Discussions with representatives of countries and international organizations at Palais des Nations (Palace of Nations) in Geneva reveal divergences, almost to the point of contradiction, on issues related to environment and development. The only element cooling the heat of dialogues seems to be the location of the United Nations European headquarters, overlooking the tranquil Lac Léman (Lake Geneva).
While an expert working with a climate change organization insists that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cannot be achieved without first addressing climate challenges, he is readily opposed by an adviser to the World Trade Organization asserting that the absolute priority should be for economic growth, supported by opening the doors for free trade. The debate diverges in opposing directions, in which poverty overlaps with education, food security, forests and industry. While the debaters were expecting the representative of one of the oil-producing countries to object to a rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, it is the representative of a top beef-producing country who quickly objects. Participants realize that raising cows is responsible for more than 12 percent of climate change emissions, mainly methane.
As the debate heats up, the calmness of Lake Geneva inspires a solution that takes objective facts into account. Each team, in fact, is defending part of the truth, and the solution may be to adopt a third track, because balancing environmental and developmental issues is a matter governed by compromises.
It is true that sustainable development goals, especially those related to poverty, hunger, health, water, clean energy, and life on land and in the oceans, cannot be achieved without confronting climate change and putting an end to its catastrophic consequences, in addition to being prepared to deal with its unstoppable effects. Climate change compromises food security by exacerbating hunger, reduces available fresh water which affects the continuation of life in all its forms, threatens human health with the spread of more diseases and epidemics, and impedes energy supplies. All of these factors exacerbate poverty, the elimination of which, through achieving justice in production and distribution, remains the primary and supreme goal of sustainable development.
On the other hand, we cannot expect the poor, who do not have a day’s worth of food and do not know whether they will be able to provide milk and water for their children the next morning, to ignore their urgent daily concerns in order to act to stop climate change. How can people plan for the future, while standing at death’s door every minute? And how can someone who does not have any reliable source of energy, whether for cooking, heating or lighting, contribute to reducing emissions, without being provided assistance to find an alternative that guarantees the eradication of energy poverty? The realistic solution is to adopt options that eliminate poverty and achieve development goals, in parallel with decreasing emissions to reduce climate change and implementing measures to deal with its impacts. These are not all easy options, as they require a radical shift in consumption patterns, which many in rich countries reject as a sacrifice they cannot afford.
Those calling for rapid and strong restrictions on activities behind the emission of climate-change gases, such as beef production or burning oil and gas, must be aware of the catastrophic impacts on communities whose primary source of livelihood is these resources. The solution is not limited to adopting phased plans for a gradual transition based on finding alternatives and diversifying the economy, but also includes developing means of production and consumption of meat and fuel that contribute to reducing emissions. But this also demands from producers to accept the inevitability of change, and not delay programs for a smooth transition to alternative economic patterns.
In another room of the Palais des Nations, the discussion revolved around the role of the banking sector in financing sustainable development programs and the introduction of climate risks as an essential component of project evaluations. All agreed on the general principles of transition to a green economy, as there is nobody who can still deny today, that development which does not take into account the environment and limited resources is doomed to failure. However, the differences remain over the means of implementation. And the excessive rhetorical enthusiasm to brag about achievements, albeit illusory, threatens to turn green economy into green-washing, worse than money laundering.
A representative of an international financial institution spoke about green finance programs that had been agreed upon in past years with the Central Bank and some commercial banks in Lebanon, which comprised hundreds of millions in support for granting soft loans in areas such as renewable energy, water and waste management. One participant warned the speaker that his example lacks accuracy, specifically in light of developments in Lebanon in the last few years. Those proved that slogans of green finance cannot cover for the failure of traditional financial systems, as a result of poor planning and corrupt management. While international institutions granted facilities to finance “green” projects, some of the participating commercial banks were granting loans from their fictitious excess liquidity for plastic surgeries and Botox injections, and, in the best cases, they used customer deposits for currency speculation. It would have been more beneficial for financial institutions to require banks to direct their commercial loans towards productive projects before entering into “green” banking operations, just as they should have financed the construction of modern electricity plants and networks before providing support for electric cars. Had that been done, it might have helped spare the banking and monetary system in Lebanon this terrible fall, which guzzled green money along with the black, in addition to red money, soaked in people’s blood and a lifetime of hard work.
While delegates at the Palais des Nations were listening to a recorded message from the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, urging countries to accelerate serious work to confront climate challenges and prevent a catastrophe for the human race, one of the delegates noted that the physical attendance in the hall, which can take around 500 persons, did not exceed 20 persons, while others were participating remotely. The inconsistency between the content of the message and the almost empty large hall, in which the ventilation, heating, cooling and lighting devices operate at full capacity, emitting tons of carbon emissions, was shocking.
As delegates engage in climate, development and clean energy talks in the halls of the Palais des Nations above Lake Geneva, they almost miss the fact that the rules of the game will entirely change once the coronavirus and Ukraine storms have subsided, to reveal the real damages and long-term consequences.
Najib Saab is Secretary General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development- AFED (www.afedonline.org) and Editor-in-Chief of Environment & Development magazine (www.afedmag.com).