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Rod Stone was tracking VAT carrousel criminals for 40 years. © Ivo Mayr
Grand Theft Europe

How the UK is combating VAT fraud

When it comes to combating VAT carousel fraud, the UK has been the EU’s most successful member. Rod Stone, a former tax investigator, explains.

read more 9 minutes

von Marta Orosz

Rod Stone is one of the leading experts on VAT carousel fraud worldwide. For 40 years, he battled fraud at the HMRC, the UK’s tax administration, and developed a comprehensive counter strategy. In 2015, he formed his own crime advisory company.

CORRECTIV: The UK managed to reduce the annual loss to the treasury through VAT carousels from £3 billion (€3.4 billion) to roughly £500 million. How was that possible?

Stone: In 2005, a number of VAT fraud prosecutions by the tax authorities failed. As a result, I developed something called the ‘abusive right’ principle, which allowed the customs service to disallow import tax claims with respect to people involved in carousel fraud. I was given about three months to see if I could come up with a civil law remedy. We first started using it in January 2006, and by June we had disallowed £3.2 billion worth of import tax claims associated with carousel fraud.

CORRECTIV: So that was it – stop the tax claims, and the fraud just stops?

Stone: Not quite. In the UK, we used a holistic strategy to combat the fraud. We had a tool box. We looked at all the ways of freezing money, because that also made the environment hostile for them. We would look at insolvency. With insolvency you would identify the missing trader, that’s the importer, and raise a debt against him with the amount of tax that was due. The insolvency practitioner would then take over the running of the missing trader and seek to recover the missing money from everyone else in the ‘supply chain’. The supply chain, of course, was totally contrived and the only person who had any money was the person at the top, the exporter. So most of the insolvency practitioner’s investigations would end up at that point and they would then seek to recover the money. They could also recover the money from the directors personally and they could use worldwide freezing orders to target bank accounts abroad, and that was quite a successful approach. We could obviously also use criminal investigations and prosecutions.

CORRECTIV: How were they different in the UK?

Stone: The attraction of carousel fraud in most countries is that it doesn’t carry the same penalties as drug trafficking or bank robbery. Criminals are looking at no more than five years in prison, and by half of that they’ll be out. In the UK, we charge people or indict them with cheating the public revenue, and that carries a life prison sentence. In fact, the longest prison sentence that has been handed out has been 17 years, but it has been quite common for people to be sentenced to between 12 and 14 years for carousel fraud. And if they don’t pay back the stolen money, they’re brought back before the court, and their sentence is increased.

CORRECTIV: How would you and your colleagues chase the fraudsters?

Stone: If I suspected that a company was involved in carousel fraud I could send in an officer the same day. That’s part of our UK legislation and doesn’t exist in many EU states. We would get all the sales and purchase records, and from those records we could see who they’ve been buying from. If it’s the first intermediary company above the missing trader, by going to that trader we will identify the missing trader. And at that point, we can go and visit the missing trader. Of course, there won’t be anyone there. It’s just a brass plate on an office block. But by establishing that it’s not a legitimate trading company, we would cancel the VAT registration. We had officers out visiting traders on a daily basis.

But you knew that as soon as you took out one company and cancelled the VAT registration, within three or four days another company would be registered in its place and ready to go. So you had to continually monitor new company registrations, and who was behind them. We set up a system where every company we suspected of being involved in VAT carousel fraud was asked to clear the details of their suppliers and customers with a special unit in the tax administration. I would come to your office and say, ”I’m instructing you to phone up this office, and tell them every time you’re going to buy from someone new or sell to someone new.” In that way, the tax administration built up a profile of all the companies that were involved — or probably involved — in carousel fraud.

In addition, if a VAT refund claim was submitted,it was submitted on a monthly basis, and those refund claims would be selected for verification. A verification meant that every transaction on which VAT was being claimed would be tracked down to the missing trader, and nobody got any money until we were satisfied that it wasn’t part of a missing trader scheme.

I have to say there were a lot of legal challenges and we had to go to court frequently to hold our ground, and the courts again were very supportive, because they were aware of the problem, they were aware of the complexities of the fraud and that the tax administration was putting a lot of resources into stopping illegal or illegitimate business without impacting on honest traders.

Tax administration HMRC in London. © Ivo Mayr

CORRECTIV: Why don’t other EU member states act the same way?

Stone: The problem is that some of the legislation that countries are using is antiquated. It’s designed to deal with tax evaders, perhaps a man on the street corner who evades a small amount of tax, and the law has never been updated to deal with organized crime. Most of Europe hasn’t kept up with the times. You have to put it through parliament, you have to get people to agree, and many European countries seem to have great difficulty in getting this process through.

