International Politics and the Environment
2018 has been a rough year so far. This year has seen some deadliest natural disasters including hurricanes, hailstorms, heat waves, floods and forest fires causing loss of human lives and severe property damages around the world. How has international politics played a role in all this?
Scientists have found that there ia strong link between climate change and extreme weather events. Uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions and exploitation of natural resources are increasing Earth’s average temperature. The challenges posed by climate change are global that require international level cooperation.
This month’s cover story details how international politics affect the environment and how effective are these agreements to improve the environmental quality of planet Earth.
The earliest environmental movements can be traced back to Jainism in ancient India. Jainism’s core values were associated with environmental activism by the protection of life and natural habitats. The Arab scientists, including Al-Kindi, Qusta Ibn Luqa, Al-Masihi, Ali ibn Ridwan, and Isaac Israeli ben Solomon, during 9th – 13th centuries, also wrote notable information about environmental science in their books.
Modern environmentalism gained momentum right after the end of World War-II in the 1950s. Unregulated post-war industrial revolution resulted in severe environmental pollution. The Great Smog of London (1952) paralyzed the British Capital and believed to have caused 6,000 deaths making it one of the worst nightmares in the continent after WW-II. This is when they passed the first Clean Air Act in 1956 to control air pollution in the United Kingdom. Most of the people in Europe and North America began to develop the consciousness to address the environmental issues at regional and international levels. In 1972, the UN General Assembly declared 5th June as the World Environment Day to encourage awareness about environmental protection just two years following the declaration of annual Earth Day on 22nd April, 1970. In May 1985, the shocking discovery of the ozone hole was first confirmed by British Antarctic Survey scientists. The research revealed that Chlorofluorocarbons chemicals were causing Ozone layer depletion which protects our planet earth from harmful ultraviolet rays. The alarming impacts of greenhouse emissions from burning fossil fuels and deforestation made the front-page news headline in The New York Times for the first time in 1988.
History of International Environmental Agreements of Modern Times
Environmental degradation had become a major international issue by 1980s. We’ve included a few important international treaties on the environmental protection to manage the effects of climate change signed by different countries from the early 1980s till now.
Montreal Protocol 1989 (Canada)
The treaty for banning ozone layer depleting hazardous substances was signed following the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer happened in 1985. This international agreement was aimed to phase out the production of infamous chlorofluorocarbon chemicals responsible for ozone depletion. Destruction of this protective gaseous layer over the atmosphere could significantly increase the risk of skin cancer by allowing the most harmful UV rays to reach the earth surface.
Rio Convention on Biodiversity 1992 (Brazil)
The treaty also known as CBD or the Biodiversity Convention, was signed in Rio de Janeiro and became effective from 1993. Its three main goals include:
To protect and conserve biodiversity
To make sustainable use of its natural resources, and
The fair and justifiable sharing of benefits coming from these resources.
The United States of America had signed but not ratified the treaty. Excluding the US, all UN member countries have signed and ratified the Rio Biodiversity Convention 1992.
Kyoto Protocol 1997 (Japan)
It was the first major international treaty on regulating greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming. In order to make the agreement justifiable and globally acceptable, the developed industrialized countries were required to cut their annual greenhouse gas emissions while those developing countries were offered relaxation. The United States signed but refused to ratify the agreement arguing that exempting ‘economies in transition’ was unfair. Canada which was the part of the Kyoto Protocol also withdrew from the agreement later. Australia was the last developed country to sign and ratify it. At least 29 countries either refused to sign, ratify or withdrew from this international treaty to control global warming.
Stockholm Convention on POPs 2001 (Sweden)
The convention was signed in 2001 and became effective from 2004. This international agreement was aimed to restrict the production and use of hazardous persistent organic pollutants, also known as ‘POPs’, in all the signatory nations. POPs are known to be absorbed by plants and animals. These persistent chemicals can affect the whole food web in the ecosystem through bio-accumulation and very toxic to all plants and animals including humans. As of 2018, nearly all countries have signed the agreement leaving Israel, USA, Italy, and Malaysia the only few non-ratifying countries in the world.
COP-21 2015 (France)
This is the latest international agreement on climate change happened in Paris 3 years ago. The 21st Conference of Parties was a part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) held in Brazil. The agreed objective of the UNFCCC is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent dangerous levels of human interference with the climate system. The signatories agreed to set new emission targets to limit global warming to 2⁰C above pre-industrial levels, which is believed to be the maximum safe permissible limit. The environmental scientists have already warned that if we fail to keep greenhouse emissions under control, climate change could accelerate causing extreme weather conditions and rising sea levels etc. At least 174 countries had signed the COP21 in follow up meeting held on annual Earth Day 2016 in New York, USA. In November 2017, Syria, the war-torn state, was the last one to sign Paris climate agreement leaving the US the only non-ratifying state in the world! The news came as no surprise when President Donald J. Trump announced that his ‘superpower’ nation wasn’t interested in ratifying the COP21.
