Why it’s wrong to preach “climate justice”

Two wrongs don't make a right -- carbon is not a prerequisite to development

The Copenhagen Accord is a month old, but its future -- and origin -- is still being furiously debated. The international political profile of climate change is now changing rapidly -- and growing in what will, I hope, be a more useful direction. Old alliances are breaking apart, and new ones are forming.

All of us must reconsider our beliefs as a result.

My decision to write about the heads of state meeting I attended in Copenhagen was not taken lightly; I was initially reluctant to speak publicly about what I had witnessed. The piece I eventually published in the Guardian (with a short version here in the New Statesman) got a lot of attention, but also exposed polarised opinions on who was to blame for the failure at Copenhagen.

What surprised me most was how many campaigners automatically rejected the conclusion, backed up by my direct participation in the negotiations, that it was the developing world -- primarily China and India -- that destroyed the putative "deal". In blogs and emails between groups such as the World Development Movement and their supporters, it was suggested that anything calling into question the roles of developing countries must be a plot by the rich former colonial powers, of which I must be an unwitting (or witting, if you believe the conspiracists) pawn.

Copenhagen has opened up a chasm between sustainability and equity. NGOs that ideologically support equity defend the right of developing countries to increase their emissions for two to three more decades at least, while advocating limits to an increase in temperature (1.5°C) and carbon concentrations (to levels of 350 parts per million or less). Yet, for these goals to be realised, global emissions must peak now -- there is no room for expansion by anyone.

This would be a problem if carbon were a prerequisite for development. But it isn't. Large-scale alternatives, such as wind, hydro and nuclear, can generate all the energy at present delivered by burning coal. Electrification will gradually deliver carbon-free surface transport, while solar power can produce both heat and cooling (and more electricity) at reasonable costs in the tropics and subtropical regions. That is why the decision of the Maldives (whose delegation I joined in Copenhagen) to go carbon-neutral is so important in showing a better way ahead for developing nations.

Many NGOs, with the best of motivations, insist that the historic responsibility for causing climate change (which lies overwhelmingly with rich countries) should confer an equal right to pollute on those who are poor. But two wrongs don't make a right, and the fact is that the capacity of the atmosphere to act as a waste dump for carbon has already been overshot -- if we want to limit temperature increases to levels that would allow nations such as the Maldives to survive.

In my view, the historical responsibility question is an unassailable argument for adaptation financing. It is a clear legal principle that if you cause damage you must pay compensation. (Indeed, the $100bn in initial financing put on the table at Copenhagen was a de facto recognition of this principle.) But to use "climate justice" as an argument for increased future pollution by anyone is wrong. It is time that campaigners rightly concerned with equality recognised that there can be no trade-off between solving poverty and planetary survival.

This article appears in this week's issue of the New Statesman, available from all good newsagents.

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Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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