Averting the carbon tsunami

Our struggle to combat climate change is described as “fighting the last war” by Kelly Sims Gallagher in her article “The Coming Carbon Tsunami” in the January/February 2022 issue of Foreign Affairs, an American magazine published six times a year by the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization and think tank specializing in US foreign policy and international affairs. Its first issue dates back to September 1922, a few months short of a hundred years today.

As it said then, it “will tolerate wide differences of opinion. Its articles will not represent any consensus of beliefs. What is demanded of them is that they shall be competent and well informed, representing honest opinions seriously held and convincingly expressed….”

It is a favorite journal of mine and today, the article on climate change draws special interest, especially because of the author’s credentials. Gallagher is academic dean and professor of energy and environmental policy and director of the Climate Policy Lab at Tuft University’s Fletcher School. She was also Senior Policy Adviser in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology during the Obama administration.

So what is the grim news of tsunami proportion? Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, countries have released one and a half trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the world’s atmosphere, with the largest coming from, in this order, United States, European countries, China, Russia. Today, they have all emerged prosperous enough to be able to afford policies that can place them on the path to net-zero emissions by the middle of the century. Thus, the top emitting countries would come from the developing world, from countries such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa. These are countries which face the “herculean task” of freeing millions from poverty and adapting to the often painful realities of climate change.

Note how we have in our own country acknowledged how vulnerable we are geographically to nature’s wrath and how the very segment of our population that can least build up and pick up their lives after such ravages is lamentably, always the most adversely affected.

The scenario is not easy to accept. While the efforts of today’s largest polluters to curb emissions is noteworthy, these remain futile if less developed countries cannot pursue their own low-carbon development strategy. The environment needs to be preserved, but simultaneous with such efforts must be to address the poverty problems of millions of people.

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Despite four major climate agreements and dire warnings from scientists, greenhouse gas emissions from all sources increased by 58 percent between 1990 and 2020. Why have global efforts seem unable to meet set goals?

First, in the Paris agreement as with other global environmental agreements, countries do not face harsh consequences for missing their set targets. There is no enforcement mechanism to make the 193 countries honor their submitted nationally determined targets.

Second, emerging economies and industrialized economies have not successfully developed a model of economic growth that does not rely on “fossil fuels and energy-intensive industrialization.” It is pointed out that Japan, South Korea and China adopted the East Asian development model and have emerged among the top ten emitters today. China is attempting to reduce its carbon intensity by switching to renewables and nuclear energy, “but its abandonment of coal” has been slow.

Third, public and private capital for developing countries has not been sufficient for green energy projects. It is said that the International Energy Agency has estimated $4 trillion in annual investments in clean energy is required to decarbonize the global energy system. In Paris, there was the commitment made to mobilize $100 billion each year for developing countries by 2020. That pledge has not been kept.

There is an encouraging tone about arresting the next wave of emissions, as the article concludes, as both developed and developing countries manifest leadership in meeting the challenge that the crisis presents. An example is Indonesia, which is about to institute a modest carbon tax on coal plants, with Mexico and South Africa with carbon taxes already in place. China has finalized a national emission-trading system for power plants and Kazakhstan has its own emission-trading regime. Ethiopia has an economic strategy that focuses on green development with plans to expand electricity supply from renewables – and a reforestation program to boot.

One wonders and fervently hopes the Philippines is developing its own program to address climate change.

It must again be repeated that these developing countries cannot do it all, entirely on their own – financing and policy support is needed, even as the world’s two largest economies, the United States and China, have not shown climate leadership.

Gallagher calls this “abdication of leadership” as a sign that the ball is now in the court of major developing countries, like India, Indonesia and South Africa to lead the way to a new approach. They have shown their capability for innovation but again, need assistance in terms of resources and policy from developed countries to transition to low-carbon development medals.

This support from the rich economies who have, after all, become wealthy by “pumping the lion’s share of carbon into the atmosphere” is the only way to go, to meet this carbon tsunami head on.

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Young Writers’ Hangout on May 28 with Joyce Bernales (“The Secret of Good Stories”), 2 -3 p.m. Write Things’ six-day summer workshop “Writefest” (now on its 8th year) has begun with guest author Edgar Samar and continues till May 27, 3-4:30 pm every session. Our second special guest is poet Dinah Roma. Workshop facilitators are Roel SR Cruz and Sofi Bernedo. It’s high time our young writers get to know our Philippine authors!

Contact writethingsph@gmail.com. 0945.2273216

Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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