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CWA # 229, 26 February 2020

Strategic Forecast 2020
Addressing Climate Change: Calamities, Risks and Protests in 2020

  Rashmi Ramesh

CWA Brief, February 2020 

The COP 25 was another failed attempt in 2019 but the talks are likely to continue in 2020 with deadlocks over CBDR and carbon market

Background

The essay aims to trace the trends in climate change during 2019 and attempts to forecast for 2020 in this regard. It largely looks at the responses and actions of four broad categories- individuals/civil society, states, regions and global level. The same categorisation is used to forecast the possible developments in 2020. The last section of the essay focuses on the ‘variables’ that could occur beyond the expected developments. 

Major Trends in 2019

2019 was yet another year to witness severe climate-related disasters, taking a heavy toll on people, property, flora and fauna. However, the brighter side of this is that the media gave extensive coverage to these issues. It generated increased awareness among civil society and pressurised the governments to act swiftly. 

A year of disasters

The impacts of climate change were witnessed in different forms from wildfires, glacier melt, devastating floods, cyclones to hurricanes. Forest fire in the Brazilian Amazon this year resulted in a global uproar. Since January, more than 70,000 forest fires have occurred in Brazil and most of them have been reported in the Amazon. Satellite data gathered by the National Institute for Space Research indicated that there was an 84 per cent surge in the number of wildfires in Brazil in 2019 (Taylor, 2019). While the international community and world leaders termed this as a situation of ‘climate emergency’, the Brazilian government led by Jair Bolsonaro reiterated that the Amazon is no ‘world heritage’ for foreigners to be concerned about. He condemned the international media and other countries for exaggerating the situation and speculated the role of foreign powers who might have vested interests (UN News, 2019). 

Brazil also suffered from a peculiar environmental concern, when barrels of oil were washed ashore mysteriously. The oil spill initially affected 12 beaches, but later it spread across 2,000 kilometres, affecting about nine coastal districts. Bolsonaro’s government called this as a “criminal activity” aimed at jeopardising a large-scale oil-extracting rights auction event. He also blamed neighbouring Venezuela and a Greek vessel for the spill. However, the scientists are yet to determine the cause for this oil spill.

In January 2020, the collapse of a mining waste dam caused large-scale damage and killed approximately 155 people (Plumb & Costa, 2019). The toxins in the mining waste, polluted river Paraopeba leading to loss of marine life and health issues in Brumadinho (Watts, 2019). Despite repeated demands for stringent legislation to oversee mining activity in the country, Brazil continues to ease regulations and licensing in order to facilitate more projects.  Clearly, this is a classic example of the trade-off between environment and development. It certainly is a matter of concern when ecologically-sensitive countries like Brazil are on a climate-denial mode. 

Apart from Brazil, there were wildfires in Indonesia, Australia and the Arctic. The Indonesian fires that were compared to its Amazonian counterpart, engulfed a large part of Sumatran and Indonesian Borneo. Besides destroying the rainforests, the smog resulted in a diplomatic row, as neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore were adversely affected by the smog. The forest fire occurred due to the slashing and burning technique used by the farmers to clear land for agriculture. Notably, fires in the Amazon was also caused by this primitive farming technique. Climate experts opine that the Australian and Arctic wildfires are a result of unprecedented high temperatures during summer. Australian medical fraternity terms this as a “public health emergency”. Melting of glaciers has expedited in the Andes, New Zealand and the Arctic, due to the forest fires in Brazil, Australia and sub-Arctic regions respectively. 

Glaciers provide profound evidence regarding the extent of climate change. Though the melting of glaciers has been a gradual phenomenon since the end of Pleistocene (colloquially known as the ice age), the rate at which this has been occurring has increased during Anthropocene (an epoch where human action is capable of interfering and influencing the natural processes). On 19 August 2019, Iceland mourned the death of its glacier Okjökull. Led by Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the Icelandic people commemorated the former glacier with a plaque (Luckhurst, 2019). While there are monuments and memorials for major events and eminent personalities, the plaque is a monumental symbol for an environmental disaster. 

One of the main concerns of global warming is the rise in sea level due to melting of ice and the increasing temperature of the water bodies. It invariably results in devastating hurricanes and cyclones. Atlantic Ocean’s hurricane Dorian is considered as the worst natural disaster in the history of the Bahamas. The hurricane also caused destruction in its path along the eastern coast of the United States and Canada. In South Asia, cyclones in the Arabian Sea caused floods in the southern states and west coast of India. 

While environmental disasters took a toll on people, property, vegetation and fauna, civil society and states responded to this in different ways. The larger question of climate change came under the limelight and was one of the major points of discussion in this year. 

