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December 12, 2019

What will it take to prevent collapse?


December 12, 2019

The two-week marathon of the annual UN climate conference is underway in Madrid, and the world’s expectations have perhaps never been lower.

The Amazon is burning and unprecedented storms are raging worldwide, but the world’s climate diplomats are still mostly talking business-as-usual. Never mind that this year’s 25th Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Climate Convention (UNFCCC) almost didn’t happen, after it was disinvited by the fascistic Bolsonaro regime in Brazil and almost derailed again by the recent upheaval in the streets of Santiago, Chile, where it had been rescheduled to occur. And Trump’s effort to withdraw US participation is not the most serious problem.

The main obstacles have much more to do with how emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other climate-destabilizing gases are increasing again after appearing to plateau for a couple of years. A rising number of countries appear to be stepping back from the voluntary and entirely inadequate proposals they brought to the table in 2015 in Paris. And the myth of an informal “ratcheting mechanism” to encourage countries to steadily raise the ambition of their climate policy proposals shows few signs of reality, with only a year to go before countries are encouraged (not required) to release an “enhanced” emissions reduction plan.

Of course the Paris Agreement has no real means of enforcement, only some language about an “expert-based” committee to address implementation and compliance that is mandated to be “transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive.” And we shouldn’t forget that wealthy countries still support fossil fuels to the tune of $3-500 billion per year in direct subsidies and a whopping $5 trillion or more, according to the World Bank, if environmental and other indirect costs are included.

One promising sign is that some organizations involved in the climate negotiations are finally starting to raise the question, who is actually most responsible for climate-destabilizing emissions? The Washington-based World Resources Institute has an interactive platform that helps us visualize the vast inequities in emissions across various countries. Their charts reveal that the top ten emitting countries and regions (the EU is counted as a single entity) are responsible for nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of all global emissions, and that China, the US and EU contribute fourteen times the emissions of the hundred lowest-emitting countries (see

Research over the past five years from Thomas Piketty’s group in Paris reveals that inequalities within countries matter as much as the differences among different countries, now accounting for half of the global distribution of greenhouse gas sources. Before addressing these issues in more detail, it is necessary to first review the latest emissions trends.

Every year, in the lead-up to the climate COP, various international agencies release their latest findings, and this year’s reports are sobering to say the least:

The UN Environment Program reports that global greenhouse gas emissions are now rising at a rate of 1.5 percent per year, after an apparent two-year plateau. Emissions are rising in the US, China, India and Russia, among the largest emitters, and have leveled off in the EU after a few years of apparent decline. The G20 most influential countries are responsible for 78 percent of current greenhouse gas pollution. To hold the future average temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius would now require emissions reductions of 7.6 percent every year, exceeding those that accompanied the Great Recession of 2007-08 in the US and Japan.

The Stockholm Environment Institute’s projections of fossil fuel production find that, in the coming decade, countries are planning to produce more than double the amount that would be consistent with a 1.5 degree temperature rise, including almost 3 times as much coal as the 1.5 C. pathway would allow. Countries like Australia and China are still exporting coal and coal-dependent technologies throughout south and east Asia, even though solar and wind power are already cheaper than new coal-fired power plants, and will soon cost less than continuing to fuel existing coal plants. It appears that the continuing profitability of fossil fuels still matters far more than economic efficiency, much less environmental sanity.

An international team of scientists reported in ‘Nature’ last week that the various climate tipping points scientists have been warning about are far more interconnected than most people realize, and that “cascading effects” appear increasingly likely. The loss of Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets drives the slowing of atmospheric currents that drive the Gulf Stream and other weather-mediating features, which in turn affects the drying of global rainforests, weakening of the Asian monsoons, ocean heating, and ultimately even faster ice loss.

Atmospheric CO2, they report, is already at levels last seen four million years ago, and is approaching levels associated with the Eocene epoch around 50 million years ago, when temperatures averaged 14 C. (25 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than our own preindustrial baseline, and only the smallest of mammals were apparently able to thrive.

People’s actual experiences of climate-related disasters, even at the current 1 C. above preindustrial times, portend horrific times to come if emissions cannot be curtailed and the climate eventually stabilized. And every climate-related disaster in the US and Europe is compounded manifold in the global South, from devastating floods and typhoons that affect millions of people in South Asia to waves of drought and hunger that have reached across vast stretches of East and South Africa, the Middle East and Central America.

These in turn have contributed to civil wars and rising waves of refugees, as well as increasingly militarized borders here in the US and in parts of Europe. We also know that the actions the word undertakes, or fails to, today will not only determine the magnitude of future climate impacts, but also whether those impacts will persist for a few generations or literally for thousands of years.

Excerpted from: ‘Climate Talks in Madrid: What Will It Take to Prevent Climate Collapse?’.


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