International Environmental Law 101: The Case of Temperature


Foreword




International Environmental Law 101 is a series that will dive into the manifold dimensions of preserving the environment from human destruction and economic development. The main objective of these articles is to provide a comprehensible grasp of the institutions, agreements, and principles which fight against climate change, wildlife extinction, and contamination, and fight for sustainable practices.


International Environmental Law 101 will be predominantly divided into the following chapters:


1. International Environmental Law 101: How the Silent Spring Ignited the Environmental Movement

2. International Environmental Law 101: A Regime of Principle

3. International Environmental Law 101: The Decision Makers

4. International Environmental Law 101: A Map of Environmental Agreements

5. International Environmental Law 101: The Case of Temperature

6. International Environmental Law 101: The Transition to Sustainable Development

7. International Environmental Law 101: Healing the Ocean

8. International Environmental Law 101: What will the Future Bring


The last chapter of this series listed, contextualized and analyzed the multilateral agreements that are in effect and currently regulate all the environmental issues around the world, from climate change to land management to desertification. The guidebook of environmental agreements leads to the following area of concern. What are the top priorities and the main concern in environmental policy and what has been done to address them?


António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General has recently referred to climate change as a "code red for humanity". It is precisely because of this kind of warning that the United Nations was assembled; to join forces against a common enemy. In this case, the enemy is humanity itself.


In the 20th century, the Earth’s average temperature has been increased by 1,18 degrees Celsius. Heatwaves have become more frequent and intense, and the past decade has been the hottest on record.


Since 1969, the top 100 meters of the ocean's surface have become 0.33 degrees Celsius warmer. The global sea level rose about 20 centimeters in the last 100 years, and almost tripled compared to the level existing between 1901 and 1970. Ocean waters have become 30% more acidic in recent years. because the ocean absorbs the carbon dioxide in the air. The rising level of acidity in the water is a death sentence for marine life that needs a set level of oxygen to survive.


Greenland and the Antarctic have seen a decrease of an average of 279 and 148 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2019 respectively. Glaciers are retreating in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska, and in the African peaks altogether.


Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Instagram, 2021



So how can we explain climate change and temperature rise?


The concentration of greenhouse gases in the air has doubled (49% increase) since the beginning of the industrial era in the 1850s. If greenhouse gas emissions naturally occur as a result of changes in solar radiation or natural volcanic activity, they usually only contribute to 0.1° Celsius of the total warming effect. The remaining part which amounts roughly 0.9° Celsius, is produced by human activity.


Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases increasingly accumulate in the atmosphere because of the effect of burned oil, coal, and gas. In addition to the excessive rising of carbon emissions, global warming is accelerated by deforestation. Trees are an important tool for the environment because they are able to absorb CO2 and dissolve its concentration back into the atmosphere. Cutting them down not only removes a valuable CO2 absorbing source, but allows their carbon dioxide stock to be released in the atmosphere.


Another significant driver of emissions is livestock farming. The process of digestion by animals produces large amounts of methane. This gas is the most environmental damaging of all, even in comparison to CO2. Carbon dioxide is not as severe but became the ‘face’ of climate change because of its high level of emission. Nitrous oxide is produced by fertilizers in the agriculture industry. Fluorinated gases are a result of the industrial era, emitted from human-made products, equipments and production facilities.


Scientists are confident that these are the practices–which are mostly human induced–affecting global warming the most due to their greenhouse effects. The gas emissions coming from fossil fuels mass burning trap the sun's heat in the atmosphere, making it impossible to be released back into space. The heat stays in the atmosphere and effectively warms the earth. The global temperature rises, which means that when a specific geographic area undergoes changes in climate or weather phenomena, surrounding areas are consequently influenced. This is a domino affecting the planet as a whole.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization focused on providing public information regarding climate change, has issued a warning in its latest report for unprecedented and irreversible changes that will be reflected in rainfall patterns, ocean, and winds. It is important to remember that with extreme phenomena comes great cost.

Droughts, floodings, water and food scarcity in addition to an unstable economy are some of the problems that people will have to face in the near future, even if they live in "developed"countries. Indeed, climate change is also a huge health hazard. Heat exhaustion, heat strokes, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, and aggravated allergies can all be caused by medium exposure to high temperatures–back in 2006, a major heatwave in California resulted in 655 deaths and 16.000 people visiting the emergency room.




Hydrogen Fuel News, 2019



The United Nations first addressed the topic of climate change with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, which binds members to act in the face of scientific uncertainty, even when in doubt. This multilateral agreement is a set soft goals with no real plan to achieve them, but the concept is clear; greenhouse gas concentrations need to be stabilized to a level that cannot disturb the climate system. Human practices need to become more climate neutral, emissions need to be cut by 80% and the world must adjust to the climate impact, as well as financially invest in the healing of the planet.