Response, Reactions and Actions- Civil society, Regions and the International community

The civil society across different countries held demonstrations against the inaction of the governments, particularly the big powers and multinational corporations. The role of youth, in particular, have begun to gain attention. Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager rose to fame due to her unique way of dissent. She chose to sit in front of the Swedish Parliament every Friday to persuade the government to change the policies in accordance with the Paris Agreement. Using social media in an effective manner, she could garner support from the student community and the public. People protested in front of the Parliaments, the municipal corporations and the city halls in their respective countries under the tagline “Fridays For Future.”  The protests were also held during the COP-25 meeting in Madrid, Spain. 

Thunberg was named as the ‘TIME Person of Year’ for being successful in gaining the attention of world leaders, a feat that was difficult to achieve by environmental activists, climate experts and researchers. The climate protests by the civil society were soon recognised by the international community and were given a platform in various United Nations conferences- UN General Assembly, UN Climate Action Summit and COP-25. Media played an extensive role in bringing the young voices to the glare and ensuring that the climate protests are visible on other parts of the world. 

The countries on the other hand, are divided over the issue. While few of them are on the forefront in taking environment-friendly initiatives, few of them are either indecisive or in a state of climate denial. Finland has announced phasing out coal gradually, and effectively ban it from May 2029, except in cases of emergency. Similar steps have been taken by France, Ireland, UK, Italy, Austria, Canada and Sweden (E&T editorial staff, 2019). Ireland is the first country to vote for moving away from fossil fuels entirely. Scotland has committed to reaching carbon neutrality by 2045 and New Zealand by 2050. Canada imposes a price for carbon emissions, thereby limiting its carbon footprint (Ward, 2019). Rwanda has implemented green initiatives and projects for climate change adaptation and mitigation. These projects have helped create over 1,38,000 jobs in the fields of agriculture, water management, land restoration, forestry and renewable energy. According to the Rwanda Green Fund, more than 65,000 households have access to clean energy (Nkurunziza, 2019). It is a welcome step, especially when Africa is vulnerable to environment-related disasters. 

Few countries continue to have policies that are not in accordance with the Paris Agreement and the principles of sustainable development. The United States has officially withdrawn from the Paris Agreement but will continue to be a party to it till 4 November 2020. Australia has failed to curb its carbon emissions and has been accused of not considering climate change as a serious matter of concern. The Asian giants India and China are the chief emitters of carbon and other greenhouse gases. However, both countries have taken a strong stance with respect to the Paris Agreement and have implemented certain environment-compatible policies at the domestic level. For instance, India announced through its budget, a slew of incentives for using electric vehicles. China also has made some strides in mitigating the effects of climate change. Shanxi province in Northern part of the country ordered for the halting the production in 82 coal mines at least temporarily. 

At the regional level, most of the European countries united to take more effective actions to mitigate climate change. The European Commission released the “European Green Deal” at the COP-25, Madrid. It proposes some crucial climate-focused action points including a European ‘Climate Law’, with an objective of achieving climate neutrality by 2050. There are also provisions for assessment of the final National Energy and Climate Plans, a proposal to support steel production with zero-carbon emissions and a strategy on offshore wind energy (Gopalakrishnan, 2019). The deal also launched the European Climate Pact, an important regional initiative. According to the Deal, the key to mitigating climate change is reforming every sector of the economy (Grabbe & Lehne, 2019). 

Within Europe, the Arctic demands more attention to the issues of climate change and disasters, as it faces the consequences in a much larger scale than other parts of the globe. In 2019, the region witnessed two nuclear-related accidents: first, when Losharik, a nuclear-powered special purpose submarine caught fire in near the Kola Peninsula; second, when a nuclear-powered cruise missile exploded during its recovery from the seabed in the White Sea. In order to increase preparedness and tackle nuclear energy-related risks, the Arctic Council created a new expert group on radiation and nuclear incidents. The group will be a part of the Council’s Working Group on Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR). The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is invited to join the meetings of the expert group (Nilsen, 2019). 

The indigenous communities of the Arctic often voice their concerns on international platforms. During COP-25, the Inuit Circumpolar Council highlighted the failure of countries to arrive at a positive outcome for operationalising the Paris Agreement. There is a gap between what the indigenous communities want and what the states can offer as a policy for dealing with climate change. Often, national interests act as barriers to effective environmental regulations.

At the global level, the United Nations held two important summits in 2019- the UN Climate Action Summit and the UN Climate Change Conference. At the Climate Action Summit, countries pledged to enhance their climate plans, focus on renewable energy, Green Climate Fund, prevention of land degeneration, sustainable agriculture, so on and so forth. 

