COP26 promise to ‘end deforestation by 2030’ is not worth the pulp and paper it’s written on
by Bernice Maxton-Lee
World leaders at the climate meeting in Glasgow are celebrating their agreement to stop deforestation by 2030, specifically naming Indonesia, Brazil, and Democratic Republic of Congo. The pledge is being hailed as the meeting’s first major deal, but in reality it is little more than a cheap, gaudy toy. If it weren’t so pathetic, it would almost be funny that this is being suggested as something new, clever, or remotely useful.
The idea of protecting forests as ‘the lungs of our planet‘ is old wine in new bottles. Indonesia’s former President Yudhoyono invoked the term back in 2012. Forest conservation has been a favourite of climate discussions for decades, as an easy, low resistance way of tackling climate change. It looks like a no-brainer: trees suck up carbon emissions and do lots of other things humans find useful, so why not kill two birds with one stone, and keep the trees standing? But we know perfectly well too, that for 20 years there has been no reduction in deforestation or emissions. In fact, both have risen.
An Executive Director at Chatham House Sustainability Accelerator, which produced a report to COP26 promoting the Amazon rainforest as an important building block in a climate agreement, said this deal is ‘a really important step’ to keeping global temperature rises below 1.5C, but that ‘the devil is in the detail’. Actually, the devil is in the whole idea in the first place, but economists and finance evangelists will now have their fun with discussions about how best to put a financial value on the carbon content of forests, and the biodiversity and ecosystem services they supposedly provide to the global economy. None of this is new, and none of it has even begun to make a dent in the real source of greenhouse gas emissions, despite years of refinement and practice.
In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol presented forest conservation as a magic bullet for mitigating climate change. Since then, billions of US dollars have been spent in rainforest countries on legal reforms, governance improvement, and transparency drives (all of which, by an amazing coincidence, are keystones of neoliberal free market ideology). Certification programmes (of which there are almost too many to count) have sprung up to encourage responsible consumer engagement in palm oil, soy, and timber markets (regulated by the very companies that produce those goods), conservation enclosures have been funded by big energy companies (who naturally support any alternative to a restriction on fossil fuel use), and national payments to rainforest countries have been promised (and sometimes made) by apparently beneficent wealthy industrialised countries like Norway (much of whose wealth comes from fossil fuel extraction and export). Yet despite all these activities (we might even say because of them) global emissions have risen at terrifying rates, and forest cover has fallen.
Deforestation is not the most important source of global long-term emissions, and nor are they now the most reliable carbon sinks. As the climate warms, forests are now turning from carbon sinks to carbon contributors. Their ability to absorb carbon is fading, thanks to greater heat and water stress. Many are also dying. If we actually want to prevent runaway climate change, there is a much quicker and more effective way to reduce emissions, which is to stop burning fossil fuels.
But we shouldn’t expect any new ideas when the old ones still have such appeal to an audience that doesn’t want fundamental change. The deforestation agenda is, in fact, a massive smoke screen, designed to detract attention from the real emissions problem.
The real cause of the emissions driving climate change is the fossil fuel combusting global economic engine. Global climate change is caused by anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, and most greenhouse gas emissions come overwhelmingly from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes like cement production and chemical and metal processes. The vast majority of these have historically been emitted by countries in the Global North since the Industrial Revolution, which makes US President Joe Biden’s rant against China at the opening of COP26 especially nauseating. The rise in emissions from developing and later developed countries like India and China follows the model of industrialisation, economic growth through large-scale production, and compulsory participation in global trade prescribed by the Global North. But that essential context is omitted from the hypocritical finger-wagging lectures of rich countries.
Pretending to save the world’s rainforests is simply a more cost effective policy for the Global North, and an easier concept for their economists, businesses, politicians, and voters to accept, because it effectively means they have to do nothing. This way, rich countries get to maintain their status quo, and dictate the terms of engagement, while shirking the consequences of their historical and continuing actions.
One of my favorite moments in human history was when Alan Greenspan, the legendary chairman of the Federal Reserve, had to admit in front of a congressional committee that he never really understood how the economy works (you can find the quote and the reference here). BTW, if you are under any illusion that mainstream economists learn from their mistakes, I encourage you to google the word bitcoin. Or read this article by Paul Krugman.
Another person who apparently never understood anything is William T. Nordhaus, recipient of the The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 2018. The point is not that his conclusions about managing climate change were all wrong. The real outrage is that they were based on completely ridiculous assumptions, as pointed about by Professor Steve Keen in a paper appropriately titled “The appallingly bad neoclassical economics of climate change”.
