People's Stories Livelihood

Too many companies globally are ignoring their human rights responsibilities
by ICJ, FIDH, CIDSE, ITUC, OHCHR, agencies
16 October 2018 (OHCHR)
Too many companies globally are ignoring their human rights responsibilities and governments are failing to regulate and lead by example in business practices, a group of independent UN experts says.
A report by the experts urges business to exercise ‘human rights due diligence’ to comply with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and recommends ways states – in their roles as regulators as well as owners, investors, trade promoters and buyers – and investors should fix shortcomings.
“Human rights due diligence is about preventing negative impacts on people,” said Dante Pesce, who chairs the Working Group on Business and Human Rights. “Basically it involves identifying risks to people across the value chain, being transparent about those risks and taking action to prevent or remedy them. To be meaningful it needs to be informed by real stakeholder engagement, in particular with communities, human rights and environmental defenders and trade unions.”
“Making progress in tackling adverse business-related impacts on people’s rights and dignity is a critical and urgent issue,” Mr. Pesce said. “In fact, ensuring that human rights are respected across their own activities and value chains, is the most significant contribution most companies can make towards sustainable development.”
The group’s report, presented to the United Nations General Assembly today, found that more investors were scrutinising and pressuring companies to manage human rights risks and prevent abuses, but also that more investors should join the trend.
The report revealed a few companies in various industries are leading the way, but most businesses seem unaware of their human rights responsibility or unwilling to implement human rights due diligence. On government performance, the expert group found a few promising legal and policy developments, but also that more action is needed.
“In spite of an overall picture of slow progress, the good news is that human rights due diligence can be done,” Mr. Pesce said. “Numerous tools and resources are available and business enterprises can no longer cite a lack of knowledge as an excuse for inaction. They just need to get started, and investors and governments should push them along. Evidence is clearly suggesting that doing the right thing is also the smart thing to do.”
Oct. 2018
UN treaty on business and human rights; a historic opportunity to remove barriers to justice
While international law has defined the duties of states to protect human rights, it has not regulated enough the responsibility of corporations for their human rights violations. A turning point was reached on 25 June 2014, when the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted a resolution on the elaboration of an international legally binding instrument on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights, also referred to as “UN Treaty”.
The UN Resolution called for the establishment of an Intergovernmental Working Group (IGWG) with the mandate to elaborate the Treaty. After a few years of sessions to establish the ground of the Treaty, in July 2018 the Presidency of the OEIGWG published the Zero Draft of the UN Binding Treaty that will be discussed at the occasion of the 4th Session of OEIGWG this October.
This marks a decisive moment for the process towards shaping a UN Treaty that can bring value to global efforts towards preventing adverse human rights effects of business activities and providing access to justice for affected people and communities.
04 October 2018
EU must constructively engage in the UN Treaty for Business and Human Rights. (CIDSE)
Today the European Parliament (EP) has voted on a resolution in favor of a UN Binding Treaty as a crucial instrument to keep the activities of transnational corporations (TNCs) under control and to guarantee the primacy of human rights and the care for the environment.
There are far too many examples of human rights abuses occurring as a result of transnational corporations’ activities, that have until today been able to take advantage of loose regulatory frameworks. The UN Treaty has the potential to greatly improve this situation. The next session of the body in charge of the Treaty, the Open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights (IGWG) is taking place 15-19 October and it is essential that further steps are taken.
In its resolution the EP asks “all the EU and its Member States to engage genuinely and constructively in these negotiations” and “highlights the paramount importance of the EU constructively contributing to the achievement of a Binding Treaty which will effectively address the issue of corporate liability for human rights violations and related challenges”.
The EU has in the past tried to slow down the Treaty process, failing to demonstrate leadership and proactivity to seize the potential of an international legally binding instrument to strengthen human rights protection. It is now time to put people first, guarantee them access to justice, and to make sure that corporations are properly regulated, ending an asymmetric balance that has been harmful to many communities.
