Year XXXI, 1989, Number 1, Page 60
POLITICAL ASPECTS OF THE ECOLOGICAL EMERGENCY
The ecological emergency is more and more linked to the climatic changes that could take place, with consequences that cannot yet be accurately localized and quantified, due to the continuous introduction into the atmosphere of substances — above all carbon dioxide and chlorfluorcarbons (CFC) — which are modifying the equilibrium of the biosphere. Together with these dangers there is the difficulty of conceiving, within a short time, some worldwide institutions able to handle the transition towards mass consumption and production that are compatible both with the ecological constraints of our planet and with the need to guarantee dignified living conditions for everybody, including the future generations. The urgency of these problems is such that the states have been induced to take an interest in them. Their importance is proved both by Gorbachev’s declarations on the need to deal with the problem of world ecological security within the framework of the new phase of collaboration between the USA and the USSR and the UN and, more recently, the statements made by Bush and of the new American Secretary of State Baker who, after launching an appeal in favour of an international initiative to stop the global warming caused by pollutants and fossil fuels, has declared that “political ecology is now ripe for action”. In March this year finally the international conference at The Hague has explicitly posed the question of the creation of a high authority within the UN to handle the problem of the greenhouse effect.
Science has already defined the scenarios which describe the possible stages of the ecological emergency that mankind will have to deal with over the next decades if no substantial changes take place in world ecological policy. The consumption of fossil fuels and the release into the air of substances such as chlorfluorcarbons are at the centre of all scientific reports ordered by governments, private foundations and UN agencies, and are pointed out as the main causes of a probable accentuation over the next decades of the greenhouse effect — the consequence of which could be an increase in the average temperature on the planet and the impossibility to foresee the migrations of rains and of dry areas — and of the depletion of the ozone layer, which would reduce the filtering action of the ultraviolet rays so far carried out by the atmosphere, with adverse effects on the health of mankind. These reports say that, even if humanity were able to stop the emission of these substances at once, a change in the global climatic evolution is bound to take place during the next few decades. Among all the states, the superpowers are the most interested in the possible evolution of these changes, which might cause reversals in the force ratio in certain productive sectors, such as agriculture, for example. This is also why the US Congress has asked the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to draw up a report on the possible effects of global warming, from which, among other things, states that “how quickly climate may change is elusive, because scientists are uncertain both about how rapidly heat will be taken up by the Oceans and about some climate feedback. Generally scientists assume that current trends in emission will continue and that climate will change gradually over the next century, although at a much faster pace than historically. Some scientists have indicated that the impact of global warming may be felt as soon as the next decade, but the full effect of the equivalent doubling of CO2 probably would not be enhanced until after 2050. Other scientists suggest that the current structure of the general circulation models, which are based on a surprise-free Ocean-atmosphere system, could be wrong and that abrupt changes are possible… For natural ecosystems (forests, wetlands, barrier islands, national parks) these changes may continue for decades once the process of change is set into motion. As a result, the landscape of North America will change in ways that cannot be fully predicted. The ultimate effects will last for centuries and will be irreversible. Strategies to reverse such impacts on natural ecosystems are not currently available” (October 1988).
In spite of the international agreements already stipulated, the situation is no better concerning the protection of the ozone layer, the reduction of which has been observed mostly, but now not only, at the South Pole, thanks to the surveys carried out by NASA. To solve this problem a conference was called in 1985 on behalf of the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme). It adopted a Convention (Vienna Convention) and a resolution, following which in September 1987 a Protocol was signed, in Montreal, by 24 countries to abolish chlorfluorcarbons, which came into force on January 1st 1989. This was undoubtedly a first important step towards the adoption of common policies at worldwide level in the field of ecology and a significant example of the growing importance assumed by the initiatives of the environmentalists. But was it enough? The OTA, (Office of Technology Assessment) a non partisan agency of the American Congress, had already carried out a first analysis of the Montreal Protocol in 1987, pointing out some limits and shadowy areas. For example, it highlighted the adoption of a principle which can hardly be ignored in future agreements on the limitation of the use of other substances: the recognition of the need to differentiate the progressive elimination of the production and consumption of CFC according to whether the country is developed or not. On the basis of this principle the developed countries will have to bear the greatest responsibilities of every ecological policy. A first conclusion reached by the OTA is the following: “The Montreal Protocol can significantly inhibit the worldwide growth in the consumption of the compounds that deplete the layer of stratospheric ozone around the earth… However, the general perception that the Protocol will achieve a 50 per cent reduction in the production of controlled compounds by the year 1999 appears incorrect”.
