Tag Archive | "climate change"

Climate Change: Is There Hope for an International Response?

Nearly 200 world nations launched a new round of talks in Doha to review commitments to cutting climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions. (Global Post)

Was Hurricane Sandy the result of global warming?  Many scientists are reluctant to directly attribute this and other recent superstorms to global warming.  However, it is very likely effects from climate change are influencing the severity of these storms.  With the scientific world approaching a consensus that human activity is contributing to climate change, pressure is mounting on the international community to respond.

Delegates, nongovernmental organizations, and environmentalists from over 200 countries are currently converging at the United Nations climate-change summit in Qatar to debate the issue.  The underlying goal of the conference, ending on December 7, is to slow global warming, specifically to “pave the way toward a world treaty, to be signed in 2015, aimed at slowing global emissions of heat-trapping fossil-fuel pollution enough to keep the planet’s temperature from rising by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).”  Scientists fear a sustained increase above two degrees Celsius will lead to a chain reaction of extreme events, such as rapid sea level rise, widespread flooding, extreme weather, and food shortages.

However, skepticism surrounds the summit.  For one, ongoing global temperature increase is feared to be all but certain.  A recent study funded by the National Science Foundation concluded that “[d]espite efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and a greater increase in sea level are inevitable during this century.”  Also, the summit’s goal of extending the 1997 Kyoto Protocol appears to be losing ground.  The treaty, which expires at the end of 2012, is the only legally binding U.N. pact addressing global warming.  It calls on wealthier governments to limit carbon emissions through restrictions on their businesses and citizens.  However, the U.S. declined to ratify the original treaty, and now others – including Russia, Canada, and Japan – are unlikely to sign the extension.

While the effect of the U.N. summit is currently in doubt, it should be noted that many individual countries are taking domestic action to reduce their contribution to climate change.  For instance, Mexico adopted a national law to reduce carbon emissions by thirty percent from “business-as-usual levels” by 2020, and fifty percent from the 2000 levels by 2050; South Korea approved a mandatory carbon trading program affecting some of its biggest polluters; and the European Union recently put into effect a program to reduce carbon pollution from aviation.  As for the United States, fuel efficiency standards were sharply improved under the Obama administration, and the President has expressed plans to adopt a more proactive approach to global warming during his second term.

However, climate change is a global issue requiring an international response.  Unfortunately the U.N. summit in Qatar appears unlikely to produce immediate results. The only hope is that it will lay a foundation for future cooperation and resolutions.

Frank Lawson is a 4LE and Board Member on the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy

 

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Sustaining Society in the Anthropocene Epoch

We are living in a new geological epoch where humans are the foremost changers of the environmental systems upon which we depend.  Nicholas Robinson, Co-Director of the Center for Environmental Legal Studies at Pace Law School, kicked off the 45th Annual Leonard v.B. Sutton Colloquium in International Law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law with this idea about sustainability. “Humans are going to have to adapt to a changing planet and climate,” Mr. Robinson said. “We [must] do it or it will happen to us.”  He cited his difficulty in traveling to Denver for the Colloquium due to Hurricane Sandy as one example of climate change “happening to us,” and our already evident challenges in adapting to it.

The focus of the Sutton Colloquium was “Approaching the Limits of Growth in the 21st Century: Sustainable Development vs. Sustainability.”  Mr. Robinson made clear that the climate change and sustainability challenges that human society faces today are based on human behavior. Humans have caused these changes, and moved human society into this new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene epoch. “[T]he true meaning of the Anthropocene is that we have affected nearly every aspect of our environment—from a warming atmosphere to the bottom of an acidifying ocean.

Don’t forget about the glaciers!
(National Geographic)

Mr. Robinson asked the question of whether or not sustainability is a viable model to tackle these challenges.  He questioned whether the sustainability model, as it stands now, is sufficient to allow adaptation to the extreme damage caused in the Northeastern U.S. by Hurricane Sandy or if it adequately repaired the damage by Hurricane Katrina, explaining that 40 percent of New Orleans residents did not return to their city after the hurricane.   A conclusive answer to this question is difficult, and Mr. Robinson stressed that there is no clear vision for the international community’s next steps toward tackling sustainability issues.

