Thursday, 13 June, 2024

The Environmental Urgency

Hira Bahadur Thapa

The convening of UN Climate Summit in New York on September 23 coinciding with the annual regular 74th session of the UN General Assembly has given the world a wake-up call. The event saw for the first time an unprecedented youth activism for making world leaders hear their voices to urgently start turning their environmental commitments into practice before climate crisis deepens further to make our planet uninhabitable.
Never before the young population all around the world organised a global strike to bring the life-threatening issue of climate change into sharp focus as they did on Friday (September 19, 2019) rallying in world cities to draw the attention of leaders on whom rests the moral responsibilities of taking steps to curb carbon emissions, which have wrought devastation by heating the planet.
Climate science has sufficient evidence to establish the anthropogenic interference in the environment which is through human dependence on fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere leading to rising global temperatures. Painfully, global warming has set alarming records in the recent past few years, which are substantiated by the latest data of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).
As revealed during the UN Climate Action Summit at New York the carbon emissions have been increasing by 20 per cent in the period between 2015 and 2019. Europe witnessed its hottest summer in 2019. In the opinion of the WMO Secretary-General sea level rise has accelerated. An abrupt decline in the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets will exacerbate further rise.
Sea level rise is getting more alarming as the low-lying the leaders of countries in the Pacific Islands have been advocating passionately for some drastic measures to lower the carbon emissions. The president of one of these countries, as they become most vulnerable to climate change disasters, was making a powerful speech before the climate action summit and her concerns for survival of nations like hers is no less serious as evidenced by the catastrophic Hurricane Dorien, that battered Bahamas in the Caribbean only a few weeks earlier.
In course of the above summit convened at the urging of the incumbent Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Gueterres, more passionate speeches were heard especially from a group of youth climate activists and among them a Swedish teenager, Greta Thenberg, who even crossed the Atlantic Ocean by Yatch declining to travel by plane insisting that her flight from Europe to New York would pollute the environment considerably was marked for her emotional but powerful speech, when she blasted the leaders of the developed world accusing them of stealing her childhood dreams by failing to keep up their promises of fighting the climate crisis responsibly.
Interestingly, there was an understanding that Prime Ministers and Presidents of countries emitting the largest quantities of carbon di oxide, which included Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe, among others, were not given the chance to address the climate summit though the American president had taken the seat in the meeting hall. That arrangement was indeed a reminder that those who are the most prominent leaders to take initiatives to cut down the carbon emissions should not expect that young generation is going to forgive them for their irresponsible behaviour in terms of combating climate change, which is now an issue of life or death.
Observers have pointed out both the positive and negative sides of the outcome of climate summit. Optimistically, more than 60 nations announced they were working on or exploring plans to reduce greenhouse gas to virtually zero. In this regard commitment from some European countries to work towards reaching the goals of zero emission by 2050 is encouraging though scientists have already warned that unless ambitious plans by halving the level of carbon emissions within another 12 years are implemented, the carbon neutrality would remain a shallow promise. In the summit we have heard young speakers blasting the leaders for their lack of progress in reducing the threat posed by global warming which is risking their future.
The humankind is endangered due to climate change but for the generation of people about 2.6 billion out of total 7 billion plus world population, who were born after 2000, they feel that they have much more to suffer the consequences of global warming. This is why we have seen the emergence of youth climate activists, who have left their schools to participate in the protest gaining a lot of momentum. Hopefully, this activism will induce nations to come up with more ambitious plan of carbon reduction.
There is no doubt that three quarters of emissions come from just 12 countries and among them China and the US are largest emitters. Naturally, more is expected from them in terms of cutting down the carbon emissions and in both China and the US the trend towards de-carbonisation of economy is gaining popularity. As Thomas L. Friedman writes in The New York Times (September 24) China has become one of the most notable countries to electrify its transport sector and in the city of Shenzhen thousands of cabs are running on electricity-powered batteries. Electric buses have been in massive use too.
Similarly, in the US more than half of the coal-fired power plants have been retired since 2011. As per available statistics the country is providing 3.3 million jobs in the clean energy industry compared to less than 100,000 in coal mining. Furthermore, a growing number of US cities and States have committed to reaching net zero emission by 2050.
But what must not be forgotten is that climate responds to the overall level of carbon di oxide in the atmosphere, not to a single country’s contribution to it. Nevertheless, as nations have consensus that in tackling climate issue there is common but differentiated responsibility. Those nations emitting more carbon must bear greater burden and sooner they realize environmental urgency and their moral obligation, the better for our planet.

(Thapa was Foreign Relations Advisor to the Prime Minister from 2008 to 2009. He writes on contemporary national and international issues. He can be reached at