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Najib Saab writes in ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English how in his opinion, climate change should be faced up, most appropriately in the MENA region. So is it A Race to Protect the Environment or Control Natural Resources?

For the last 100 years, the region that supplied the world with liquid and gaseous fossil fuels should take a stand that the energy transition to cleaner sources is underway and that fossil fuels would not have acceptability forever. And that the already ongoing shift towards the clean energy ecosystem the world over will only increase to the point where there will not be a need for any action towards lessening any global warming anymore.

The picture above is for illustration and is of The Century Foundation.

A Race to Protect the Environment or Control Natural Resources?

20 June, 2021

When US climate envoy John Kerry called to transform the science of climate change into policies and laws, he only got it half right, because setting public policies is not a simple matter. It rather is a complex issue that requires compromises to balance economic, social and environmental aspects. Even when scientific facts indicate the need to immediately stop carbon emissions in order to confront the impacts of climate change, fast full implementation may not be feasible. Any abrupt change is likely to affect the economy and disrupt human life, instigating poverty, hunger and death no less than the dangers of climate change itself. What is required is to provide appropriate conditions and find viable alternatives. Those do exist in most cases, but achieving them requires serious political will and adequate funding.

The major interrelationship between environmental and climate decisions on one hand, and social and economic conditions on the other, was evident in recent days, both at the Group of Seven (G7) summit and the Swiss popular referendum. While the seven world leaders, hosted by Britain, tried to bridge a fine line between climate commitments and the economy, Swiss voters rejected a government proposal for a radical cut in carbon emissions, arguing that it will affect the economy. The complications from the coronavirus pandemic were the main factor in both cases.

Fifty-one percent of Swiss voters rejected a government proposal to introduce an additional tax on fuel and airline tickets, in order to reduce consumption and enhance efficiency, to achieve the goal of reducing carbon emissions in half by 2030, compared to 1990. While the proposal was supported by 49 percent, it was rejected by a small margin by a group that feared its effects on the economy, especially during the coronavirus recovery period.

It is noteworthy that Swiss voters also rejected, by a large majority, in another referendum, a government proposal to ban the use of synthetic pesticides, and to limit aid and support to farmers who stop using chemicals. The farmers believed that these measures would compromise their competitiveness and eventually lead to bankruptcy, in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence that some pesticides and fertilizers pollute the water and harm plant, animal and human life. Now, the Swiss government has no choice but to come up with alternative solutions that preserve the environment, and protect the economy and the people at the same time.

In conjunction with the announcement of the results of the Swiss referendum, the G7 final statement included an item on environment and climate, under which the leaders committed themselves to launching a green revolution that creates jobs, halving carbon emissions by 2030 and reaching zero before 2050, as well as conserving and protecting at least 30 percent of land and oceans by 2030. The summit also renewed the commitment to keep the increase in the average global temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is the most ambitious target set by the Paris Climate Summit. The G7 also pledged to stop all coal-fired power plants in their countries, unless they relied on techniques to safely capture carbon, rather than release it into the atmosphere. It also promised, in return, to help developing countries get rid of polluting coal plants and adopt other clean technologies for energy production, in parallel with stopping all funding for new polluting plants. But effects of this measure will be limited, as long as China continues to build hundreds of coal plants in developing countries, requiring intense international cooperation to reach common grounds.

However, all these pledges fell short of what environmental activists and many experts and the scientific community expected, especially in the field of finance. While the leaders renewed their pledge to contribute annually until 2025 to a $100 million climate fund, from the public and private sectors, to help poor countries reduce carbon emissions, they did not address the gap in these commitments, since the announcement was made back in 2009. But the United States, Germany and Britain have tried to make up for this collective failure, by promising hundreds of millions of bilateral aid to support the communities most affected by climate change. On another hand, Lord Nicholas Stern, a British economist who is a world authority on the implications of climate change, called for a doubling of government support to fund climate action in developing countries. He also emphasized the economic feasibility of investing a large part of the thousands of billions of dollars earmarked for economic recovery from the pandemic, in projects that promote the transition to a green economy.

Economic revival was the main item in the G7 summit, albeit under environmental and social headlines. As a collective challenge to China’s Silk Road projects, the summit established a Global Infrastructure Fund, to support the transportation network in poor countries and help their transition to green growth, mainly comprising renewable energy and clean technology.

Can the Western-Chinese rivalry be utilized as a race in the interest of the environment, climate and sustainable development, or would it lead to a new cold war, of sorts, to control natural resources? Should this happen, the first victims will be poor people, which both blocks claim to serve.

Najib Saab is Secretary General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development- AFED and Editor-in-Chief of Environment & Development magazine