Environmental Commitment in Politics

[Image Courtesy of UNFCCC]

Following the rather unsuccessful 2009 Copenhagen Conference, the 2015 Paris Climate Summit marked the very first agreement to be signed by all major world leaders on the issue of global warming, aiming to keep the temperature increase to under 2°C by providing sufficient resources to achieve this target. One year later, Donald J. Trump reached presidency of the US, promising his electors to abandon any effort to reduce the country’s environmental bearing. Soon enough the US opted out of the Paris accord in June 2017, 20 months after the Summit, inducing disdainful reactions from both the EU and China. This recent scenario illustrates the increasing stakes of environmental politics amongst global economic powers. How should it be interpreted by the public opinion?

Growing importance of environmental issues in political campaigns

Personal observations led me to believe that presidential campaigns (alongside all other national equivalents) are periods during which candidates tend to express the most their opinion on the matter, each introducing their philosophy on how to deal with the issue. As a matter of fact, environmental concern is now an omnipresent topic in presidential debates and play a big role in attracting voters, especially amongst the younger crowds, concerned about the direct risks of environmental degradation on their own life. The commitment of some of the candidates is however limited and does fade away after taking position at the helm of the government. Rarely do we hear about ambitious, comprehensive and realistic action items from the candidates wishing to reduce environmental impact, especially in the long term, which is crucial for a challenge of this nature. Could this be due to the lack of experience political parties have, where any initiative is perceived as “experimental”? Or perhaps the disadvantageous, short presidency terms (4 to 5 years), obstructing leaders from setting ambitions targets, knowing everything could be suppressed within the next 10 years by their successor and that no apparent result will be available to help them for reelection? This problematic is however already partly being addressed by the EU, where significant efforts to set regulations for environment conservation are being set to be followed from one government to the next. Although it proves to be possible to break those agreements, leaders of member nations might find it more exhaustive than for non-member countries, pushing now popular political parties to opt to leave the union.

New challenge

Fighting climate change is a pristine challenge for humanity: every country in the world is responsible and affected to a certain extent, consequences are extremely diverse with some still undiscovered and its long term nature involves a high level of uncertainty regarding key technological breakthroughs such as fossil fuel alternatives and even artificial intelligence. It all seems like facing climate change would require an entirely new set of structures at different geopolitical levels, with each sub-element of the set in charge of dealing with certain issues. The radius of potential impact defines how high in the hierarchy the corresponding issue sits. Here is a vague illustration of how I see it:

Governmental Implication

An important debate taking place on a national and international scale is the discussion around the economic viability of carbon emission reduction. The world we live in today is mainly based on a capitalist and globalized economic system, where “long term investments” rarely go beyond the duration of a human life time, partly due to the short period of economic cycles and modern financial exchange platforms. Short term investments are logically dominant: supporting the coal and oil industry will more probably have a positive impact on national economic prosperity, as cheap energy often put a country’s energy exports and purchasing power on the rise (mainly for industrial sector economies). Adopting a long-term vision for environmental protection suddenly becomes very difficult in politics as no such instant return in capital is obtained (excluding special cases such as producing energy locally in remote areas for example) affecting the party’s popularity, again on economic grounds. Pro-renewable supporters in politics are then forced to find compelling ways of selling those alternatives to the public, highlighting the attractive growth potential of the sector itself, providing sufficient initial funding.

China!

The case of China becomes particularly interesting here. The country is subject to unprecedented economic growth, with an economically active population of around 800 million people [statista]. This growth was and still is mainly fueled by coal energy, making China by far the highest CO2 emitting country in the world, although 21st in emission per capita [2015 — EDGAR]. The Chinese government however, did not wait to reach a state of national development like the ones of the EU and USA to start heavily investing in mass renewable energy production and distribution ($361 billion by 2020 [Reuters]), targeting long term growth and improved public health. This long-term flexibility can be put in contrast with the short periods governments are in power in fully developed countries: China can be seen as an administered dictatorship where the government in place is unique and is set to remain in power for a long period of time. In this scenario, the government can set long term targets and plans more realistically, minimizing the risk of external influence on their politics. It is thought-provoking to observe here that China’s non-democratic political system partly enables premature massive investment in the renewable energy sector given its long-term dimension.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that the environmental debate is gradually becoming a major player in modern day geopolitics, from national elections to international relations. Climate change is a global issue with almost no previous government having successfully solved the problem in the past (exceptional Costa Rica!). As a matter of fact, guaranteeing a durable environment for the generations ahead is probably the biggest challenge the world has ever come across to date. Politicians and governments are the most influential forces in transitioning away from non-renewables, yet the nature of political and economic structures and dynamics in most developed countries often tend to obstruct the execution end, even when scientific efforts are fruitful and long term stability of renewable energy is guaranteed.