Can the United Nations put out the fires?

Published : 24 Sep 2019 04:39 PM | Updated : 05 Sep 2020 03:08 PM

Vinod Thomas

The world is facing a climate calamity that is being aggravated by the wholesale burning of tropical forests. A solution is desperately needed to avoid an irreversible catastrophe that will have repercussions in Asia and every other region. The United Nations must take action on this issue. At the country level, especially the biggest carbon emitters — China, the United States, India, Russia and Japan — must decarbonize their economies. The perpetrators of massive deforestation — Brazil, Indonesia, Russia — must change course.

Group of Seven leaders, who held their summit last month in Biarritz, France, while swathes of the Amazon rainforest were ablaze, failed to act on the fate of the world’s forests that, as the U.N. puts it, have an “unparalleled capacity to absorb and store carbon.”

As the architect of the Paris climate agreement and with its expertise on forestry, the U.N. should put these massive forest fires at the top of the agenda at the General Assembly and produce an actionable resolution.

Japan must make its voice heard on this emergency. It is a signatory to the Paris accord. Positive is the emergence of a target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 90 percent below 2010 levels by 2050 for new passenger vehicles. But the country’s coal plant construction plans remain a major concern, as one projection sees a third of Japan’s electricity in 2030 coming from coal, which would be inconsistent with keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Carbon dioxide emissions in the air have risen to 415 parts per million globally, as China, the U.S. and India burned more fossil fuels over the past three years. As a result temperatures, including in Japan, have reached a boiling point.

Add to this picture the huge, man-made fires in the remaining forests in Indonesia’s Kalimantan and Sumatra islands, and in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, fires in Siberia and blazes even in Alaska. Aggravated by global warming, forests suffered their worst losses in recorded history in the past 

three years. 

Related, the U.N.’s findings indicate that 1 million species of plants and animals face extinction.

Every year for the past quarter of a century, large tracts of forest in Indonesia have been burned to make way for palm oil and paper and pulp plantation. The resulting pollution and haze have caused health problems and disrupted schools not only in Indonesia but also Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore.

Indonesia’s rampant corruption feed the destructive agricultural practices. President Joko Widodo had warned senior police and army officers that they would be fired if they failed to prevent forest fires. He should make good on that promise. Russian authorities’ slow response in Siberia allowed the fires to engulf a larger area.

The Amazon rainforest has faced fires set by illegal loggers and cattle ranchers year after year, but 2019 is setting a record. It is unacceptable that Brazil’s forest clearing was driven by President Jair Bolsonaro’s affirmative goal of deforestation in the name of economic growth, a baseless premise as previous periods of high deforestation 

never coincided with high economic growth.

This resulting mayhem cannot be viewed as purely a country matter, as Brazil’s president has claimed. When neighbors’ health and well-being are endangered, as in Southeast Asia from the Indonesian fires and likely for South American neighbors from Brazil’s fires, burning one’s own forests is not just a domestic affair. The U.N. must label it a crime against humanity.

Moreover, the U.N.’s Inter­governmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed the vital role that reversing deforestation can have in keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees. The U.N.’s environment, development and agriculture chiefs note in a joint statement that reversing deforestation could provide 30 percent of the climate solution. But to see these benefits, the U.N. together with multilateral and bilateral development banks must extend vast compensatory financing for countries protecting forests.

Critically missing is the leadership of the U.S., the largest carbon emitter per capita. The U.N. Security Council should submit a proposition calling for America’s re-engagement in the Paris accord. The world is paying a steep price for U.S. President Donald Trump’s anti-ecological stance, which in turn is providing a knock-on effect in Brazil, Indonesia and others. This alone should be reason to shun at the polls everywhere candidates who endanger the environment.

The odds of the U.N. delivering on a global emergency are usually not great. But this time could be different because forestry and climate change are the U.N.’s niche, and because many leaders, including in Japan, realize that the climate catastrophe is no longer a threat that is over the horizon. These leaders must press Brazil, Indonesia and Russia to put out their raging fires and put an end to rampant deforestation.

Vinod Thomas is a former senior vice president of the World BanK