Likewise, the courts have to understand what they’re dealing with. In our early prosecutions and our early civil cases, a lot of the judges had difficulty in understanding the issue. We actually had to devise a strategy for delivering the trial to the court case so that everybody understood how the fraud worked. We tried to simplify it. There were large tax companies that were trying to sell VAT carousel fraud as a tax avoidance scheme. Which of course it wasn’t. The tax authorities contacted all the large accountancy firms and re-educated them into what they were dealing with.

CORRECTIV: How can we imagine the prosecution process?

Stone: From the time you first become suspicious of the fraud to the date of conviction, you’re looking at between three and five years. In the UK, we have an exemplary prosecution process or strategy. We would only prosecute the cases that had the biggest impact. Some of the major fraud chains were never prosecuted. But they lost their money because we used civil law strategies. There’s only a limited number of investigators. When you conduct a raid and arrest everybody, you need 250 or 500 officers. So there is a big resource implication.

The prosecution – criminal law — strategy meant that the tax administration had a say in which ones it wanted to prosecute. Some EU member states insist that every identified case of carousel fraud is forwarded to the prosecutor. For that reason, the cases that have been investigated and prosecuted in some EU member countries are more than 10 years old before they come to the court. In the UK we didn’t want stale cases. You probably won’t get much money out of it and it doesn’t send a message to the people currently involved in the fraud. You want to try and do it in real time. As much in real time as you can.

After the UK introduced its strategy, the fraudsters looked at other countries in the EU. The VAT carousel fraud became so minimal in comparison with what it had been that we were able to move on to other things. That was until 2009, when the fraudsters moved into the carbon credit market.

CORRECTIV: What happened?

Stone: The fraudsters started forming companies in France, and in the last quarter of 2007 they started trading large amounts of carbon credits through the BlueNext exchange in Paris. In January 2009, we became aware of a particular company in the UK selling tens of millions of euros of carbon credits to companies in France. We notified our French colleagues of the trader in France who received the carbon credits. We know from the audit that was carried out by the French audit office that the information wasn’t acted on. In fact, I don’t think the French visited the missing trader for about 5 months. This was largely because French legislation didn’t allow the tax administration to make a visit to a trader until after that trader’s tax return is due. It allowed the fraud to grow and continue in France.

Once we became aware of the carbon credit fraud in France, it was only a matter of time before it moved to the UK. These things are like the sea. They go across Europe in waves. So we were ready for when the fraud moved. On the day after the French introduced a measure that stopped the carousel, our officers went out and visited something like 30 or 40 traders and cancelled their VAT registration. That doesn’t mean we stopped it. The UK lost about £250 million between May and July 2009, but I suspect we recovered at least half of that through insolvency law and tax law.

CORRECTIV: From the UK, the carbon credit fraud then moved on to Germany where it was only stopped in July 2010. Was the German government not aware of the problem?

Stone: In 2009, every EU member state knew about the carbon fraud, certainly by July 2009. There were discussions on it in the Eurofisc and the Europol networks, and there were bilateral exchanges of information. It then became the responsibility of individual member states to take steps to stop it in their country.

CORRECTIV: Why do some member states have so much more difficulty in combatting the fraud than others?

Stone: I worked with tax administration throughout Europe, and everybody at the workface was determined to stop the fraud. But they were hampered by the processes and the legislation. Most of it seemed to be antiquated and disjointed, quite frankly. They were unable to act in real time, they lacked the resources in terms of the number of staff with the skills, and it appeared that most EU member states had great difficulty in introducing new legislation.

Take for example the ‘abuse of rights’ principle. It requires the tax administration to demonstrate that the businesses knew or should have known about the fraudulent schemes they were involved in. In the UK, this is an accepted principle. You argue that there is an abuse of the VAT system, and that’s not what the system’s set up for. The UK civil courts do not require that to be written into legislation. In France, there was a requirement for that same argument to be written into the tax code, and that takes time. [In in the UK] I didn’t have to wait for it to go through parliament. As soon as I thought of that as a method of stopping the fraud, we could implement it the next day.

CORRECTIV: Is there a way to stop this kind of fraud entirely?

Stone: The only thing that would probably stop it would be to have the same rate of tax throughout Europe on the same commodities. And that wouldn’t be accepted nationally by each individual member state. I suppose that if you end up with a federal Europe, where Brussels has the central European bank and then decides what money is going to be divided up to each individual country and organizes all the collection of the taxes, that would work. But many countries don’t want to be part of a federal Europe.