Criticism and Controversies
Many international treaties on global warming, climate change and environmental pollution have been signed but we always fail to meet most of the targets set in those agreements. International political analysts and economists find few reasons for not achieving the goals to limit global warming.
Global superpowers are immune to the agreements
The United States of America alone produces more than 15% of global greenhouse emissions resulting from fossil fuel combustion and industrial process but the this ‘superpower’ almost never signs or ratifies most of the international agreements on the environment. The US refused to be the part of Kyoto Protocol and Canada, the 2nd largest country of North America, withdrew from the treaty later. Australia also refused to recognize Kyoto protocol at first saying that since countries like China and India was given ‘exemptions’ for being the ‘developing economies’, it is pointless for other (developed) nations to sign it and cut their part of emissions. Where the world is switching to renewable energy, the US does not see it ‘viable’ for them to replace coal-fired power plants with cleaner sources of power generation in near future. The North American superpower still produces 30% of total electricity by burning coal which is the dirtiest form of fossil fuels. The analysts predict that coal power plants will continue to operate even after 2040 unless the US government makes a drastic change in energy and environmental policies.
Developing countries not yet ready to go green
Poor or developing nations’ excuse for not following strict emission control is quite simple; they cannot afford pollution control technology because their industries face tough competition at regional and international levels. They also lack the educated and skilled workforce to improve their environmental quality and cut greenhouse gas emissions. The governments of emerging economies argue that they cannot achieve green goals without receiving financial and technical assistance from developed economies. Most populous countries including China, India, Brazil, Pakistan, and Indonesia are facing worsening air quality and devastating natural and man-made disasters linked to climate change. These countries still use poor quality fuels, they do not have the adequate waste management system and deforestation rates are dangerously high. Corruption and mismanagement are also among several major hindrances to combat global warming and environmental pollution in the developing world.
Political rivalries hindering mutual cooperation
Warfare and military exercises directly impact the global climate change while cold wars are just as damaging for the environment. ‘Unfriendly nations’ do not welcome people from ‘rival states’. This behaviour sometimes becomes a big hindrance in technology transfer for sustainable development. China, Cuba, India and North Korea are notoriously known for arresting and deporting foreigners visiting those countries for work. Foreign training and aid workers are often barred from working in different developing countries as they are accused of spying for their international rivals.
Superpowers claiming immunity, developing nations incapable of adapting to new technology and political rivalries make these international treaties ineffective most of the times. We are unlikely to achieve green goals without addressing these key issues at the international level.
Targets achieved so far
Despite poor compliance and uncooperative behavior of member states, the world has managed to achieve several green goals through global agreements on climate change. Following are the few examples of how global cooperation can make this world green again!
Euro Vehicle Emission Standards: In 1992, the European Union decided to limit motor vehicle emissions by manufacturing cleaner cars and better quality fuel. Eliminating harmful particulate matter emission and nitrogen oxide (NOX) from diesel fuel oil was the biggest challenge. Sulphur content in diesel is responsible for black soot emission from tailpipes. The first (1992) Euro-I standard fuel contained around 5000 ppm sulphur in diesel fuel which has gradually been reduced to less than 10 ppm in the latest (2015) Euro-VI standard. The European Commission for the Environment also made strict pollution control standards for vehicle’s engines. All the regional and intercontinental automakers are required to make eco-friendly vehicles to minimize CO2, CO, NOx and PM emissions. Thanks to strict emission control measures, now the European Union is producing the cleanest fuel and the most eco-friendly cars in the world. However, they are still not satisfied and looking forward to achieving another milestone by entirely eliminating diesel and petrol engine vehicles from big cities by 2040. London, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Madrid and Milan have already announced their plans to phase out fossil fuel cars. All the major European cities will only allow Electric Vehicles or maybe clean diesel and petrol hybrid cars to ply on the roads in near future. The Euro standard has been adopted by several developing countries outside Europe as well. Our neighbors India and Iran are already producing Euro-V standard fuel leaving Pakistan and Nepal the only few countries in South Asia still following Euro-II standard. Cutting harmful emissions through better quality fuel and advanced technology is not only helpful for specific regions but it also helps in controlling global warming by reducing greenhouse gases.
