Greta Thunberg created waves with her emotional and animated speech at the UN Climate Action Summit on September 23, 2019. The monologue not only attracted a lot of attention for the issue at hand, but it also threw light on the political environment of the international system . The speech by the 16-year-old environmentalist garnered a response from the eminent leaders present at the summit. However, the response was not indicative of making climate change a primary goal. This leads to the question, why does multilateral action towards climate change fail to yield results on a global scale?
On April 22, 2016, the idea of a multilateral agreement known as the Paris Climate Accord for climate action was reached, which accomplished the mammoth task of bringing more than 185 countries on the table and agreeing to work towards a sustainable earth. However, all the efforts failed and crumbled since the June Referendum of Brexit and the rise of US President Donald Trump to the Oval Office. The events since then deteriorated quite quickly, resulting in President Trump withdrawing the USA's signature from the landmark deal.
The failure of continuing on a multilateral agreement, which endorses action to address climate change, has become a reality . The fact that the global leadership faces the dichotomy of adopting scientific measures compared to emphasizing on economic development, has led to the failure of these agreements. The most prominent example being the Kyoto Protocol (1997), which initially had more than 100 signatories including the European Union countries, however by the end of the first cycle, only the EU members managed to reduce the CO2 emission rates as per the agreement. Major countries like Canada, the USA, Japan, and China did not abide by the agreed emission rates and have thus withdrawn from the agreement.
This showcases a trend which stems from the attitude of the leadership of the countries, which is the quest to achieve economic growth and development at the expense of climate action. Japan had to rebuild its economy, owing to the devastating effects of the Asian Financial Crisis. The government had to invest heavily in the manufacturing sector of the economy to recuperate the extensive loss that it had incurred. Although the manufacturing sector recovered and the per capita income improved in the next few years from 35 thousand USD in 2000s to almost 50 thousand USD in 2010s, Japan lagged behind with respect to abiding to CO2 emissions for their quest to rebuild the economy and the standard of living of its population.
A similar situation could be analysedin case of the People's Republic of China. After fifteen years of rapid economic growth and lifting 600 million people from abject poverty, the country was able to increase its per capita income from two thousand USD in 2000 to sixteen thousand USD in 2015. The meteoric rise of the standard of living and the change in the productivity of the country has come at a cost; Which is the Even though China had been a signatory to the Kyoto protocol, its actions and policies reinforced the importance of economic development of people over the reformation of climate change policies.
On the other hand, the European Union comprising 28 member states who have managed to stick to the emissions rates have already undergone the process of economic development . By taking statistics into consideration, the Union has been 33 thousand USD (GDP per capita) in the late 1990s , reaching up to 40 thousand USD in 2008. Thus, the governments could concentrate more on curtailing their CO2 emissions. Furthermore, countries like Japan, China, Canada, and the USA have a huge population to cater to, density and size-wise. Japan and China have had an urban population density between 90 to 94 percent which, when put into environmental context, also increases the per capita CO2 emissions.Whereas the European Union has an urban population density of up to 80 percent, therefore, the EU countries have had the opportunity of meeting their CO2 emission goals during the first cycle. Hence, a lower population density in the urbanized parts of countries facilitates the management of cities thereby increasing the possibility of a symbiotic relationship between the population and environment.
The above analysis focussed on the Kyoto Protocol, and taking that as well as the changing dynamics of geopolitics into consideration, the skepticism regarding the success of Paris Agreement has also been observed. Keeping aside politics, the major roadblock to the accord is the fact that climate change affects countries in different ways. For instance, the melting of ice caps of the Arctic region benefit Russia and Canada as it opens up unchartered trade routes for these perma-frozen countries, which would bring about better trading opportunities for the underdeveloped part of the population. However, the melting of ice caps and rising sea levels are detrimental for countries with huge coastlines.
The effects of climate change being different for different countries means that the type of response is also expected to be different. Keeping things in perspective, the Maldivian population consider the rising sea levels as the major threat to their security or existence; However, the Russian population has ranked the rising sea levels as the ninth principal concern. Therefore, the approach of 'collective but divided responsibility' has been jeopardized as the multilateral forums do not cater to the different responses or approaches of countries to climate change in general. Therefore, in the case of climate change, the scope and capacity of multilateralism and multilateral action has been limited, yielding to inadequate tangible results.
(Sooraj Kashyap is a second year student of the MA International Studies Program batch of 2018-20 at the Symbiosis School of International Studies, Pune)
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Indian Review of Global Affairs or of Symbiosis School of International Studies.