Rod Stone in the interview with CORRECTIV-reporter Marta Orosz © Ivo Mayr

CORRECTIV: The EU Commission has proposed a new VAT tax scheme, the so-called definitive VAT system. Under the new rules, commodities traded between member states would be taxed in the country where they were sold, and the tax administrations would transfer the taxes between each other. Would that at least reduce the fraud?

Stone: Not really. Again, you go back to different tax rates on different goods [as the basis of] carousel fraud. I also know that it doesn’t stop at cross-border trade in the EU. Let’s assume the UK leaves the EU and we become a third country. We, and other countries within the EU, have suddenly introduced postponed accounting on imports from third countries. So what that basically means is that VAT is not collected at the border, it’s going to be deferred. That means that missing trader fraud can start up with countries outside the European Union. So you will get the fraud still operating, potentially, from EU member states to the UK, back into the EU member states. In an effort to ease the burden on business, they’ve actually created other opportunities for carousel fraud.

CORRECTIV: You are saying that the door for fraud will always remain open?

Stone: Yes. All you can do is deter people from becoming involved. If people are going to be locked up for 15, 16 years and lose all their revenue, they soon stop doing it. So, to my mind, strengthening the ability to collect the money at the earliest opportunity, taking away the assets that the fraudsters have purchased with the money they’ve stolen, and sending them to prison for a very long time, are the only deterrents that exists at the moment.

CORRECTIV: So every member state should create this hostile environment?

Stone: There is a responsibility on the European tax directorate to encourage member states to do so and change their legislation. But you’re coming up against cultural barriers. Countries will say, ”But we’ve done it this way for the last hundred years. This is the way our taxpayers expect it to be.” You have to re-educate the taxpayers and say ”the legislation that’s been introduced isn’t targeted at you, the taxpayer, it’s targeted at organized crime”. So, again, it’s all about re-education. You have to re-educate your taxpayers, so that they understand why things are changing, you have to re-educate the judiciary, you need politicians that will change the legislation.

One of the things the UK did was try to be more proactive to people who don’t put in their tax returns or their VAT returns. We’re now moving to making tax digital in the UK. People will have to start to use the tax digital. That in turn might highlight missing traders more quickly. But you only need to be a missing trader for a day to make £10 million.

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Latest Stories

CORRECTIV publishes graphic novel on Congo massacres

The graphic novel is another example of our efforts to combine journalism and art.

read more 5 minutes

von Frederik Richter

In 2000, Hutu leaders who had fled Rwanda to eastern Congo after the 1994 genocide created a new militia: the Forces Democratiques pour la Liberation (FDLR). Their ultimate goal: to return to Rwanda. In 2009, under increased military pressure from Rwandan and Congolese troops, FDLR committed a number of massacres in remote villages in eastern Congo.

On paper, the FDLR claimed to be a full-blown state structure complete with its own political branch. In reality, it was little more than a rag-tag militia deep in the remote borderlands of Eastern Congo. With one exception: the FDLR had a political leadership, boasting a president and a vice-president.

But these two officials were living far away: in the safety and comfort of southern Germany. From here, they spread the group’s propaganda, and helped military commanders on the ground, for example by buying credit for their satellite phones, including at the time of the massacres.

In 2014, a Stuttgart court sentenced FDLR president Ignace Murwanashyaka to 13 years in prison on charges of being a member of a foreign terror organization and abetting war crimes. In December 2018, the highest court in Germany overturned the verdict and returned it to the Stuttgart court.

In a project funded by the Open Society Foundations, CORRECTIV has turned this story connecting Africa and Europe, Congo and Germany into a graphic novel. The English version is now available for free download.

One of CORRECTIV’s key ideas is to support and strengthen journalism by finding new ways of story-telling, thereby attracting new audiences. Besides graphic novels, CORRECTIV has turned its investigations into theatre performances.

CORRECTIV sometimes adds the journalist conducting an investigation to the list of characters of the story to allow greater insight into how journalists work.

In ‘Made in Germany – A Massacre in Congo’, the illustrator Gregory Dabilougou takes the reader on a journey from his home in Burkina Faso and later his travels through Germany where he follows in the footsteps of Ignace Murwanashyaka who originally came to Germany in the 1980s. The narrative of the graphic novel is divided into three layers: Greg’s research in Germany, the life of Ignace Murwanashyaka and the history of the FDLR leading up to the 2009 massacres.

