This article agrees with the United Nations that environmental problems are a most serious threat to humanity’s survival; and that international cooperation is absolutely essential as a basis for realistic policies to counter these threats.
The United Nations Secretary General said recently that humanity’s survival will be impossible unless we achieve “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050. Most of the world’s leading emitters have already joined the UN’s “net zero by 2050” coalition.
Nevertheless, evidence is outlined in this article that attempting to achieve net-zero emissions may be misguided because there are threats to the environment which, combined, are at least as threatening to the environment as climate change. These threats include reduction of biological diversity and excessive extraction of minerals other than fossil fuel from the earth, and from oceans. United Nations policies designed exclusively towards achieving carbon neutrality could even be counter-productive if they are not well integrated with policies designed to take account of other very significant aspects of human activity which also threaten the environment very seriously.
The United Nations believes that achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 is imperative to avoid “irreversible” impacts that would be “absolutely devastating for the world economy and for human life”. Emission Trading Systems are encouraged by Article 6 of the Paris Climate Agreement of the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: such policies have been adopted so as to counter threats of climate change with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting society. The International Carbon Action Partnership (ICAP) suggests that Emission Trading Systems (ETSs) are already delivering cost-effective fossil fuel emissions reductions in several sectors in numerous countries (ICAP, 2020). And their recent Report suggests reasonably that ETSs and other policies are not independent of each other, but interact in many ways . But .extensive research on the effectiveness of the largest ETS in the world, the EU Emissions Trading System concluded that it has been almost entirely ineffective in reducing emissions: in 2013, numerous environmental and economic justice groups called for it to be abolished. Nevertheless, while offering very little evidence, the ICAP Report attributes recent fossil fuel emission reductions to ETSs rather than to other factors
In addition to the combustion of fossil fuel used in production and use of numerous types of products and services, many types of metal are extracted from the earth to be used as materials to make components for a huge variety of manufactured products, from jewellery to semiconductor components used in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industries to planes, ships and cars. Modern farming increasingly uses monocultures and intensive methods of farming and mechanized tillage. Such methods also tend to make increasing use of chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, and to cause soil erosion and depletion of nutrients in the soil. Biodiversity is diminished by concentration on a very restricted range of crop varieties, produced using capital and input intensive, large-scale production methods. In contrast, traditional farming systems used by peasants and smallholders typically involve greater diversity of crops, year-round vegetation cover, lower levels of inputs including energy, and less unused waste. For such reasons, they tend to be far less damaging to the environment.
Roots of the environmental problems we now face derive largely from the Industrial Revolution which started in England late in the eighteenth century. There have also been enormous increases in the world population of human beings, from about one billion in 1800 to about 1.5 billion in 1900, and to about eight billion today.
Since the Industrial Revolution, continual changes in production methods have made possible the production of an avalanche of consumer goods, and improvements of the standards of living of millions of people. But it is significant that consumer demand is by no means the only factor that has driven and shaped these changes. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, advertisements in newspapers began to be used to promote mass sales of factory produced breakfast cereals in the United States In the 1920s, radio became commercialized in the United States, with very few stations broadcasting numerous advertisements to huge audiences Television experienced a similar fate in the United States a few decades later becoming enslaved by product marketing. TV and radio were followed by social media as cheap and effective ways of reaching huge audiences for advertising, first in the United States and subsequently in enormous areas of the world.
At first transport on land consisted largely of people walking, riding on horses and other animals, and using animals to carry people and goods on land and to draw carriages. In addition boats and ships carried people and goods along rivers and through seas. In England from the mid seventeenth century onwards, ever-increasing resources were devoted to expansion of river transport and to construction of new roads and bridges. The first canals were built in the 1750s. The use of steam engines as pumps in coal mines and then, from about 1830 onwards, the use of the Watt steam engine for transport by railway trains led to enormous increases in the mining and combustion of fossil fuel. Between 1830 and 1913, railways contributed very substantially to the creation of ever-increasing and diverse markets for an ever-widening range of factory produced goods in many countries The widespread use of electricity – first produced mainly by burning coal – began towards the end of the nineteenth century. Revolutions in communications, including radio and television, followed by computing and social media started later. Cars were invented late in the nineteenth century and began to be mass-produced cheaply in the USA soon afterwards They then spread to the rest of the world
Such developments led to rapid increases in the extraction and use of a changing mix of fossil fuels with the aid of which to construct and use a changing variety of products and services. To this was added growing household use of fossil fuels, first for domestic heating and then for air conditioning of homes for people and families with rising incomes
Government environment policies< Most Governments now aim to create societies with an atmosphere favourable for business to invest in, and at the same time to cope with needs to protect the environment and to protect workers’ rights and quality of life. But there is often conflict between these policy priorities. Government reluctance to restrain global warming is exemplified by the persistence of huge government subsidies for fossil fuels throughout the world. Such subsidies are huge, diverse and complex. Some estimates suggest that they amount to well over 5 trillion dollars –about 6.5 per cent of global GDP. The UN is right that there should be no more subsidies for fossil fuels More than half of government fossil fuel subsidies are for oil products, with the rest split almost equally between natural gas and electricity There are international agreements, in particular the UN’s Paris agreement which have set targets for emission reduction. But several countries which generate large emissions – such as Australia, Brazil and the United States - have either not signed up to those agreements or made very modest commitments to CO2 reduction. So far climate agreements have made little reference to trade. And tariff reduction seems to have increased trade in carbon-intensive and environmentally destructive products such as fossil fuels and timber more than it has increased trade in environmental goods. Several governments have invoked the World Trade Organisation settlement mechanism to challenge policies designed to stimulate CO2 emission reduction in several important countries, on the grounds ostensibly that both subsidies and the offer of domestic priorities for renewable energy violate free trade principles to which they subscribe.
