It is a fact that environmental processes aren’t restricted to national borders and are innately transnational in character. Hence, eloquent dialogues and strategic environmental progress can only be made at the global level.
Generally, the global political agenda for economic development tends to conflict with environmental priorities. In this situation, the most important question that arises is whether environmental problems can be solved within such a socioeconomic system, or is it this system that is actually giving rise to the problems?
Traces of environmental politics date back to the Industrial Revolution, which led to an unprecedented movement emphasising the implications of an uncontrolled population growth. However, the divide between mankind and nature worsened due to the politicisation of the environment. Since the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of capitalism, the planet appears to be moving towards an ecological crisis.
For instance, after the Kyoto Protocol, the approach for tackling climate change transformed altogether. The echo of green politics has started making headway even more ferociously, as the Kyoto Protocol resulted in a set of some indistinct goals and agendas on the part of the international community. Largest emitters, especially China and the US, didn’t change their carbon regime and preferred staying out of the agreement. Under the umbrella of flexible mechanism, the protocol allowed many parties to exploit what it offered under the cap-and-trade-system.
Furthermore, the Copenhagen and Durban summits made big carbon polluters party to the notion of the post-Kyoto era. The idea that rich countries must pay compensation to underdeveloped countries, which are bearing the brunt of extreme weather events, making the developed world liable for their unsustainable growth, was floated here.
However, developing a descendant of the Kyoto Protocol had always remained an apprehension, as the problem of burden-sharing between the North (developed nations) and the South (developing nations) couldn’t be resolved. For instance, the conferences at Copenhagen, Durban, Doha and other places weren’t successful due to contentions, predominantly between China, India and the US.
The Rio Earth Summit was the first of its kind, as it showed serious concern towards the catastrophic impacts of climate change. It was conveyed to the world leaders that the planet needs to be rescued under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a framework mandated to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions at a level that is safe under the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) principle. This is where it all began.
Though 181 nations were party to it, the UNFCCC didn’t have any legally binding targets to bring carbon emissions back to the level they were at in the 1990s. In fact, there was an uptick in emissions after this due to the economic developments made by China and India.
Nevertheless, after the Obama administration, there was a prominent change in America’s policy towards climate change. It seems that 97 percent of Republican policymakers have no interest in addressing climate change, so the only option left is to vote them out. Moreover, China’s impenitence over the use of coal for its industrial boom has increased the environmental cost in the country drastically, in the shape of the world’s most polluted cities (eight out of the 10 most polluted cities of the world are in China) shrinking glaciers (Tibet-Qinghai Plateau) and declining water tables.
This is perhaps why the conference in Copenhagen was held with the view that China and other developed countries will be more interested in taking up the idea of tackling climate change. However, the summit couldn’t manage a global consensus and led to a disappointment, as it merely emphasised on the international community’s disagreements over climate change.
The encounter due to the mutual international interests of the developed and developing states and economic and ideological hindrances are the most substantial obstacles in tackling climate change. This needs to be addressed rigorously. It is an exemplary case of the tragedy of the commons where nations acknowledge that what is advantageous for them might not be of benefit to others.
First, states are not willing to be bound to targets and are reluctant to take strenuous action against those contributing to climate change. Second, the issue of climate change has worsened the North-South divide and unfair distribution and outsourcing of emission reduction, which promoted rivalry among states.
The South claims that the North has a historic role in producing carbon emissions since the industrial boom breached the planet’s threshold. Therefore, any effort to tackle climate change should take into account this historic contribution of the North and should be structured accordingly – which is quite a rational demand.
On the other hand, according to the northern viewpoint, targets should be set according to the current level of emission, with the developed countries being treated the same as developing states. Besides, the situation worsens when we count per capita emissions in this case. For instance, though China has surpassed the US in terms of total emissions, the latter still has four times higher per capita emissions as compared to the former.
Due to the monopoly of these big emitters, Pakistan has seen drastic implications in the form of climate change, leading to extreme weather events. In 2015, Karachi faced a heatwave it had not witnessed in the last 50 years; over 1,200 lives were lost due to it. This is the unprecedented result of the poor policies adopted by the US, India and China, and many others, resulting in extreme temperatures across the world and conversion of urban centres into hothouses.
Furthermore, in the northern areas, surging temperatures are melting the glaciers at a faster pace, resulting in Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs). There is a possibility of a glacial lake forming in Gilgit Valley in the Ghizer district. Besides this, other glacial lakes are also being formed due to the rapid melting of the Barsuwat glacier that has already flooded more than 10km of the surrounding area. According to recent reports, this situation has resulted in the formation of another lake due to the debris that is blocking the mouth of the river.
Durable solutions require concerted actions at the regional and global levels. This was the main reason behind convening the UN’s environmental conferences in Stockholm, Rio and other countries. The rationale behind negotiating international treaties is also the realisation that global environmental issues can only be tackled through commitments made by sovereign states in agreements negotiated transparently.
There are now over 500 global and regional treaties and agreements providing cooperation between and among states to reduce, and possibly end, challenges to protect natural resources and control life-threatening pollution caused by environmentally harmful and unsustainable production and consumption practices.
It is, indeed, regrettable that despite environmental movements all over the world, it has not been possible to make major improvements in the global environment. There are numerous obstacles in achieving significant progress in addressing environmental problems.
These include the global population explosion, resulting in over five-fold increase in human population during the past 150 years or so, industrialisation based on unsustainable production practices causing waste and pollution, lack of political will among leaders to take stringent measures due to vested interests, absence of enforcement and compliance mechanisms of international and regional agreements which allow states to continue to violate and defy treaties with impunity, and the absence of strong civil society efforts to ensure that governments and businesses comply with environmental standards and regulations.
The writer is an environmentalist.