The graphic novel also sheds light on the legacy of Germany’s colonial past in today’s violent conflicts in Africa. A public debate about Germany’s colonial history has only recently begun.

Funded by the Open Society Foundations, CORRECTIV has awarded two fellowships, one to an illustrator from sub-Saharan Africa and the other to an artist from the Arab world. Greg, who is based in Burkina Faso’s capital, won one of the fellowships and teamed up with CORRECTIV journalist Frederik Richter. The graphic novel on the Arab world is in production.

Please find your free PDF download of ‘Made in Germany – A Massacre in Congo’ here.

Download

We are also publishing an exhibition of the graphic novel. You can download it here, print the panels and show the exhibition in your city. Just let us know where it was shown!

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Latest Stories

The CumEx Files

How Europe's taxpayers have been swindled of €55 billion.

The Story: A group of bankers and lawyers have robbed Europe’s taxpayers of €55 billion. The #CumExFiles is a joint investigation by 19 European media from twelve countries, coordinated by the German non-profit newsroom CORRECTIV.

Read the story

Behind The Scenes

Two reporters pose as billionaires looking for investment opportunities and thereby prove: Europe’s largest tax scam goes on. This is how they prepared for the undercover meeting with an investment banker, brought together journalists from twelve European countries and made an insider talk on camera. Plus: Deep insights into the workings of the cum ex machinery and other perspectives on the cum-ex-complex.

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The Cooperation

38 reporters, 19 newsrooms, 12 countries. Together, they digged through 180.000 pages of documents. Here, team members share their perspectives on cross-country collaboration. What it means in practice and how they made it happen.

Workers in the Western African port of Abidjan. Investigators believe the Italian 'ndrangheta is using the city as a hub for cocaine shipments.© Abidjan013 von RomainSeafunter Lizenz CC BY-SA 2.0

Latest Stories

The Girl in Abidjan

Western Africa is an important hub for cocaine shipments from Latin America to Europe. The Ivory Coast could be a new knot in the smuggling network of the Italian ‘ndrangheta. The country is home to a mafia boss’ daughter who took refuge in the country after a doomed love affair forced her to leave Italy. But once you’re family, you’re never out of the reach of the ‘ndrangheta, as this investigation shows.

read more 15 minutes

von Cecilia Anesi , Giulio Rubino

On a typical day in early October 2015, more than 27.000 containers would move through the port of Antwerp, Belgium. The second largest entry point for goods shipped to Europe,  the port is full of giant cranes. They make 40 moves an hour, constantly picking up containers, one indistinguishable from the other,. In the highly automated port, only a fraction of containers are inspected by customs or police. That’s why on a day in October 2015, a special load passed through unnoticed.

Later that month in Siderno, a small coastal city deep in southern Italy, a man would walk across a field in the hills above the town pushing a wheelbarrow filled with broken bricks. The man would make his way towards a small warehouse used to store old tires at the other end of the field, before placing a white plastic bag inside the warehouse. A little later he would hand the bag over to the driver of a jeep, who would depart to town. Unbeknownst to them, police were watching the hand-over. Officers would stop the jeep not long after the transaction, search it and find a white brick: about one kilo of pure cocaine.

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The hand-over of a cocaine shipment near the Italian city of Siderno.

Polizia di Stato

Thanks to this bust, the police would later piece together the route these drugs took to reach Calabria, the home to the powerful ‘ndrangheta mafia group. The brick was part of a larger batch, likely tens of kilos of pure cocaine from Latin America that entered Europe in a container passing through Antwerp a few weeks before the seizure, arriving from the Western African port of Abidjan.

Cocaine trafficking is the primary source of the power of the ‘ndrangheta. The group is at home in the Southern Italian region of Calabria while other mafia groups, such as the Camorra, operate from the area around Naples and the Cosa Nostra from Sicily.

The ‘ndrangheta is estimated to control 40 percent of global cocaine shipments and is the main importer of cocaine into Europe. The group launders its proceeds, which are estimated by some to be more than 25 billion euros per year, through companies it owns in construction, tourism and trading. They are thought to use Germany and Switzerland in particular, two countries in which anti-money laundering and anti-mafia laws are lax.

So many ‘ndrangheta members come from the Calabrian city Siderno that an important subgroup of the ‘ndrangheta has been named after the town: the Siderno group of crime. The rugged town is richer than Beverly Hills thanks to the narco-dollars. Some of the richest men of Italy meet here in a laundry shop or in the garage of a wretched building, their decisions moving  global cocaine prices and, impacting cocaine growers as far away as Latin America.