Studies of two major sectors of the world economy, the first on land transport, and the second on food and agriculture are summarised below:
When cars were originally introduced into cities, they represented enormous improvements in terms of pollution reduction. Their potential for improved transport productivity and efficiency over the horses and buggies which they replaced was enormous. Cars and lorries could get to places which railways could not get to, and did jobs which trains could not have done. But each horse was replaced by too many cars, vans and lorries. In consequence of the resulting traffic and parking congestion, in some cities the enormous number of motorized vehicles each moves little faster than the horses they replaced. And more and more space has been devoted to parking for idle cars.
During the twentieth century, cars and lorries became the dominant mode of land-based transport for both people and goods. Indeed cars and other vehicles driven by internal combustion engines provided unexpected solutions to the many problems of pollution and traffic congestion in cities caused by the use of the horses which they superseded. But within a few decades of their introduction, the rapid growth of human populations and car use in cities caused further, different problems in cities. There are now 1.3 billion cars in the world, each driven independently. Most governments encourage private car use and many have undertaken extremely large highway construction projects. With the exception of Denmark and the Netherlands, private car-ownership and use is increasing rapidly, especially in previously communist states such as Poland. Similarly, car ownership is increasing in countries in Africa and Asia especially where there are population increases and industrial growth. China has already become second to the United States in terms of car production and use.
Cars spend nearly all the time parked. In the small minority of time that they are travelling, they often cause considerable congestion, mainly in cities, and in some rural areas. The road space constructed for them covers an increasing proportion of total land area. Just as important, the availability of this highly flexible individual mode of transport has had important implications for town planning and its neglect. Many supermarkets have been built in locations only easily accessible by car. Insufficient attention is paid to the desirability of minimising the need to travel by locating residential accommodation, work, shopping and recreational facilities in close proximity. Worst of all, in the United States – and increasingly in other countries especially highly populated ones such as India and China – over -dependence on cars is becoming increasingly destructive of water, air and land
At present, electric cars are sold on the basis that that they are high specification top of the range vehicles which offer consumers advantages because the cost of the electricity which they use as fuel is very low compared to the alternative of using petrol or diesel fuel; and because electric car drivers feel some satisfaction on the basis of the belief that they are contributing to welfare because their car is helping to mitigate global warming. But just as they always have done with fossil-fueled cars, manufacturers continually increase the size and sophistication of the car models they produce so as to be able to charge customers more for each car. The ever increasing sophistication, size and complexity of cars tends to contribute to increasing the environmental damage caused by their production
China has been prominent in offering incentives, penalties and encouragement to stimulate shifts from fossil fuel cars to electric cars. China is the world’s largest market for cars, representing nearly a third of world car sales. Subsidies and incentives provided by the Chinese government encourage buyers to purchase electric and hybrid cars, and legislation deters manufacturers from making cars powered by fossil fuels.
Most of the batteries being used to power electric cars are lithium-ion batteries (LIB). Production of these batteries is very energy intensive and lithium mining is very damaging to the environment, and to the health of miners. There is extensive research and development to invent and develop more efficient batteries to replace LIBs..
Systems for de-privatizing cars such as car-sharing, co-operative car clubs and smart car-hire schemes are being developed and are growing fast in some rich societies, as cities in Europe, America and Asia face increasing car-parking congestion and pollution problems.
The total world “fleet” of cars may increase from about 1.3 billion to as many as 1.8 billion cars by 2035 which it seems probable that car manufacturers are collectively planning to achieve. If this happens, the net contribution cars make to environmental damage could increase significantly, whether or not a substantial proportion of those vehicles are electrically powered. The wisest course would probably include planning for substantial reductions in the total number of cars circulating on roads in the most prosperous regions of the world.
Reduction in the contribution of land transport to environmental damage requires complex combinations of measures worldwide. These could include reducing people’s needs and desires to travel by transforming land use, together with measures to increase other means of personal mobility, at the same time as measures to increase substantially public transport’s share of those journeys still needing to be undertaken..
