There's no silver bullet to save the earth

Developed-country governments must provide large-scale public financing to support the much-needed transformation in the developing world.

By Karin Nansen

Published: Wed 18 Sep 2019, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Wed 18 Sep 2019, 11:24 PM

In a recent special report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that addressing climate change will require fundamental changes to the way we manage forests and farmland. The data are new, but the underlying conclusion isn't: for over a decade, scientists, environmentalists, and civil-society organisations have been warning that our prevailing - and deeply unjust - model of production and consumption lies at the root of the climate crisis. Protecting the planet on which our survival depends will require nothing short than system change
The world - and the developed countries, in particular - has built an economic system focused on capital accumulation, which privileges corporate profits over the wellbeing of people and the environment, entrenching injustice and rewarding its perpetrators. This process has been unfolding for centuries, but has accelerated in recent decades, as a select few have acquired an ever-larger share of total wealth and political influence. Today, just 100 corporations produce 71 per cent of greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions. The wealthiest 10 per cent of people are responsible for around 50 per cent of GHG emissions, while the poorest 50 per cent produce 10 per cent of emissions.
Unwilling to stand up to those who are destroying our planet, political leaders have latched onto technological solutions, including geoengineering approaches that promise to suck already-emitted carbon out of the atmosphere. Even the IPCC included assumptions about such technologies in many of its modelled pathways for keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.
But geoengineering technologies are unproven, unsafe, and unrealistic. Consider bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), the leading proposed path to "net-negative" emissions. BECCS entails growing certain crops as biomass, burning the plant material for energy, capturing the CO2 emitted during combustion, and storing it underground.
That sounds promising until one recognises that growing biomass on the necessary scale would require an estimated three billion hectares - twice the Earth's currently cultivated land. Any attempt to implement BECCS would thus be impossible without mass deforestation and soil degradation in the tropical belt of the Southern Hemisphere, where most fast-growing biomass is produced. Land grabs are virtually guaranteed. It is time for those who caused the climate crisis to take responsibility for addressing it. To this end, developed-country governments must take the lead in drastically cutting emissions at source by pursuing a comprehensive transformation of their energy, transport, food and economic systems.
Essential steps include ending investment in fossil fuels; transforming our energy systems towards community and public renewable energy systems; abandoning destructive practices like industrial agriculture and logging; community management of biodiversity and water resources; and reorganising urban life to support sustainability. Neoliberal trade and investment pacts that prioritise the interests of business over environmental sustainability and human rights must be reversed to allow for these solutions.
At the same time, developed-country governments must provide large-scale public financing to support the much-needed transformation in the developing world. To succeed, the transition must be just and ensure the rights of workers, peasants, women, migrants, and indigenous peoples. Here, public and community ownership is crucial.
Social movements in the Global South are already providing models of this approach. Moreover, community forest management helps to safeguard the forests, protecting the livelihoods of those who depend on them and preserving biodiversity. (As it stands, only 8 per cent of the world's forests are in the hands of communities.)
With strong political will and the right policies, we can systemically tackle climate change and related crises, including biodiversity loss, water scarcity, hunger, and rising inequality. If, however, we keep indulging the fantasy that some "silver bullet" will rescue us, progress will be impossible.
-Project Syndicate
Karin Nansen is the chair of Friends of the Earth International

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