Church actors have increasingly spoken strongly in favor of more adequate regulation of TNCs to protect human rights- Pope Francis has led the way with his publication of the Encyclical Laudato Si’ in 2015. In June this year, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva said in a statement: “Given the transnational nature of both economic freedoms and human rights, robust transnational legislation has to be promoted to support Governments in their duty to protect against third-party human rights abuses.” In March, the bishops of Latin America sent a powerful call expressing the need to care for our common home, in defense of the rights and territories of the communities.
This call came after many negative experiences in Latin America with TNCs such as mining companies, who operated with disastrous consequences on the lives and environment of the people, while escaping accountability. In light of such experiences, European bishops have asked the EU to play a constructive role in process towards a binding Treaty.
Other recent expressions of support are this open letter signed by more than 150 scholars and experts strongly advocating for a Binding Treaty, statements from national human rights institutes in France and Germany as well as a position statement from the European Trade Union Confederation.
Civil society, coming together in the global Treaty Alliance, of which CIDSE is a leading member, have for years advocated for a Treaty, bringing the voices of people directly living the consequences of corporate abuse.
The EU can’t fail to listen to such a broad range of actors!
The next IGWG is an especially crucial session, which follows the publication of a “Zero draft” of the Treaty text. CIDSE considers this text as a good starting point to kick off the negotiations, but points out some improvements needed such as the guaranteeing the primacy of human rights in trade and investment policies, the protection of human rights defenders and the need for stronger enforcement mechanisms.
On October 15-19, we will be in Geneva advocating for a binding Treaty together with our members, partners, allies. We expect the EU and its Member States to participate in the 4th IGWG session, making constructive proposals towards a Treaty that can help put a stop to human rights abuses in the context of business activities.
* Oct. 2018
Open Letter to States concerning an International Legally Binding Instrument on Business and Human Rights from over 150 international scholars and experts in the fields of public international law, human rights law, business and human rights and international economic law:
An International Legally Binding Instrument as a Necessary Complement to Existing Instruments
"We acknowledge the positive contribution made by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other initiatives in providing guidance on the relationship between business and human rights. Significant gaps, however, remain in ensuring that businesses respect human rights and effective remedies are available to victims of business-related human rights abuses.
There is also no legally binding international framework to facilitate mutual cooperation and international assistance among states to hold business enterprises accountable for human rights abuses. We believe that an international legally binding instrument would strengthen and complement existing regulatory initiatives and evolving good practice regulation at the national level".
We strongly urge all states to engage constructively and in good faith with the process of negotiating an international legally binding instrument. By doing so, states will demonstrate their continuous commitment to respect, protect and fulfil all human rights amidst the challenges of the 21st century:
June 2018
We, over 200 civil society organizations and members of the Treaty Alliance, a broad platform of civil society organizations and social movements in support of the adoption of an international human rights treaty on transnational corporations (TNCs) and other business enterprises (OBEs), and other undersigned organizations, call on all UN Member States to engage without delay in this stage of the process in active and constructive negotiations of the substance of the treaty to improve the human rights of communities and people affected by the operations of TNCs and OBEs and their access to effective remedy, and to put an end to corporate impunity for human rights abuses.
We consider that talks among member States as well as with Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are key to move the process forward. We envision this work advancing along two tracks, both of extreme importance for the process: one on the content of the future Treaty and another on how the discussion will be organized (“way forward”).
To this end, we first call on States to provide substantive comments during the informal consultations which are currently taking place in Geneva and be prepared to contribute with concrete language and substantive proposals on the draft treaty once this is released as foreseen in the report of the 3rd session of the open-ended intergovernmental working group (OEIGWG).
Second, to support the active and substantive engagement in the negotiations by the Member States, we emphasize the high importance of the timely release of the draft treaty to allow government delegations and other stakeholders sufficient time to prepare for the discussions. It should take into consideration the elements paper released before the third session and the oral and written contributions made during the first three sessions.
Third, in order to move forward in the second track, regarding the negotiation process, we call also on the active participation of States in bringing concrete and clear proposals to the Chair on how the programme of work on the negotiation process, including that of the upcoming 4th session, should be organized to achieve the mandate in the shortest time possible. We also call on the Chair of the IGWG to give due consideration to all those proposals and renew efforts towards a negotiated outcome.