With the Kyoto Protocol, another United Nations agreement aiming to reduce carbon emissions, adopted in 1997, countries were split into two different categories: industrialized and developing. The industrialized nations were the ones that emitted larger doses of CO2 in the atmosphere. Binding reductions targets, separate for every nation, were set in place. If a country needed to emit a larger amount of C02 than the pre-determined amount, there was an option of trade. Another country that had not reached the assigned limit she was allowed, could sell that amount through the Emissions Reduction Purchase Agreement. This is how un-used carbon emission targets became a commodity in the early 2000s.


Developing countries were categorized as such because of their low economic and industrial development. They earned so-called carbon credits, which they essentially did not need and where guided to trade or sell to countries with high emission scores. Thus, enabling the industrialized to keep up their abuse of fossil fuels. Developing nations were instructed to use that money for projects supporting their sustainable development. An issue that makes matters for developing countries more complex is that they are expected to grow economically in the near future. History has shown that basic economic development comes from fossil fuels and industrialization. It is crucial for countries that are in the process of development to find ways to achieve their goals in a sustainable way.


While the UNFCC set the bar at 2 degrees Celsius for the average global temperature, with the Paris Agreement that came next in 2015, world leaders agreed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The Paris Climate treaty acts as a replacement agreement for the Kyoto Protocol and since its adoption, 192 nations have signed it, each country with its own sets of goals and emissions reductions that are respective to their needs. Together they have agreed to cut back substantially on emissions to make sure that temperature does not rise higher than 1.5 degrees Celsius before 2100. They need to work towards decreasing emissions, mitigating climate change while finding ways to adapt to the impact of global warming.


Countries that accepted the agreement need to provide a report on their commitments every 5 years–namely a 5-year climate action plan–as well as financancially help the countries listed as "developing" who need guidance, technological support, and money to sustainably develop in the next few decades, as was the case for the UNFCCC. What Paris provided that was different, was the Paris Rulebook, an action plan that mapped out the United Nations’ next steps to save the environment and reverse climate change. It is basically a guidebook for managing climate change and reaching net-zero emissions.


The Rulebook was finalized during the last Conference of Parties of the UNFCC in Glasgow, in the fall of 2021. COP26 was long awaited but did not satisfy the expectations of climate activists and environmental organizations. What it did produce was the Glasgow Climate Pact, an agreement that puts pressure on Parties to strengthen their national policies and deliver solutions on climate change and energy consumption.




Guterres/ UN Climate Change/ Twitter, 2022


National environmental policy has been a sore point in the field for quite a few years. Although after the UN Rio Conference in 1992 there was a increase of environmental laws around the world, the majority of regulations are quite loose and do not provide results. Today over 170 countries have integrated environmental framework in their national policy and some of them have established the right to a healthy environment for their citizens. But these laws are not implemented at a general level. Taxes, corporations, trade, energy, land use and transportation are merely a few of the areas that require new policy regulations in order to stop climate change. One climate law is simply not enough. The public needs to participate in the decision-making process, and decision-makers need to be held accountable for their actions or inactions.


Unfortunately, according to a new UN report a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius will be inevitable by 2040. The Arctic is thought to become ice-free for at least one day before 2050, for the first time in history, and unprecedented extreme weather events and wildfires will become more frequent.


There is still hope in the "1.5 degrees Celsius" dream, that is only if we act now. This means Parties and businesses have to invest in the energy transition with renewable solutions like solar and wind power. They have to commit to reaching zero emissions by 2050 and actually implement their decisions. And fossil fuel production has to stop in the following years and the unavoidable greenhouse gas concentrations compensated for.


Sustainable development is the only way through.


The disappearing ice in the Arctic Sea feels like a predicament that is far away from us and for the scientists to deal with. However, it is much closer than we think. Soon, either by necessity or because of our own volition, we will all have to deal with it.



References


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Images Sources


Image 1. Spratt, A., & Unspash. (2021, November 28). UNEP - Official Instagram Account. Retrieved January 22, 2022, from https://www.instagram.com/p/CW0gbrUsqTO/


Image 2. Image in Hood, T. (2019, August 6). Reducing air pollution will not accelerate global warming, study. Hydrogen Fuel News. Retrieved January 22, 2022, from https://www.hydrogenfuelnews.com/reducing-air-pollution-will-not-accelerate-global-warming-study/8538003/


Image 3. Guterres, A. (2022, January 9). Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread.every fraction of a degree warming matters.we need maximum ambition – from all countries on all fronts – to keep the 1.5 degree warming goal of the #parisagreeement alive.it's time to go into emergency mode. pic.twitter.com/irx1uvekrg. Twitter. Retrieved January 22, 2022, from https://twitter.com/antonioguterres/status/1479969165628919815?s=20




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Konstantina Manta

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