COP26 is over. It’s all over. After 2 weeks of negotiations, speeches, commitments, scandal (like extractive company Santos being given centre stage at the Australian booth), protests, cries for change from some countries, and a certain level of denial of the role of fossil fuels by other countires countries, COP26 has ended with a weak Glasgow Climate Pact that has led the COP President to solemly apologise. At the end of the summit Alok Sharma said in an emotional speech,
“May I just say to all delegates I apologise for the way this process has unfolded. I also understand the deep disappointment but I think, as you have noted, it’s also vital that we protect this package.”
At the beginning of the of the summit, UN Secretary General along with many leaders called for the need to strengthen the Paris Agreement and limit warming to 1.5 degrees celcius, which some argue is already out of reach. There was also a goal to look at phasing out coal and fossil fuels. So, by these expectations alone, the outcomes of COP26 have been deemed a failure.
Earlier in the week the draft statement was released calling for Parties to “accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels”. This text was monumental in the history of mulitlateral environmental pledges. Despite being in draft form, and a loose symbolic statement, it was somewhat of a win for envirnomental activists everywhere because it was the first time the need to phase out fossil fuels had made it into COP.
That win was short-lived when several countries which have been unnamed but we know included Australia were working to water down key proposals around the phasing out of fossil fuels. The final text agreed upon interrupted by a last minute intervention by India says that Parties should “phase down” the use of unabated coal and fossil fuel subsidies. It also left a numer of loopholes for the continued extraction of fossil fuels.
From an international legal perspective, the problem is that statments like the one made at COP are not legally binding. What matters in that respect is if and how countries pass the commitments made into their own legislation. Once there is proof of widespread state practice and opinio juris (a sense of obligation), then they become customary international law, which in theory makes them binding, but in practice it is a lot more complicated, especially in the absence of an international court for the environment.
The next problem is in the wording, which has been the bane of some of the progressive countries, as well as activists in the days before the signing of the declaration. The subtle change in wording from “phasing out” to “phasing down” is not insignificant because language matters in international law. A key component of international law and whether or not states are held to account is ‘interpretation’ of legal documents. As Odile Aman says, “[I] nterpretation is not a mere technical device, but a political matter of the utmost importance: it may eventually depend on which interpretative method is applied whether a state (or any other actor, for that matter) can be accused of an internationally wrongful act, or whether it will be regarded as having stayed faithful to its commitments.”
COP27 has been scheduled for November 2022 in Egypt. The time in between now and then is a critical moment for states to demonstrate the commitments pledged in this pact by strengthening and introducing genuine and radical policies and legislation domestically.
It will also be a critical time for activists and environmentally concerned citizens to ramp up the pressure and work at change at the grassroots level. People power is essential! For Australians with the Federal election coming up, your vote can be an important driver for change. Changing behaviours, mindsets and attitudes is as important as changing legislation and policy. One reinforces the other.
There are now many complimentary frameworks and guidelines that can help us accelerate the change towards a more sustainable planet – at both the local governmental level, and at the level of people and communities. These frameworks can work together to guide transformative change.
If you are interested in how the framework for Buen Vivir can work in either your community or your local government, check out my book and other writings on Buen Vivir and please get in touch for ways this might be implemented in your local context.
Time to change the economic system
We are in a critical climate moment. As discussed in parts I and II of this post we know that we need transformative change. We know we need all actors to play a pivotal role. We know that we need to prioritize knowledge and voices of Indigenous peoples and traditional groups, who have a deep and inherent connection to the earth. We also know that we need political buy-in and multilateral commitments for a crisis that knows no geographical boundaries. Most of all, we know that we need wholesale systemic change – social, political, and economic. Let’s discuss that last point.
As Naomi Klein puts it in her book ‘On Fire’, “debates about climate action remain trapped in a paradigm that equates quality of life with personal prosperity and wealth accumulation.” We know, however, (and by we, I am referring to not just you and I, but politicians from all ideological perspectives, as well as economists and academics) that this perverse view of economics is no longer attainable, sustainable nor desirable. As the number of rich shrink, while simultaneously growing their wealth by billions, the vast mass of people living in poverty snowballs. The current global economic system exploits the planet and its resources for the benefit of very few, while those most disadvantaged will be the worst impacted by climate change.
