The year 2019 has been awful for the world's climate; let us get over the bad news first. Global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase this year; average annual temperatures are setting records; abnormal weather has been horrific with wildfires raging from the Arctic to California; flooding hit hard in Bangladesh, India, Japan, and Southwest US; at least seven million persons have been displaced due to extreme weather in the first half of the year; global investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency are much smaller than that required for sustainable development by a factor of two or three; finally the ongoing deaths from the use of fossil fuels through local air pollution are seven million persons per year. On November 4, the United States submitted formal notification of its withdrawal to the United Nations Paris Agreement. Also the results of COP25 were very disappointing as no consensus was reached on more ambitious climate pledges, all post-phoned to negotiations in 2020.
However, this dark climate cloud of 2019 has some significant silver linings.
Greta Thunberg came onto the world stage. She is a unique and very focused seventeen-year-old who represents those most affected by climate change: our children. She embodies the direct call to adult responsibility for climate warming. Her strength is the purity and straightforward message to listen to the recommendations of our scientists. Greta, who follows a low carbon lifestyle, has inspired her fellow students to join her in strikes on Friday. The student organization Fridays For Future (FFF) has emerged in 227 countries and over 6900 cities. Four million persons attended the school strikes for climate on 20 and 27 September 2019, and strikers totaled 13 million since the start. A parent organization, Parents for Friday, to which I belong, has been formed in many cities. Our Kids' Climate and Parents for Friday coordinated 222 climate parent groups in 27 countries, signing an appeal for delegates of COP25. Students and parents continue to support Greta and have been active in 70,000 local and national strikes since the beginning of the year. They know the campaign will take time, and their voices are necessary.
Larry Fink, one of the world's most important investment CEOs with $ 6.8 trillion under management at Blackrock, has repeated for a second year a report to CEOs that challenges the traditional role of capitalistic companies, based on profits exclusively for the shareholders. He introduces the concept of the purpose of the corporation that includes all stakeholders: employees, consumers, communities where the company operates, and shareholders. Concern for communities involves their environment. Care for employees brings this model of capitalism closer to that of Germany, where labor sits on the corporate board. This also may represent a way of reducing economic disparities.
Another silver lining, in step with Fink, is the growth of Certified B Corporations. B Corps. are for-profit companies at the heart of a global movement of people using the power of business to create a shared, durable prosperity for all. Essentially, B Corps are companies that are managed according to the characteristics of sustainable development. There are some 200 criteria, including improvement of the quality of suppliers, and an aspirant company must be certified to meet a minimum of the criteria. Currently, more than 3,100 B Corps are operating in more than 150 industries in 71 countries around the world, including such companies as Ben & Jerry’s, Danone, Eileen Fisher, and Patagonia.
On November 29, the German Federal Government presented a far-reaching Climate Action Law and Climate Action Program 2030. It is aimed at putting the country on track towards reaching its climate targets of the Paris Agreement and the long-term target of greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050. The policy package contains crucial measures such as introducing a price on carbon emissions in the transport and buildings sector and a centralized cabinet, with all relevant ministries, to help manage the program. All of the relevant sectors are covered in emission reduction projects. It will enshrine the 2030 GHG reduction target of 55 percent (over 1990 levels) in law and sets up an independent expert commission to assess the climate effects of measures proposed by the government and to evaluate emissions data. The proposed funding is 50 billion euros ($55 billion) through to 2023. The plan is criticized for being too limited with a low carbon tax; however, it represents one of the most comprehensive programs of the major developed countries. The plan must be passed by the legislature with the Green Party in opposition, possibly inserting stronger measures. Massive Fridays for Future climate protests are reported to have kept the pressure on the German government.
On December 11, Ursula von der Leyen, the first woman President of the European Commission, presented Parliament with a comprehensive European Green Deal. This plan “shows how to transform our way of living and working, of producing and consuming, so that we live healthier [lives] and make our businesses innovate. We will help our economy to be a global leader by moving first and moving fast.” The proposal includes a detailed road map of 47 actions, with indicative timetables, covering: a general climate law setting climate neutrality by 2050, energy taxation, emissions trading; clean, affordable and secure energy; industrial strategy for a clean and circular economy; sustainable and smart mobility; greening the Common agricultural Policy / ‘Farm to Fork’ Strategy; preserving and protecting biodiversity. Tax policies should be reformed in line with climate ambitions, which includes work on a carbon border tax and a review of the Energy Taxation Directive. The people and regions most affected by the low-carbon transition would be supported through a just transition mechanism that cuts across different funds and instruments and also attracts private investment” (European Parliament, 2019).
Some of the most essential actions are scheduled to be approved by European Parliament by March 2020 and the rest later in the year. "According to the political guidelines, record amounts of public funds should be invested in advanced research and innovation, complemented by a strategy for green financing and a Sustainable Europe Investment Plan that would support 1 trillion euro ($1.1 trillion) of public and private investment over the next decade across the EU. Parts of the European Investment bank should become Europe's climate bank” (European Parliament, 2019). From an international perspective, it is significant that five hundred million citizens of the European Union are embarking on a comprehensive Green Deal.
The Deal also recognizes the need for a new lifestyle and calls for “a new European Climate Pact that should bring together regional and local authorities, civil society, industry and schools to agree on commitments to change behavior” (European Parliament, 2019).
Quality should replace quantity in our consumption. In Italy, we are reminded of the wine sector in the 1980s based on high volumes, low quality, and a scandal of adding methanol to upgrade wines. Italy learned the lesson and transformed the industry to local, high-quality wines, now more than doubling the sales and exports with less acreage.
Finally, “the Netherlands’ supreme court has upheld a ruling ordering the country’s government to do much more to cut carbon emissions, after a six-year fight for climate justice. The court ruled that the government had explicit duties to protect its citizens’ human rights in the face of climate change and must reduce emissions by at least 25% compared with 1990 levels by the end of 2020.
The non-profit Urgenda Foundation, which brought the case, welcomed the “groundbreaking” judgment. The original judgment in 2015 was seen as a landmark in the then nascent field of climate litigation, and inspired similar cases across the world, from Pakistan to New Zealand. David Boyd, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said it was “the most important climate change court decision in the world so far, confirming that human rights are jeopardized by the climate emergency and that wealthy nations are legally obligated to achieve rapid and substantial emission reductions.” (The Guardian, 2019) The role of bottom-up protest and action groups continue to be essential to climate improvement worldwide. Greta has made this clear. Cities and regional governments have responded where national and international efforts have been lagging. In the US, we are reminded of California and other states that have taken an active role in improving the climate, for example, with higher efficiency standards for automobiles. In Canada, the provincial programs of carbon taxes stand out. Numerous cities serve as examples: such as Barcelona putting climate justice and citizen action at the heart of climate action planning; Copenhagen achieving a carbon-neutral city by 2025; and London with zero carbon transport network and clean air.
What can we accomplish with our community and our lifestyle for climate improvement?
European Parliament, 2019, At A Glance, Plenary December 11 2019, European Green Deal.
The Guardian, December 20 2019.