Was Greta Thunberg's venturing into uncharted (Indian) territory warranted?

Have you heard the phrases, circadian rhythm and heliotropism? These phrases are the scientific terminologies to describe the behaviour of a sunflower on the farm

Rajendra Shende Feb 05, 2021

Have you heard the phrases, circadian rhythm and heliotropism? These phrases are the scientific terminologies to describe the behaviour of a sunflower on the farm. Sunflower always turns facing the direction where there is the sun.  Greta Thunberg, who turned 18 just about a month back on January 3, 2021, really looks like a nice little sunflower. Her head turns where there is a flash of light. Media, like bees and insects that swarm around the sunflower, get super-frenzy and are attracted with camera-flashing around this Swedish environmental activist.

No one can doubt the passion of Thunberg for campaigning for super-urgent actions on climate change. She didn’t care for scolding by her school teachers when she bunked the classes and stood outside the school with placard of  ‘Friday for Future’ and ‘strike for climate’ slogans. She, however, regularly admonished world leaders from the podium of the United Nations platforms for not doing their homework. World leaders, tired of the embellished and ornate speeches of their colleagues, found her scolding amusing. They heard her while hiding their smiles. The media too, weary of cyclic reporting on climate change, took to her sunflowery face and non-conventional rebukes to heads of the states in the UN conferences. They further highlighted and headlined their article by using phrases from her speeches “how dare you..” and reported about her continuously.

After all, asking the young generation to speak in the UN right at the beginning of conferences has been the practice for quite a long time now particularly in the multilateral environmental conferences that have difficult agenda and unsuccessful track-record. Thunberg is just a newly-found Scandinavian face for climate change meetings with a smart tactical voice. 

Addicted to heliotropism, Thunberg’s penchant for camera-flash has, however, proved to be absurd. Turn the page backward to the year 2019. United Nations climate change conference-COP25-was originally planned to be held in Santiago Chile in December 2019. However, at short notice, it was declared that COP25 would move to Madrid, Spain because of massive country-wide unrest in Chile.  

The unrest in Chile had its roots in the rising fair of the city metro, but civil protests by millions of citizens spread fast, as it was fuelled by the increased cost of living, privatisation, and inequality in the country. The Chilean economy was declining for a long time. Many attribute the unrest indirectly to climate change that has a ripple effect on the economy. But Thunberg did not utter a word about those protests and created a scene that allowed focus and camera on her. She was in the USA at that time and refused to fly to Madrid for COP25 as air travel meant carbon emissions. So she took a ride across the Atlantic Ocean in a yacht. In reality, air travel emission is hardly 2.5 percent of the global emissions. But she played a stunt with flash and heliotropism in mind. She also gave her typical official message to the media when she started from the USA. "My message to the Americans is the same as to everyone – that is to unite behind the science and to act on the science.” Well, the message is right but given in the wrong circumstances. She had the opportunity to send a message to the Chilean government by supporting the protesting citizens of Chile and signaling to the world that the root cause of the unrest is hidden in climate change! 

Thunberg arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, and then to Madrid by train. No one asked about emissions due to the train journey. After all her journey in the yacht was just symbolic, right? She declared in Madrid that her campaign of ‘Friday for Future’ has achieved nothing. The Green House Gas (GHG) Emissions globally increased by four percent since 2015, when she turned 12 and want to do ‘something’ for climate change! As she grew, it is not known on how many occasions she used Twitter to condemn the violence in Syria, Afghanistan, France, Russia, Belarus, Hong Kong, and China. But now that she is fully in heliotropism and enjoying the media attention, she would certainly indulge in that. 

Not done her homework 

Thunberg has probably forgotten that the reason for the continued rise of GHGs lies in the way rich countries, including Sweden and Norway function. Clearly, she had not done her homework well and did not get reprimanded when she did not attend school. 

The latest rankings of the countries as per the level of implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement, done by CCPI -Climate Change Performance Index - shows that India for the second time in succession was within the first 10 countries. And Sweden and Norway too! 

Rightly, Sweden, as well as Norway, has been within first 10 ranks as regards reduction in the emissions and use of non-fossil fuel technologies. But there are ‘emission leakages’ that are not evident. Thunberg could have raised this issue in her own home country and close neighbour and could have succeeded in sealing these leaks to prove to the world that her ‘Friday for Future’ is not just about strikes but to achieve the notable emission reduction.

A report, released about a year back by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation stated that the Swedish government annually offered export credits worth millions of dollars to fossil fuel operations abroad. The intention is to promote Sweden’s export industry. In 2018, the Swedish government’s gross lending for such purpose including for fossil fuel-dependent infrastructure abroad was hefty USD 2 billion.  The Swedish government-backed export credit system runs counter to the Paris Climate Agreement. The Swedish government’s ambition to make Sweden the world’s first fossil-free welfare state sounds perforated with invisible leaks. Apart from negative impacts on environments and on populations in the countries abroad, such credits also risk a lock-in to inefficient, fossil fuel-reliant technologies in the importing countries.

She could have focused on closer home 

Thunberg could have first asked the question ‘how dare you’ with her own government and should not have interfered in the sovereignty of other countries and sing the tunes of unrelated matters to attract media attention. She could have got some credibility if she has made Sweden give up such a credit system that contributes to major investments in fossil fuel projects abroad. 

Norway is the neighbour of Sweden. Norway is known to have ambitions of transforming all new cars sold in the country to electric cars by 2025. But Norway’s massive ‘electric ambition’ does not mean that it is becoming a non-fossil fuel country. Experts observe a striking contradiction in Norway’s climate policy. Norway wants to be off the fossil fuels, however, it will remain a huge oil producer, nearly all of it is for export. This situation makes Norway carbon-neutral at home, but carbon positive abroad. It is like pushing the pollution abroad by exporting the waste. It has been reported that armed with the state subsidies, the Norwegian oil company Statoil is exploring the gas and oil fields in the Arctic, again all for export. 

Thunberg can focus her boundless energy to work on these contradictions in her neighbourhood first that makes developing countries carbon-positive. Stockholm Institute of Environment in Sweden, her home, found that emissions from Norway’s oil exports in 2021 will be 10 times as much as Norway’s domestic carbon emissions. Clearly, Thunberg needs some school holidays to meditate on these dilemmas. 

Greta can play a more positive role 

Thunberg has entered into uncharted and unknown territory by resorting to recent Twitter exchanges about India’s protesting farmers. In reality, the Indian government, engaged in well-recognised and tireless efforts to address climate change, has already given the concession to farmers on their demands of allowing to burn agricultural residue in Punjab and Haryana, which contributes to deadly air pollution and 1.7 million deaths in India as per Lancet report of 2020. This figure is much more than the deaths so far caused in India by COVID-19. Water availability is another issue as the underground water is pumped-up for unsustainable agriculture. Thunberg and Sweden can play a role in making farmers aware of their environmentally damaging practices 

Let us wish that Thunberg matures soon. It is interesting to note, and not many are aware that when sunflower matures, its circadian rhythm and heliotropism decreases. Let then her energy be used at the right place for the right cause at the right time to mitigate climate change and not get diverted in seeking media attention.

(The writer is Chairman TERRE Policy Centre and former Director UNEP. The views are personal. www.rajendrashende.com/www.rajendrashende.blog)

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