The Siderno syndicate has a global reach and consists of four major families: the Commisso, the Aquino-Coluccio, the Crupi and the Figliomeni. Which of these families is up and coming, and which sees its fortune decline depends heavily on how many of its members are in jail. Often, the women of the families have to keep the criminal family business going while their men are jailed.

Juliana and her „Romeo“

Women born to ‘ndrangheta families have few rights and are subjected to the decision-making of the paternal rulers. Marriages are directed by dynastic rules and a woman who wants to chose her love will either have to escape or raise a scandal.

It’s precisely a scandal within the most powerful crime group of the world that Juliana (name changed) caused in 2009. An attractive woman in her mid 30s, Juliana studied at university in Milano and is fluent in English and French.

She’s also the daughter of a former top official in the government of Siderno and from one of the most powerful ‘ndrangheta families of the city. In 2009, she fell in love with, from a ‘ndrangheta point of view, the wrong man: a relative of the boss of the Siderno syndicate who goes by the alias U’Mastru (the master). U’Mastru was furious and blamed Juliana’s father for not exercising control over his daughter to stop the relationship.

Juliana’s love affair would end far less tragically than Shakespeare’s star-crossed Romeo and Juliette. But still, investigators believe the affair and its subsequent end seriously burdened the relationships between the families. But in the end, their common business interests trumped emotions.

A coincidence also helped defuse the tensions. In December of 2010, Antimafia prosecutor Nicola Gratteri ordered the arrest of Juliana’s father over corruption and mafia membership charges. According to Gratteri, police arrested him just as he was attempting to escape to Australia, where Juliana was living at the time. Juliana briefly returned to Italy, but only to pack her bags and make a final move out of the country. In April 2011, Juliana moved to Abidjan, the commercial capital of the Ivory Coast, where she she is still living today. A court in Italy sentenced her father to 12 years in prison, though the verdict is still not final.

The syndicate in West Africa

On February 12, 2014, having landed in Abidjan just three days earlier, Claudio Spataro called one of his associates in Italy.

“How is the girl? Is she taking your around?“ his contact asks him according to transcripts of police wiretaps seen by CORRECTIV: „Yes, yes. She is working hard“, Spataro answers, seemingly glad he has help in a foreign country he struggles to navigate on his own. „If it wasn’t for her, we would be ruined. Here, I don’t understand the language. I know nothing.“

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Cocaine smugglers are using the Western African city of Abidjan to move the drugs from South America on to Europe.

Prosecutors allege that Spataro, in his mid-50s, was a lieutenant to U Mastro in Siderno, in charge of the logistics of smuggling cocaine through Europe and the subsequent distribution to buyers in Siderno. Investigators also believe that U Mastru sent Spataro on trips abroad to strike drug deals and set up smuggling logistics. His cover in Siderno was a gas station that he owned and a business that traded old tires. It was Spataro who had stored the kilo of cocaine at the end of a field near Siderno that had come via container from Abidjan, passing through Antwerp. The girl helping him around Abidjan was Juliana.

She might have liked it or loathed it, but her family had requested her help and it appears she was unable to divorce herself from the family business. She wasn’t the only one. Court records show Spataro used her brother’s phone number  to register his plane ticket, court records show.

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During the past decade, West Africa has become an important logistics hub for the Italian ‘ndrangheta as shipments from South America arriving directly at European ports raise more suspicion than those arriving from Western African ports. In addition, there are few custom controls in the region and bribery is common.

A devastating effect

The presence of the Italian mafia has had a devastating effect on the region. It has increased the level of drug use in countries that previously had no market for cocaine. It also undermines the rule of law in countries where corrupt payments offered by the mafia by far exceed the salaries of state officials. In some cases, organized crime teams up with local guerrillas who then use the proceeds to fund their wars.

Guinea-Bissau and Ghana were the first countries to be identified as major cocaine hubs in the region. The Italian mafia is also thought to have a presence in Senegal as well as a stake in the Moroccan hashish trade. Now, cocaine smuggling through the Ivory Coast seems set to grow.

On the phone from Abidjan, Spataro explained to his associate at home that Juliana took three days off work to help him. The conversation continues with what investigators believe is a cryptical description of setting up a smuggling operation, including a reference to finding out the cost for a container. Spataro discussed trading old tires, but investigators believe it is a code for cocaine smuggling. The members of ‘ndrangheta know their phones are likely tapped by Italian police.