Clean Energy Movement: The People’s Republic of China is now the largest emitter followed by the US, EU, India and Russia. China had committed in the 2015 COP21 to progressively increase the cleaner share of its total energy to 20%. The Chinese government reformed its National Energy Strategy (2016-2030) right after signing the Paris agreement. The coal-fired power plants will be phased out in next few decades thanks to EU agreements on sustainable development because China is home to several European businesses’ manufacturing units. The country is now on track to become the leader of renewable energy in the Asia. The transition toward renewables is also gaining pace in emerging economies of South America, Asia Pacific, Europe, and South Asia. Costa Rica had claimed to generate 99% of its total electricity from clean renewable resources in 2015. Sweden is all set to become the world’s first 100% fossil fuel free nation by entirely phasing out the use of fossil fuels within the country. Swedish auto giant Volvo will only manufacture EVs and Hybrid vehicles from 2019. Scotland produces 85% – 95% of the country’s domestic electricity needs from wind turbines. Kenya is also keen to replace fossil fuels by eco-friendly energy options. The East African state generates electricity from geothermal power. Kenya is also going to build the continent’s largest 310 MW wind turbine farm to add another 20% of total energy in its national grid. The combined share of renewable clean energy will help Kenya generate more than 70% of total energy needs.
Ozone Layer is Recovering: Nearly 30 years after The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer came into effect, we’ve got a bit of good news for planet earth. Collaborative efforts to eliminate ozone-depleting hazardous chemicals are now paying off. NASA has confirmed that international ban on CFCs has resulted in about 20% less ozone depletion than it was in 2005. Data analysis of NASA’s Aura satellite image revealed that the ozone hole is on its way to recovery and situation is improving as developing countries are also switching to ozone-friendly refrigerant chemicals. It’s pertinent to mention that stratospheric ozone layer protects life on the planet by absorbing dangerous ultraviolet radiation that can cause severe burns, skin cancer, can damage eyesight, weaken immune system and lethal for plants. The scientists claim that the ozone hole will eventually become a thing of the past if the entire world switches to CFC free chemicals.
How does Climate Change affect People Worldwide?
The climate change has cost the US more than $350 Billion over the last decade. The global superpower’s strong and reliant economy is capable of paying for the destruction caused by nature furies as the nation is also among the top 5 emitters in the world. However, the devastating impacts of climate change are not just limited to those regions directly responsible for global warming. Natural disasters are happening around the globe equally affecting those who don’t emit a large volume of greenhouse gases at all. The Maldives is a clear example of how environmental destruction caused by the industrial giants could prove costly for the poor nations. The tourist island of South Asia merely emits 3.5 tons (per capita) CO2 and going to be the ‘carbon neutral’ by the year 2020. Nevertheless, the Republic of Maldives is extremely vulnerable to rising sea level and could be swallowed by the Indian Ocean by 2050. Rapidly melting glaciers could be just as damaging for Hawaii and other small islands in the Pacific Ocean. Pakistan has blamed India for escalating smog due to coal-fired power plants in the Indian side. There are 4 thermal power plants in Indian Punjab and 9 in Rajasthan near the Indo-Pak international border. Boundaries cannot restrict pollution from entering the neighbor countries; only international treaties can reduce pollution. The agriculture sector is also bearing the brunt of climate change. The shift in rainfall pattern, extreme weather conditions and droughts are more detrimental for those developing economies reliant on agriculture. Pakistan’s annual greenhouse emissions are one of the lowest in the world, yet it has been ranked 7th most vulnerable country to climate change. Droughts, deforestation, glacier meltdown and floods are affecting millions of Pakistanis every year.
China or America: who emits more greenhouse gases?
The burning question is, which country is the largest polluter in the world? Looking at the amount of annual CO2 emissions, one can undoubtedly say it is China. However, it isn’t as simple as it might seem. In fact, China is the top global polluter with the highest amount of greenhouse emissions but critics argue that it is not fair to rank countries by the volume of emissions without comparing their population and economy sizes. Therefore, to make a fair and justifiable comparison, the environmental economists measure emissions per capita of different countries. This method compares emissions in terms of CO2 emitted per person; the USA has an approximate population of 327 million inhabitants where 1420 million (1.42 billion) people live in China. The concept of per capita emissions gives a much clearer picture of countries’ carbon footprint. Qatar, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, United Arab Emirates and Australia have much bigger carbon footprint than China, India, Pakistan, Brazil and rest of South America with significantly more per capita carbon emissions. Qatar with 2.64 million population tops with 47.8 tons per capita where Singapore which is home to 5.61 million people barely emits 11.25 tons per capita greenhouse gasses. Pakistan stands at the bottom of the list with surprisingly low 0.98 tons per capita CO2 emissions.
Climate Change Facts
The Earth’s average temperature will continue to rise; ranging from 2°C to 6°C by 2100.
Three times more people would be exposed to the risk of flooding by 2030.
The ocean surface water is 26% more acidic now since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Two-thirds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been irreversibly damaged by coral bleaching as a result of the rise in seawater.
Complying with the COP21 to tackle global warming could add at least $26 trillion to the global economy by 2030
Old bacteria and viruses trapped in the permafrost for centuries are reviving as a result of glacier meltdown. As the ice melts, the ‘hibernated’ infectious agents may be released causing deadly disease outbreaks worldwide.
UNHCR warns that climate change-related disasters can create more refugees forced to flee their homes destroyed by nature furies.
Writers: Sultan Kiani / Prof. Farrukh Chishtie