The dirty politics of a clean environment

angela-100x100by Angela Muñoz Aroca

Environment has become a hot topic to be present in every national politics. Consumers are becoming more environment friendly and want to know that the companies they trust behave responsibly. Not solely the civil society and environmental organisations are exerting pressure, but also governments have understood that growing without responsibility will only be the cause of long term poor living and more extreme weather conditions worldwide. These ideas have push all the countries to build a position around this topic and virtually any country in the world is out of the debate.

Without denying the importance of growing in a sustainable way, this topic, as any other, has been another battleground of exerting political national interest, and is a potential source of conflict in terms of geopolitics, as it is not hard to guess which would be the consequences of worsened climate and living conditions, the subsequent flee of large parts of the population, or the increased conflict over natural resources. In addition, environment is a further example of how the main economies are able to draw the world agenda on their own interest, disregarding the needs or particularities of the middle and small economies, as everything they conceive as important gets global implications impossible to be ignored by others. In this sense, all the Western world is crawling in the same way to have this topic prioritized globally, and is keen to make use of a fake innocent rhetoric which permeates the public’s mind.

But, what is on stake when we talk about the politics of environment?

Let`s start with the Paris talks of last year, what has been repeatedly described as a landmark on fighting climate change and earth pollution.

The negotiations of the Paris Talks about climate change awoke many reactions in the public, divided amongst those who celebrated the final achievement of an agreement and those who interpreted it as another example of the lack of commitment amongst countries and the final signing of an empty paper. The amplitude of the agreement is yet to be seen, but what the negotiations showed were the battleground of national interest and the capacity of the biggest economies to drive negotiations in the most appropriate direction to them. The rhetoric of the negotiations were significant, as by defining it within one or another term, let’s say as an equity agreement or an ambitious one, countries gave insights to the media and the public to inadvertently blaming those who were blocking progress. Nevertheless, a clear line of alliances cannot easily be drawn, as the implications and solutions of climate change do affect countries differently, being their interests also complex and diverse, making shifting positions a common dynamic. Coastal countries, those in higher or lower latitudes, with strong or weak agricultural industries, oil producers, dry or wet countries, etc. may build and break unexpected alliances, which cannot be solely understood in terms of per capita income. Nevertheless, the biggest protagonist of the talks were also some of the world leading polluters: the USA, the EU, China and India. Due to multilateral relations, openly opposing the deal was not an option for any of them, having as an effect that, at least in appearance, the four biggest players were committed to seriously discuss how to lower the global temperature in 2 Celsius degrees over the next decades.

The United States has dramatically changed its position towards climate change since the Obama administration is in power, getting closer to the one shown by its EU partners, which have constantly lobbied to address this world problem and to regain a front line position in world politics. China’s position is nevertheless more ambiguous, as its size as a great nation clash with its traditional position as a defender of middle sizes and developing countries. The country, always cautious when it comes to take binding agreements, often oppose restrictive policies which will mean a monitoring of its national politics, and environment was not going to be an exception to this style of doing politics. India, similarly but because of other motives, closer to those of developing countries, fears to risk economic growth due to environmental conditions. Despite their size, these nations could not impose their will without involving those other heterogeneous groups, characterize for their diverse stances towards this topic. Amongst them are the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group, the Africa Group or the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) –a mixed group of small, big, better off and weak states, which are the most exposed to climate change due to their geographical positions. While India and China approached those developing countries to fight for less restrictive rules and to make sure they received proper funding from the biggest economies, the Western alliance approached those ones asking for harder rules, which due to their vulnerable situations, do need harder environmental commitments and are keen to accept less beneficial conditions.

The negotiations were meant to be complex, as each group is itself divided amongst its members, which may have conflicting positions, as they may not only be vulnerable or developing economies, but also oil producers, or the base of an increasing and intensive industrial development, for instance. Unsurprisingly, it was the US-EU coalition -with countries such as Brazil and some of the groups mentioned before on-board- the one in the best position to impose their will, despite having to accept certain conditions imposed by China.

Once again, despite this global issue may arguably affect more those weaker economies unable to protect their own interest within the international political sphere, but either can adopt enough measures to ensure the issue is addressed nationally, were the last to be heard within the talks. To make sure things went smooth as often, the big four made a good use of conceptualisation of the negotiations, to get the most beneficial result at the least possible cost. At the end, it was the term ‘ambitious’, employed by the Western block, the one which prevailed and permeated peoples’ imagery, rising the negotiations starting point for those countries that have not much met progress and that have certainly not enjoyed the paths of development of their northern neighbours.