We underline our strong commitment to the objective of establishing an international treaty. A set of binding obligations and enforcement mechanisms is the next necessary and logical step in the process that started several decades ago to ensure access to justice for affected individuals and communities and put an end to corporate impunity.
* The Universal Rights Network is a member of the Treaty Alliance
* June 2018
The United Nations open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights has released a working Draft of the legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises. It will form the basis of negotiations at the October 2018 session, see draft:
Feb. 2018
Written Submission to the 3rd session of the Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights (IGWG)
Removing Barriers to Justice - How a treaty on business and human rights could improve access to remedy for victims. An 80 page report commissioned by: ActionAid Netherlands, Brot fur die Welt, Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO), Coopération Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarite (CIDSE), Friends of the Earth Europe, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), The Norwegian Forum for Development and Environment (ForUM)
Transnational businesses are extremely important actors on the global stage. Their operations can potentially create enormous benefits, but they can also cause lasting harm – both to people and the planet. There are now numerous cases involving transnational companies that have been implicated in creating, facilitating or tolerating situations leading to violations of human rights and environmental degradation.
Complaints raised against major transnationals include cases of land acquisition that fail to respect the land rights of traditional and indigenous communities; the industrial use of powerful chemicals impacting on the environment; forced labour; the failure to protect workers and local communities from dangerous substances; dumping of waste; polluting of rivers; tolerance of poor safety standards and working conditions; and accounts of collaboration with State military and paramilitary groups against a backdrop of widespread violence against human rights defenders.
Given these severe international impacts, combined with the fact that dozens of companies and corporate groups are now bigger in economic terms than many individual countries, it is remarkable that they still remain largely outside of the formal regulatory system of international human rights law. The international human rights supervisory regimes are predicated on State-based systems.
This raises a key question: how can businesses be regulated if they operate across national boundaries yet are only subject to the domestic supervisory frameworks of nation States.
Access to justice for victims of business related human rights violations is a widespread and growing problem around the world. For decades, communities have been bearing the brunt of corporate misconduct without any proper access to remedy. On a daily basis, people have been risking their lives in order to protect their land, their livelihoods, the environment and their rights as workers.
Often, communities stand alone on the frontline – with international human rights standards on their side, but without (judicial) enforcement to back them up.
The ‘Removing Barriers to Justice’ report gives an overview of several obstacles currently faced by victims of business - related human rights abuses when trying to access remedy, illustrated by analysis of transnational business and human rights litigation.
Firstly, issues regarding forum selection, the legal applicable framework and extraterritorial jurisdiction can result in victims not being able to access the courts in their home state or in the host state either. Once able to access court, legal barriers – specifically the corporate veil – can effectively shield the parent company from liability for the acts of its subsidiaries. After the case has reached substantive review, the lack of criminal liability provisions or binding due diligence requirements makes it challenging to hold companies to account for their acts and omissions causing harmful impacts.
Safety concerns, the lack of financial resources and lack of access to information, combined with a burden of proof, form a significant obstacle between affected individuals and communities and courts, which is equally detrimental to victims’ cases. Finally, the willingness and ability of domestic agencies to enforce the limited existing laws in relation to corporate misconduct both remain issues of concern.
The report puts forward concrete recommendations for how the UN treaty can remove barriers to justice while building upon and complementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).
A treaty needs to create an international framework for jurisdiction and choice of law for transnational business and human rights cases, decreasing the likelihood of jurisdictional battles.
Removing legal barriers to corporate liability, the treaty should also establish parent company liability and criminal liability for corporate offenders, as well as a binding duty of care related to companies’ subsidiaries and supply chain.
The due diligence framework set out by the UNGPs can be given legally binding force, with a vision to improve corporate planning, oversight and transparency.
Critical to protecting lives and a safe space for civil society, the treaty needs to extend protection to human rights defenders, possibly through the introduction of libel law reform, judicial protection for whistle-blowers and firmly establishing community participation in relation to business projects.
