The responsibility of saving the planet is on everyone
Li Yihao

Editor's note: Li Yihao is a doctoral student in urban development at Harvard University. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

As Australia's mega fire rages on for the fourth month, world leaders are gathering in Davos this week to discuss the burning question: how to save the planet from climate change? Speakers as ideologically opposed as Greta Thunberg and Donald Trump are sharing the spotlight on issues ranging from plastic pollution in the ocean to sustainable tourism.

It is increasingly clear that we are getting dangerously close to the 1.5 degree Celsius global temperature rise threshold, beyond which the world will likely see catastrophic impact from climate change. What is less clear is how many concrete actions will result from these global conferences. Just last month, parties at the United Nations climate conference in Madrid failed to agree on the global carbon market rules of the Paris Agreement.

Everyone seems to talk about the need for global cooperation on climate, but why is it so difficult to make progress? To make sense of the gap between rhetoric and action, it is worth reviewing the nature of the climate change challenge.

To successfully reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that's causing climate change, the whole world needs to do it together. This is because climate change is a "global commons" problem – the earth's atmosphere is like a giant dump of unwanted gases. Nobody owns it, everyone exploits it, yet no one has to pay (i.e. market failure of epic proportions).

Without some sort of global coordination between governments, everyone has an incentive to emit and no one has an incentive to stop. Even if one country somehow stops emitting, it will not stop others from emitting, and the non-emitting country will likely lose out economically vis-à-vis the rest. Therefore, any effective emissions reduction strategy has to be a global one, with broad participation by major emitters and robust monitoring and reporting requirements to prevent cheating or free-riding.

This is where the United Nations comes in. The United Nations Climate Change Conference (known formally as the Conference of the Parties, of COP) is the main inter-governmental mechanism to coordinate climate actions between countries.

But early UN climate conferences were plagued by finger-pointing. A central issue is climate justice between rich and poor countries. Because most of today's GHG stock in the atmosphere was emitted by rich countries, poor countries believe rich countries should cut more while poor countries should be allowed to develop their economies and lift people out of poverty.

On the other hand, some rich countries point to the emission levels of China and India and argue it is unfair to only commit rich countries to these targets. Complicating climate justice even further is the fact that the different speed of development between countries and their necessity for consuming resource.

Due in part to issues of climate justice, efforts to tackle climate change through global cooperation are repeatedly hampered by a major tradeoff: The most cost-effective solutions to climate change often fail to induce broad participation, but the solutions that can secure broad participation are not cost-effective enough to address the problem.

Take last month's climate negotiation in Madrid for example. Creating a global carbon market, long viewed as one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce GHG emissions, failed to secure meaningful participation because of domestic political opposition in some countries.

Given the impasse at the international level, it is easy to feel hopeless and powerless. But we are not. Collectively, we have much more power than many imagine.

As consumers, we have the power to buy energy-efficient lightbulbs, air-conditioners, and cars.

As shareholders, we have the power to press energy companies to stop gas flaring, fund managers to divest from fossil fuels, and palm oil companies to stop burning down rain forests.

As citizens, we have the voice and the strength to ask the government to committee to preserving the planet for the sake of our children.

To be sure, these changes will not be easy, but time is not on our side. If we learned anything from the past decades, the days in which we wait for national governments to act are over. It is time for us, the people, to take matters into our own hands.

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