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Is sustainability sustainable?

This is the last stand of climate change.

Perhaps not exactly; the world will not cease to be in fifty years, after all, and if all of human industry stopped and disappeared right now the planet would make a swift recovery, relatively speaking. But it’s one of the stands, and one of the last stands before things get very serious indeed; we are already seeing the face of climate change in the form of droughts and famines in Africa, South America and South Asia, in increasing floods in Ireland, and being inundated with information from everywhere about climate change. The ‘budget’ of carbon emissions the planet can release before irreparable damage is done is two-thirds gone since emissions began in the Industrial revolution, and emission rates have done nothing but snowball. The time for change isn’t now so much as it was fifty years ago— but now that we’re here, who’s taking actions to fix things?

The Paris agreement, the largest and latest international climate-change agreement, sets the goal for a temperature increase of no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels; a goal that has been criticised by many as too low (many island nations will be well sunk by then) and been criticised as unachievable and irrelevant by others, including Trump, who pulled the USA out of the agreement. The majority of the world has not met its goals under the Paris Agreement.

But in many ways, who can blame them? The reliability and strength of the oil, gas and coal industries is enticing to all. It’s all to easy for countries to enjoy the economic benefits without suffering the economic consequences- from the point of view of industrialism, the great thing about climate change is that the perpetrators don’t suffer the ill effects. There is, in other words, little motivation to do anything about it. Except the welfare of the entire planet, of course. But when has that ever changed anything? Separate countries have no interest in sacrificing short-term benefits for somebody else’s long-time ones— not till the bad consequences get unavoidable for the perpetrators, but by the time the heads of industry feel the squeeze of climate change, quite a few less fortunate people will already be dead.

The Paris agreement required countries to submit climate action plans and imposes little consequence for not following them. Critics point out that the word ‘fossil fuel’ does not appear once in its entirety. The Paris agreement lacked backbone, in other words; it relied upon global consensus being stronger than short-term greed.

Trump pulled out of the Paris agreement for a distasteful but undeniable reason: It is simply more economic not to care about the environment. Mass industrialism made the modern world; it provided the excessive amounts of food and energy that created the massive population boom we’re seeing. We relied upon industrialism to develop countries, and now that we have entire populations built on that foundation, how easy is it to remove those foundations for something as new, unpredictable and inscrutable as sustainable living? The developed world cannot fathom uprooting and the developing world is following the precedent of the West— which will push the world over the edge if it continues.

The entire world economy will need to shift to save the environment. Short-term benefits, economics, and greed have been the driving forces against climate change, and industry dominates life and politics in the West. Can sustainability be done in the developed world? History says no— but Europe, the leading frontier of modern environmentalism, says yes.

Most of the world is more concerned with keeping their populations fed and their economies on the up, the cost of which is fossil fuels. Coal is a major electricity source in the US and China, and with countries now reaching peak oil (where oil production starts to decline rather than rise) amid growing energy demands, coal is starting to look like a cheaper, less research-heavy alternative, rather than innovative clean energy sources. Corruption in the fossil fuel industries is ripe, too, another barrier to change. The stakes get higher as demands increase. Freshwater resources, animal populations, forested areas, “dead zones”; as the population goes up, they all steadily go down in response. Whether or not you care for the animals and the wilds could be subjective, but we’re teetering dangerously close to ruining the planet to the point where we can’t live on it anymore; even water is reaching the point of shortage, and parts of the planet are rapidly becoming unfarmable.

The EU is one of the only power blocs that stuck rigidly to the Kyoto protocol, and one of the biggest creators and innovators of environmental law. Unlike other signatories of the Paris and Kyoto agreements, the EU imposed a consequence onto its participating states; the EU mandate, the same mandate that caused the UK to leave the EU, has pushed members into following an environmental, great-good cause. Its emissions per capita are well beneath those of China and the US, the two largest contributors to greenhouse gas emission. The influence of the EU is why environmental concerns factor so largely into planning permissions; the EU funds much of the clean energy drives in its member states; and, indeed, the biggest per capita users of clean energy have been European countries. What made it work?

The Paris agreement failed for the reason the EU made it succeed; the EU added a unifying rally where there was none. The EU imposed the strict mandate that the agreement lacked, and the spirit of unity in this regard. It is fair and debatable to say that cultures, policies, even standards of rights should not be mass-enforced against the will of member states; but within the realm of environmental issues, the EU has realised something the rest of the world will soon need to realise: climate change has no political boundaries, and the only solution to bring things around is a consensus— a strict, enforceable, and clear consensus to tackle the problem.

The EU is not one homogeneous entity by any means, but its strictly unified environmental policy suits for an excellent reason: the EU is almost entirely one physical landmass, and strict co-operation is required to keep shared environments clean. (Even in Ireland; it’s unsure what the future of rivers shared between Northern Ireland and the republic will be in the face of Brexit.) The countries of its member states might have boundaries, but rivers, forests and climates don’t, and the shared-responsibility style of the EU’s Water, Habitat and Marine frameworks is a vision of what needs to come; an acknowledgement of the non-political, non-social, and completely shared effects of climate change.

In a rapidly globalising world, it only follows that boundaries get bigger and bigger; the scale of trade, war and labour is growing, but there is no bigger problem than the scale of climate change. The EU has brought together its member states and began to make a positive change, and perhaps technologically and economically has an unfair advantage over some— but it not only stands as a role model for good performance, but an example of what will be necessary worldwide to overcome climate change. Unity made environmental policy in Europe work: it’s time for the world to follow.