ODVV Interview: Major greenhouse gas emitters...
Facts about climate change are frightening enough to prod conscientious citizens of the 21st century into taking swift action to avert the tragedy which now looms large over their lives and survival. According to NASA data, the average global temperatures in 2019 were warmer than the entire 20th century average. Eleven percent of the world’s population, namely 800 million people, is highly vulnerable to climate change impacts. Global warming and extreme weather conditions are responsible for as many as 150,000 deaths annually. And despite the abundance of figures and studies pointing to the acuteness of the situation, there are leaders who irresponsibly call climate change a hoax and deny climate science findings.
In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that in order for the global community to meet the Paris Agreement targets, the world’s greenhouse gas emissions need to be half of what they are today by 2030 and flattened to zero by 2050 so that the climate is stabilized. Some scholars argue given the current consumption patterns and excessive reliance on fossil fuels in the industrial and transportation sectors, achieving that goal is hardly imaginable. Prudent and effective policy-making to address and adapt to climate change at a time when tornados, hurricanes, cyclones, strong winds, blizzards, dust storms, heat waves and wildfires are harmfully impairing our lives and health and making life on the Earth unsustainable is desperately needed. Governments have a moral responsibility to come to the assistance of vulnerable human communities reeling from the throes of global warming.
Jonathan Verschuuren is a professor of international and European environmental law at the Tilburg University of the Netherlands. The recipient of a European Union Marie Sklodowska Curie fellowship, his research is mostly focused on the impacts of environmental law on the environment. His scholarship includes the study of climate change mitigation and adaptation, climate change and armed conflicts, biodiversity and carbon farming.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has arranged an interview with Prof. Verschuuren to discuss the impacts of climate change on agriculture, climate change policy-making in the European Union and beyond, incentives offered to farmers to embrace smart agricultural practices and unilateralism in tackling the climate crisis. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: One of your research areas is investigating the impacts of climate change on agriculture. In 2018, agriculture accounted for some 4 percent of the world GDP. More than 60 percent of the world population is dependent on agriculture for survival. Globally, 1 billion people are employed in the agriculture sector. How does climate change disrupt agricultural productivity and affect the resilience of our communities, the economy of agriculture-dependent countries and the food security of people around the world?
A: Climate change has a tremendous impact on agriculture and food production. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that agricultural land is degraded by droughts and floods and crops are affected by higher temperatures, extreme weather events and pests. This negative impact will increase over the coming years and decades. Two things add to this problem. First, the demand for food is increasing, due to population growth and greater affluence particularly in countries like China and India.
Globally, an increase in food demand of 40 percent is expected for the coming decades, and for some regions, particularly Africa, even 100 percent. So, we need more food while at the same time it is becoming more difficult to produce that food. Second, agriculture and food production cause between 20 percent and 30 percent, depending on what you include in the assessment, of greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, livestock keeping for meat and dairy production, the use of synthetic fertilizers and deforestation to make room for agriculture, contribute to climate change. This means that if we increase our food production without changing the way we produce food drastically, we will add to further climate change. So, this really is a vicious circle.
Q: In your scholarly work focused on the European Union, you have explored how it is possible to incentivize farmers to embrace climate smart practices in agriculture and how it is possible to incorporate these practices in the environmental and economic policies of the European Union institutions. Can you specifically mention some of these practices dealing with crop management, soil management and pest and diseases management? Will the adoption of these methods lead to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions?
A: The European Union’s common agricultural policy tries to stimulate farmers to switch to climate smart practices, for instance through using compost and other organic fertilizers, using crop rotation and keeping soils vegetated also in winter, planting and protecting natural vegetation, etc. Such measures lead to the sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the soil, so this helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Interestingly, these measures also lead to healthier and more resilient soils, which means that farmland is less affected by droughts. In this way, more and better crops can be produced while simultaneously lowering carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, this policy has not been a huge success for two reasons. First, this is a voluntary program, so only farmers who apply for a subsidy can be required to take up such practices. Second, the legal rules have many flaws when looking at them from the perspective of climate change. For example, farmers who plants trees on their land to reduce emissions already get the subsidies within a few years and can simply cut down the trees after five or ten years without this affecting their subsidy.
Q: How has the levying of environmental taxes resulted in the mitigation of pollution and slowed down the emission of greenhouse gases within the European Union? The main rationale behind the policy is that the polluter pays. But is obligating the large factories, industries, transportation sector and major fossil fuel consumers to spend a small fraction of their revenues on environmental taxes a potent deterrent persuading them to fundamentally revise their environmental policies?