Fortunately, Mr. Robinson has a suggestion about how the sustainability debate should be tackled.  If we are truly in this Anthropocene period driven by human impact, “we have to be the stewards of this [epoch].”  Simply put, we must change our behavior. To do this, he suggests three principles to guide our behavior.

First, we must cooperate globally to stabilize the human relationship with nature.  Principles of cooperation are already enshrined in international law, as laid out in Articles 55 and 56 of the United Nations Charter, for example.  These international law principles can provide a foundation to build upon as the world community comes together to finds solutions for sustainability.

Second, we must build a stronger collective desire to protect our planet.  Mr. Robinson explained the concept of “biophilia,” or the love of living things, to demonstrate that humanity has a natural affinity for the planet.  He suggested that we “need to elevate this concept of love of the planet in order to protect the planet as a principle of law.”  Our concern for the planet must become such that we afford it stronger legal protections.

Third, we must utilize our ability as humans to be resilient. Ecosystems have natural resilience, Mr. Robinson explained.  They either reset or adapt to changes.  Humans also have this type of resilience and we must capitalize on it as we adapt to change our own behavior.

These three traits can be the basis for sustainability. Without coming up with common themes like these to guide our behavior, Mr. Robinson concluded, our planet will not bounce back.

Brianna Evans is the Editor in Chief of the Denver Journal of International Law & Policy and a third year law student at the Sturm College of Law.

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Protesters at the White House

News Post: Will the United States Approve the Keystone XL pipeline?

Protesters at the White House

Protesters at the White House

On Thursday November 10, the U.S. Government stayed approval of TransCanda Corporation’s Keystone XL pipeline until after the 2012 election.  The Canada-U.S. pipeline would carry 700,000 barrels a day of heavy crude extracted mainly from Alberta’s oil sands and used for refining on the Texas Gulf Coast.  As currently designed, the pipeline would cross the Canadian border, extend through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and into Texas.  This project is allegedly “shovel ready” and it could potentially generate scores of jobs.  In addition to acting as a boom to the economies of Canada and the U.S., the project could relieve a supply bottleneck causing a “disconnect between depressed U.S. Midwest oil prices and global rates paid on the coast.” On the other hand, those in opposition to the pipeline are raising serious concerns regarding negative effects to the health, safety, and environment.  Whilst the Government delays the decision, many eagerly await the answer to whether the United States will approve or refuse this momentous project.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a supporter of the pipeline, has voiced his belief that the $7 billion project is in the best interests of both the Canadian and U.S. economies.  It is anticipated that the pipeline could bring 20,000 “well-paying jobs” to the U.S. alone, just for its construction.  It is also estimated that as many as 130,000 jobs could be generated after project completion.  Some analysts fear the delay could kill the project and argue that the project’s failure would result in a lost opportunity to create jobs and enhance energy security.

The U.S State Department’s decision to delay approval of the pipeline was largely based on environmental concerns.  The department’s particular rationale was the need to study an alternate route that would avoid environmentally fragile territory in the Sand Hills of Nebraska.  Other concerns included large emissions of green house gases generated by the production of oil sands crude and its related effect on human health and safety. Moreover, the ongoing production of oil would require the cutting of 740,000 acres of boreal forest in Canada.  The decision was therefore viewed as a victory for environmental groups.  However, others argue that the delay was merely a political strategy, and that concerns over environmental impact from the pipeline were resolved when Energy Secretary Steven Chu publicly endorsed the project following findings by some experts that the potential impact would be nil.

Others have voiced concerns that the delay will strain relations between the United States and Canada.  This political strain will most likely be short-lived. However, the project’s failure could put Canada in a precarious position.  The European Union is already considering labeling oil sands crude as “inherently polluting under a new fuel quality directive.”  Without access to the Texas refineries and European markets, Canada will have to shift its priorities to accessing Asian markets for energy production.  The Canadian government further warns that energy prices across Europe may be driven higher as a result.

The debate over this pipeline’s approval reflects the conflict between the demand for economic growth and environmental protection.  The conflict, however, is not unique to the United States and Canada.  The evolving contours of environmental protection in the face of economic growth has been, and continues to be, discussed by the United Nations as well as by a myriad of individual countries.  Conflicts such as the Keystone Pipeline project indicate that a single country’s judgment on the balance between environmental protection and economic growth will directly affect its neighbors and the greater global community as a whole.  Consequently, it is becoming increasingly clear that discourse regarding environmental ethics and further development of ethical standards in relation to economic growth at an international level is indispensable for our global community.