I will try to be more polite in my choice of words than professor Keen, but my conclusion is the same: Classical economic theory cannot be applied to climate change, because we are facing a situation where all societal structures could break down. If you believe that I am exaggerating, I encourage you to read “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy” by Hannah Arendt. Her starting point is a quote by Winston Churchill: “Scarcely anything, material or established, which I was brought up to believe was permanent and vital, has lasted. Everything I was sure, or was taught to be sure, was impossible, has happened.” She then points out that “We – at least the older ones among us – have witnessed the total collapse of all established moral standards in public and private life during the 1930s and 40s.” My father was already alive the last time society collapsed. There is no reason to be believe that this could not happen again. As a matter of fact, it is already happening in many parts of the world.
Only if we are prepared to accept the magnitude of the challenges facing us, will we have any chance of responding in an appropriate fashion. Basing our decisions on an already discredited theory does not seem very clever.
Furthermore, I believe that Global Climate Compensation is a realistic proposition for halting climate destruction, ensuring global stability, and alleviating poverty.
Frau Bundesrätin Simonetta Sommaruga und viele andere Politiker*innen haben sich vor zwei Jahren von der Klimajugend beeindruckt gezeigt. Das ist schön und gut, aber eigentlich sind es die gewählten Politiker*innen, die sich um die Zukunftsstrategie der Nation kümmern sollten, und nicht die Schulkinder.
Ich bin auch von der Klimajugend und ihrem Climate Action Plan begeistert. Sorgen macht mir eher die Nicht-Klimajugend. Wir dürfen nicht vergessen, dass die grosse Mehrheit der Jugendlichen sich anscheinend gar nicht für ihre eigene Zukunft interessiert. Wenn Studierende unserer Hochschule eine Nachhaltigkeitswoche organisieren, sind leider nur einige Studiengänge vertreten. Die grosse Mehrheit der Studierenden scheint nicht verstanden zu haben, dass die Welt sich verändert hat. Das ist übrigens an der ETH nicht anders. Ich finde dieses Verhalten merkwürdig. Der Generalsekretär der UNO nennt es selbstmörderisch. Wer nicht bereit ist, auf einem sinkenden Schiff mit dem Pumpen auszuhelfen, ist nicht besonders schlau.
Wir stehen vor gigantischen Herausforderungen. Ein Teil der Lösung wird sicher der komplette Umbau der globalen Energieinfrastruktur sein. Die Frage ist nur, wer die ganze Arbeit machen soll. Wer heute Energie und Umwelttechnik studiert, erwirbt nicht nur das richtige Wissen für die Zukunft, sondern hat bereits am Ende des Studiums das richtige Netzwerk für eine erfolgreiche und sinnstiftende Karriere.
Die Generalversammlung und der Frühlingsanlass von swisscleantech vom 3. Mai hat wieder gezeigt, wie schnell sich die Wirtschaft verändert. Die Mitglieder dieses Wirtschaftsverbandes haben mehr als 400’000 Angestellte und das Netzwerk wächst schnell. Die grösste Sorge dieser Firmen ist inzwischen, dass sie nicht genug qualifizierte Arbeitskräfte finden werden.
Übrigens, es lohnt sich, die Agenda 2030 von swisscleantech zu lesen. Sie fasst sehr gut zusammen, was wir tun müssen.
„Wenn der Wind der Veränderung weht, bauen die einen Mauern und die anderen Windmühlen.“
United wishes and good will cannot overcome brute facts. Truth is incontrovertible. Panic may resent it. Ignorance may deride it. Malice may distort it. But there it is.
Here is an interesting graph from September 2020 to start the new year.
Obviously, the world is not even close to having an idea about a plan for preventing catastrophic climate change. It is a bit worrying when the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases are either “highly” or “critically” insufficient in meeting their climate protection goals.
There are two reasons for this sad state of affairs:
By sticking to the idea of economic growth, governments have essentially been trying to square the circle by accomplishing something which is physically impossible.
There is no incentive for politicians to admit their own inadequacy. When was the last time you heard about a politician who resigned because he realized that he was not up to the job?
This leaves us in a precarious situation, where the people entrusted with climate policy are either unable or unwilling to do what is required to prevent catastrophic climate change. Instead, they put on a charade of pretending to be concerned to appease the masses. If the last four years have taught us anything, it is that “telling the people the lies they want to hear” can be a successful and dangerous strategy.
The incontrovertible fact is that our current approach to tackling the climate crisis has failed and that the people in charge have no idea what to do next. It is therefore not enough to demand that our politicians do something. We need to tell them what to do!
Global Climate Compensation (GCC) offers a simple solution based on the idea that the people responsible for destroying the climate should pay for the damage done. It will not solve all our problems, but it would be a huge step in the direction. It is also completely risk-free and could be implemented immediately. It is a lot better than doing nothing
I am actively trying to promote GCC. Please let me know if you like the idea and believe that you can help.