Commentary / World

Climate crisis should top the agenda at global forums

by Vinod Thomas

Contributing Writer

As the Group of Seven members concluded talks in Bicarritz, France, last weekend, the top concern should have been runaway climate change. CO2 emissions, the main source of man-made global warming, continues to rise in the top three emitters — China, the United States and India — while they fell in Japan, which is ranked 5th.

Under President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil is seeing unprecedented deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, which plays a vital role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere among other things. Unless global leaders can engineer a reversal of climate change, little else will matter, especially for island countries like Japan with long coastlines and fragile environments.

Most immediately, following the G7’s (pitifully small) pledge of $22 million for emergency aid for the Amazon, the global community should press for a change of course on the environment in Brazil.

The good news is that Brazil has shown capable of big social transformations as with a far-reaching ethanol fuel program from the 1970s and the world’s biggest social protection program since the 2000s. But now Brazilians must offset the efforts of their president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has been promoting deforestation to benefit mining, logging and cattle ranching.

The entry point for a popular pushback is that Bolsonaro was elected, much like U.S. President Donald Trump, on the false premise that reckless “deregulation” of the environment will boost economic growth. It will pay Brazil’s policymakers to take to heart the evidence that depleting natural capital like forests hurts long-term growth and well-being.

In the past half century, there was not a steady pickup of growth from, say, illegal logging. In fact, the relation was the reverse, especially during periods of low deforestation that coincided with relatively strong growth, especially in agriculture.

Remote sensing shows a spike in deforestation since Bolsonaro took office in January 2019. Local temperatures are rising above global trends, producing longer dry seasons over southern Amazon and widespread droughts and floods. Brazil’s agency for monitoring disasters warns of nearing a tipping point beyond which the rainforest ecosystem could collapse. Brazilians must clamor for an urgent change of direction in the country’s own interest.

Worldwide, carbon emissions hit 415 parts per million in May this year, and is boosting global temperatures. At the current rate of emissions, the catastrophic threshold of 450 ppm of atmospheric carbon would be breached in just 15 years.

To have any chance of ensuring robust economic growth, countries need to put on fast track a two-fold agenda of climate adaptation and climate mitigation. All need to adapt by building defenses to climate change.

Japan, the Netherlands and Singapore are leaders in building defenses against rising sea levels. Even if emerging economies cannot match the per capita incomes of these high-income economies, they need to double or triple their investment in climate resilience, especially as poorer nations pay a higher price for it in death and destruction.

But adaptation without mitigation to decarbonize economies will not keep pace with runaway climate change. All countries, but especially the biggest emitters China, the U.S. and India, need to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. The sliver of good news is that solar photovoltaics and wind energy, both non-carbon sources, have become mainstream options worldwide. The average cost of these two renewable power sources is now in the range of the cost of fossil fuels. Even so, fossil fuels still account for nearly 89 percent of Japan’s energy needs.

The world is not on track to meet the Paris targets. One reason is that renewable energy in transport, residential use and industrial processes remains very low. Policy frameworks to support renewables and energy efficiency in industry and in buildings are patchy. Also, energy-related carbon dioxide is also rising because of increased fossil fuel consumption, encouraged by government subsidies for this energy source. Worldwide, these subsidies increased by one-third in 2018, to $400 billion globally.

The continued rise in carbon emissions is propelling a dangerous increase in global temperatures posing an existential threat to life on this planet. Brazil, with its new policy of active deforestation, is turning the Amazon from a giant carbon sink to a major carbon emitter.

The U.N. General Assembly, which meets in September, ought to help propel decarbonization urgently. China, the U.S., India, Russia and Japan — the top five emitters — need to switch radically from fossil fuel to renewable energy sources. Brazil must reverse course on the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

Vinod Thomas is a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore, and the author of “Climate Change and Natural Disasters” (Routledge, 2018). His email address is vndthomas49@gmail.com. A version of this appeared in the Brookings Institution’s Future Development blog.

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