The COVID-19 pandemic is causing enormous disruption to many parts of our lives – our health, our jobs, the economy, and our sense of security. It’s a devastating and global catastrophe. But one small silver lining is that it is creating a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to realise the environmental effect of our usual levels of human activity, and how quickly the natural world rebounds when we’re quarantined at home.
The spotlight in recent weeks has shifted back upon the palm oil industry. The negative connotations associated with the sector have continued to deepen, but there is a growing number of producers who offer a differentiated product, one made with a focus on sustainability. Worldwide, demand for the commodity has continued to rise which brings nations and climate activists to a crossroad, wondering whether sustainable palm oil can be produced whilst fighting climate change.
The European Green Deal
The ambitious climate mission led by Ursula von der Leyen is starting to gather steam. Europe wants to be the front-runner in climate friendly industries and clean technologies. The policy package comprises of measures to tackle climate and environmental-related challenges through a resource-efficient and competitive economy. The overarching objective of this European project is to become the first carbon neutral continent by 2050 all whilst being the second largest consumer market globally. In order to attain this goal, by 2030 GHG emissions need to be cut by 50-55% of 1990 levels, the figure previously stood at 40%.
“Flygskam”, a new expression in Swedish, refers to the movement that originated in Sweden last year. It literally translates as ‘flight shame’ and is used to encourage people to shift towards more sustainable transportation options. It’s also given birth to another concept – ‘tagskryt’ or ‘train brag’.
The environmental footprint of the shipping industry
As it’s often the cheapest form of transportation, more than 90% of all world goods, from raw materials to finished products, are carried by sea. Spurred by worldwide population growth and increasing globalisation, global trade has grown by 85% in the last 18 years. The shipping industry merchant fleet has grown to c.100,000 vessels producing an estimated 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions annually. According to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the UN agency responsible for the safety and security of the shipping industry, emissions will increase between 50 and 250% by 2050 under a business-as-usual scenario, if no drastic measures are taken.
Global deforestation is at a very high level, losing five million hectares a year or the equivalent of 15 football pitches of forest every minute. The election of the new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in January led to a rapid reacceleration in Brazil; the Brazilian Space Agency found that deforestation had increased by 88% in June this year relative to last. In the past forty years, the Amazon rainforest has lost about 18% of its territory.
The US and Climate Change
While the European Union signals increasing ambition to curb carbon emissions, the common perception is that momentum in the US market is in the opposite direction. While the ambitions of the Trump administration have been to cut back environmental regulation, there are reasons to believe these reversals may be stalled. Factors to consider in the US market include:
The rise of the carbon price in Europe
The election of Ursula von der Leyen as the Head of the European Commission adds to momentum behind carbon emission reduction appetite in the EU. She promised a “European Green deal within the first 100 days of its mandate”. Objective: to make the European Union “the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050”. She confirmed her support for a CO2 emissions reduction target of 50-55% in 2030 compared to the 40% currently agreed, and she is considering a carbon tax at the borders, a proposal supported by France since 2009 but fiercely rejected by Germany whose industry is a major exporter. The new President also mentioned her willingness to extend the European carbon market (the EU-ETS) to construction, road transport and maritime transport sectors.
The Circular Economy
In Geneva last month 180 countries agreed to limit the export of used plastics worldwide, in practice by requiring the agreement of the receiving state before export. For decades developed countries have been exporting plastic and toxic waste to Asia, claiming it will be recycled but in reality a significant proportion of it was buried due to contamination, incinerated or found on the ocean floor.
The European Green Wave
The environment may have been the real winner of the European elections last week.
Overall the centre has been squeezed, resulting in a high degree of fragmentation: populist parties won in Italy, the United Kingdom and France while voters were also seen to swing from the centre to the Greens and Liberals. 69 Green Party MEPs were voted into the European Parliament, a growth of 40% since the last election and to a 9% position. This has secured enough seats to make itself a valuable partner in any pro-EU functioning coalition.