Monday, June 17, 2024

The World Heads to the Polls


One of the busiest election cycles in history is coming to an end on Sunday. Hundreds of millions of people have gone to the polls in South Africa, India and Mexico in recent days, and millions more will do the same in the European Union this weekend.

As Somini Sengupta has explained in a series of articles this week, among the issues that the new leaders of these countries will face: how to transition away from coal, how to adapt to record-breaking heat and, in Europe’s case, how to address a growing backlash against environmental policies.

Today, I want to lay out some the most pressing environmental challenges in these areas, and what the results announced in the past few days point to. Keep in mind that whatever happens in the United States election in November will affect many of these countries, too.

The biggest takeaway from India’s elections, as my colleagues who cover the country put it, is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi “lost his aura of invincibility.” His Bharatiya Janata Party still won far more seats than any other party, and Modi is set to take up his third consecutive term as prime minister. But his party didn’t win an outright majority and now needs coalition partners to stay in power.

Many critics of the current government see the result as good news for democracy, because Modi will be forced to seek support from more moderate allies. It could also bring some relief to activists like Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer whose efforts to defend nature in India have made him a target of the government.

But it’s unclear how fewer seats in Parliament will affect Modi’s environmental policies. The main challenges facing the next Indian government are what to do about the effects of climate change, including heat waves that have killed dozens of people. During the elections, at least 33 poll workers were among them, and the heat also closed schools in several states,

There’s also the question of what to do about coal.

As Sengupta wrote, India has set an ambitious target of adding 500 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2030. But coal still provides more than 70 percent India’s electricity and its influence is unlikely to fade anytime soon.

Though policies to address environmental challenges haven’t been a top priority for Modi so far, he is likely to face more pressure, particularly from farmers who are facing unpredictable weather and dwindling groundwater supplies.

“Fixing agriculture in the era of climate change is likely to be among Mr. Modi’s most profound challenges in the coming years,” Sengupta wrote.

South Africa’s dominant party also suffered setbacks this week. The African National Congress lost its political monopoly after election results on Saturday showed that the party had fallen short of winning an absolute majority for the first time since vanquishing the apartheid regime 30 years ago, as John Elligon wrote.

Unreliable power supply is one of the biggest challenges facing the new government. For years, South Africans have endured rolling blackouts caused partly by an aging, coal-powered grid that uses coal for about 80 percent of generation.

One leader of the A.N.C. told Elligon that he worried the party would be punished for its failure to deliver electricity. But the A.N.C. chairman, Gwede Mantashe, has strongly supported the country’s continued dependence on coal.

South Africa’s ability to wean itself from coal will also be a test of the Just Energy Transition Partnership, a high-profile climate-finance deal offered by rich nations to developing countries. In 2021, South Africa became the first of a series of countries to sign on to such a deal, which was valued at $8.5 billion. But there is still little to show for the money, Climate Home News reported, partly because a lot of it has come in the form of loans to an already highly indebted nation.

Mexicans gave a landslide victory to Claudia Sheinbaum, a left-of-center climate scientist with a doctorate in energy engineering.

Sheinbaum’s climate record, Sengupta reported, is mixed. As mayor of Mexico City, she began electrifying the city’s public bus fleet, set up a huge rooftop solar array on the city’s main wholesale market and expanded bike lanes. She also backed a controversial infrastructure project with big environmental impacts, the 1,500-kilometer, so-called Maya Train corridor.

But how her deep knowledge of the climate crisis will guide her decisions as president is an open question. Sheinbaum will have to balance a tight federal budget, rising energy demands and dwindling groundwater supplies, Sengupta wrote. She is also expected to honor the legacy of her predecessor and mentor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has limited investment in renewables and propped up the heavily indebted national oil company, Pemex.

Sheinbaum said on the campaign trail she wanted to expand renewable energy infrastructure but she also expressed a desire to continue supporting Pemex.

Voters in the European Union are going to the polls in the next few days to elect the bloc’s members of Parliament.

One of the biggest questions facing voters is whether to elect leaders who will continue the bloc’s quest to enact ambitious policies to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises, or give a bigger voice to far-right politicians who want to roll back these policies.

As Sengupta reported, the European Union has made big strides on climate and the environment. “They enshrined into law an ambitious target to cut planet-heating emissions by more than half by 2030,” she wrote. “They set a 2035 deadline on the sales of new gas-guzzling cars. They expanded the price that industries must pay for emitting greenhouse gases.”

But there is widespread frustration over rising prices, farmers are protesting some of the bloc’s most ambitious nature-friendly policies and many once-accepted changes, such as installing heat pumps, have become culture-war fodder.

Polls show that parties on the right are ascendant and that the Greens, who in 2019 won their largest share of seats in European parliamentary elections, could see significant losses.

“If Europe loses its green groove in the coming elections,” Sengupta wrote, “it could have far-reaching consequences not only for European citizens and businesses, but also the rest of the world. Europe is among history’s biggest polluters.”

As Grace Ashford reported yesterday, Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York announced on Wednesday that she was putting New York City’s long-awaited tolling plan, known as congestion pricing, on the shelf just weeks before it was to go into effect. The governor said she feared that instituting a toll to drive into the Manhattan would “create another obstacle to our economic recovery.”

Hochul’s 11th-hour decision angered environmentalists, economists and advocates for public transit, Ana Ley reported. Kate Slevin, executive vice president of the Regional Plan Association, an urban planning nonprofit group in New York, told Ley that Hochul’s decision was “a betrayal of millions of transit riders and the future of New York’s climate and economy.”

Congestion pricing plans have come to cities like London, Singapore and Stockholm, but New York City’s plan would have been first of its kind in the United States. Drivers using E-ZPass would have paid as much as $15 to enter Manhattan south of 60th Street.

The money raised from the tolls would have been a $15 billion boost for New York City’s transit system. As Winnie Hu reported, the money would have gone to the “unglamorous but critical work of maintaining the century-old infrastructure that millions of New Yorkers rely on — repairing and upgrading aging equipment, modernizing signals and technology and making subway stations more accessible.”

The mayor’s office, as Hillary Howard reported, said the plan was expected to reduce traffic to Manhattan’s core by about 17 percent, or about 120,000 vehicles a day. — Ryan McCarthy



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