A: Environmental taxation is not used a lot, with the exception of carbon taxes, so taxes are levied on the amount of fossil fuels used. In the European Union, emissions trading is used, called the EU Emissions Trading System, ETS. This is a financial instrument, although it is slightly different from a tax as it is more flexible and allows industries and energy producers to sell their surplus rights to emit carbon dioxide. In this way, taking measures to reduce emissions has an immediate financial benefit. After a slow and cumbersome start, the ETS is now working quite well and the price is going up so it is no longer a small portion but it can actually be a very large amount of money that companies have to pay, depending on how much greenhouse gas emissions they have. Several European Union member states have imposed additional carbon taxes on top of the EU ETS so as to speed up the energy transition.
It is important to note that the carbon tax or the ETS is only one instrument in the toolbox. Many more instruments are applied as well to facilitate the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, including subsidies for renewable energy and all kinds of measures aimed at facilitating the generation and transmission of solar and wind energy within and across states. In the European Union, the energy transition is well underway now thanks to all these instruments.
Q: Do you think there is a legal vacuum when it comes to regulating environmental management, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union, or are the legislation in place and enacted by the member states sufficient and effective?
A: The European Union previously had quite progressive climate change and energy laws in place. At the moment, however, we are in the middle of the drafting and adoption of even much stricter policies and laws called the European Green Deal. The aim of these new laws, that will be adopted in 2021, is to achieve a 55 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and to be carbon neutral by 2050.
Q: In the developing and less-privileged countries facing a panoply of environmental challenges, there are serious policymaking and legislative gaps and it appears that their social and economic conditions also do not allow for reforms in favor of the mitigation of greenhouse gases and the improvement of procedures. In Vietnam, for example, which in 2019 was the 15th most polluted country in the world, they are planning to construct 26 new coal power plants after recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. What is the remedy for the developing countries to address their climate change-induced problems?
A: This indeed is a major problem. Under international climate law, especially the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement, there are several initiatives that focus on helping developing countries to meet climate change objectives. There are several funds that finance projects in developing countries, both projects aimed at mitigation, that is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and at adaptation, that is helping society to become more resilient against the impacts of climate change. Talks are ongoing to speed up this process and to have bigger sums of money available through donations by rich countries. What probably will help more, however, is the fast reduction of costs involved with solar energy.
At the moment, electricity generated by solar power already is much cheaper than electricity generated by fossil fuels and it is becoming even cheaper in the very near future. Fossil fuel generated energy relies heavily on subsidies by states and it is likely that with the increasingly cheap renewable energy technologies that become available, those states are going to decrease subsidies to fossil fuels. It is likely that the market, therefore, will help phase out fossil fuels.
Q: To what extent can unilateralism obstruct global efforts to tackle climate change as a universal concern? Specifically, what is your assessment of the decision by the outgoing US President Donald Trump in 2017 to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement? Did the decision damage the credibility of the global pact?
A: It indeed is important that major greenhouse gas emitters, namely China, United States, European Union and India, take the lead in addressing climate change. It was very unfortunate, therefore, that the United States withdrew from the Paris Agreement. This, however, did not affect the determination of other countries to keep on going forward. As a matter of fact, even in the United States, many states kept on developing strict and progressive climate change policies. Some of these, for instance the California climate change policy, is comparable to that of the European Union. So, while at federal level the clock was turned back, most states continued moving forward. In fact, in 2019, US emissions went down sharply. One of the reasons was the fact that solar and wind energy became cheaper than energy produced by coal. Nevertheless, it is good for the international climate negotiations that the US, under the new president, will be firmly on board again.
Q: Today, economic sanctions are frequently used as a means of statecraft by major powers. Yet, these unilateral coercive measures can detrimentally impinge on the different aspects of life in a country when they are broad-ranging and indiscriminate. Do you believe sanctions can hamper the efforts of the sanctioned countries to counter the effects of global warming and consequently threaten the health and wellbeing of their citizens?
A: This is not really my expertise, so I will be careful with my statements. I know that most research indicates that economic sanctions are not very effective and very harmful for individual people and families. I am a strong believer in international collaboration, especially with regard to environmental issues. We are all the inhabitants of one planet, planet Earth. Unfortunately, our planet is in a very bad condition, not just because of climate change, but also because of the unprecedented loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, air pollution, water pollution, and other misfortunes. Scientists have shown that the planet is one integrated system and that we should focus on the Earth system as a whole. The way we have carved up the planet into countries, each with their own policies and laws, is contrary to offering our planet the comprehensive and integrated protection it needs. The challenge we are facing now is how we can all work together towards that goal. This goal should unite us all, because we have only one Earth. We cannot go anywhere else.
By: Kourosh Ziabari