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State of the World 2014
Governing for Sustainability
By Tom Prugh, Michael Renner, Lisa Mastny, Lou Pingeot, Tatiana Rinke, Aaron Sachs, Jeremy J. Schmidt, D. Conor Seyle, Sean Sweeney, Burns Weston, Richard Worthington, Monika Zimmerman
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2014 Worldwatch Institute
All rights reserved.
Failing Governance, Unsustainable Planet
Michael Renner and Tom Prugh
Michael Renner and Tom Prugh are codirectors of the State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability project.
In early November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, the strongest cyclone to make landfall in recorded history. It killed thousands of people, displaced more than 4 million, and left 2.5 million in need of food aid. Hitting just before the round of climate negotiations known as the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it was yet another reminder of the climate-charged superstorms and other disasters that lie in store if countries do not act with due haste to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It prompted the Philippines' chief negotiator at COP 19, Yeb Sano, to announce that he would fast until conference participants made "meaningful" progress.
Cold, hard data reinforce the sense that humanity is at an unprecedented crossroads that requires a sharp departure from politics and business as usual. In 2012, global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuel burning and cement production climbed to a new peak of 9.7 billion tons, and they were projected to reach 9.9 billion tons in 2013. The 2.7 percent average annual increase in emissions during 2003–12 was almost triple the rate of the previous decade. In early 2013, the concentration of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere for the first time crossed the threshold of 400 parts per million.
The chances of limiting global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) within this century are "swiftly diminishing," in the judgment of Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. This goal was endorsed by governments in 2010 as a "safe" maximum to avoid the worst consequences, although some regard it as still too high. Yet under current government policies, global greenhouse gas emissions still will be 8 to 12 billion tons higher than the maximum allowable in 2020, likely leading to a warming of 3.7 degrees Celsius or worse. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that current policies could raise temperatures by as much as 6 degrees Celsius.
Although governments pay lip service to the goal of keeping climate change within tolerable limits, they have fallen far short of needed action in many ways. International climate governance has been marked by increased wheel spinning in recent years, and policies in several countries now represent a weakening of earlier commitments. An analysis by Climate Action Tracker warns of a "major risk of downward spiral in ambition, a retreat from action and recarbonization of the energy system."
Recent actions by Australia's new government, for example, could cause that country's greenhouse gas emissions to increase 12 percent by 2020 (instead of being reduced 5 percent from 2000 levels, as pledged earlier). Japan abandoned its 2020 target for cutting national emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels in favor of a much less ambitious cut of 3.8 percent. Canada barrels ahead in developing its carbon-intensive tar sands deposits. And the Polish government opted to welcome an "international coal and climate summit" staged by the World Coal Association at the very same time that it hosted the most recent round of international climate talks. For the climate conference itself, Poland accepted corporate sponsorship from leading car manufacturers, oil companies, builders of coal power plants, and steel manufacturers.
Climate change is certainly not the only factor undermining sustainability, but no other phenomenon carries such risks to the survival of planetary civilization. Climate change interacts with and exacerbates many other issues of concern for environmental integrity and human well-being—such as water availability and food production, biodiversity, health, disaster protection, and employment. It has far-reaching socioeconomic and political implications. The international governance processes for climate protection and for sustainable development (the Rio+20 conference and its aftermath) proceed largely on separate tracks, but the year 2015 will be a key milestone for both of them.
Climate Policy's Tower of Babel
Environmentalists have long clung to the belief that science would drive government action on climate change and other global environmental challenges. This flows from an assumption that the picture that emerges is so self-evident and compelling that no one could seriously dispute the need for action. Yet, as Monty Hempel points out in Chapter 4 of this book, knowledge alone is not enough, and indeed things have turned out differently.
