Urgent climate emergency measures

This is my third column on the climate emergency.

In the first article, I summarized the latest scientific information on climate change, which collectively point to the conclusion that what we are facing is a climate emergency. The familiar way of framing the issue – that climate change is a long-term challenge and we still have the time to address it effectively – is no longer tenable. Climate change is already here and it will get much worse, and the worst impacts will be felt by 2050 or even earlier. In addition, we only have 11 years from today – up to 2030 – to transform the global economy to avert the worst scenarios for 2020.

In my column last Saturday, I wrote about the impacts of the climate emergency on the poor. Citing mainly a recent report on climate change and poverty by Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, I highlighted how the climate emergency will exacerbate economic inequity and social injustice.

In this column, citing extensively again from the Alston report and also from a colleague from the World Resources Institute (WRI),  I write about the solutions. Truth be told, climate science might be complex but what we need to do to mitigate and to adapt to climate change  does not require hard science.

I endorse the view of Mr. Alston that addressing climate change effectively require a fundamental shift in the global economy. It requires rejecting the traditional way States have achieved  prosperity, “decoupling improvements in economic well-being and poverty reduction from resource depletion, fossil fuel emissions, and waste production”. According to the Alston report,

“This will entail radical and systemic changes including incentives, pricing, regulation, and resource allocation, in order to disrupt unsustainable approaches and reflect environmental costs in entire economic subsystems including energy, agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and transportation.”

Much of post-industrial poverty reduction and economic growth has been based on unsustainable resource extraction and exploitation. Certain people and countries have gotten incredibly wealthy through emissions without paying for the costs to the environment and human health—costs borne disproportionately by people in poverty. Staying the course will not preserve growth in the long term, but will be disastrous for the global economy and pull hundreds of millions into poverty. Climate action should not be viewed as an impediment to economic growth but as an impetus for decoupling economic growth from emissions and resource extraction, and a catalyst for a green economic transition, labour rights improvements, and poverty elimination efforts.

Climate change will require deep structural changes in the world economy. It is imperative this is done in a way that provides necessary support, protects workers, creates good jobs, and is guided by international labour standards. A robust social safety net and a well-managed transition to a green economy will be the best response to the unavoidable harms that climate change will bring.”

There is no way around this need to transform the global economy. As WRI’s Kelly Levin  put it when the 1.5 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out last year: “While there have been examples of rapid change in specific technologies or sectors in the past, there is no precedent in our documented history for the rate of change at the scale required for limiting warming to 1.5˚C. In other words, we have never before witnessed such widespread, rapid transitions, and they will need to be made across energy, land, industrial, urban and other systems, as well as across technologies and geographies.

Alston points out that renewable energy will create jobs and  energy-efficient investments will lead to greater energy savings and fewer emissions. He also emphasizes the positive impacts of climate adaption and a sustainable economy on healthcare costs and preventing environmental degradation. It could  “restore overused and exhausted resources, increase food and water security, and reduce poverty and inequality”

The Alston report cites how twenty-three countries have succeeded in decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions. Renewable energy, carbon pricing, and green subsidies and jobs, are solid economic strategies that work for the poor.

But let’s be clear, while we know what we should be doing, it won’t be easy getting these to happen. But what prevent us from addressing the climate emergency effectively are social and political, not technological or economic, barriers.

According to Levin: “There’s no sugarcoating it.  Keeping warming to 1.5˚C will be hard. Really hard. But the IPCC report also makes it clear that the world has the scientific understanding, the technological capacity and the financial means to tackle climate change. Now what we need is the political will to precipitate the unprecedented concerted actions necessary to stabilize temperature rise below 1.5 C.”

Governments, the private sector, local governments and communities, families and individuals have roles to play. The youth have a particular role to play.

Governments must take the lead by declaring a global climate emergency and increasing their commitments in the Paris Agreement. According to Alston: “Climate change should be a catalyst for States to fulfil long ignored and overlooked economic and social rights, including to social security, water and sanitation, education, food, healthcare, housing, and decent work. Revenue from climate action including emissions control and tax restructuring should be used to fund social protection programs to protect those affected.”

Developed countries and the big developing countries must still take the lead. But middle income countries and the least developed counties, including the most vulnerable, must also reduce emissions. The richer counties must increase their financial assistance to developing counties so that the latter can adapt better and contribute more to mitigate climate change.

We should assign and send more, not less, diplomats to the annual climate change negotiations. We should rejoin the Like Minded Developing Countries bloc and there carry the banner of climate justice.

We might want to revisit our climate governance system, based on a flawed design of a Climate Change Commission (CCC) headed by the President. I have worked with all four of the Vice-Chairs of the CCC since it was established in 2010 and they have been dedicated and committed but with a system designed to fail, they have had to deal with enormous challenges. I prefer a new department perhaps combined with our disaster resilience needs or with the current environment department as a way forward.

For sure, as Alston highlights it, companies can provide and implement solutions to climate change, but he warns that an overreliance on voluntary, private sector efforts would be wrong. According to Alston: “Climate change is a market failure, and voluntary emissions reduction commitments will only go so far  . . . An over-reliance on the private sector could lead to a climate apartheid scenario in which the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict, while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”

Local governments must now take the lead in addressing the climate change. Hundreds of local governments have now declared a climate emergency. Young and progressive leaders lead the cities of Manila, Pasig, San Juan, Makati, Quezon City, Valenzuela, and Dumaguete and the province of Dinagat Islands, among others. They should make this a priority and have their councils declare a climate emergency, prioritizing climate change adaptation and mitigation measures.

Finally, the youth have the most important role in what has to be done to fight the climate emergency. I encourage and support the climate strike movement inspired by Greta Thunberg of Sweden. Young people have the most at stake in the climate emergency. They also have the energy and courage to insist on what has to be done.

The climate emergency is the biggest challenge the world faces. The Philippines is going to be particularly hit by it. Working together, we still have time – not much yes, but enough – to avert the worst. But we have to start now.

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