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Accountability for fossil fuel industry: Path to climate justice

Update: 2016-10-01 10:49:30
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DHAKA: Global warming is happening and the primary cause of this change in climate is due to human induced greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Today, global warming has already started to effect changes in our environment. It is evident that the situation will only aggravate if the temperature of the planet keeps rising.

The principles of global warming have been deep seated over years. However, the idea of human’s role in climate change came into being during the late 1800s.

A report published by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) states that it was not until 1988 when the science of global warming made headlines on the news, after James Hansen, a leading climate scientist and director of the Institute for Space Studies at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, testified before Congress about anthropogenic climate change from burning fossil fuels.

Thus, the year 1988 is considered as a break through for scientific facts regarding climate change. It is evidenced that greenhouse gas emission started to have impact on climate within few decades from the use of fossil fuels for generating power.

It will only be surprising if the industries involved in burning fossil fuels were unaware of global warming resulting from greenhouse gas emissions. So, the question arises, did the fossil fuel companies already knew about global warming from carbon emissions?

The UCS report indicates that the major fossil fuel companies were in fact well aware of greenhouse effect from as early as 1977. The report also found evidences of the fossil fuel companies like BP, ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, Chevron and Shell attending meetings whose primary purpose was to identify carbon emissions influence on greenhouse effect.

Nevertheless, these companies have purposefully kept it as a secret and spread climate disinformation for many years like the tobacco industries did to mislead people about the side effects of tobacco.

Peer-reviewed research published in by the science journal Climatic Change indicates 90 companies are responsible for two-thirds of total global carbon pollution, and five companies — Chevron, Exxon, BP, Shell and Conoco Phillips — have emitted 12.5% of total global emissions.

These companies have been making profits over many decades with continuous denial and creating confusion in the minds of people.

The fossil fuel giants have been running business like this for so long without any guilt even after their own scientists agreed with the mainstream scientific consensus of rising global temperature from burning fossil fuels.

It is time they are held accountable and paid for the damages they have caused.
The recent California bill seeking accountability from fossil fuel companies for climate science deception this year and last year’s investigation of Exxon Mobil by the New York attorney general to bring forth the company’s deception in the light are considered as milestone towards holding fossil fuel companies legally responsible for the years of deception and damages they have caused to public health, property and the environment.

In addition to the California Bill and the New York investigation, this July the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines has added momentum to the ongoing movement against fossil fuel companies through indicting 47 ‘carbon majors’’ including Shell, BP, Chevron, BHP Billiton and Anglo American of infringing people’s fundamental rights.

The complaint argues that the companies should be held accountable for the effects of their greenhouse gas emissions in the country and demands that they clarify how human rights violations resulting from climate change will be “eliminated, remedied and prevented’”.

It is certain that we must hold the fossil fuel giants responsible for the damages and part our ways through divesting (removal of investment assets including stocks, bonds, and investment funds from companies involved in extracting fossil fuels, in an attempt to reduce climate change) from companies who have been actively denying to accept their involvement in the expansion of greenhouse effect.

Nevertheless, it is also important that we make them pay and have them cut down greenhouse gas emissions. From extraction to distribution the entire supply chain of fossil fuels have been producing massive negative externality by triggering long-term effects of climate change (mass migration, falling crop yields, loss of biodiversity etc.) and endangering public health as well. So, how do we put price on pollution and make the fossil fuel companies pay?

There are two very well established policies that adhere to the ‘polluters pay principle’ to reduce carbon emission.

According to economists, a reduction in carbon emissions can be carried out through either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade approach.

A carbon tax is a fee-aimed to make fossil fuel companies pay for climate damage their fuel use causes by discharging carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and also to persuade a shift to cleaner energy.

In a carbon tax the quantity of pollution depends on the level of tax determined. A firm will have the incentive to reduce carbon emission as long as doing so would cost less than paying tax. Sweden has been using carbon tax to reduce greenhouse gas emissions since 1991.

According to an estimation by the Swedish Ministry of Environment, carbon tax has cut emissions by an additional 20%, allowing the country to succeed its target under the Kyoto Protocol.

In a cap-and-trade policy, government puts a firm limit, or cap, on the overall level of carbon pollution from industry and reduces that cap year after year to reach a set pollution target. The pollution quota is set and distributed through fair auction regulated by the government.

The European Union has a cap-and-trade system since 2005 to cut down greenhouse gas emissions from about 10,000 big industrial polluters.

By adopting either a tax on carbon or a cap-and-trade policy we can make the fossil fuel companies pay for the pollution and at the same time limit global warming through putting price on carbon emissions.

Most importantly, it is necessary that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate change device a suitable mechanism just how it was done by the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control of the World Health Organisation, to hold the tobacco industry liable for the health damages they caused and pay for it.

Hence, by holding fossil fuel industries legally and financially accountable for the damages they have created, we can switch to a cleaner and greener future.

Writer: Shaila Mahmud, email: [email protected]

BDST: 2038 HRS, OCT 01, 2016

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