“The NGO Friends of the Planet warned that we have lost precious time in the race to control climate change.” “The UN Secretary General expresses his disappointment at the outcome of the climate change conference.” “The South criticizes the North for not keeping its promises on climate change.” “The agreement was very weak, even if we meet each goal, we will not get to where we should go.”
These are not reactions to the recent Glasgow conference on the environment. They are some of the headlines after the Buenos Aires meetings in 1998; The Hague, 2000; Lima, 2014 and Paris in 2015. Activist Greta Thunberg’s opinion on Glasgow echoed them: “The failure of Glasgow is not a secret, we cannot solve the crisis.”
Why has the consensus on the need to act urgently to maintain human life on the planet not produced the necessary changes?
The results of the 26 global conferences on climate change that have been held have not been encouraging. Although in Kyoto, in 2005, developed countries defined goals to reduce emissions and in Paris, in 2015, they agreed to do what is necessary to prevent the increase in the average temperature of the planet from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius, most of the promises have not been kept. In fact, the opposite has happened: since the first conference until today, carbon emissions have increased by 60%.
Naturally, this frustrating experience made expectations for decisions to be made in Glasgow very modest. However, the meeting catalyzed the making of three important decisions: the United States announced that it would double its budget to tackle climate change; China has pledged to cease construction of coal-fired thermoelectric plants in other countries, and more than 100 countries have committed to reducing their methane gas emissions by 30% by 2030. But, as the UN Secretary-General observed , the Glasgow conference was “an important but insufficient step”, which “reflects the contradictions in the world today”.
Why this inaction in the face of such an obvious threat? The lack of political will, which, in turn, is due to the unpopularity of measures that increase the cost of energy and other products, is an important factor. Another difficulty is deciding which countries should start a strict diet that restricts their consumption of hydrocarbons while others maintain or even increase such consumption. And, of course, which nations are going to finance the gigantic investments that are necessary to mitigate the impacts of climate change and adapt to the new reality? The list of obstacles is long and overwhelming.
Many of these impediments can only be overcome with a massive global production of public goods. These are goods that can be consumed by any person or entity, even if they did not contribute to creating them. The classic example is that of a lighthouse that at night signals the boats where to navigate, even those that have not paid to use that good will benefit like all the others. Public goods are also characterized because they can be consumed by multiple people or organizations at the same time. The fact that someone is consuming the services of the lighthouse does not prevent other ships from doing so as well. But nobody invests in the production of a good that anyone can use without payment. This is why the provision of public goods falls fundamentally on the State: it is the one who has the capacity to finance public goods through the taxes it charges.
Examples of public goods are many and range from street signs to national defense. Naturally, most of the investments in public goods are made by governments in their national territory – which is also where their citizens live and pay taxes. But, how to finance the creation and provision of public goods in supranational spaces such as the oceans or space, where there are no citizens who pay taxes? The demand for public goods is always greater than the supply, a situation that becomes more dramatic in the cases of global public goods. And reducing CO₂ emission is a classic example of a global public good, perhaps the public good that the world needs most today.
This is the central problem facing humanity in its battle to control climate change, since the bulk of the investments necessary to achieve the objective will have to come from taxpayers to the treasury in rich countries. Will the most developed nations be able to put their financial power at the service of building public goods across the planet, not just in their territories, in order to achieve a climate that allows human life on the planet? On the answer to this question depends the survival of civilization as we have known it until now. @moisesnaim
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