“The wiretaps seem to show Spataro was in Ivory Coast to organise drug trafficking“, it says in police records that are part of a police investigation into the Commisso clan of the Siderno syndicate. The records show that another phone call, this time between Spataro and Juliana, also is of interest to investigators. Once back in Italy, Spataro spoke to Juliana at length about the installment of a mysterious sand cleaning machine, seemingly unrelated to the tire business.

A mysterious Dutch man

When contacted for an interview, Juliana initially said she was „honoured“ and wished „to contribute to the fight against the ‘ndrangheta in her home country“, but then stopped replying. She did not respond to a list of questions submitted before publication of this article.

Spataro was arrested last year, charged with storing and selling cocaine in Siderno for U’Mastru. A lawyer for Spataro did not respond to a request for comment.

During the investigation, police say they discovered Spataro not only travelled to the Ivory Coast but also undertook numerous trips to Brazil, an important ‘ndrangheta hub.

“Listening to them for over two years, we confirmed how U’Mastru was the leader of an extremely powerful drug ring based in the Locride“, remembers prosecutor Antonio De Bernardo, referring to a sub-region of Calabria. „He is a sort of feudal lord through whose hands the entire illicit traffic had to pass, including of course the drugs.“

Italian police believe Claudio Spataro was tasked by U’Mastru to set up a successful smuggling route connecting Abidjan to Siderno on behalf of the Commisso clan. The port of Antwerp and the surrounding Flanders region was a key hub in-between. Court records show the Siderno syndicate had helpers in the region who are still at large today. A close associate of U’Mastro often received phone calls from another associate whose last known residence is the Flanders city of As. The two would discuss different import-export businesses which are thought to be a cover up for drug trafficking. In one of the latest wiretapped conversations, his associate talks about a mysterious Dutch man who is „a big fish“, having a company that can be used „as a bridge“ for a „standard item“ that weighs „250 units“.

The news of that unidentified Dutch man on the wiretap is rather revealing. It demonstrates the number of helpers associated with the ‘ndrangheta extends far beyond West Africa. It underscores the power and vast network of individuals like Juliana who, under the control of the ‘ndrangheta, allow the criminal organization to move drugs worldwide.

This publication is a cooperation with the Italian journalist centre IRPI and the Occrp network. It has been funded by the Flanders Connecting Continents Grant.

© Pascal Guyot / AFP

Climate change

French seaside resort heading under the waves

Palavas-les-Flots is a popular seaside resort in southern France, one of several built in the 1960s as part of a government programme to develop tourism along the western Mediterranean seaboard. But the town, like others in the region, now faces disaster from the slow but sure rising sea levels and the coastal erosion exacerbated by mass tourism.

von Jade Lindgaard

On a roundabout on the avenue lining the Mediterranean seafront at Palavas-les-Flots, a seaside holiday resort close to the town of Montpellier in southern France, a notice board sets out the local municipality’s rules for „better living together“.

These include the wearing of „correct“ clothing in town, and notably shoes, the exhortation to not ride mopeds or motorbikes on the pavement, and to not indulge in loud behaviour – because „noise is a form of pollution and aggression“. But it makes no recommendation that holidaymakers leave their cars behind in favour of walking or using public transport, nor does it urge property developers to stop building on the remaining plots of land between the apartment buildings standing just a few metres from the seafront.

This major resort of the Languedoc region lies on a narrow sandy strip of land about 30 kilometres long that stands as a barrier between small lagoons to the north and the open Mediterranean Sea on its south side. Once a small fishing port, the permanent population of just more than 6,000 is bloated by tens of thousands of tourists during the summer months, largely accommodated in sprawling modern apartment buildings that overlook the beaches and a marina with more than 1,000 berths.

Nowhere along the avenue Saint-Maurice, which is one of the principal residential arteries of Palavas-les-Flots, is there any attempt to draw public attention to coastal erosion, nor to the issue of climate change. But already, in 1982, during an exceptional storm, the sea swept inland for a distance of about 50 metres from the beach. Now, finding passers-by to talk about the threat of flooding appeared to be a vain hope. It might be off-season, but the only pedestrian to be met along the avenue, alive with vehicles and motorbikes, was a Yorkshire Terrier, scurrying along with its head bowed.

But out on the jetty was a woman who said she remembered that last winter the seawater reached the roundabout on the main avenue. She pointed at the low walls made of wood that surround the entrances to the houses along the sandy seafront, still showing the stains of water.

