Nuclear Pollution

Are Aspirational Goals Enough to Address Climate Change?

When it comes to collective action the unfortunate conundrum is that there is a blame game where countries such as China and India – two of the largest carbon emitters – accuse the West of polluting the world over decades and asking them now to reduce their emissions.

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne in Montreal

The hope of the future lies not in curbing the influence of human occupancy – it is already too late for that – but in creating a better understanding of the extent of that influence and a new ethic for its governance. Aldo Leopold

Someone once said that if there is hope, it is already too late. This may well be true of the climate crisis.

Taking aviation as just one example, The Carbon Emissions Calculator of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) allows passengers to estimate the emissions attributed to their air travel. It is seemingly simple to use and requires only a limited amount of information from the user. ICEC is represented by ICAO as the only internationally approved tool to estimate carbon emissions from air travel. This is just one example of the many proactive measures taken by the international community in different disciplines to alleviate the looming catastrophe that exponential climate change and global warming presents.

The question is: what do such things accomplish in the overall scheme of things that are based on aspirations and hope?

In March 2022, ICAO released its report on Long Term Aspirational Goals (LTAG) which asked the following questions: how could in-sector measures (ie technology, operations, and fuels) help reduce CO2 emissions from international aviation through 2050 and beyond?; given CO2 emissions trends for each scenario, what would be the cumulative emissions from international aviation?; how do these cumulative aviation emissions compare to requirements to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C and 2°C?; what investments are required to support the implementation of the in-sector measures associated with each scenario?; what would be the cost impacts to aviation stakeholders?; What would be the impacts of various future aviation traffic levels?

Hopefully, at least some answers to these questions will be discussed at the upcoming 41st Session of the ICAO Assembly in the last quarter of this year. Member States of ICAO are undoubtedly encouraged by the 26th Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP/26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Declaration adopted by 23 States on 10 November 2021 – which happened to be Transport Day as dedicated by COP26 – where, at the inaugural meeting of what they called the “International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition (IACAC) the said Declaration was issued which stated that the States Parties agreed to work together, “both through ICAO and other complementary cooperative initiatives , to advance ambitious actions to reduce aviation CO2 emissions at a rate consistent with efforts to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5C”.

The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in 2021 that climate change is already affecting every inhabited region across the globe and that the effects of climate change are leading to “unprecedented” changes across the climate system, impacting temperature, precipitation, sea ​​level, and ocean acidity. At 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, Earth will experience increased heat waves, longer warm seasons, and shorter cold seasons. At 2 degrees Celsius, a warmer planet could surpass thresholds sustaining human health and agriculture.

This leads one to the inexorable conclusion that something must be done now rather than wait for 2030 or 2050 – two chronological projections that are being thrown around. There are promises being made. For example, Amazon has pledged that it would be carbon neutral by 2040 and Apple has advanced their date of carbon neutrality to 2030. Microsoft also stays at 2030 with the aspiration that by 2050 it would have succeeded in removing carbon equivalent to its entirety of past. emissions from the atmosphere.

Fareed Zakaria, in his article in a recent issue of The Washington Post says: “But the reality is that we need to cut emissions now, not promise to do so by 2030. And the only way to do it now, and at scale, is to make some tough choices and trade-offs. We do not have green technology, like clean nuclear fusion and long-duration battery storage, that can fully replace fossil fuels today. We may get them — in 10 or 15 years, perhaps, if we are very lucky.

But we don’t have them now, and hoping that we do is part of what has caused an energy crisis around the world. Investment in fossil fuels has plunged over the past decade, while green technology has not been able to fill the gap. Germany cut back on nuclear energy and ended up burning more coal. California is phasing out nuclear and discouraging natural gas but is now confronting a sharp increase in the number of wasteful diesel generators being used for backup power”.

In his usual creative and wise analysis of geo-political trends Dr. Zakaria suggests some proactive measures: “We could start by converting the most polluting coal-fired power plants to natural gas, which emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal when combusted. A study surveyed 29,000 power plants around the world and found that 5 percent generate 73 percent of all emissions in the electricity-generation sector. In other words, replacing around 1,500 coal-burning plants would make a huge dent in emissions, a giant cut on par with the boldest plans being discussed today. If the West wants to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, why not put together a coalition that would finance this effort across the planet?”

Also suggested by him are the extension of the life of nuclear power plants and the commencement of building smaller and safer plants and planting of one trillion trees. Admittedly, these are not without their own inherent shortcomings and difficulties that have to be overcome but they are in the right direction of seeking proactive and progressive ways forward.

Ian Bremmer, President and Founder of Eurasia Group – one of the world’s largest think tanks – and professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in his book The Power of Crisis: How Three Threats – and our Responses – Will Change the World says that the first step towards immediate proactivity is recognition by the world leaders that the climate crisis affects all humans and that global and collective action should be taken through cooperation, compromise and coordination. Dr. Bremmer says: “Promises and targets aren’t enough. Leaders have to find the courage and imagination to work together across borders and over decades to limit the collective damage our past will inflict on our common future”.

Dr. Bremmer suggests the formation of an International Carbon Organization (along the lines of the World Trade Organization) that would be an agency regulating international trade in carbon credits and at the same time evaluates accurately the rate of global carbon emissions and carbon removal from the atmosphere once the technology is available. He suggests that this would encourage all States to cooperate and collaborate with confidence and trust.

When it comes to collective action the unfortunate conundrum is that there is a blame game where countries such as China and India – two of the largest carbon emitters – accuse the West of polluting the world over decades and asking them now to reduce their emissions. They say: “wealthy Western countries created this problem and got rich doing it. We aren’t going to scale back our development to clean up your mess”.

The bottom line is that our discipline in protecting our environment lies in the way we build relationships with each other and act in cohesion. Someone once said that a person without relationships is like a person without a shadow, and that we all need a light above our heads to cast that shadow. Our shadow is the metaphorical equivalent of what we bestow on others whether in life or in death. Years from now, our children will wonder who we were, with a view to finding themselves, perhaps on the mistaken notion that they must take after us in some way.

Also, years from now, generations to come will analyze the way in which we handled wars and made peace; how we handled our own sustainable development. That will be our shadow. The respect we gain as a generation will, as President Barack Obama says, not come from who our fathers and mothers were but how we did things. If we are to leave a good impression behind us, we would have to act as we actually live. President Obama says in his best-selling book “The Audacity of Hope” that our politics will have to be “constructed from the best of our traditions and will have to account for the darker aspects of our past…and we’ll need to remind ourselves, despite all our differences, just how much we share: common hopes, common dreams, a bond that will not break”.

Dr. Abeyratne is the author of Aviation and the Carbon Trade, Aviation and the Environment, and Aviation and Climate Change: In Search of a Global Market Based Option.

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