The climate crisis needs a coordinated response from governments, community leaders and citizens. What is essential is a top-down approach from government leaders in the form of sensible policies that ideally tax carbon and place regulations on heavy-emitting industries to curb their environmental impact. Unfortunately, some world leaders haven’t gotten the memo on what environmental stewardship should look like. Here are 5 world leaders who are damaging the environment.
1. Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil)
It would be unjust to list Jair Bolsonaro anywhere other than top of the list of world leaders who are damaging the environment. As president of Brazil, which is home to the largest tropical rainforest on the planet, Bolsonaro has wreaked havoc on the Amazon basin. From incentivising farmers to slash and burn the Amazon, to reversing environmental legislation, and discarding land reserved for environmental tribes, Bolsonaro is sabotaging Brazil’s best asset. A new report illustrates that since the Bolsonaro administration was sworn into office on 1 January 2019, the annual rate of tree felling in Brazil has almost doubled. In the first year of his presidency alone, deforestation increased four-fold, rising from 1 million hectares in 2018 to 3.9 million by the end of 2019.
Such deforestation is fuelled by a deliberate lack of care and commitment under Bolsonaro’s government. They view environmental policies as obstacles for Brazil’s development, and so they set about ‘environmental dismantling’, removing environmental policies that were in place to protect the rainforest and tackle climate change. As a result, there is no federal effort to control deforestation, land is easier for businesses to exploit and violators are rarely punished. Over two years into Bolsonaro’s tyranny the statistics continue to get worse. In the first four months of 2021, approximately 433 000 acres of the pristine lush rainforest in the Brazilian Amazon were logged or burned, hitting a record 42.5% on-year rise in April.
Recently, Bolsonaro may have gained favour as he pledged to double the budget for environmental enforcement and committed to net zero deforestation by 2030 under pressure from the Biden administration. However, less than 24 hours later, Bolsonaro signed off on the 2021 federal budget that included a 24% cut to the environment budget compared to the previous year. It is shocking, but hardly unexpected for Bolsonaro.
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2. Justin Trudeau (Canada)
In the words of Greta Thunberg, the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, is “obviously not doing enough” on climate change. The data backs this up; Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase year on year, bucking the trend seen in many other developed nations. Canada does not have a reputation for damaging the environment, primarily because Trudeau repeatedly says the right things, and scores so highly on other issues surrounding immigration and women in government. Yet when it comes to the defining issue of our day, climate change, Trudeau comes up short.
In June 2019 the Canadian government declared a climate emergency, yet the next day it approved a new oil pipeline project. Trudeau’s government has continued to push oil and gas pipelines, specifically from Alberta’s tar sands. This is labelled as one of the greatest climate disasters on the planet as the oil lies under pristine boreal forest and peat bogs housing wildlife and indigenous people. In 2017 Trudeau got a standing ovation for saying “no country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.” This figure is the estimate for recoverable oil in Alberta’s tar sands, meaning that if Canada extracts all this oil and sells it to the world to burn, it will produce 30% of the carbon necessary to take us past the 1.5°C target in the Paris Accord.
In April, at President Biden’s Leaders’ Summit on Climate, Canada’s new target of reducing emissions by between 40% and 45% of 2005 levels by 2030 falls short of both the USA’s and UK’s targets. Trudeau has also set this new target despite missing previous targets.
3. Scott Morrison (Australia)
The current Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, has continued to fuel the devastation of Australia’s unique environment. As a highly coal-dependent economy, it comes as no surprise that Australia has one of the highest per capita greenhouse emission rates on the planet. Last year, the Climate Change Performance Index ranked Australia last of 57 countries for its climate policy. Morrison’s government has failed to clarify how it will meet the country’s insufficient 2030 emission reduction target and issued no long-term mitigation strategy. Furthermore, the government continues to promote the expansion of fossil fuels, has dismissed recent IPCC reports, withdrew funding for the Green Climate Fund, and did not attend last year’s critical UN Climate Action Summit.
In 2017, Morrison famously addressed the House of Representatives while holding a lump of coal, stating. “This is coal. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you.” Morrison failed to realise that air pollution, caused by the burning of coal and oil, was responsible for 8.7m deaths globally in 2018. Fossil fuels, like coal, are the key driving force behind rising global temperatures which have exacerbated drought, thus increasing both the intensity and frequency of Australia’s bushfires. The 2019-20 bushfire season was the worst on record, killing or displacing nearly three billion animals. Morrison refused to attribute climate change to the devastating fires, even though 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year in history.
4. Vladimir Putin (Russia)
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is a renowned climate sceptic. For decades, Putin has repeatedly denied the scientific consensus that climate change is primarily caused by human activity, blaming it on some “processes in the universe.” He has called Greta Thunberg an “uninformed, impressionable teenager possibly being used in someone’s interests,” voiced scepticism about renewable energy, and expressed alarm at the danger of turbines to worms, causing them to “come out of the ground” by vibrating.
Therefore it does not seem surprising that Putin’s government has recently failed to improve Russia’s insufficient 2030 emissions target, with it currently in line with warming of 4°C. Russia is the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, so the country’s role in international climate politics is of particular consequence. However, state support for environmental protection does not exist in Russia, environmental spending is low and there has been little policy reform to help Russia address its serious environmental problems.
It is disappointing that Putin holds such little regard for the environment, especially since Russia is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change. Two-thirds of Russian territory is located on permafrost, which is rapidly thawing due to increasing temperatures. This is threatening the infrastructure built on it, including the two million people who live in Russia’s Arctic cities and the 200 000 kilometres of oil and gas pipelines. Recent floods and wildfires have been among the planet’s worst climate-related disasters. Only last summer an area north of Russia’s Arctic circle reached a phenomenal 38°C, over 100°C warmer than the record low temperature of -68°C that was set in the 1990s.
5. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey)
In the 18 years that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has led Turkey, little has been achieved to protect both the environment and climate. More than six years after the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015, Turkey is one of just six countries in the world, and the only G20 country, that has not ratified the agreement. By not being legally bound to the agreement, it signifies the country does not intend to pursue efforts to limit global temperatures to 1.5°C. This is deeply worrying as there has been a 190% increase in greenhouse gas emissions in Turkey since 1990, exacerbated by the country’s dependence on coal, oil and gas industries.
Erdoğan’s government has not implemented a coal phase-out policy, despite fossil fuels accounting for a third of the country’s greenhouse gases. In fact, the government is pushing forward with plans to double its coal power capacity and continues to heavily subsidise the industry. This is despite the fact that air pollution is responsible for almost 5 000 premature deaths, 26 500 cases of bronchitis in children and more than 3 000 preterm births in Turkey per year, alongside a plethora of additional negative environmental impacts.
To give credit where credit is due, Erdoğan’s government has invested heavily in renewable energy, with almost 63% of their electricity coming from renewables in 2020. Yet this ambition does not extend to the natural environment. Erdoğan is notorious for not letting nature get in the way of building megaprojects; during the construction of Istanbul’s airport, over 2.5 million trees, and thus wildlife, were removed. The president insists that over 4.5 billion trees have been planted during his presidency, yet Turkey still has record deforestation and high tree mortality rate of new plantations.
In 2021 it is incredibly frustrating and disappointing to witness five of the world’s key leaders failing the planet and all those who inhabit it. People are suffering, ecosystems are collapsing and a mass extinction event has begun, yet these leaders continue to favour economic growth over all else. It is pivotal that policies addressing climate change and environmental issues are at the forefront of these nations’ political agendas. Only once leaders start treating the climate crisis like the existential emergency it is, can we even begin to address the biggest challenge of our time.