In 2012, the French public agency for the management of surface and sub-surface resources and risks, the BRGM (or „French geological survey“, in English), carried out a study of the vulnerability to sea flooding of the coastline around Palavas-les-Flots. In their modelling projection of the effects on the town of rising sea levels, they notably took into account the events of 1982. They found that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate and, as a result, that global warming increases above a further 2°Celsius, the consequences for Palavas-les-Flots by 2100 will be considerable. These include saltwater pollution of coastal aquifers, land loss, the disappearance of the beaches (and the entire commercial activity dependent upon them), and a modification of the lagoons that lie behind the town.

“Palavas-les-Flots lies on a low-lying sandy base which has already encountered problems from coastal erosion, like a large part of the Languedoc region’s coast“, said Gonéri Le Cozannet, a BRGM engineer specialised in coastal erosion risks. „The vulnerability of these beaches to marine submersion is already high during storm conditions. Climate change will aggravate this.“

The rise in the sea level at Palavas-les-Flots currently averages three millimetres per year, a rate that is impossible to recognise with the naked eye. But it compares with an estimated average annual rise over the previous 6,000 years of one millimetre per year. This relative surge in sea levels accentuates the risk of erosion caused by heavy swells, notably during storms. The risk has become a major problem because of the recent artificial development of the natural coastline, and also the depletion of the amount of sediment that spills into the Mediterranean from the south-running Rhône river as a consequence of the construction of dams along its course.

“When one looks at the retreat of the Atlantic or Mediterranean coastlines, they suffer from the effects of erosion and storms“, said Éric Chaumillon, a researcher in coastal marine geology at the University of La Rochelle in south-west France. „The contribution made by the rise in the sea level is today very little with regard to the sedimentary dynamics. But in the long-term the effect is real. It is simply a question of timescale.“

The more global temperatures climb, the more the glaciers will melt into the oceans.Meanwhile, the more that beaches suffer from erosion, the lower they lie, and the more the sea rises the more the beaches erode. In Palavas-les-Flots, if the sea rises by 30 centimetres during a storm, the inland flooding will be significantly more extensive, while if the sea rises by a metre the whole of the town centre would be under water.

According to estimations produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific body that works under the auspices of the United Nations, sea levels will rise by 60 centimetres between now and the year 2100 if global warming increases during that period by an extra 2°C.

In Palavas-les-Flots and the neighbouring coastline, a scientific programme involving dozens of engineers, researchers and administrative officials with the local authorities of the Hérault département (county) is underway to monitor and counter the very real effects of coastal erosion: cameras have been set up to track the erosion of beaches, which is regularly measured, studies have been launched into the effects of storms, prospecting for new sand reserves is underway, along with modelling of the effects locally of climate change. While Palavas-les-Flots is not the most threatened site, it is strategically important because of its location within the surrounding lagoon- and lake-dotted Aigues-Mortes gulf which has a fragile eco-system.

But the scientific programme concerns the whole of the beaches lining the small towns in the same zone. „It is extremely important“, said Alexandre Richard, appointed by the Hérault  local authorities to coordinate the coastal study. „The scale of the management of the natural environment dominates that of administrative management.“

A mayor with his head in the sand

In 2008, the most eroded beaches of Palavas-les-Flots and those of nearby Carnon, about five kilometres further east along the strip and a favourite spot for day-trippers from Montpellier, about a 20-minute drive away, were recharged with a total of one million cubic metres of sand. The supplies were taken from the broad width of sands at the pointe de l’Espiguette, at the east-most point of the Aigues-Mortes gulf, where sediment continues to accumulate. The three-month operation cost 8 million euros, but the problems have since returned.

It took just seven years for the popular Petit-Travers beach in Carnon to find itself back to the same depleted level of sand from before the recharge. In Pavalas-les-Flots, about half of the new sand has already disappeared. „The recharge is the only solution that allows for gaining time to raise awareness among [local] populations about long-term strategies“, said Alexandre Richard. „But it’s no miracle solution, because sand reserves are not unlimited and it costs a lot.“

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Richard is among those who advocate a soft approach to restoring the beaches and dunes, which includes methods like erecting units of wooden fence protection against wind erosion, beach drainage, and armouring the sands with geotextile defences. Such procedures, and notably recharging eroded sites with new sand, were employed in a lengthy operation to restore the Sète lido, a regularly-eroded stretch of sandy coastline several kilometres long between the towns of Sête and Marseillan, west of Pavalas-les-Flots. The cost of the programme was 54 million euros.

palvais03_en.jpg

Pascal Guyot / AFP

Faced with its own problems of rising sea levels and coastal erosion, the Netherlands has access to significant undersea sand reserves in the North Sea and the Channel, above an ancient continental plateau. But the Mediterranean Sea, which during the glacial period 21,000 years ago was 120 metres lower than today, is marked by very deep areas of seabed. Meanwhile, if global warming increases by 6°C, the Mediterranean could eventually rise by about another 100 metres or more.

