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If You Only Read One Article About Climate, Make Sure It’s This One

Every single day there are countless articles, reports and speeches being given on the climate crisis. Keeping up to date with climate policy developments, the latest scientific news and the overarching global conversation can be challenging at the best of times. The times we find ourselves in now, of course, are anything but the best of times.

However, if you were to read only one piece on the climate crisis, I would strongly, strongly recommend that it be this one by David Fopp, Assistant Professor at Stockholm University and a firm supporter of the Fridays for Future movement.

I first read David Fopp’s article some time ago, and while it definitely resonated with me at the time, I believe it has become even more important considering the current situation that we are in. Although, as I mentioned before, the climate crisis has been largely sidelined by the global coronavirus pandemic, which is incredibly serious and must be treated as the crisis that it is, there will be a window of opportunity after it has passed when change will suddenly not be unthinkable but inevitable. What we must work to ensure is that the change enacted is positive and all encompassing – there are many who would, and in some cases, already are steering our society in a hugely detrimental direction. I intend to write more on this subject, but this serves as way of explanation for why I am writing this essay specifically!

All too often, we get bogged down in minutiae and what are ultimately rather inconsequential details while simultaneously missing the bigger picture. In his article, David Fopp outlines three “pillars” which are fundamental in creating a comprehensive climate action plan.

1: Emission Budgets Rather than Distant Targets

The first pillar, is having immediate emission budgets and reduction targets at local, national and international levels, which reflect both the capacity and the responsibility of the respective communities to cut emissions. One of greatest issues with current pledges of “carbon neutrality by 2050” or “50% emission reduction by 2030” which are championed by so-called climate leaders such as the EU, is that they ignore the need for immediate and drastic emission cuts to remain below 1.5ºC. It is rather easy to promise “carbon neutrality by 2050” when you are certainly going to be retired from politics, and quite possibly dead by that point, as the majority of the European leaders will be. As Fopp outlines, we currently have about ~350 gigatons of CO2 left to emit to stay below 1.5ºC, according to the best available models. At our current rate of expenditure of this budget, we will have passed the point of no return for 1.5ºC no later than 2028. It is entirely possible for a so-called “climate action plan” based around the notion of carbon-neutrality by 2050 to continue emitting at the same, or even increased rates that we are now, and then to attempt to reach carbon neutrality via accounting tricks. This scenario would push us past the brink of 1.5ºC and possibly 2ºC, and demonstrates why it is imperative that we demand more concrete climate commitments than 2050 targets for “net zero”.

Furthermore, many of these distant and honestly rather irrelevant targets rely on extensive use of Negative Emission Technologies (NETs) which right now, and into the foreseeable future don’t exist – with one notable exception. The best tool we have for sucking carbon out of the sky is actually rather mundane – it’s a tree. It is therefore quite disappointing that even when reforestation is factored into climate action plans, the same shortsightedness that plagues almost all political development comes into play. For example, in Ireland our government has pledged to plant 440 million trees over the next 20 years, which at face value appears to be an incredible, positive initiative. Unfortunately, it is in fact rather counter productive due to the makeup of the trees being planted – over 70% of which will be conifers.

From the point of view of promoting biodiversity, conifers are significantly worse than deciduous (native) forest. However, they also sequester significantly less carbon in the long run, despite growing faster than decidious trees. Forest-floor fauna play a significant symbiotic role alongside the trees themselves, when it comes to sequestering carbon, and coniferous forests are toxic environments for a large number of shrubs and plants that would otherwise grow, and sequester carbon. Another point worth noting, is that the significantly longer lifespan of deciduous trees increases the sequestration hugely.

2: Non-Proliferation Treaty

The second pillar that Fopp outlines, is a rather novel idea – the idea of a global “Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty”. I had the pleasure of discussing this concept with him at COP25, and I believe that this may indeed be the most important of Fopp’s three pillars. If we consider the fundamental, undeniable prerequisites for limiting global heating to below 1.5ºC from a purely scientific point of view, laying aside policy considerations for the time being, it is crystal clear that a complete and immediate “ceasefire” as regards the drilling, production, and construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure is indeed the number one priority.  As such, a non-proliferation treaty for new fossil fuel infrastructure should form the backbone for a comprehensive and effective climate action plan.

3: Funding and Justice

The third and final pillar that Fopp discusses is the public funding of a rapid global energy transition to renewables, and renumeration for loss and damage for nations suffering the worst effects of the climate crisis. I believe that this is one of the fundamental areas in which we are failing – although the Paris agreement includes a provision in article 8 for Loss and Damage, it also includes this line: “[loss and damage] …does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation”. In short, it does not include provisions for Loss and Damage.