However, similar to any other climate-related meetings, the Summit’s participants were not on the same board for a range of issues. They differed according to their determination to mitigate climate change. The Nordic countries and the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) pledged to act more swiftly and stringently to raise their nationally determined contributions and achieve carbon neutrality. The Nordics elucidated the steps they would undertake to become the first industrialised carbon-neutral region. The SIDS called for the replenishment of the Green Climate Fund. The by-standers like the United States and Brazil resisted any climate initiatives. As mentioned earlier, the US withdrew from the Paris Agreement in 2017. Ironically, Brazil, a country that once hosted the Rio Summit and was in the forefront on issues of environment and climate change, today stands as an obstacle for any regulatory measure. Saudi Arabia was not allowed to express its views at the Summit, as it is one of the largest exporters of crude oil and continues to remain firm on its stance. Countries like Russia, China, India, Ethiopia and Turkey pledged to enact the nationally determined contributions in a more effective manner and contribute towards afforestation and renewable energy. These countries are among the highest carbon emitters but are gradually adopting sustainable policies. 

The United Nations Climate Change Conference at Madrid had multiple conferences and summits- COP 25 to the UNFCCC, CMP 15 to the Kyoto Protocol, the meeting of the parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA 2) and Subsidiary Body meetings. COP 25 was to formulate a framework for operationalisation of the Paris Agreement, but there was no consensus on issues of the carbon market and carbon credits. This is yet another conference that has not produced desired results and strong outcomes. Conferences on climate change have hitherto been weak due to lack of similar commitments by countries on certain crucial issues. 

Forecasts for 2020

This section forecasts the possibilities at four different levels- civil society, states, regional and global. 

Civil society

COP 25 ended without a consensus and a framework for implementing the Paris Agreement. It brings us to two important questions- does climate action begin at the individual level? Is climate action more effective when a bottom-up approach is adopted, rather than a bureaucratic top-down approach? Answers can be found in the manner in which civil society is responding to climate change, environmental issues and disaster management. 

Awareness at the individual level and the civil society will only increase in coming years. 2019 climate protests were held mostly in the developed world, but in 2020, awareness and sensitivity towards the environment may increase in the developing countries due to the increased coverage of protests by the media. Greta Thunberg and her techniques of dissent have inspired some youth in the developing world. Notably, of the sixteen children who complained to the UNICEF against government inaction towards climate crisis, six of them are from developing countries- India, Brazil, Argentina, Nigeria, Tunisia and Marshall Islands (UNICEF, 2019). 

The waning commitment of States 

The United States will cease to be a party to the Paris Agreement from 4 November 2020, given that the variables do not change. It would perhaps be the first big international climate change agreement without the US. The effectiveness of international treaties and agreements can be speculated when superpowers not a party to them. It would raise questions about finance and the global clout that is necessary to persuade governments to actually adhere to the provisions of the treaty/agreement. In the case of Paris Agreement, however, other countries from Europe and Asia have stood firm in upholding the importance of the Agreement itself, as well as the cause it stands for. With the lack of consensus in COP 25, further negotiations on the implementation of the Agreement will take place in 2020. But the pressure points and points of contention will continue to haunt the negotiation process among the parties. 

States will also continue to debate on the concept of global commons, particularly juxtaposing it to the Westphalian conception of the State. Brazilian President Bolsonaro had stated that the Amazon is no global heritage, rather, it is a property of Brazil. National interest will continue to be an impediment for climate action, in states such as Brazil in particular. 

Regions

At the regional level, Europe’s Green Deal is a very unique initiative. However, its implementation in the forthcoming year is bound to face some difficulties. Though there is a momentum built by the youngsters involved in the protests, political obstacles can become a hindrance in practically implementing the Deal. Some states in the EU are still heavily dependent on coal and other fossil fuels. Some of them are oil and natural gas exporting countries. Additionally, the EU does not have strict mechanisms to regulate coal-dependent and carbon-emitting industries (Grabbe & Lehne, 2019).  

The Green Deal does not involve all the countries of the EU. Moreover, it does not include non-EU members, thereby not internalizing the carbon footprint of those countries. Even within the EU, there is a political divide between eastern and western Europe. Thus, regional consensus can still be a challenge in the European Union, the most integrated region of the globe. 