Improving victims’ access to courts, the treaty should include provisions on financial and legal support for plaintiffs, reversed burden of proof and victims’ access to information.
Last but not least, an internationally binding instrument should address the weak links in domestic legal systems by creating agreement on judicial cooperation, mutual recognition and enforcement of judicial decisions, strengthening domestic agencies in responding to transnational cases, stipulating effective sanctions to be imposed by domestic legal processes and establishing an effective global oversight body on implementation of the treaty.
Whether through the use of domestic courts, the establishment of a transnational court and/or a global oversight body, the added value of the treaty will – among other things – be measured by the remedy it delivers on the ground. In its report on the right to an effective remedy, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights emphasizes that rights holders should be central to the entire remedy process, if there is to be access to effective remedy.
Furthermore, effectiveness of remedies concerns both process and outcome: if the rights holders are not satisfied at the end of the remedial process, no remedy was achieved. Without effective remedy on the ground, the treaty will fail the very people it is supposed to serve. We have reiterated on different occasions that the UNGPs alone are not enough to hold companies to account. This UN treaty will complement the UNGPs, as is further elaborated in the report.
* Access the report:
# The United Nations open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights was established by the UN Human Rights Council in its resolution 26/9 of 26 June 2014, and mandated to elaborate an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights.
In the resolution, the Council decided that the Chairperson-Rapporteur should prepare elements for the draft legally binding instrument for substantive negotiations at the commencement of the third session of the working group, taking into consideration the discussions held at its first two sessions. The Third open informal consultation took place in June 2018:

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Will collective interests prevail over those who, for profit, exploit the global commons?
by Nicholas Stern, Franz Baumann
IPCC, News agencies
Oct. 2018
The world heating up by even 1.5C would have a brutal impact on future generations, by Nicholas Stern.
The authoritative new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sets the world a clear target: we must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to net zero by the middle of this century to have a reasonable chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C.
Every government should read this report and recognise the clear choice we now have.
Accelerate the transition to clean and sustainable growth or suffer the mounting damage from sea level rise, floods and droughts that will severely hinder efforts to tackle poverty, raise living standards and improve prosperity.
The report, prepared by leading researchers from around the world, warns that the world has already warmed by about 1C since the middle of the 19th century, and could reach 1.5C at the current rate of warming before the middle of this century.
Human activities are currently emitting about 42bn tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, and at that rate the carbon budget – allowing us a 50-50 chance of keeping warming to 1.5C – would be exhausted within 20 years.
Even 1.5C of warming would have brutal consequences, according to the report. Poor people, in particular, would suffer as the threat of food and water shortages increase in parts of the world.
But the report makes clear that allowing warming to reach 2C would create risks that any reasonable person would regard as deeply dangerous.
One of the report’s most stark statements is that “limiting global warming to 1.5C, compared with 2C, could reduce the number of people both exposed to climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050”.
However, the report also makes clear that the target of halting global warming at 1.5C could still be technically feasible, particularly if there is a strong and immediate response from governments.
The report recognises that the collective pledges by governments that were submitted before the Paris agreement was reached in 2015 are consistent with warming of 3-4C by the end of the century. By contrast, a path that would prevent a rise of much more than 1.5C would require annual emissions to fall by about 50% between now and 2030, and reach net zero by 2050.
We have to achieve these emissions reductions over a period when the world’s economy will experience a radical transformation. Global infrastructure will have more than doubled between 2015 and 2030. The global economy will have doubled within two decades or so if it continues to grow at about 3% each year on average. And the population living in cities, where most emissions occur, will likely double in the next four decades.
Hence the next 10 years will be absolutely crucial in determining what kind of world will exist in the decades beyond. If we act decisively, and innovate and invest wisely, we could both avoid the worst impacts of climate change and successfully achieve the sustainable development goals, as the IPCC report emphasises. If we do not, we face a world in which it will become increasingly difficult for us and future generations to thrive.
