, with a carbon peak by 2030, an energy consumption peak around 2035, and carbon emissions approaching zero by 2050.
At the launch, He Jiankun explained that “the economy and the energy sector are hugely complicated systems, with a lot of inertia, so a transition will take time”. Rapid implementation of the absolute carbon cuts needed for the 2C or even 1.5C target would be very difficult, and China still needs to develop. So in the first stage, staving off additional emissions rather than cutting existing emissions should be the priority to bring about a carbon peak. But after 2030, the speed with which China reduces emissions will “far outstrip the developed nations”.
Implications for near-term policy
There is a great deal of interest in how China’s 2060 carbon neutrality target will affect the 14th Five Year Plan (for 2021-2025), which is currently being drafted, with this being seen as a test of China’s level of commitment.
The researchers also make suggestions for energy-saving and emissions-reduction targets in the 14th FYP, such as a 20% share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption by 2025, and a carbon emissions cap of under 10.5 billion tonnes (2020 figures for these are expected to be 16% and 10.3 billion tonnes respectively).
“We have to control any rebound in coal use during the 14th FYP and work towards peak coal, or even negative growth,” said He.
The researchers also recommend China toughens and updates its NDC for 2030, lowering carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by over 65% on 2005 levels and reaching a 25% share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption.
Speaking at the launch, Wang Yi, a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (China’s top legislative body) and vice director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Science and Development, said that 14th FYP targets should remain tough and be expanded: for example, by including overall caps – in particular a carbon cap – alongside existing efficiency targets (such as carbon and energy intensity). Other experts have also called for a carbon cap in the 14th FYP.
Wang also pointed out that a package of legislation will be needed to ensure 14th FYP climate targets are met. This includes an Energy Law currently being drafted, an ongoing revision to the Energy-Saving Law, and a Law on Combating Climate Change being prepared. “The Law on Combating Climate Change will only reach the statute books if a carbon cap is at its core – if not, it loses a raison d’etre as other laws can replace it,” Wang said. Lower level regulations, such as for carbon markets, must also keep up, he said.
From our partner Chinadialogue
COVID-19 has given a fillip to biodiversity
The COVID-19 outbreak caused many problems for the world, but in return gave the planet’s environment and biodiversity a chance to breathe. The high mortality rate may be worrisome, but it provided us with the opportunity to think more about how we should treat biodiversity in a better way.
Biodiversity is an important feature of life explained by the vast diversity of plants and animals, which is a non-renewable resource and its loss will be irreparable, Kioumars Kalantari, head of the natural environment and biodiversity of the Department of Environment said.
The growing importance of biodiversity is due to its role in maintaining the stability of ecosystems, because in an ecosystem, the greater the species diversity, the longer food chains, resulting in a more stable environment, he added.
According to him, today the protection of biodiversity, habitats, and natural ecosystems is among the most important indicators of sustainable development in the world.
Fortunately, Iran benefits from rich biodiversity due to special climatic, geographical, and topographic conditions and characteristics, and more than 8600 species of plants and 1300 species of vertebrates live in the country, he highlighted.
Unfortunately, the environment faces a variety of threats and challenges, including pollution, habitat destruction, climate change, sand and dust storms, natural disasters such as droughts, floods, and increasing disease outbreaks, he noted.
He went on to say that despite all the efforts that have been made nationally as well as internationally worldwide, the environment today is no better than it was in the early twentieth century.
The sudden prevalence of COVID-19, followed by lock-downs and restrictions around the world, reduction in human activity, the evacuation of highways, reduction in travel, air, and land transport, and a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions, has benefited the nature much, he explained.
It greatly improved air quality and reduced the risk of lung and cardiovascular diseases, key environmental indicators that have been steadily deteriorating for more than half a century, remained fixed, or moved towards improvement, he emphasized.
The extent of the disease and the human casualties may be so painful that it does not give us a chance to rejoice in the healing process of nature and the environment, but the good condition of climate and nature can be a fillip for each of us on this planet, especially those in charge, to think more about our past actions and slow down our exponential pace of unsustainable development and the destruction of valuable biological resources, he also highlighted.
Perhaps changing our plans and behaviors to use more of renewable energy, while increasing the use of telecommunications facilities such as video conferencing, webinars, online meetings, can greatly reduce travel as well as greenhouse gas emissions and thus help preserve nature and valuable biodiversity treasures, he said.
Biodiversity conservation is in fact the protection of ourselves and the resources without which we cannot survive, he stated, adding, human health depends on the health of other creatures and the environment in which they live.