For one, climate science is so complex that it is far from easily communicated to the general public. Scientific consensus-building naturally tends to err on the side of caution and understatement. In a 2012 commentary, Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows argue that climate change scenarios all too often are subjugated to orthodox economic views that regard unimpeded growth as the inviolable goal: "When it comes to avoiding a 2°C rise [in average global temperatures], 'impossible' is translated into 'difficult but doable', whereas 'urgent and radical' emerge as 'challenging'—all to appease the god of economics (or, more precisely, finance)." With the exception of outspoken individuals like James Hansen—who served as head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies until 2013—most scientists have been reluctant to engage in the fierce, polarized political debates of how society should respond to distressing scientific findings.
Meanwhile, a well-oiled machinery of climate denialists has managed to sow doubt (or worse) about the ever-strengthening climate science consensus, helping to reassure those whose inclination is to disbelieve the science. At a time of global economic crisis, denialists have been able to stoke fears among the general public that sustainability policies are at odds with concerns about jobs and incomes. Such efforts have been amplified by a media that often perpetuates a false equivalency between climate scientists and "skeptics."
If the science of climate change is hard to comprehend, so is the human process that has emerged over the last two decades around efforts to address it. The structures and processes under the UN's climate regime are largely indecipherable to the majority of the people on this planet. A veritable climate-speak Tower of Babel has arisen, replete with a proliferating number of acronyms that range from AAUs, AWG-LCA and AWG-KP to CDM, CERs, and GCF; from LULUCF, NAMAs and NAPAs to QELROs, REDD and REDD+; and on to RMUs, SBSTA, and SD-PAMs—to name only a few. The UNFCCC's own glossary of acronyms comprises more than 180 entries.
Clearly, negotiations among the world's 189 member states that are party to the UN climate convention, as well as the various regional or interest groups with which they align, are by their nature a complex undertaking. Although not as large as the environmental mega-summits such as the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and 2012's Rio+20, the annual high-level climate conferences have become massive gatherings. The first COP, held in Berlin in 1995, drew 1,925 participants (not counting media representatives). By 2013, the number of participants registered to attend COP 19 in Warsaw had expanded almost ninefold, to 9,135. Media interest, however, shrank dramatically, falling from 2,044 journalists attending in 1995 to 971 in 2013.
A more fundamental problem than the sheer numbers is the politics that is driving—or more often, blocking—the climate talks. Relative to the massive carbon reductions needed, two decades of international climate negotiations have yielded precious little in the way of tangible progress, but plenty of frustration. In 2009, the high expectations for COP 15 in Copenhagen, Denmark, led climate activists to speak of "Hopenhagen." But following the sobering failure that ensued, "Nopenhagen" became the more apt moniker, leading to searching questions about whether the following year's meeting in Cancún, Mexico, would be a "Can-cún" or "Can't-cún." Word play aside, the deadlock on key issues has persisted. In effect, the negotiators keep kicking the problem farther down the road, always in the hope that the success that eludes them one year might come within reach the next year.
Various forces have prevented greater success. A recent analysis indicates that the top fossil fuel-producing countries hold 25–30 percent of the high-level (officer) posts in the bodies of the UN climate convention, a disproportionate share given that these countries account for only 16 percent of UNFCCC members. Since 2009, coal exporters have been particularly well represented.
Although individual country positions vary, industrialized countries on the whole have been unwilling to abandon their materials-intensive and wasteful lifestyles, whereas emerging economies are intent on avoiding any mandatory commitments that could block their chance of emulating the West's consumerist model. There is much inertia, and outright resistance, from various sides to a meaningful and binding carbon reduction agreement, and it comes foremost at the expense of the most vulnerable and poorest countries.
The United States, historically the largest carbon polluter, insists on the kind of "flexibility" that is poison for a binding global climate treaty. Speaking at London's Chatham House in October 2013, U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern said that "rather than negotiated targets and timetables, we support a structure of nationally determined mitigation commitments, which allow countries to 'self-differentiate' by determining the right kind and level of commitment, consistent with their own circumstances and capabilities." (See Chapter 11 by Petra Bartosiewicz and Marissa Miley for an account of the failure to establish a more aggressive U.S. policy.)