To justify its perplexities the OTA has studied four possible settings. The first setting contemplates the immediate ratification of the Protocol on the part of all the states: this would have as consequence a reduction of 40-45 per cent in the production of CFC by the year 2009. The second setting foresees the ratification of the Protocol by all states except China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Iran, South Korea, with the consequent reduction, by the year 2009, of at the most 30 per cent of the production. The third setting foresees the ratification of the Protocol by all the states which signed it initially, plus the USSR and Australia — but for the USSR the Protocol foresees the possibility of increasing its production by two thirds before starting the reduction —; in this case, by the year 2009, it might be possible to see an increase of up to 20 per cent in the production of CFC. The fourth setting provides, for demonstrative purposes, what would happen if the Protocol had never been ratified: a 40 to 60 per cent increase in the production of CFC by 2009. The OTA thus concluded: “Even with world co-operation through the treaty, OTA’s analyses suggest that total reduction of ozone-depleting compounds would be somewhat smaller and slower than previously estimated. Greater reductions in consumption of ozone-depleting substances could occur if: 1) the provisions in the Protocol are tightened; 2) consumption drops more than is required by the Protocol, which may occur if countries take unilateral actions directed towards that end or if widespread changes in consumer preferences occur; 3) CFC and halon consumption in developing countries grows more slowly than the ranges assumed by EPA or OTA.”
The first two recommendations of OTA have already been accepted by the USA, the EEC — the biggest producers and consumers of CFC — and Canada, which on the eve of the international conference on the protection of the ozone layer held in London announced that they wanted to go beyond the Montreal Protocol, committing themselves to replace the entire production of CFC with other substances that do not damage the ozone layer. As for the third recommendation the London Conference has instead proved how difficult it still is to reconcile the interests of the industrialized countries with those of the developing ones. The USSR, China and India in fact have indicated their intention not only of wanting to go beyond the limits set by the Montreal Protocol, but also of wanting to delay a reduction in the production of CFC as long as possible and, as Mustafa Tolba, the director of the UN Environment Programme, has declared, “it is obvious from the statements of developing countries that specific commitments are required. There is a need for international mechanisms to compensate them for foregoing the uses of CFCs and some of their natural resources in the interest of environmental safety. We need an internationally agreed plan to raise extra resources for the 1990s and beyond. Such a plan could include debt remission favouring environmental protection, deflection of resources liberated by disarmament, and innovative taxation incentives.”
As the case of the Montreal Protocol and the successive international initiatives show, international agreements are necessary to start getting out of the ecological emergency, but they are not sufficient, on their own, to guarantee effective transition towards an ecologically safer world. The greenhouse effect is emblematic, because to cope with it, it is not enough to agree to limit the production and use of certain substances, what is needed is a real and true world planning of energy consumption as well as the exploitation of important reservoirs of natural resources, such as the Oceans and tropical forests. So far, the market has been unable to reconcile, on a worldwide scale, the growing demand for energy in the world with the need to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. It is enough to consider that after 1973, the year of the oil shock, in the consumption of energy resources the conventional ones — oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear power — still dominate the world energy supply, with an 88 per cent quota in 1985, and that in Berlin, last September, the World Bank confirmed that the destruction of tropical forests in 1987 took place at a pace four times faster than in 1986. On the basis of the present world trend, and without an articulated planning of energy consumption from the national to the worldwide level, it is difficult to foresee a significant increase in the use of non-traditional renewable resources — from solar to wind energy, etc. — in a shorter time (40-50 years) with respect to that required by coal, oil or methane to become popular. In such a length of time, it is certain that the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere will double, and its consequence would be an inevitable appearance of the greenhouse effect. Moreover it must not be forgotten that a high percentage of the energy consumption based on the use of fossil fuels concerns a sector, that of transport (public, private and commercial) — in the USA about 70 per cent of the oil consumed is absorbed by this sector — that may of course undergo further improvements as regards reducing the consumption and pollutants released into the atmosphere, but which is still extremely backward in a large part of the world, and its development can certainly be foreseen in future years. It is enough to think that the USSR is still now not even fiftieth in the world for the number of cars per thousand inhabitants.