Klein argues that in this respect “there is much to learn from Indigenous-led movements” like Buen Vivir, which she describes as a “focus on the right to a good life as opposed to the more-and-more life of ever-escalating consumption and planned obsolescence.”
Phasing out coal, moving away from extractive policies including fossil fuels and biofuels, moving towards a needs-based approach to resource consumption, towards renewables with an emphasis on community-based and small-scale renewable energy transitions will need to be part of the solution. Moving away from fossil fuels is the bare minimum, but it is not the magic bullet to save the planet from destruction. We need to do more. It is not good enough to replace one form of large-scale extraction (fossil fuels) with another just because it is the easier option the lesser of two evils. Non-fossil fuel extraction and exploitation also has negative, irreversible impacts on the planet’s carrying capacity, if not in the short term, in generations to come. Deforestation one major extractive activity but there are others. So effective solutions start with transforming the global economic model.
Major key adjustments need to be made to the global economic system, and national economies and development policies can begin to immediately reflect a wholescale commitment to striving for rapid and radical emissions reductions, and aiming for Net Zero by 2030. The UN says that countries will have to commit to at least 45 percent emissions reductions by 2030 if we are to have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. Climate Council of Australia argues that this will need to be more like a 75 percent reduction by 2030, with Net Zero by 2035 based on current risk assessments. However, a new assessment conducted by Breakthrough, the National Centre for Climate Restoration argues that there is no carbon budget for 2030 as we are already overdrawn and that based on past emissions we are already on track to reach 1.5 degrees by 2030. Net Zero by 2050 is too late, yet loose ‘targets’ made by countries like Australia are locking us into climate catastrophe.
Released in a briefing paper earlier this year, Breakthrough argues that we will need to reach Net Zero by 2030 to keep warming below 2 degrees, a fact that has been argued by many climate scientists and advocates including Greta Thunberg. It states, “The world needs to be at zero emissions by 2030 for the 2°C target, based on three assumptions: 1. Mitigation expenditure no more than 3% of GDP; 2. No geoengineering; 3. Climate sensitivity is not low (Lamontagne et al, 2019. Nature Climate Change, 9:290–294).”
Whatever the commitment, to reach Net Zero we need a complete transformation of the global economic system. The CSIRO says, “Reaching Net Zero will require a fundamental reimagining of everything we do. It will require a new energy system, new modes of transport, new fuels, new materials, new modes of financing investments, new ways for industry sectors to interact and new ways of living on a scale – and at a pace we have never come close to achieving before.” But it’s not enough to assume that we can technologically innovate our way out of this. We also need a reimagining of society to transform the way, scale and speed at which we consume. To quote journalist Sarah O’Connor,
“To this new world, let’s not go back to a past that wasn’t working anyway !”
The global capitalist system that rewards competition and the exploitation of nature for the accumulation of individual wealth can no longer be logically and ethically argued as best system for an economy bounded by social injustices and planetary restraints.
In the near future, greater, more radical changes to the global economic system will need to be made. There are many proposals that policymakers and economists can consider, for example: degrowth, the social and solidarity economy, regenerative economy, and a circular society (which not only incorporates a circular economy, but also social and environmental factors including knowledge that impinge just outcomes).
It may be that no one single alternative model will be appropriate to transition markets to Net Zero, instead, key elements of the various significant models can be incorporated into one cohesive response that can be tailored to different contexts, so as not to reinforce the economic growth approach, but to level global equity, respond to fundamental needs and eliminate extreme poverty. With the last factor, it is instrumental to evaluate multidimensional poverty (environmental, wellbeing, social cohesion, health, education, sanitation, etc), not just economic poverty.
The path to Net Zero is not a linear one. It involves all actors – civil, governmental, business and organisations -and it requires rapid, radical systemic change to transform society, industry and politics in a just manner.
What’s the Issue?
In this inaugural post of ‘What’s the Issue?’ where I discuss current issues on climate change and social justice, I’m going to talk about Australia’s iconic, but threatened Great Barrier Reef.
UNESCO along with other UN bodies and international experts have urged Australia for some time to take “accelerated action at all possible levels” on climate change. In June, UNESCO issued a scientific report to recommend that the Reef be placed on the ‘in danger’ list at the World Heritage Committee meeting this month, which was imminently rejected after some heavy lobbying by the Morrison government, and backed by some of its oil-rich allies like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – clearly a conflict of interest.