Food and agriculture
Since 1800, the world’s agricultural and food system, dominated by capitalism has increased total food production immensely to cope with very rapid growth in the total world population, and has also played some role in facilitating that population growth.. About half of global greenhouse gas emissions are now created by the industrial food system, divided between agricultural production, land use change and deforestation, and processing, transport, packing and retail. Modern farming increasingly uses monocultures and intensive methods of farming and mechanized tillage. Such methods also tend to make increasing use of chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, and to cause soil erosion and depletion of nutrients in the soil. Biodiversity is diminished by concentration on very restricted ranges of crop and animal varieties, produced using capital and input intensive, large-scale production methods.
Food has not been distributed in accordance with people’s needs for healthy nutrition. Less than 60% of the world’s population consumes an adequate amount and quality of food to maintain health. About 28% of consumers eat too little food and 15% consume too much, which can result in obesity and chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. A high proportion of food produced is subjected to intensive manufacturing processes and marketed and packaged excessively before it reaches consumers. These effects are also partly consequences of fast food consumption which has been increasing in many countries. Production of a significant amount of food which instead of meeting people’s food needs makes them obese and unhealthy is a waste of resources: Inevitably it creates excessive climate change , pollution and other environmental damage. Farms which use intensive production methods produce huge quantities of noxious outputs, such as manure, and air and water pollution which are seriously damaging to the environment.
Nevertheless, despite widespread declining trends, the number of small farmers and peasants living and working , especially in poorer countries, is still enormous – more than two billion people amongst a world population of about eight billion. There are, and have always been huge numbers of relatively small local markets where consumers can buy and eat sustainable, yield-rich food grown locally in relatively small ecological farms according to the natural cycle of the seasons. And small farmers and peasants have combined into organisations to promote their interests, especially in less industrialised countries.
La Via Campesina is the largest movement of peasant farmers and artisanal food producers in the world, claiming more than 200 million members of 182 organisations in 81 countries. La Via Campesina proposes reasonably that, “genuine agrarian reform is necessary which gives landless and farming people ownership and control of the land they work and returns territories to indigenous people”. Companies expel peasants and pastoralists from their land to secure large areas of land to produce food for export to rich countries or to produce crops to be converted into fuels. Many farms – especially large ones – use intensive production methods, often focusing on the use of monoculture. Increasingly they dominate agriculture world-wide. These farms require large inputs such as water, fertilizers and pesticides The food they produce is generally not particularly conducive to human health, especially when it is subjected to intensive manufacturing processes before it reaches consumers. Rationalisation and intensification of farming and food production has occurred on a massive scale in relation to animal food as well as arable agriculture. They have resulted in extensive air, water and land pollution and environmental degradation, food poverty – especially in poorer countries, and poor conditions and low pay for workers in slaughterhouses and factory farms.
Biodiversity is diminished by concentration on a very restricted range of crop varieties, produced using capital and input intensive, large-scale production methods. In contrast, traditional farming systems used by peasants and smallholders typically involve greater diversity of crops, year-round vegetation cover, lower levels of inputs including energy, and less unused waste. For such reasons, they tend to be far less damaging to the environment.
The present global food system is unsustainable environmentally and thoroughly inequitable. There is abundant easily available data on this enormous sector which demonstrates that there is an urgent need for it to be reformed radically.
Some tentative conclusions
Current policies to restrain environmental damage focus on attempting ineffectively to contain global warming; but there are other extremely important related policy issues – in particular those related to the damage caused by extraction of enormous quantities of minerals from the earth; together with those related to the damage caused by economic activities which reduce the biodiversity of the plants, animals and insects which make essential contributions to human beings’ healthy survival.
Solutions to the world’s environmental problems must be holistic. It will not, for example, be enough to develop policies to restrict the damage caused by climate change if such policies do little to contain the problems caused by mineral extraction, or dumping waste in land and water. Some Governments have indeed become increasingly concerned to restrain global warming and environmental pollution. But their efforts to move in such directions have been severely restricted by major corporations’ ability to offer governments large benefits in terms of economic growth in return for not ’interfering’ with their operations
As solving these problems is both urgent and highly complex, first steps should include designing and conducting extensive and diverse analysis programmes; and presenting results clearly to wide audiences including policymakers as soon as possible. The amount of work required may not necessarily be so huge, and expensive and time-consuming as it might seem at first sight. Most of the work would only involve analysis and integration of environmental implications of empirical research already completed for various purposes, rather than inevitably highly expensive and time- consuming original research.
Accordingly, it is suggested that international multi-disciplinary teams of scientists, technologists, engineers, historians and social scientists should be established –perhaps ideally by the United Nations, if it could be persuaded to abandon its present unduly narrow focus on climate change. These multi-disciplinary teams should be commissioned to assess the damage caused by human economic activities to the environment, and to advise on the best approaches that should be developed to restrain it. Their analysis will need to be holistic, inclusive and broad ranging.