Promises or Rhetoric: Climate change and SDG

climateThe Paris Climate Change Conference is a continuity of lengthy efforts to form international consensus on actions to keep global warming to a minimum level. Before the conference began, a record number of people attended the People’s Climate Change March in different cities around the world on November 27, except in Paris where the government “banned climate march and put climate activists under house arrest.” Activists in return termed President Hollande a war and climate criminal.

Since 1992, the United Nations negotiators have regularly held meetings to reach an effective deal on climate change. In 1997, world leaders signed the Kyoto Protocol that assigned targets to the developed world, but the then US president never sent the deal to the Senate. Moreover, large polluters like China and India could not be brought at the negotiation table, thus the deal without action from the real polluters became meaningless.

In 2009, world leaders drafted a new pact in Copenhagen to replace the Kyoto deal, but failed to achieve the unanimous consent required for legal enforcement. It was “little more than a voluntary agreement.” In 2014, the United States and China, world’s two largest carbon polluters, came to an agreement that the US would cut emissions up to 28 percent from levels of 2005, and by 2017, China would begin to limit industrial emissions.

With these experiences New York Times noted, “If the talks in Paris fail — as they did in two previous attempts to achieve such a deal — then nations will continue on a trajectory that scientists say locks the planet into a future of rising sea levels, more frequent floods, worsening droughts, food and water shortages, destructive hurricanes and other catastrophic events” (Nov 30, 2015). On the other hand, The Economist has confidently forecasted, “no ambitious global deal will be signed in Paris, although whatever document emerges from the conference will no doubt be hailed as significant progress” (November 30, 2015).

However, prior to the conference, delegates could come to an agreement that “the level of warming is likely to cause food shortages and widespread extinctions of plant and animal life”. Therefore, global temperatures must not be allowed to rise by more than 2°C. An Australian expert on climate change, Dr Gideon Polya, noted that worldwide “7 million people die from air pollution each year, this including 10,000 Australian deaths from pollutants from carbon fuel burning and 75,000 people dying from the burning of Australian coal exports. About 0.5 million people die from climate change annually in a world in which 17 million people die annually from deprivation” (Countercurrents, November 29, 2015).

Dr Poyla correctly insisted that there must be a rapid switch to the best non-carbon and renewable energy (about 4 times lower in actual true cost than obscenely-subsidised coal burning-based power), to energy efficiency, to public transport, needs-based production and re-afforestation. He also correctly defined fossil fuel exploiters who pollute the common atmosphere and ocean of all human beings as “climate criminals”.

Few months before the climate conference, world leaders met at the United Nations Headquarters from September 25-27, 2015 to finalise the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). In a declaration of the leaders, we find a series of best wishes. They said, “We envisage a world in which every country enjoys sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all. A world in which consumption and production patterns and use of all natural resources – from air to land, from rivers, lakes and aquifers to oceans and seas – are sustainable.” Do all of these leaders really believe in this declaration? If yes then what actions will they be adopting to change their country’s energy consumption patterns? They also aspired to create a world “in which democracy, good governance and the rule of law as well as an enabling environment at national and international levels, are essential for sustainable development, including sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development, environmental protection and the eradication of poverty and hunger.” They also pledged to create an environment “in which development and the application of technology are climate-sensitive, biodiversity friendly and resilient. One in which humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and other living species are protected.” Forget about others, does the Bangladesh government really mean to follow this pledge?

The fundamental question is whether these sentences reflect viable promises under the existing development paradigm. As economist Partha Dashgupta pointed out, “contemporary models of economic growth and development regard nature to be a fixed, indestructible factor of production. It is wrong. Nature is a mosaic of degradable assets” (“The Nature of Economic Development and the Economic Development of Nature”, Economic & Political Weekly, December 21, 2013). We find many experts and profiteers advocating prioritising GDP growth in development, as they see the consideration of nature and environment as a luxury for “poor countries”. The opposite is actually true, since poor people and poor countries cannot afford to lose forever the natural environmental resources they have.

If we look at Bangladesh, despite endorsing SDGs and remaining active in climate change negotiations, the country is adding to the areas of unsustainable development (USD). USD in Bangladesh includes: several flood control and irrigation projects that are killing rivers; the Rampal coal fired power plant that will possibly destroy the Sundarbans; the construction boom through encroachment of agri lands, wet lands and canals; loss of wet land, agri land, forest, river and privatisation of common property and; grabbing of hills, rivers and open space in the name of development projects. The external factors adding to the risk include global warming, dams and barrage including Farakka, Tipaimukh and river linking project in India and dams in China. How can Bangladesh save its face in SDG or climate conferences while retaining and prioritising projects of mass destruction?

In fact, without changing the development paradigm, these expensive conferences, goals and agreements will only result in failure. Development must not be reduced to ‘growth’, and ‘construction’. Ecological balance, quality of air and water must be taken into consideration when selecting any project. A cost-benefit analysis must include social and environmental costs. Fertile lands and river flow cannot be compromised with. People’s ownership and participation should dominate the selection process of any project involving fertile land, water and common property. In every phase, consultation with the public and their consent must be preconditions. Transparency and accountability must be ensured. Common property cannot be privatised.

I agree with Naomi Klein when she said that “climate change could become a catalysing force for positive change”. She proposed a list for the change that requires public action. We would like to make some additions to the list and focus on reclaiming people’s ownership and authority over their lives and policy-making processes, while also investing in “starving public infrastructure like mass transit and affordable housing, to take back ownership of essential services like energy and water…” (This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs the Climate, NY, 2014). 

(published in The Daily Star 05 December , 2015)