Fopp also mentions the failure of the Green Climate Fund – a mechanism designed to provide finance for the global energy transition, but which has failed due to the lack of cash entering into the fund; this largely due to rich nations refusing to contribute to it.

One of the main problems with the Paris Agreement is it’s reliance on the commitments of individual nations to reduce emissions under “Nationally Determined Contributions”. Ideally, this would result in developed nations stepping up to take responsibility for their historical emissions, and to facilitate a smoother and more just transition for developing nations. In practise, it has resulted in the current sorry state of affairs: even if every single NDC is fulfilled (the likelihood of this occurring is roughly equivalent to that of Trump renouncing his position as climate denier in chief), we are likely to see between 3ºC and 4ºC of global heating.

This underlines a common criticism of the UN, and more specifically of the UNFCCC secretariat – that it is ineffective and indeed inept. Although there are many valid criticisms that can be levelled at the UNFCCC, I believe it is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal in the fight for global climate justice. It is utterly egregious that the same fossil fuel companies that have not only been polluting our planet, but actively covering up and spreading misinformation about climate change are given front row, VIP access to COP, but without COP things would look even grimmer than they do today. Without an avenue for a global climate dialogue, we cannot hope to succeed – no nation accounts for more than 30% of global emissions, and as Fopp states, we need to cut global emissions to “near zero”. No nation can do this alone, there needs to a transnational movement for change, and currently the UN and the UNFCCC is the best vehicle we have for this. Tearing it down would be pointless – the UN is only as effective as it’s constituent parts, thus it’s current ineptitude. I believe that we need revolution at the local and national level, but evolution at the international level – as Bernie Sanders has said many a time, change will come from the bottom up, not from the top on down.

One evolution that Fopp mentions in passing as regards the UN is that of charter change, and this is something that I would be very much in favour of. It is ridiculous that the UN has existed for nearly 70 years, but it’s charter has undergone no real change in the intervening period of time. The Parmenidian stasis which the UN exists in is almost laughable. The world today is a vastly different place to the post WWII world, and our priorities have shifted dramatically. We cannot expect our international institutions to function if we do not tend to them.

Guiding Principles for Change

Finally, Fopp elaborates on these three pillars by stating they must be implemented using two principles – the principle of social justice and equity and the principle of democratic participation.

I believe that these two principles – united under the concept of intersectional climate justice hold the fundamental key to enacting real change. A common criticism which environmentalists face, is that they are detached from the reality of people’s lives and that “pie-in-the-sky” plans to rapidly decrease emissions will dramatically hurt people’s livelihoods. In Ireland, this perception played a large role in the successes and failures of the Green Party during the last election. Although the Greens posted their best election result in the party’s history, more than doubling their vote share and gaining 10 seats compared to the previous election, almost all of their gains were concentrated in affluent suburban constituencies, and their climate action manifesto (which, although more radical than the other parties, still falls short of the drastic action required) was resoundingly rejected by rural voters.

This dynamic is one which is being played out across the world, and as school strikers we are often branded as out of touch suburban middle class kids.

Obviously, for a climate action plan to be enacted it must have the support of the populace at large, and it must also help those who will have their livelihoods negatively affected by the transition – the concept of a just transition is one which is thrown around a lot, but unless people truly believe they will be sufficiently remunerated, and that they will not be worse off under the new post climate action paradigm, it is conspicuously obvious that such a plan will fail. Furthermore, as Fopp highlights, climate action must not, under any circumstance, propagate and prop up the broken and unequal power structures that currently exist. Climate action does not exist in a vacuum – if it is implemented in a fashion which fails to brings justice and equity for the Global South, for indigenous communities and for the most disadvantaged in society, it is sure to fail.

To conclude, the climate crisis is one of the most complex, multifaceted and multilayered problems that humanity has ever faced. To succeed in tackling it, we must break the old mold, and use a radically new way of thinking. As Einstein once said, “you cannot solve a problem with the same mindset that created it.” I highly recommend that you read Fopp’s article if you haven’t already – linked above, and below. It is very rare that I have the pleasure of reading as astute analysis of what we must do, and I will finish with a direct quote from Fopp’s article:

However, enforcing them [Fopp’s 5 points] requires that ordinary people “like you and me” start to rebel and are not lulled by the talk of “net zero emissions 2050”. The governments of nations such as Switzerland, Sweden and Germany are miles away from the change outlined, not to mention the regimes in Brazil, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. We need the “rebellion of the hesitant and fearful”. Marching and petitions are not enough. We need new common political rules. Worldwide. For this we can and must stand up, non-violently, together.

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