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Beijing Cityscape

Chinese Perspectives Part 4: Sustainable Development

Beijing Cityscape

Beijing Cityscape

One of the most frequently levied criticisms made against China is that its development, while economically impressive, is environmentally disastrous.  Judge Xue addressed this criticism directly by providing the demographic and economic context underlying China’s development, briefly outlining China’s history as it relates to sustainable development, and arguing that the Chinese government is indeed actively promoting sustainable development.  According to Judge Xue, the international community should recognize China’s progress with regards to sustainability and appreciate the fact that due to its size and current pace of economic development, such progress is necessarily slow in the making.

Judge Xue stressed that one must think about Chinese sustainable development in relation to its extraordinary demographic and economic circumstances.  China has a population of 1.34 billion people and an economy that has been growing at a rate of ten to twenty percent for the last decade.  It has twenty percent of the world’s population and only seven percent of the world’s arable land.  As such, it makes little sense for the international community to hold a country like China to the same standards to which it holds countries that have been developed for decades and have already acquired the capacity to provide for the needs of its citizens.  Furthermore, it is unrealistic to expect China to turn on a dime and improve its environmental record overnight.  China’s history shows that it takes sustainable development seriously, but that under no circumstances will it sacrifice the economic wellbeing of its citizenry to satisfy the west’s environmental goals.

China’s history of environmental regulation, according to Judge Xue, suggests that it is serious about sustainable development and the protection of the environment.  In 1984, China set up the Environmental Protection Administration – the first organ of the PRC meant to deal with issues of sustainability.  However, during the 1980’s, sustainable development was equated with economic development and the focus of the Administration was to keep land healthy for farming.  The broader effects of environmental degradation were seen as a mere growing pain.  Thus, China pursued labor-intensive industries to attract foreign investment.  Those who wanted cheap labor and lax environmental regulations came to China.

This led to a set of policies that caused terrible pollution, acid rain, water contamination, accidents that damaged fisheries, and various other consequences that were destructive to the lives and livelihoods of millions of Chinese people.  Starting in the mid-1990’s, China revised its environmental laws to provide for more concrete rules and supervisory mechanisms.

Today, The People’s Republic of China now has a fairly comprehensive legislative regime that touches on water pollution, air pollution, solid waste, and radiation.  Judge Xue made it a point to state that China made the change from irreverence toward to respect for the environment not for the international community, but for the Chinese people who had suffered as a result of pollution.

Today, China is a state party to about 50 environmental treaties and abides by them in good faith.  To help it live up to its environmental treaty obligations, the Chinese government came up with the concept of “Green GDP,” which takes economic and environmental factors into consideration and helps the government make decisions with an eye towards their environmental impact.  The use of Green GDP has already led to a significant improvement to China’s desertification problem.  Additionally, China recently published its “Agenda for the 21st Century,” which contains twenty chapters and 78 concrete program areas and places sustainability at the heart of its development strategy.  In 2005, a chemical factory exploded leading to trans-boundary water pollution on China’s border with Russia.  Both states took cooperative measures to save downstream areas from water pollution.  In 2006, China sought to reduce its emissions by twenty percent by the year 2010, and it met that target.  These concrete steps show that China takes sustainable development seriously and is committed to improving its record in the future.

All this has led to an increase in public participation in environmental assessment.  If a building plan is going to cause harm to individuals as a result of its environmental impact, the Planning Department has a duty to hold public hearings, which will lead to a change of plans if the environmental costs are unnecessary or outweigh the economic benefits.

China sees sustainability both as an end in itself and as a means of achieving broader societal goals.  It will continue to seek a balance between economic and ecological development, keeping in mind current environmental standards.  Judge Xue made it clear that China will do so not because sustainable development is a goal that the international community has for China, but because sustainable development is the only way for the Chinese government to provide for its citizens in the long term.  Judge Xue would have international community recognize the progress China has made in the past and have patience with the development it is to make in the future.

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University of Denver Sturm College of Law

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