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In the wake of recent flooding in Europe, the death toll has catastrophically and tragically reached 180 after floods tore through Western Germany and Belgium in mid-July 2021. Scientists have demonstrably attributed the unimaginable severity of the recent flooding to climate change, and politicians appear to agree. The Interior Minister of Germany, Horst Seehofer, said the country “must prepare much better”, adding that “this is a consequence of climate change”. Both argue that the extreme weather cannot be attributed to any usual hot, wet summer, considering the 24-hour rainfall at Cologne’s Stammheim station on Wednesday of 155mm (6.1in), which smashed the city’s previous daily rainfall high of 95mm, and the fact that the seven hottest-recorded years have occurred since 2014. As Jonathan Watts stated in the Guardian: “These numbers are outside worst-case scenarios”.
In an interview following the flood in Arloff, Germany, one victim was quoted crying: “You don’t expect people to die in a flood in Germany”. She continued, “You expect it maybe in poor countries, but you don’t expect it here”. Though clearly traumatized, this person’s idea of the location of climate change, unfortunately, echoes the voices of much of European governance. Climate change is systematically placed and scapegoated on ‘poor’ countries. An argument against this would suggest you might expect a more capable response to climate disasters, embedded in infrastructure, in developed countries, or expect fewer disasters due to the milder climate of many European countries. However, following the floods in Germany, the Greens Candidate for Chancellor admitted “ambitious climate protection” measures to be the last of the three steps required to address the situation. Centralizing the country’s disaster management system and adjusting the design of German cities and waterways to prepare for future floods, she insisted, were of “equal importance”. Due to the increase in severe flooding, not just in Germany and Belgium, but also in the Netherlands and England (where in London the monthly average rainfall fell in 24 hours on the 12th July 2021), infrastructure continues to be unprepared, responses fail to save lives and property, and the title of ‘mild weather’ loses its veracity.
This article will focus primarily on the EU, Schengen countries, and the UK’s climate responsibility, in comparison to the rest of the world. According to the above chart, Germany, Poland, Italy, France, and the UK make up a collective 6% of total global CO2 emissions, whilst making up 4.05% of the world’s population. In comparison, developing countries are responsible for 63% of total global emissions, whilst making up 80% of the world’s population. As well as considering these empirical imbalances in global emissions compared to population share, this article would also like to draw attention to the widely debated scholarship on climate responsibility. There are undeniable historical imbalances when we consider the formation of the Anthropocene. Due to European colonialism, the innovation and progress that the Industrial Revolution brought to many European nations were obstructed from ex-colonies in the name of European development, and these now make up the vast majority of developing countries. The development of green technologies is a long way away from those who “lack access to a steady, clean electricity supply and instead use high-emission diesel generators to generate electricity”.
Despite its scholarly importance, this article believes climate progress will not be made by the individual, but by addressing the real issue: the 20 firms behind a third of all global emissions. Twelve of these firms are state-owned by nations outside of Europe, however, the following firms are owned by European investors:
- Royal Dutch Shell (Shell) – owned by British and Dutch investors
- BP – British owned
- TotalEnergies (Total SA) – French owned
These 20 firms have contributed to an inconceivable amount of emissions (35% or 480 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane since 1965) and these three firms, all entirely European-owned, have contributed 78.3 billion tonnes, approximately 5.7% of total global emissions since 1965, from countries that make up 1.93% of the world’s population.
In light of this, we look at the recent climate promises made by the G7 in Cornwall, 2021. [The G7 includes the nations of the UK, Germany, France, Italy, the US, China, and Canada, as well as a representative from the EU, President Ursula von der Leyen; the group makes up 60% of global net wealth].
- The G7 nations agreed to step up action on climate change and renewed a pledge to raise $100bn a year to help poor countries cut emissions.
The $100 billion pledge makes up a total of 0.03% of the total wealth of the G7 nations, and according to Caroline Lucas, Leader of the English Green Party, the nations which were promised this amount “have been waiting for richer nations to deliver on [the] pledge made more than 10 years ago of $100 billion a year in climate finance.” Furthermore, according to Teresa Anderson of Action Aid, the little financial support provided so far to developing countries “has been in the form of loans, which are pushing vulnerable countries further into debt and poverty.”
- G7 leaders also promised to help developing countries move away from coal. The G7 will end the funding of new coal generation in developing countries and offer up to £2bn ($2.8bn) to stop using the fuel.
This promise falls flat in consideration of the empirical and socio-political imbalances already stated in this article, which would argue developed countries use more non-renewable energy per person than developing countries do.
Furthermore, we can consider the other top 20 firms that are owned by non-European G7 leaders. The graph below shows that an enormous amount of the total percentage of global emissions since 1965 are produced within the G7, a fact that puts a significant proportion of responsibility on the nations of the G7 to control their own citizens first and foremost. Whether these nations are completely submissive to the investors they are meant to govern, or they are instead in some way benefiting from the continuation of these firms’ rampant emissions production, is a question yet to be answered.
|Company||Country of Investors/State-Ownership||Total % Share of Emissions When Compared to Top 20 Firms||Total % Share of Global Emissions Since 1965|
|Chevron||US – private||9.03%||3.25%|
|ExxonMobil||US – private||8.73%||3.06%|
|BP||Britain – private||7.09%||2.48%|
|Royal Dutch Shell||Netherlands, Britain – private||6.66%||2.33%|
|PetroChina||China – state||3.26%||1.14%|
|Peabody Energy||US – private||3.21%||1.12%|
|ConocoPhillips||US – private||3.17%||1.11%|
|Total SA||France – private||2.57%||0.90%|
Further promises included:
- The G7 commited to keeping the projected global temperature rise to 1.5C.
- The leaders committed to a “green revolution” that would limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5C.
- They also promised to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, halve emissions by 2030, and to conserve or protect at least 30% of land and oceans by 2030.
[G7 promises source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-57461670]
Anderson was disappointed with the G7’s green promises stating, “The G7’s reaffirmation of the previous $100 billion a year target doesn’t come close to addressing the urgency and scale of the crisis.” It is difficult to not fall under the doom and gloom statistics that seem to increasingly warn us that we are missing our opportunity to reverse climate change, or that we have long missed it altogether. However, it is clear that there is a real need for pressure on European and other developed governments to offer far more substantial action, whether this means addressing the 20 firms who have produced more emissions than any individual country, or improving infrastructure to deal with the inevitable increase in extreme temperatures, flooding, and disaster as we are expecting with current trends.
- Does climate responsibility lie with the individual or with governments?
- If developed countries were to change their behaviour first, rejecting fossil fuels, would developing countries follow?
- Are governments being restricted by the needs or desires of investors in their countries, and how does this affect their democratic faculty?