But we will also need greater international cooperation. While it is clear that it is still technically feasible to limit warming to 1.5C, we will not succeed without strong political will and leadership. Governments should recognise both the great peril we face from poor choices or hesitation, and the great opportunity on offer from the rapid transition to a clean and sustainable economy.
Governments, companies and communities should embrace this transition: it is the growth story of the 21st century. Cities must be planned so that we can live, breathe and move freely in them. And we must reverse the degradation of our land, soils and forests so that they are more productive and absorb more carbon dioxide. All of this is possible.
We will see in the next two years whether governments have understood the message of this IPCC report as they revise their nationally determined contributions to the Paris agreement. We still have in our grasp the opportunity to choose a safer and more prosperous future.
* Nicholas Stern is chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He authored the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change for the UK government.
Gro Harlem Brundtland, Acting Chair of The Elders, Former Prime Minister of Norway:
“This report is not a wake-up call, it is a ticking time bomb. Climate activists have been calling for decades for leaders to show responsibility and take urgent action, but we have barely scratched the surface of what needs to be done. Further failure would be an unconscionable betrayal of the planet and future generations.”
Mary Robinson, Former President of Ireland, Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Former UN Special Envoy on Climate Change:
“The IPCC report starkly sets out the challenges of securing a just transition to a 1.5°C world, and the urgency with which this needs to be accomplished. This can only be done by a people-centred, rights-based approach with justice and solidarity at its heart. The time for talking is long past; leaders need to step up, serve their people and act immediately.”
Ricardo Lagos, Former President of Chile, Former UN Special Envoy on Climate Change:
“The threats posed by climate change to planetary health cannot be understated. The time for stating the scale of the problem has passed, and we now need to move to urgent, radical action to keep temperature rises to 1.5°C. It cannot be left to climate scientists and activists alone – it is a battle that must be joined by all those with an interest in our future survival.”
Ernesto Zedillo, Former President of Mexico:
“If we allow temperatures to rise above 1.5°C then all the progress on prosperity, growth and development risks being wiped out. Our economic paradigm needs to shift to promote zero-carbon, climate-resilient policies. This means putting a price on carbon and investing in new, sustainable technologies, but also giving those most affected a voice in developing new growth models.”
Amjad Abdulla, chief negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, and IPCC Board member:
“The report shows that we only have the slimmest of opportunities remaining to avoid unthinkable damage to the climate system that supports life as we know it. I have no doubt that historians will look back at these findings as one of the defining moments in the course of human affairs. I urge all civilized nations to take responsibility for it by dramatically increasing our efforts to cut the emissions responsible for the crisis and to do what is necessary to help vulnerable people respond to some of the devastating consequences we now know can no longer be avoided.”
Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who led the historic Paris agreement of 2015, said: “There is nothing opaque about this new data. The illustrations of mounting impacts, the fast-approaching and irreversible tipping points are visceral versions of a future that no policy-maker could wish to usher in or be responsible for.”
Figueres said the need for urgent action was clear: “Emissions reductions today are much more important than emissions reductions tomorrow. The sooner we bend the curve of global emissions, the more options we will have on the table for safely reaching the necessary, desirable and achievable carbon neutrality by 2050.”
The decisions taken in the next few years will be crucial because the investment cycle for power plants and transport systems is at least 10 years. Infastructure built now will continue to burn up carbon for decades to come if it is not re-engineered.
“This is the decisive decade,” said Johan Rockström, chief scientist at Conservation International and co-author of the recent Hothouse Earth report, which warned of a domino-like cascade of melting ice, warming seas, shifting currents and dying forests beyond which human efforts to reduce emissions will be increasingly futile. “Any investment in energy has a 10-year lifecycle. Even a family car: 1.5C has become real.”
“Climate change is occurring earlier and more rapidly than expected. Even at the current level of 1C warming, it is painful,” he told the Guardian. “This report is really important. It has a scientific robustness that shows 1.5C is not just a political concession. There is a growing recognition that 2C is dangerous.”