In this situation there is still a lot of uncertainty about the paths to follow. Two tendencies are worth quoting as they represent quite a widespread way of thinking and acting. The first is exemplified by the report The Rollercoaster Oil: A Call for Action, published in 1987 by the Fund for Renewable Energy and the Environment (FREE), and by the testimony given in March 1989 by the Public Citizen, a non-profit research and advocacy organization before the Subcommittee on Energy Research & Development of the US Congress. The first report presents a strategy to favour the transition of the USA towards a post-petroleum world and a renewable energy based system, but, although keeping in mind the need for a worldwide strategy to cope with global warming, it simply proposes a national strategy that, due to the worldwide dimension of the problem, cannot be enough to effectively cope with the problem. The testimony of the Public Citizen, instead, underlines the need to increase that part of the US budget allocated for the research and development of alternative energies so as to bring the energy consumption for these technologies up to 15-20 per cent by the turn of the century.
The second tendency is instead exemplified by some initiatives promoted by FOE (Friends of Earth). These initiatives underline the need to preserve part of the common inheritance of mankind such as the Amazon forest The FOE claims, for example, and rightly so, that the construction of dams foreseen by the Brazilian energy Plan (Plano 2010) would deal a further blow to the deforestation of Amazonia, but as an alternative proposes a policy of reducing electricity consumption through the optimization of the performance of electrical equipment, which is difficult to achieve for a developing country in less than years.
These tendencies have in common an element which makes them not very credible: the idea that it is possible to convince states to spontaneously adopt good ecological policies without submitting them to world legislation that limits their sovereignty.
How, then, can the transition towards an ecologically safer world be directed? A first answer has been given by the Bruntland Report through the definition of the concept of sustainable development. “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs”. As can be seen, these are key concepts which now underpin the action not only of the ecological movements, but, as the Montreal Protocol and the Hague Conference show, also of many states. The fact is, as we have already said, that to be effective an international ecological policy requires the collaboration of all states.
As to this, two considerations, one concerning energy policy, the other of an institutional nature, can contribute to freeing minds from the illusion that the planet can be saved — a new problem for mankind — with old medicines — national policies and the exploitation of only natural and renewable energy sources to guarantee the survival and development of a planet with over five billion inhabitants.
