Prof. Simone Borg, Malta’s Ambassador for Climate Action and chair of the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development, speaks about the Paris Agreement and what it takes to unleash the potential of such an agreement.
Way back in the mid-1970s, the scientific community was already buzzing with concern that fossil-fuel emissions generated by human activities were pumping so much greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that they were unbalancing its natural composition, leading to climate change.
Commonly referred to as GHGs, greenhouse gases are so called because they trap heat. Contrary to popular belief, they may not necessarily be “air pollutants”. The most common GHGs, carbon dioxide and methane, occur naturally in the atmosphere and are an essential component in the planet’s carbon cycle. It is their artificial increase caused by human activities that is leading to climate change. The Paris Agreement of 2015 aims precisely to set the clock back and return the planet to its natural state in terms of zero net emissions of GHGs that are induced by human activity.
Nearly 50 years after the first scientific reports highlighting the climate change problems resulting from uncurbed fossil-fuel emissions, the conclusion of the Paris Agreement on December 12, 2015, was met with much fanfare as the long-awaited deal that would ultimately regulate state behaviour by taking the necessary action to mitigate and adapt to climate change. It is not surprising however that the jubilation of politicians, and the thousands of negotiators representing the various states, largely composed of legal advisers and technocrats, greatly contrasted with the lukewarm reception the same agreement was given by some scientists and NGOs that branded it with the (in)famous quip, “too little too late”.
Since Paris, many political and business leaders have championed the zero net emissions pledge but climate action requires heavy investment, which some low-income states simply cannot afford without external support while other countries are too busy fire-fighting more urgent needs such as eradicating poverty, famine and conflict.
In the higher-income states, solutions mainly depend upon changing consumption patterns, which cannot happen overnight, or upon new technology alternatives, which may not yet be commercially feasible or which undermine competitiveness, unless they are adopted across the board. In other words, sometimes doing what it takes to become climate-friendly is simply and literally a bus ride away but it may also lead to serious socioeconomic repercussions, if there is no just transition.
The coming of age of Generation Climate, the movement initiated by Greta Thunberg, has managed to motivate tens of thousands of young and not so young people, to call upon both public and private decision-makers, to honour the Paris Agreement. The frustration expressed by the youth and children on strike is expressed in very simple terms: do what needs to be done, rather than keep pussy footing as to who should do what, by when. As is usual with youth, their patience is running thin and they are right, science demonstrates it is essential to achieve zero net emissions if we want to harness the increase in temperature to not more than 2 degrees Celsius and preferably to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century.
The Paris Agreement is often criticised as being too weak to meet the urgency of the situation but as with any legal instrument, its potential is unleashed when there is sufficient human goodwill to do so. Governments remain the major actors to take mitigation and adaptation measures and to ensure a level playing field such that the socioeconomic burdens to achieve zero net emissions are shared equally and equitably by all sectors. For instance, decisions on the energy generation mix rest primarily with governments but other sectors like emissions from buildings and transport require behavioural changes by users also. This is where GHG reductions are proving to be most challenging in many countries.
For instance, it is estimated that in Europe buildings account for 40% to 45% of energy consumption and therefore contribute significantly to GHG emissions. In countries like Malta, with an economy that is dependent on the services sector, energy efficiency in buildings is a major goal scorer in reaching our targets to reduce emissions. Achieving zero net emissions is not only about conforming with regulations however. Budget incentives to generate solar energy in buildings have been instrumental to improve our track record in meeting our legal obligations under the Paris Agreement but they also generated green jobs, numerous market opportunities and enabled the business community as well as property owners to become drivers of change.
THE COMING OF AGE OF GENERATION CLIMATE, THE MOVEMENT INITIATED BY GRETA THUNBERG, HAS MANAGED TO MOTIVATE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF YOUNG AND NOT SO YOUNG PEOPLE, TO CALL UPON BOTH PUBLIC AND PRIVATE DECISION-MAKERS, TO HONOUR THE PARIS AGREEMENT
There are two ways governments, businesses and civil society may choose to look at climate action. Either as a series of legal obligations, or as an opportunity to achieve planetary and hence human well-being, by championing innovation, resource sustainability and efficiency. In the end, climate action is all about achieving sustainable development.
Governments may provide incentives but it will depend upon the sectoral operators to make the most of them and create niche opportunities for themselves to place, like for example, innovative building materials on the market, to develop technologies for water efficiency management. Just as Malta became a leader in reverse osmosis technology in the past, energy efficiency in buildings may provide the opportunity for our building sector to develop state-of-the-art zero net emissions technology that is exported outside our shores. The opportunities for research, job creation and innovation are real tangible opportunities that can drive the process, the ball is our court. Governments, business and civil society are all players in this game of do or die.
A resident academic at the Faculty of Laws, University of Malta, Simone is Malta's Ambassador for Climate Action and chair of the Climate Action Board.