Having said that, it is true that developing economies are some of the highest contributors to earth pollution nowadays, due to their rapid economic growth, industrialisation, and the need to intensively and cheaply exploit the natural resources their lands sometimes have. These countries are in a developing stage in which they are about to ensure that the growth becomes persistent and that the living conditions of their citizens increase at a rapid path. It is reasonable, then, to think that they may prioritize economic reasons over more intangible and future focused ones, such as environment. Poverty reduction and improving living standards, as well as creating jobs may be directly and easily linked in those countries with intensive and competitive use of energy. The construction of big infrastructures, such as roads or factories, are activities that do also affect the polluting rates of these states. But it should not be forgotten a further reason why these countries are now meeting prosperity. Many developed countries have decided to outsource the production of many goods to countries in Africa and South Asia, where the costs are significantly reduced, the environment rules are relaxed, and the poor working conditions of the population ensure big productions at a very low price.

These economies are increasingly becoming dependant on the fierce consumption of developed countries, what have come at a cost of becoming the main enemies of environmental sustainability. These factories created for the enjoyment of the North, are financed by wealthy countries, and despite the deplorable working conditions offered to the people, it has helped to sustain their delicate economies. Thus, the misleading data distributed worldwide about the pollution rates should be reconsidered, as the final receivers of these mass productions are also the responsible of what is happening kilometres away from their houses. But it is not only the mass production what ends up in developed countries, as they also enjoy the intensive exploitation that these countries do of natural resources such as gas, coal, oil, gold, or any other valuable mineral.

Having said that, this is not to say that we should address the environmental problem in some centuries when more economies have achieved the Western levels of earth destruction, but to understand that if something is to be done, are those in a better position which have to give the most, instead of bargaining to get the most appropriate deals. If these developing countries are about to join modernity and to be respectful with the environment they will need substantial external aid, investment, technological support and sustainable alternatives to maintain their economic growth. And instead of being offered the industries discarded by the richest North, to be after hypocritically blamed for not showing enough cooperation, they should be offered meaningful ways to have their economies prospering.

Unfortunately, what was achieved in the Paris Talks was something rather different. The bargaining capacities of the powerful Western block meant that they were able to secure an agreement with high environment standards without having to commit themselves to invest that much in developing economies. It is for instance illustrative that China and India recriminated the US for suggesting that developing countries should also divert more funds to help less developed ones to fight this human-made problem, when it has been always the responsibility of developed countries, which in the course of history have massively over polluted, to help to halt this problem. These are the dirty politics of the clean environment.

Adding to this scenario are the double standards followed by certain economies, which make decisions that go against their public commitments and that help to fuel the mistrust showed by those that stay out of the discussions. Just an example, and as a way to finish this article, is the case of the Arctic Ocean. This part of the world, characterised by extreme weather conditions, has never awaken the interest of the surrounding countries, until now.  And climate change has something to do with it. Because while all the countries gather together to come up with measures to stop global warming, Russia, Denmark – through Greenland- and Canada, are engaged in a dispute over settling a maritime delimitation in the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole.

These three countries may be engaged in trilateral relations soon and are in search of a resolution since the end of the 90s, having submitted their claims to the commission in charge to settle this dispute, the Commission on Limitation of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). The reason is that while nowadays the Northwest Passage, the maritime route connecting the North of America and the Northern countries of the Pacific Ocean –crossing the Arctic-, is one of the hardest and longest shipping areas for the countries around, the global warming, and the consequent melt of the ice, could transform it in one of the most appropriate routes to send oil and gas, in special from Russia to new areas over which it had difficult access before. This implies not solely political and economic benefits for Russia, or for any of the other two countries fighting to gain control over the area, but also put into doubt their good intentions when it comes to prevent pollution and global warming.

In sum, environment cannot wait for governments to solve their differences and unless the current emissions are cut in less than half by 2050, we may put in danger the life as we know it nowadays. Having said that, there are good and bad news regarding the progress at this respect. On the one hand, the success of the Paris Talks were that 195 countries committed themselves to fight against global warming in one or another way. On the other, this success has been downgraded by the irresponsible stances taken by the most powerful countries, which are reluctant to accept their bigger responsibility to halt this problem, and that counteract their public commitments with actions that may cause the opposite result, as the Arctic Ocean dispute shows. Finally, to put an end to years of earth destruction it will be needed a good deployment of resources and efforts and it is my believe that are not the developing or the least developed countries which have to be blamed if they do not show a very progressive attitude towards environmental problems, as restrictive rules may harm their recent developing economies, which have not reached the crucial point to stabilise their source of income. What they need is financial and technical support, as well as incentives, and real means to become meaningful players at the global sphere. Then we will be able to start talking about equity and sharing of responsibilities.

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