‘Self-regulation is destined to fail, we need an international regime,’ climate change expert says

International climate change expert Professor David Attard has issued a stark warning that unless the international community urgently sets up and empowers a global authority to protect the world’s climate and take action against environmental crime, the consequences could be devastating. Self regulation will not work, he insisted.

“You cannot base the protection of the global climate on market mechanisms and self-regulation. In my opinion, we should go back to the proposals of the late 1980s and establish an effective, enforceable international regime,” Attard, who is President of the International Chamber of Environmental Disputes, said when giving The Shift an exclusive comment about the latest climate change reports.

The Maltese professor, whose career as an academic, lawyer and tireless environmentalist spans across four decades, described the sixth version of the Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as ”both shocking and tragic”.

“In basic words, this (the IPCC) eminent body, of which I was a chairman of its Legal Committee for a number of years, has told humankind that even if we succeed in attaining the Paris goals, which is unlikely, we will still be too late,” Attard said, referring to the international treaty adopted by 196 countries in an attempt to limit temperature increases to below 2 degrees Celsius.

“It is my firm belief that self-regulation will fail,” he added.

Professor David Attard (Director, IMLI) and Mr. Ryo Kuroishi (First Secretary, Embassy of Japan in Italy), 25 January, 2016. Photo: IMO Facebook page

Attard proposes an international body with transnational powers that could, if necessary, override a state’s sovereignty when environmental crimes are committed in order to be able to enforce them effectively, an idea that was already around in the late 1980s when he was one of the first to manage to bring attention to the problem.

“Unless the international community establishes an institutional authority which will enforce the necessary measures to protect the climate we risk destabilizing the global ecological equilibrium which has taken nature millions of years to establish,” Attard said, referring to an article he had published at the time in a local law journal.

The article, published in ‘id-Dritt’, outlined difficulties faced by experts when pitching the idea at the United Nations’ General Assembly, refers to the issues faced by the experts at the time, the same issues being faced by world leaders today.

Published in 1989, the article penned by Attard reads: “A number of States strongly expressed the view that any effective decision-making mechanism could not depend on the achievement of consensus…the need for urgent solutions, they stressed, required prompt decision-taking”.

While many at the Assembly had agreed that such an institution was necessary, the specifics of the institution such as whether to create a new authority or empower an already existent one had proven a stumbling block that left the subject open to further discussion. Since then, no international regime with effective enforcement powers has been established.

Attard was one of the very first academics to sound the alarm on climate change back when the term was still within the domain of experts rather than the general public. The Declaration effectively outlined the same solution Attard still believes is relevant and necessary today.

Climate: ‘a prerequisite for human life’

Professor Attard, who is also a judge at the United Nations’ International Tribunal on the Sea, is one of the original, elite team of experts who were invited to secret negotiations at the Hague, the same negotiations that led to the Hague Declaration of 1989.

The Hague Declaration was one of many agreements signed or drafted around the time, all of which were meant to either allocate resources to obtain better understanding of the science behind climate change and its causes or create legal frameworks which were appropriate for dealing with the emerging issue.

The signatories of the Declaration had agreed to promote the idea of a global institution which would be empowered to make effective decisions, spread information and disseminate research, with its decisions being reinforced and if need be challenged through the International Court of Justice.

The institution would also have had financial and legal resources to ensure countries that did not have the resources to adapt would be compensated fairly and equitably.

The UN initiative which had been spearheaded by Attard and promoted by then prime minister Eddie Fenech Adami, later became known as the ‘Maltese initiative’. A key pushing point which both Attard and Fenech Adami had insisted on was to elicit agreement on climate change being defined as a “common concern of mankind”.

Representing the Maltese delegation at the Assembly, then foreign minister Ċensu Tabone had put it eloquently:

“The conservation of the global climate system is so essential and so vital to the very existence of human life that it cannot be left to individual states to unilaterally decide what, if at all, conservation measures should be taken. The fundamental human right to life, and the need to conserve climate as one of the prerequisites of human life, cannot be limited by political boundaries,” Tabone had stated.

So, who’s to blame?

In spite of warnings going back four decades, the IPCC’s ‘code-red’ report this year emphatically stated that the planet is basically set for a 1.5 degree Celsius increase in temperatures by 2030, 20 years sooner than expected.

Global warming, one of the major effects that is stimulating climate change, is largely due to increased greenhouse gas emissions which can be, in turn, largely attributed to fossil fuel producers. Fossil fuel producers have actively ensured the vacuum left behind by the international watchdog that never came to be would not be filled.

According to a ground-breaking study from 2017, the Carbon Majors Report had concluded that more than 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions were emitted from just 100 corporations, with ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron listed as the worst offenders.

Apart from being the worst offenders, major energy companies have been known to fund research that promotes industry talking points while actively burying research that pointed towards the need to stop the use of fossil fuels.

While observant scientists had already detected the problems caused by greenhouse gas emissions as early as 1954, ExxonMobil had essentially buried its own research proving climate change was a real, present issue in 1979.

According to a study that assessed Exxon’s communications on climate change between 1977 to 2014, just 12% of their adverts had acknowledged that climate change was real and caused by human beings, with the rest expressing doubt. 80% of Exxon’s internal documents did, in fact, acknowledge climate change.

When one turns to look at the other issues exacerbating climate change besides greenhouse gases, deforestation and illegal wildlife hunting fueled by organised crime and corruption play a major role in climate change. According to OCCRP, such activities make up the world’s fourth-largest black market.

Illegal land-grabbing and logging in Brazil, for example, has fueled around half of the Amazon’s total deforestation, with corrupt local authorities providing environmental permits to illicit trade.

Another major issue is the destruction of forest land (known for its ability to absorb one of the major greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide) for the purpose of agriculture and livestock farming, practices which have now reached unprecedented levels of activity.

Not only are both activities water-exhausting, they are also highly carbon-intensive, with demand for meat products bearing a particularly high carbon cost due to the emissions caused by livestock such as cows, which are thought to account for about 15% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to an IPCC special report from 2019, reduced meat consumption in favour of a plant-based diet, along with other major efforts to reduce food waste and produce food locally, would help cut down emissions significantly.


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Godfrey Leone Ganado
Godfrey Leone Ganado
2 years ago

Professor David Attard has always been an acknowledged world authority on the subject, and consulted by the Government of Dr Fenech Adami, as an academic and for no political motive.
This is the problem today, that political affiliations take priority over expertise in most spheres, and we obviously fail in achieving targets for our benefit, and the benefit of mankind.
I am just a no one on the subject, however I worry that, while we emphasise the importance of using public transport to reduce private vehicles, we create more marinas for an uncontrollable and questionable increase in yachts, to pollute our seas and the air, while we also promote more cruise ships to our ports, to collectively pollute much more than the much maligned ‘fabbrika tal-kancer’.
Self-regulation creates a culture of making money a top priority over climate, as a prerequisite to human life and our true well-being.
Well said Profs Attard, a person of undisputed repute for Malta.

David Gaeta
David Gaeta
2 years ago

In regard to Profs Attard remarkable investigation I can attest that their can be a vast improvement in Frn Policy that a climate change being a bigger ideal will move the political agenda from the far right to the moderate left which can produce better results in the “unilateral diaspora” hence the elimination of project cassandra.

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