China's leaders stake their legitimacy on providing a steady and growing flow of goods and services for a population that has no real say in political decision making. They are opposed to any international agreement that would impede the country's economic growth. Yet China's unprecedented pace of economic expansion has translated not only into skyrocketing CO2 emissions, but also into an environmental devastation and threat to public health that increasingly is becoming the main rallying cry of domestic popular activism. (See Chapter 12 by Sam Geall and Isabel Hilton.)
If runaway climate change is to be avoided, a global pact to leave the bulk of the world's proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground is indispensable. The currently proven reserves of oil, natural gas, and coal contain about 3 trillion tons of CO2. Two-thirds or more of this can never be touched if there is to be any hope of avoiding a destabilized climate. Yet this climate reality runs headlong into a global capitalist economy whose raison d'être is endless growth and that therefore demands an ever-expanding flow of energy.
The additional fossil fuel extraction capacity represented in such forms of "extreme energy" as tar sands, Arctic and deepwater deposits, shale oil and gas (unlocked through hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" technology), and mountaintop-removal coal will lock society into an unsustainable energy system for decades to come. The 2012 exploration and development expenditures of 200 fossil fuel companies listed on stock exchanges worldwide are estimated at $674 billion. (This compares with renewable energy investments of $244 billion the same year.) Global exploration and production spending for oil and gas has increased 2.4-fold since 2000, and the IEA projects that by 2035, a cumulative $14.7 trillion may be spent for such purposes, with another $3.1 trillion for refining and distribution—triple the projected spending on renewables.
Fossil fuel companies have every incentive to extract as much as possible of the extremely valuable reserves they have on their books. Leaving the bulk of the world's fossil fuel deposits untouched will require quasi-revolutionary change. Nothing like this has ever been attempted in human history, and it likely will require a combination of regulation, litigation, shareholder activism, and dogged divestment and civil disobedience campaigns.
Any such effort runs fundamentally counter to the interests of powerful and politically well-connected companies—not just the fossil fuel producers themselves, but also carbon-intensive sectors such as power utilities, motor vehicle manufacturers, and the petrochemical industry. (To overcome such opposition, there will need to be some sort of compensation or other transition arrangement, although this is too complex an issue to be addressed here.)
A recent analysis by Richard Heede found that just 81 private and state-owned corporations are responsible for about 40 percent of cumulative carbon emissions since the start of the Industrial Revolution, while 9 centrally planned states contributed another 21 percent. (See Table 1–1.) In 2012, just 25 companies were behind 58 percent of worldwide "upstream" oil and gas investments. These include privately owned companies such as Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, and BP, as well as wholly or partially state-owned firms such as Petrochina, Brazil's Petrobras, Russia's Gazprom, Mexico's Pemex, and Norway's Statoil.
It is no secret that these private firms act solely at the behest of a narrow class of shareholders. The state-owned firms at least nominally serve a broader public interest; in many countries, nationalization was an outcome of historic power struggles over who benefits from the extraction of fossil fuels. Still, state ownership does not necessarily translate into policies in the public interest. State companies may be run in ways that are functionally no different than private companies. Or they may be controlled by unrepresentative regimes that channel revenues into repression or corrupt practices, as Evan Musolino and Katie Auth write in Chapter 17. Fossil fuel revenues can be used responsibly, as Norway has shown. But the full costs of climate change will eventually surpass any benefits that may be derived from continued exploitation of fossil fuels.
It is worth noting that underlying and propping up this web of powerful corporate actors, whose interests so often clash with the public interest, are the wishes, desires, and buying power of hundreds of millions of people. The lure of consumerism (aided by massive advertisement spending) has proven to be almost irresistible around the planet, and many people define themselves more in terms of their material possessions than in terms of being active citizens.
Excerpted from State of the World 2014 by Tom Prugh, Michael Renner, Lisa Mastny, Lou Pingeot, Tatiana Rinke, Aaron Sachs, Jeremy J. Schmidt, D. Conor Seyle, Sean Sweeney, Burns Weston, Richard Worthington, Monika Zimmerman. Copyright © 2014 Worldwatch Institute. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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