Don’t make the poor pay for global warming


Don’t make the poor pay for global warming

Don’t make the poor pay for global warming
Cattle graze near a burnt area of forest after a fire in the Amazon rainforest near Novo Progresso, Para State, Brazil. (File/AFP)

The visible effects of climate change occupy an increasing share of the international consciousness. This year alone, fires ravaged parts of the Amazon rainforest and across the Arctic Circle, from Siberia to Canada’s Northwest Territories. Glaciers are melting at alarming rates and hurricanes are worsening in intensity.

This has fueled global youth-led environmental protests calling for action, but even after an emotional plea by teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg at the UN Climate Summit last week, the planet’s biggest polluters made no new commitments to limit global warming.

Particularly troubling was the speech by Brazil’s far-right, populist President Jair Bolsonaro, defiantly defending Brazil’s environmental priorities, which affect 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon basin is a critical carbon sink that mitigates climate change; its vegetation can absorb about a quarter of the carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, lax domestic policies and the Bolsonaro government’s determination to economically exploit the rainforest via ranching, forestry, mining and building dams along the Amazon river led to widespread cutting and burning. One report found that forest fires in Brazil increased by over 80 percent in under a year.

The Brazilian government’s actions (or inaction) sparked international outrage. Bolsonaro has few friends, especially after the G7 Summit in France last month where he rejected a $22 million aid package to fight the fires.Several countries withdrew aid or threatened to review trading agreements, and some corporations even halted purchases of Brazilian goods. The threat of isolation, aided by a little economic strong-arming, quickly tempered Bolsonaro’s testy rhetoric — leading to a freeze on land-clearing fires and military deployments in the Amazon.

On the surface, Brazil’s insistence that the Amazon is a national sovereignty issue is a ludicrous argument. The rainforest is home to a diverse array of plant and animal species, which form a complex ecosystem critical to the planet’s biodiversity and sustainability goals. The Amazon also generates much of the rainfall across parts of South America far beyond Brazil’s borders. Rising global temperatures and widespread deforestation are already causing water scarcity in other parts of the world. Any further disruption of this cycle could transform the rainforest into a dry landscape.

Uninterrupted rainfall is also crucial to South America’s food security because much of the continent’s agricultural industries benefit directly or indirectly from the basin’s precipitation or runoff. It also affects power generation, since 65 percent of the continent’s electricity comes from hydropower, heavily dependent on uninterrupted rainfall guaranteed by environmentally conscious management of the basin. Without that, there would inevitably be friction with neighboring countries that “share” the rainforest, triggered by water scarcity, worsening haze over population centers, and a surge in “climate refugees,” since the livelihoods of about a million indigenous people depend on the rainforest in its current state.

For the rest of the world, a vanishing Amazon basin would be tantamount to ecocide. The swift, heavy-handed response by the EU initially curbed Bolsonaro’s enthusiasm, and sent a strong reminder of the stakes around climate change.

However, Bolsonaro’s concerns should not be dismissed as outlandish declarations by a populist leader with waning domestic support. Sovereignty issues aside, marching ahead on policies engineered in New York and Brussels will hamper the level of international cooperation necessary to achieve climate-friendly outcomes; it reeks of encroachment and overreach.

Also, policy ideals that favor preserving forests and other carbon sinks tend to cripple local communities that depend on unrestricted access to natural resources to generate jobs, incomes and food.

Climate action must not prioritize only the demands of larger nations’ ideals; it must also address the economic disparity and wealth inequality that are largely responsible for the reluctance of poorer nations to cooperate on climate change goals.

Hafed Al-Ghwell


What the world needs is a system that not only achieves reduced emissions, but disincentivizes the small-scale mining, farming, logging and fishing activities that are often to blame for ecosystem destruction.

One solution is expanding the $86 billion global carbon-pricing system.

Countries, especially those in rainforest basins, could receive credits equal to how much CO2is absorbed by their forests. In Brazil’s case, 60 percent of the Amazon lies within its borders and the entire rainforest absorbs a quarter of the world’s emissions, which were 33.1 billion tons last year.

If all the rainforest in Brazil were pristine, it would have credits of about 4.97 billion tons of CO2. At current prices of roughly $10 a ton, that would be nearly $50 a year paid by the largest emitters, themselves required to achieve and maintain zero net emissions.

In this way, low-income countries would have additional funding to invest in job, food and income-generating initiatives aimed at disincentivizing destruction of forests within their borders.

Such a system would help poverty reduction efforts in countries across South America and sub-Saharan Africa, which have expansive forests. Wealthier nations, on the other hand, could re-package carbon trading revenues into aid for island economies and communities, which are already witnessing the effects of climate change, such as rising ocean levels.

Radical plans such as these are among only a few ways to co-opt reluctant countries drowned by rhetoric and chastisement but given little aid or support to meet the developed world’s seemingly lofty zero net emissions targets. It acknowledges the unfairness of wealthier nations imposing climate change ideals on impoverished, food-insecure communities struggling with high unemployment and not helped by corruption, mismanagement, waste, nepotism and weak governments.  It also puts the issue of sovereignty to rest.

Climate action must not prioritize only the demands of larger nations’ ideals; it must also address the economic disparity and wealth inequality that are largely responsible for the reluctance of poorer nations to cooperate on climate change goals.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
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