World

US to formally leave Paris climate agreement. Australia joins trade pact but Narendra Modi declines. Daesh attacks continue in Africa. Delhi closes schools and restricts car use over smog. By Jonathan Pearlman.

India’s PM rejects East Asia trade pact

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (centre) with Asian leaders during a photo opportunity at the 14th East Asia Summit in Bangkok on Monday.
Credit: AAP IMAGE / LUKAS COCH

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

United States: Donald Trump moved to formally withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement on Monday – the earliest date he could do so under the terms of the deal. It will leave the US as the only country in the world that is not taking part in the agreement.

America’s withdrawal will take effect on the day after the 2020 presidential election. Former vice-president Al Gore observed on Twitter: “It takes just 30 days for a new President to get us back in. This decision is in the hands of the voters.”

Trump has wound back many environmental measures during his presidency, including lifting restrictions on offshore drilling, logging and development of oil and gas pipelines. Despite his promise to save the coal industry, the sector has been in sharp decline and has been unable to compete with lower oil, gas and renewable energy costs.

But the US is still not on track to meet its Paris commitment, which involved cutting carbon emissions by 26 to 28 per cent, compared with 2005 levels, by 2025. The White House said this week the commitment placed an “unfair economic burden” on Americans.

On Wednesday, 11,000 scientists from 153 countries published a joint statement on climate change, warning it could irreversibly disrupt ecosystems, society and economies, and make “large areas of Earth uninhabitable”. The statement, published in the journal BioScience, urged countries to adopt a range of measures, including imposing a price on carbon, stabilising and reducing populations, protecting forests and reducing consumption of meat.

The scientists declared a climate emergency, echoing similar declarations by countries such as Britain, France and Canada, and by dozens of local councils in Australia. Such declarations are symbolic but are seen as a commitment to act. Last month, the Coalition rejected a push by the Greens, which Labor supported, to issue an Australian declaration. Angus Taylor, who is minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, described the call as “hollow symbolism”.

The scientists said in their statement: “Greenhouse gas emissions are still rapidly rising ... An immense increase of scale in endeavours to conserve our biosphere is needed to avoid untold suffering.”

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Thailand: Sixteen leaders from across the Asia-Pacific region met in Bangkok this week to try to seal the world’s biggest trade deal, which was due to cover half the world’s population. The deal was also seen as an opportunity to collectively reject Trump’s embrace of protectionism and his hostility towards international agreements.

On Monday, however, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi confirmed his country would not be joining the pact, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The other 15 signatories, including China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, will finalise the agreement next November.

Modi did not explain his decision but has long believed trade deals do not work in India’s favour and have led to wider trade deficits. In particular, he fears RCEP could result in India being further swamped by Chinese imports.

Despite his pro-trade rhetoric, Modi has increased tariffs, particularly as part of his “Make in India” campaign to boost local manufacturing.

Still, even without India, RCEP covers 29 per cent of the global economy and will help to promote trade in South-East Asia, where barriers can be high. Scott Morrison said he would have preferred the deal to include India and the remaining members would keep a “very wide, open door”, in case Modi changes his mind.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Mali: At noon on November 1, a group of Islamic extremists on motorcycles rode to a remote military outpost in Mali and launched a carefully planned three-pronged attack, which left at least 53 soldiers dead. The attack was later claimed by Daesh. It came just five weeks after a separate strike by Islamic extremists that left at least 40 soldiers dead.

On Monday, Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, warned the “stability and existence of our country are at stake”. More than 1600 people have been killed in fighting this year.

The attack in Mali, near the border with Niger, was a reminder that various parts of Africa remain under threat from Daesh and its affiliates, even after the death in Syria of the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a fortnight ago. In recent years, the group has built ties with Islamic militants across Africa as it gradually lost territory in Iraq and Syria.

Following al-Baghdadi’s death, Daesh released an audio message saying it had appointed a new leader and was committed to strengthening its position in Europe and central Africa.

Islamic militarism in regions of Africa, such as the Sahel and the Sahara, is often motivated by local grievances and tensions, which are exacerbated by poverty, ethnic and tribal rivalries and weak governance.

According to a report published this week by Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, al-Baghdadi’s death will not prevent assaults by Daesh affiliates. It said an estimated 10,000 people from North Africa alone had travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for Daesh.

“The physical caliphate no longer exists, but there is a virtual one defined by an ideology that transcends time and geographical space,” the report said.

SPOTLIGHT: Indian smog

The entire city of Delhi, which has a population of more than 20 million, was declared a health hazard this week as air quality reached new lows. On Monday, the amount of air pollution was almost 25 times the World Health Organization’s safe daily maximum. Estimates now suggest the harm of breathing the city’s air is equivalent to smoking 40 to 50 cigarettes a day.

For days, Delhi was covered by a thick suffocating smog, which prompted authorities to close schools, divert flights, halt construction works, distribute face masks and restrict the use of cars. The chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, described the region as a “gas chamber”. In a typical account, student Ankusha Kushi told an AFP reporter: “I have a headache every day I wake up. It’s suffocating to breathe sometimes. And inflammation in the nostrils and all. And eyes also. Like, it kind of burns.”

The recent increase in pollution was blamed on car fumes, rubbish burning, industrial emissions and the burning of leftover crops by farmers clearing land in surrounding areas. Despite these causes being well known and largely avoidable, politicians have been notoriously reluctant to act.

The Supreme Court of India this week delivered a devastating rebuke to local and state authorities, saying their inaction was tantamount to “asking people to die”. “No one is safe even inside homes,” the court said. “It is atrocious.” The court ordered surrounding states to present a plan to restrict crop burning, which contributes an estimated 46 per cent of the pollution.

Delhi is only India’s eighth-most polluted city. A report last year by the firm IQAir and Greenpeace found seven of the world’s most polluted cities are in India. The worst-ranked was Gurugram, south-west of Delhi. Asked about this recently, Umesh Aggarwal, a state MP who represents the city, told the Mongabay website: “These reports are not correct …I don’t see any pollution here.” 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 9, 2019 as "India's PM rejects East Asia trade pact". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.