“The difference between impossible and possible is political leadership,” said Stephen Cornelius, chief adviser on climate change at WWF. “We are already seeing loss of natural habitats and species, dwindling ice caps, rising sea levels, impacting on our health, livelihoods and economic growth. We know what is needed and we can do it relying mostly on proved technologies, such as decisively scaling up renewable energy and halting deforestation.”
Gebru Jember Endalew, the chair of the Least Developed Countries Group, one of the key negotiating blocks in climate talks representing the world’s poorest countries, said:
"Communities across the world are already experiencing the devastating impacts of 1C global warming. Each fraction of a degree that global temperatures rise is extremely dangerous.
Limiting global temperature increases to 1.5C means significantly decreased levels of food insecurity, water shortages, destruction of infrastructure, and displacement from sea level rise and other impacts. To the lives and livelihoods of billions, that half a degree is everything.
Endalew said the report made clear that there is an urgent need to “accelerate the global response to climate change to avoid exceeding the 1.5C limit”, adding:
"Governments must increase climate action now and submit more ambitious plans for the future. This includes increasing the level of support to developing countries to enable them to develop and lift their people out of poverty without going down a traditional, unsustainable development pathway".
On the issue of loss and damage, Endalew said:
"This IPCC report confirms that loss and damage resulting from climate change will only worsen with further warming with much greater losses at 2C than at 1.5C. It is particularly vulnerable countries like the least developed countries that are worst affected by the devastating impacts of climate change and bear the greatest cost from the damage it causes, despite contributing the least to the problem. This injustice must be addressed by the international community through the provision of support for dealing with loss and damage.
The most important message of this IPCC report is that achieving 1.5C is necessary, achievable and urgent. A safer, more prosperous future is possible with immediate action to implement transformative change across societies. There is a need to take advantage of the increasing availability of affordable, renewable and efficient energy solutions, rapidly reduce the use of fossil fuels, with coal phased out by mid-century, preserve and restore forests and soils, promote sustainable agriculture and implement other real climate solutions that together can bring about a zero-carbon economy".
On the implementation guidelines for the Paris agreement that are due at COP24 in December 2018, he said:
"The IPCC report has made even clearer the need for the Paris rulebook to properly reflect the breadth of action required by all countries to achieve the agreement’s 1.5C goal. Countries must deliver a robust rulebook that will ensure adequate action is taken to cut emissions, adapt to climate change and address loss and damage, and that support is provided to enable poorer countries to do the same".
Oct. 2018
To Save the Earth, Deepen Incentives for a Carbon-Free World, argues Franz Baumann former UNDP special adviser on environment.
When United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke passionately about the frightening prospect of a climate catastrophe recently, he called it “the defining issue of our time.” Everything in his powerful speech was backed by science. Yet, because secretaries-general cannot say everything, it was incomplete.
What Guterres did not say is that global warming is the flip side of the unprecedented growth of productivity, wealth, income and consumption, mainly in Western countries, but also in China, India and elsewhere. He also did not say that these trends cannot possibly continue, because infinite growth will collide with the physics of a finite world.
Global warming began with the Industrial Revolution some 250 years ago, but has accelerated over the past 60 or so years, because of the colossal use of fossil fuels (first coal, then oil and now gas). Further growth is projected. World population, 7.6 billion today, will be around 10 billion in 2050 and more than 11 billion by the end of the century. Life expectancy has risen from 51 years globally in 1960 to 72 years today. People need to eat, work, move and be housed. With growth in wealth has come an appetite for carbon-spewing products and activities.
Since 1970, the number of cars in the world has quintupled, to 1.3 billion. Twice that number is projected by midcentury. The number of airline passengers has increased tenfold to 4 billion; it will double within a decade. The number of methane-producing cattle has grown by 50 percent, to nearly four billion, a trend accommodating more demand for meat and dairy products. A staggering 45 million metric tons of e-waste are generated annually around the world, with an increase of about 20 percent expected by 2021.
Meanwhile, nature is shrinking and biodiversity is endangered.