The outbreak of the coronavirus and its pathogenic consequences highlights the importance of the dependence of the health of all organisms on the planet on each other and the environment.
“Our Solutions Are in Nature” which expresses the importance of nature in responding to the challenges we face in terms of sustainable development and the necessity of comprehensive cooperation to achieve a future in harmony with nature, he added.
According to experts, “the most important and largest public asset of any country is the environment”, unfortunately, due to the wrong approach and underestimation of its vital importance, its capacity is declining every day, and it cannot be exchanged or bought, although some officials, especially economists, suggest ways to price these environmental resources, they are invaluable, he stated.
Kalantari further expressed hope that by living in harmony with nature, humans will be able to benefit as much as possible from the valuable resources and to protect and preserve the biological richness of the world in the best possible way.
Why human absence prospers nature?
Pointing out that protecting the planet is important to humans, and we need to maintain the best conditions on Earth after Coronavirus, Mohammad Darvish, a member of the National Security Council for the environment, said that the pandemic has caused the earth to breathe deeply, and now the wise man is faced with the question that “why, when human activity as a member of the ecosystem decreases, not only does nothing happen, but the condition of nature improves.”
Think of bees being removed from nature. In this case, the integrity of the Earth’s environmental property, the reproduction of many species and humans themselves will be damaged, or if brown bears are removed, soil fertility will decrease, or if wild boars are removed, water permeability will decrease and floods will increase, he explained.
Therefore, there have been wise in the creation of all plant and animal species or even insects, and have contributed to the earth’s resilience, he emphasized.
Why has it now happened that man, who considers himself the best of creatures, that must be more responsible, has behaved in such a way that his absence is in favor of nature and the earth?
Such happening should give us a lesson to change our development programs in favor of nature and try to understand the laws of nature, instead of spending budgets on warfare, larger and more horrific weapons, he noted, implying that environmental research and health is now more essential as well as improvement of the education system so that in the post-corona crisis world we can appear wiser, more knowledgeable, and more responsible.
From our partner Tehran Times
Global Warming: Past as Prologue to the Future
Dr. Arshad M. Khan and Meena Miriam Yust
If the vice-presidential debate lacked direction, hurricane Delta did not. It slammed into the Louisiana coast as a Category 2 causing widespread damage with its 100 mph winds, then continued inland as a Category 1 storm. If Delta sounds like an unusual name for a hurricane, it is.
The World Meteorological Organization has a list from A to W of 21 potential storm names. The letters Q, W, X, Y and Z are omitted. In all there are six lists meaning that the 2020 list will be repeated in 2026.
Using names for storms facilitates identification in communications when compared to the prior method using latitude and longitude particularly when the storm itself is moving.
So here we are in 2020 with 25 storms so far. The residents on the Louisiana coast have had a double whammy with hurricane Laura slamming them earlier in the last week of August. It was a deadly Category 4 with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph. Just 7 mph short of a Category 5 (the deadliest) Laura was only the fourth Category 4 to strike Louisiana since records were kept.
In addition to the numbers of storms, there are other climate anomalies. September this year has been the hottest on record and Death Valley reached a temperature of 130 F (54.4 C) the highest ever observed. September 2019 in turn had also been the hottest on record for our planet.
If there are storms along the coasts and flooding due to a warming ocean, inland it is not only warmer but drier. Forests are like tinder needing only a lightning spark or a downed electricity line to set them off. Thus the forest fires in southeastern Australia and California.
Europe too is warmer. Forest fires particularly in the south, and inundation are more frequent. Reading in England for example has just suffered the wettest 48 hours ever.
The south of France usually associated with blissful weather experienced torrential downpours with more than a half meter of rain (about 20 inches) in a day. It was an event Meteo-France noted that occurs once in a hundred years. And then it happened again. Storm Alex, the cause of this misery, hit France and also Italy and England. Floods and landslides caused serious damage north of Nice destroying roads, bridges and houses. In adjoining Italy a section of a bridge over the Sesia river collapsed in the rising waters. Affecting the Piedmont, Lombardy and Liguria regions, it dropped over 23 inches (0.63 m) of rain. The Po river rose more than 9 ft (3 m ) in 24 hours.
The key lesson from all this is that global warming is making rare events more common, that the window for action is narrowing, and that the longer such action is delayed the more onerous will be the burden on humanity. In the meantime, the global warming already built into the system will continue to affect climate for the foreseeable future.
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