At the energy level, if the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is indispensable to stop the greenhouse effect, it is necessary to plan how to overcome the use of fossil fuels both in the electric power production sector and in that of public and private consumption — the transport sector. In other words it is a matter of really achieving the electrification era in the means of production and consumption, an objective which, it must not be forgotten, was the dream of numerous ecologists and town planners, such as Lewis Mumford, already in the 1930s.This is impossible unless it is seen within the framework of starting off a new cycle of worldwide land and town-planning transformations, based on the development of high-speed railway lines, the ramification of electrified public transport, the progressive conversion of fuel-powered into electrical powered vehicles — starting from those circulating in the cities. In this perspective electrical consumption, although with due attention to possible improvements in terms of efficiency and consumption reduction, would however be destined to reach much higher dimensions than the current estimates. But to pursue this objective mankind could not avoid using all the currently available resources which represent alternatives to fuel fossils, including nuclear energy, the use of which would have to be strictly limited to the time required to develop the technology of nuclear fusion and the development programme for which would have to be submitted to a worldwide authority that sets rules for the safety and transfer of the fissile material. The creation of such an authority is now necessary to cope with a situation in which there are countries like France and Japan whose energy supply system at present largely depends on nuclear energy — France has even become indispensable to the electrical power distributive network of part of the European Community — and others, like the USSR, who, despite the Chernobyl accident, have decided to increase the amount of electrical power produced by the year 2000 by using nuclear fuel. Moreover, the problem consists in providing this authority with the necessary financial resources to promote research and development into all alternative energies because, if it is true, as most ecological movements claim, that funds to promote the development of the production of alternative energy are currently much lower than those granted to research for the use of nuclear fusion — in the US the ratio is about 1 to 3 — it is also true that the latter represents a wholly negligible sum compared to what is spent for defence purposes — in the US the ratio is about 1 to one thousand.
The hypothesis of creating a world authority with these duties was supported by Einstein himself just after the Second World War. This authority, moreover, could collect an international climate tax (Climate protection tax) on the use of fossil fuels in order to: a) finance the transition phase to complete electrification and to the civil use of fusion; b) organize the conversion of Third World debts into ecological investments, financing re-forestation. Concerning the first point, it must be stressed, as The Rollercoaster Study mentioned above pointed out, that a tax of only 4.60 dollars per barrel of oil (with a burden of only 11 cents per gallon for car-drivers), would make it possible to collect every year, in the USA alone, 53 billion dollars. Instead, as for the second point, it is enough to note that it is unthinkable to save the tropical forests, which still represent more than 7 per cent of the Earth’s surface, without giving them the status of mankind’s heritage by submitting them to world protection. It is an objective which is not easy to achieve without strong international collaboration, if we think that currently only 1 per cent of the Earth’s surface, with the exception of Antarctica and Greenland, is in some way protected through national legislations.
Within this perspective the detente and the process of transforming the UN into a true democratic world government are bound to become two indispensable conditions to cope with the ecological emergency.
Finally, at the institutional level, The World Commission on Environment and Development has already drawn up some Legal Principles for Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development which define the action of the individual states in the ecological field, as well as their responsibilities and some mechanisms for solving disputes. But what authority will oblige them to respect these principles? What authority will be able to collect the necessary financial resources to start off world-wide reconversion plans of energy production and consumption? And what authority will be given the power of deciding when and if the conservation is treated as an integral part of planning by the various states? The UN agencies, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank could become the pillars of a first nucleus of world government in the ecological field. But on the one hand, for this to be credible, it must be demonstrated that it is possible and necessary to start off a process of transferring part of the sovereignty of states from the national and continental level to the world level within the UN framework. Concerning this, any further delay in transforming the European Community into a true Union would be actual sabotage of the democratizing process of international relationships and hence the development of an effective world ecological policy. On the other hand, the USSR must be involved as soon as possible in the running of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as it is impossible to develop an effective international ecological initiative without including the socialist world which increasingly represents, for the kind of political and economical problems it has to face, the link between developed countries and those of the Third World.
In conclusion, we can say that to affirm that “political ecology is ripe for action” now has some meaning only insofar as one admits that the transformation of the UN into a true world-wide democratic government is also “ripe for action”. In this perspective it is necessary to reinforce collaboration not only between federalists in Europe and in the world, but also between federalists and ecologist movements in general.
Concerning this see: Our Common Future, The World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford University Press, Oxford, State of the World, A World Watch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society, W.W. Norton & Company, New York-London, 1988.
The international conference which took place in Turin in January, organized by the San Paolo Foundation, instead proposed the establishment of a world fund for protection of our planet's climate.
The two international conferences which took place in London and the Hague in the first half of March 1989 within a few days of each other confirmed the suggestions made by the OTA.