Guterres did not declare that the past can be prologue only at our peril. He did not question the logic of the global economy, namely relentless growth, nor did he point out that it is not only the climate-change deniers who are antiscience, but also technology enthusiasts and renewable-energy optimists who fantasize that it will be possible for a booming population to live in the style of today’s middle class.
The earth’s capacity is already being tested. The weather is acting up. Plastic is inundating oceans. Entire species are disappearing. Obviously, this goes beyond climate change, but it shows that we are living beyond our means, at the expense of future generations.
Guterres made the case for shifting to renewables, but he did not say that technical solutions are unlikely to “decarbonize” the world economy while also allowing the population to rise, the poor to prosper and the rich to continue to live as they do. Guterres also did not point out that such delusions keep climate change on the political back burner, as well as mute intellectual honesty and ethical responsibility. The facts suggest that urgent action is essential to reposition rich economies, while decency requires radical decarbonization in the North so that the global South can escape poverty.
Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are the cumulative result of emissions past and present. Picture a bathtub with a blocked drain and an open faucet. It will overflow unless the faucet is turned off or water scooped out. Governments are either denying the issue, downplaying it or arguing over who should take the lead: those who filled up most of the tub or those who are adding to it now. In terms of equity, it is useful to look at per capita numbers; in terms of impact, totals matter.
It has been said that we are the first generation to experience climate change and the last generation that can do something about it. Unfortunately, this may mean preventing only worst-case scenarios. Given the longevity of carbon dioxide — hundreds of years – our planet will continue to heat up even if drastic remedial action is taken immediately. Conversely, the longer emissions continue unabated, the greater the effort and the higher the costs will be to deal with the consequences.
The 2015 Paris Agreement was a major achievement and outlined what needed to be done. But it did not guarantee forward movement. No industrialized country is on track to meet its Paris commitments. The efforts of the European Union, Australia, Brazil and New Zealand have been deemed insufficient; those of Argentina, Canada, Chile, China and Japan highly insufficient; and those of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States critically insufficient. (Russia hasn’t even ratified the agreement, and the Trump administration has announced that the US will withdraw from it.)
The gap between ambition and action will make it even more difficult to enact the deeper emission cuts needed to keep global warming at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the maximum acceptable warming.
At current emission rates, a net-zero state must be achieved in less than 20 years. This means two-thirds of the world’s estimated reserves of coal, oil and gas must remain in the ground. Incremental changes will not suffice. Nothing less than a global Moon shot will do.
The 11,500-year Holocene epoch, which allowed civilization to develop and flourish, is ending, to be succeeded by an unpredictable geological epoch, the Anthropocene, named after its dominant force, humans. This is a concept that transcends borders. The earth is now a single system undergoing shattering, human-induced change.
Guterres mentioned a powerful, time-tested yet utterly underused tool, carbon pricing. Spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere right now costs nothing — aside from the costs to society and the planet. (The World Health Organization reports that more than 80 percent of people living in urban areas are exposed to dangerous air pollutants.)
To reduce global warming, we need incentives for producers as well as consumers to switch to carbon-free products and services. Ignoring environmental damage is like running a business and reporting the revenue but not the costs. Markets work best when significant costs are included in prices, without distorting subsidies. Even now, the G-7 countries — the world’s richest — subsidize fossil fuels to the tune of at least $100 billion a year.
If a serious price were put on carbon, behavior would shift toward sustainability. Meat and dairy products would become more expensive, and plant-based food cheaper. Low airplane fares would be a thing of the past.
The money raised could go toward research, renewable energy, power storage, forestation and mitigating the effects of climate change in the global South. Even if the carbon dividend were returned to taxpayers, it would still change incentives.
Organizing decarbonization at the proper scale and speed is the challenge upon which the survival of the human species depends. Scientific, technical and financial solutions are attainable, yet globally negotiated and coordinated action is required, as Guterres spelled out urgently.
He could not ask whether governments will do what logic, long-term national interest and humanity demands. Put another way: Will governments work together to ensure that the collective interests prevail over those who, for profit, exploit the global commons? IPCC Summary (34pp):

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