Global

There is a clear distinction between developed and developing countries that is evident in international summits like the COP. The issue of trading carbon credits has been a bone of contention between the developed and developing world since the time it was endorsed by the Kyoto Protocol. The developed countries did not agree to the demand for meeting the pre-2020 Kyoto Protocol commitments. Under the Protocol, the developed countries have the responsibility of reducing emissions. The developing countries also demand action on “Common But Differentiated Responsibilities” (CBDR). On the other hand, India, China and Brazil insist that the carbon reduction certificates of the Kyoto Protocol regime must be carried forward to the Paris Agreement. But the developed countries resist this, on the pretext that it will adversely affect the credits in the new market. These issues will come to the fore again, during the 2020 meeting for the Paris Agreement. It seems that the divide between the countries will continue, as CBDR is one of the most important provisions of the Paris Agreement. The problem of carbon market also will not be likely solved in the near future, as India and China have reiterated their stance of raising this in the 2020 meeting. 

The forecast assumes that President Donald Trump will continue in office, though he is impeached by the House of Representatives. Given that the Republican Party controls the Senate, it is unlikely that Trump will cease to continue at White House. He is the first President to run for re-election after being impeached and it is likely that he will be re-elected for the second term. Therefore, US’s current policies on climate change will continue. However, if the Senate under unusual circumstances votes for impeaching Trump, change of leadership might have a shift in the climate policies of the United States. 

The COP 25 was another failed attempt to get the countries on board for expediting climate action. The talks will continue in 2020. The forecast assumes that the logjam will continue because of CBDR and carbon market. Nevertheless, if the UNFCCC or the Secretary-General of the United Nations, convenes a pre-COP meeting to negotiate on these issues specifically, and they arrive at an agreement regarding these mechanisms related to the Kyoto Protocol and pre-2020 commitments, the next COP could result in tangible outcomes. Implementation of the Paris Agreement is perceived as an important step towards a sustainable world, therefore the UN, as well as the countries party to the Agreement, may agree to mitigate differences and contentions. 

References

  1. E&T editorial staff. (2019, March 8). The Institution of Engineering and Technology. Retrieved December 18, 2019, from https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2019/03/finland-to-phase-out-coal-by-2029/
  2. Gopalakrishnan, T. (2019, December 13). Climate Emergency CoP 25: The European Green Deal is far from good enough. Retrieved December 19, 2019, from https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/climate-change/climate-emergency-cop-25-the-european-green-deal-is-far-from-good-enough-68403
  3. Grabbe, H., & Lehne, S. (2019, December 18). Climate Politics in a Fragmented Europe. Retrieved December 19, 2019, from https://carnegieeurope.eu/2019/12/18/climate-politics-in-fragmented-europe-pub-80616
  4. Luckhurst, T. (2019, August 18). Obituary for an Icelandic glacier. Retrieved December 17, 2019, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-49345912
  5. Nilsen, T. (2019, December 11). Arctic Council creates new expert group on nuclear emergencies. The Independent Barents Observer. Retrieved from https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/arctic/2019/12/arctic-council-creates-new-expert-group-nuclear-emergencies
  6. Nkurunziza, B. M. (2019, December 2). Rwanda green fund creates over 138,000 green jobs. Retrieved December 18, 2019, from https://www.newtimes.co.rw/business/rwanda-green-fund-creates-over-138000-green-jobs
  7. Plumb, C., & Costa, L. (2019, December 12). Vale report blames water level for Brazil mining waste dam disaster. Retrieved December 17, 2019, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-vale-brumadinho/vale-report-blames-water-level-for-brazil-mining-waste-dam-disaster-idUSKBN1YG1DK
  8. Taylor, C. (2019, August 22). Fires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest surged by 84per cent  this year, space agency says. Retrieved December 16, 2019, from https://www.cnbc.com/2019/08/21/fires-in-brazils-amazon-rainforest-up-84percent-this-year-space-agency.html
  9. UN News. (2019, September 24). Brazilian President speaks out against ‘media lies’ surrounding. Retrieved December 17, 2019, from https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/09/1047192
  10. Ward, B. (2019, December 11). The high and low points for climate change in 2019. Retrieved December 18, 2019, from https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2019/12/the-high-and-low-points-for-climate-change-in-2019/
  11. Watts, J. (2019, January 29). “The river is dying”: the vast ecological cost of Brazil’s mining disasters. Retrieved December 17, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jan/29/the-river-is-dying-the-vast-ecological-cost-of-brazils-mining-disasters
  12. UNICEF. (2019, September 23). 16 children, including Greta Thunberg, file landmark complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child [Press release]. Retrieved December 18, 2019, from https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/16-children-including-greta-thunberg-file-landmark-complaint-united-nations

Rashmi Ramesh is a PhD Scholar at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

This essay was published at the NIAS Quarterly on Contemporary World Affairs, Vol 2, Issue 1, January-March 2020  

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