This is not the first time the Reef was recommended to be listed as in danger. In 2014 a recommendation was successfully lobbied by the Abbott government which would have stopped development policies including the dumping of capital dredge spoil in the protected area and limiting agricultural runoff on to the Reef.
Back in 2015 the IUCN brought climate change to the attention of the World Heritage Committee as a major threat affecting both natural and cultural World Heritage sites. If the committee followed the recent recommendation, it would be the first time a natural world heritage site has been placed on the “in danger” list in Australia (a recommendation to include Kakadu on that list was rejected in 2014) – but not the first in the world.
Natural World Heritage sites are areas of natural value recognised as the world’s most important protected areas, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, governed by the World Heritage Committee (comprised of 21 countries), and guided by the World Heritage Convention. Australia is a member of the Committee, but it was also one of the first countries to ratify the Convention in 1974, bringing it into force. Australia has 20 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List – 12 natural, 4 cultural and 4 both natural and cultural.
Natural sites are listed as World Heritage for their “unique natural values, such as the scale of natural habitats, intactness of ecological processes, viability of populations of rare species, as well as exceptional natural beauty.” The Great Barrier Reef was included on the list for its outstanding universal value and characteristics such as its size, globally significant diversity, geological evolution and superlative natural beauty (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/154).
The health of the Great Barrier Reef, though, is under threat by impacts of climate change, development projects, and tourism. It is climate change, however, that has become the main issue for listing it as ‘in danger’. According to the IUCN World Heritage Outlook, climate change impacts can already be seen in 35 of 228 World Natural Heritage sites.
Climate change has known effects on the marine environment because of sea temperatures and levels, ocean acidity and currents, marine weather events including tropical cyclones, and geological pressures. So, climate change is seen as the greatest threat to the Reef, being held responsible for the cumulative effects of the mass coral bleaching events in 1998, 2002, 2016, 2017 and 2020. Coral bleaching is one of the first visible signs that the system is under threat, caused by rising ocean temperatures.
But, the World Heritage Committee on Friday ignored the scientific assessment recommending the listing due to government’s lobbying efforts. So, what is the Morrison’s government’s argument?
The government argue that State party must request or consent to inclusion on the ‘in danger’ list, and neither was given – that is Australia did neither ask for its inclusion nor agree to the listing, and as such this does not respect Australia’s State sovereignty as a party to the World Heritage Convention.
The criteria to be listed as being ‘in danger’ include if there is an ‘ascertained’ (specific, proven or imminent threat) or ‘potential’ (“have deleterious effects on its inherent characteristics”) threat to its values. The Convention, however, is guided by the 1992 operational guidelines which state that a site may be listed as ‘in danger’ if: there are clearly ascertained and substantial threats to the values of the World Heritage area; and either an apparent inability of the State Party to manage the threats and remedy the problem. The Australian government’s inaction on climate change to the demise of the Reef is the link here. The ecological state of the Reef arguably demonstrates that it’s both – as well as an inability to manage threats and remedy the situation.
The decision is arguably political, not environmental as it would confer new obligations on the Australian government to take immediate and effective action on climate change to avoid any further damage to the Reef – action that is clearly not on the Morrison government’s agenda.
It would no doubt have implications for international environmental law, but the extent of those implications is unclear. This reminds me of my first day studying international law, when the professor asked “does international law even exist?” A pertinent question when ‘binding treaties’ are not enforceable by law or have loopholes by which states can escape via the excuse of State Sovereignty.
By singling out the Australian government as failing in its job as guardian of the protected area, the World Heritage Committee, along with United Nations human rights treaty bodies, the United Nations Environment Program and independent experts it is sending a message, holding governments responsible for the destruction of natural world heritage sites because of inaction on climate change.
Yet, this message, (which could be seen as precedence if we had enforceable global environmental legal mechanisms) without an international environmental court upholding the Rights of Nature lacks teeth. Even my 7-year-old son, with no formal knowledge of the international system can see the need for an International Environmental Court. When overhearing news on the car radio about the Australian government’s climate inaction the other day he said to me, “when I grow up, I’m going to make a world court for the environment, so that whichever country hurts nature, has to go to court and get in trouble!”
The Great Barrier Reef cannot, however, wait for him and the next generation of climate guardians to grow up. It’s time for or world leaders to grow up, face the scientific facts, take responsibility, but most importantly take immediate, urgent and radical action now to ensure that these places of natural value will still be around for the following generations.