FRANCE has turned into a litmus test for how steep the battle to lower carbon dioxide emissions worldwide will be. And the results, thus far are not heartening.
In late November, thousands of French protesters, labeled the “yellow vests” by local media, besieged city centres across the country to protest a hike in fuel prices.
French President Emmanuel Macron had recently raised taxes on diesel fuel even as prices fell globally to fund raise for France’s wholesale migration to green energy sources. He has refused to roll back the levy even as Paris turned into a battlefield where police clashed violently with the protesters.
Nothing was sacred for the agitators who had snuck into the protests as they defaced the iconic Arc de Triomphe monument with graffiti. Incensed at the scale of vandalism, Macron is mulling a state of emergency for France.
The “yellow vests” movement is as spontaneous as they come and naturally sired by social media. It brings together French citizens of all political persuasions with their middle-class credentials, the only tangible link.
This is a worrying development for the global crusade against global warming. If France’s relatively affluent middle class can grind the country to a halt over a mere fuel tax, how will their more impoverished equals in states like India, China and Russia react to similar government initiatives?
Forget that, how will the rest of the European Union (EU), currently number three on the list of biggest global polluters, stick by its responsibility to keep the rise in global temperatures below two degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels?
Poland, for instance, generates 80 per cent of its electricity from carbon-dense coal and has refused to cut down consumption. It is, hence, ironic that this year’s COP24 global conference on climate change is underway there from early to mid-December.
Three years ago, in Paris, the G7 leaders had promised to create a US$100 billion (RM413.24 billion) climate change fund by 2020 for developing countries to incrementally give up fossil fuels and develop indigenous green technologies.
Yet those promises have fallen prey to a tectonic shift in global geopolitics where America, the world’s number two polluter, pulled out of the Paris Agreement this year citing “unfair” conditions.
Next, a slew of EU member states gripped by the rising tide of nationalism that is sweeping the continent, elected deeply conservative leaders that blame globalism for their domestic problems.
A grim future awaits humanity should we continue failing to act decisively on global warming. As Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), recently warned:
“We are the first generation to fully understand climate change and the last generation to be able to do something about it.”
So, where do we go from here? China as a one-party state will plausibly have an easier time chasing its carbon emissions targets should the necessary political will exist. The urgency to act will most certainly ramp up when the Communist Party starts fearing the chaotic internal migration from areas savaged by erratic weather could compromise its absolute control over citizens.
Moreover, given China’s immense population and its heavy reliance on gas-guzzling industries to power the export economy, local policymakers will likely throw money at the most practical remedies including Direct Air Capture (DAC) technologies instead of chasing fantastical carbon reduction targets.
America, meanwhile, under President Donald Trump has, since his inauguration, trivialised global warming. Moreover, his attitude has, according to the Institute of International and European Affairs, been far more damaging than previously recognised as a convenient excuse for other skeptical world leaders to follow suit.
He routinely derides climate change data as a “hoax”, and likely believes his reelection in 2020 hinges on hot-wiring the country’s Rust Belt to bring back the thousands of manufacturing jobs allegedly lost to China.
The subtle vibe coming from COP24 delegates after the first round of dialogue concluded suggests keeping global warming levels below two degrees Celsius is a bridge too far. Consequently, the comity of nations must refocus its energies on carbon capturing technologies.
That said, such technologies are still in their infancy and will require dramatic cost reduction and huge government subsidies to be adopted universally, especially in developing countries.
Another means of atmospheric carbon reduction that scientists are presently toying with involves a naturally occurring mineral: volcanic rock basalt. When employed as a fertiliser instead of the carbon-dense artificial variety, it has a great capacity for trapping carbon in the soil where it can then enrich crops.
While convincing giant agri-businesses to change their supply chains won’t be easy, experiments with basalt that prove a marked improvement in crop yields should over time persuade them to embrace the eco-friendlier alternative.
Experts say some other options are cracked rocks in open mines and “slag”, the byproduct of iron works industries. Both effectively trap carbon.
Still, hoovering roughly 12 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year from the atmosphere for the foreseeable future is a herculean task to say the least.
But things could change for the better. With scientists suggesting Asian and African cities will be worst hit when global temperatures rise above 1.5° Celsius, India and China should sober up to the gravity of the situation and prioritise the lives and livelihoods of their citizens in the long-term over short-term profitability.
Additionally, the World Bank has pledged US$200 billion in funding for states that actively seek to reduce their carbon footprint.
The UN has warned the “world is at a crossroads” where failure to take decisive action against global warming in the next two years could be fatal for humanity. Will world leaders heed its clarion call?
S. Mubashir Noor is an Ipoh-based independent journalist