Like many coastal areas, Palavas-les-Flots must adapt to a rise in sea levels that cannot now be avoided. The problems facing the resort are not down to climate change alone, but arise in part from the construction of coastal resorts on the dune banks of the Gulf of Lion. „In this region, most of the coastline is especially vulnerable to climate change“, said Yann Balouin, a geologist and oceanographer with the BRGM. „One of the reasons for this situation is that the lines of dune were destroyed with the building of houses and roads beginning in the 1960s.“

Before the development of the coastal region, there were mostly only small fishing villages along the coast between Sète and Marseille to the east. But in 1963 the so-called „Mission Racine“ was launched, named after Pierre Racine, the senior French civil servant in charge of the government programme to develop the western French Mediterranean coastline, centred on that of the Languedoc-Rousillon region, with the building of tourist resorts and transport infrastructures where once were sands and swamps. Press reports at the time hailed the emergence of a „new Florida“, and the seaside resorts which sprung up are today among the best-known and most popular in France, including La Grande-Motte, Cap d’Agde, Port-Leucate and Port-Barcarès.

Before the construction programme began, Palavas-les-Flots was already a popular spot, but at a far more modest scale than today. For under the Mission Racine, the town’s seafront became lined with large modern buildings within just a few years. The name Palavas-les-Flots became synonymous with summertime seaside tourism, albeit much less chic than the French Riviera, with its facilities adapted to group tourism and children’s holiday camps.

Michel Houellebecq sings “Plein été”, his wry take on Palavas-les-Flots in summertime, when tens of thousands of tourists gather there every year.

French novelist Michel Houellebecq penned a song dedicated to the town in 2000, entitled Plein été(height of summer). The lines, translated here from the original French, went:

“Everything oozes flatness, whiteness, finiteness/An Algerian sweeps the floor of ‘The Dallas’/ Opens the sliding glass windows, his look is pensive/On the beach are a few condoms/A new day comes up over Palavas.“

Today, tourism is by far the major source of revenue for the town, which is developing a new additional line of business in hosting conferences for professional groups at its Phare de la Méditerranée, a 43-metre-tall observation tower (a converted water tower in service until 1997), complete with apartments, conference rooms, and a panoramic restaurant. The kitchens of the restaurant are run by a former winner of the French version of MasterChef, while one of the shareholders is former French footballer Vincent Candela.

After the mushrooming of resorts under the Mission Racine, the environmental consequences emerged, prompting misguided efforts to protect the beaches. These included artificial wave-breakers, and also the laying of lines of barriers made up of rocks which stretch into the sea, perpendicular to the beach, like dark fingers. But while such measures provided some local defences against the sea, they blocked the migration of sediment, aggravating the problems of erosion along the Gulf of Lion coastline.

Christian Jeanjean, the mayor of Pavalas-les-Flots since 1989, member of the conservative Les Républicains party and a former local Member of Parliament for the wider region, denies any existence of a threat from rising sea levels. „We’ve always had a bit of water when there have been storms“, he said, speaking to Mediapart in his vast office at the town hall. „The rise of water levels has been around for 70 years. I can’t say that it’s particularly evident.“ Holding up large-sized colour photos, he argued that the local beaches are in fact growing with sand to the point that it is now invading the town. „We don’t know where to put it anymore“, he said, adding that he would like to see a photo that demonstrates the reality of coastal erosion, jokingly comparing himself to being „like Thomas the Apostle“.

Asked whether he had read the scientific report on the projections of the possible submersion of the town due to the effects of climate change, Jeanjean replied, „I haven’t heard of it“. Did he agree that climate change will necessarily cause a rise in sea levels? „There have been periods of warming and cooling over the last thousands of years“, he answered. „I am a little sceptical if I’m told that over 50 years there’s a change in climate.“ Asked whether he contested the existence of climate change, he said: „No, but before the happening of what you talk about, there will be catastrophes everywhere.“

“We’re going to keep Pavalas natural, and without changes of a nature to hinder nature“, continued Jeanjean. „I am conscious of the problem of climate change, but concerning the rise of water levels Palavas is not for the moment affected.“ At the end of the interview, the mayor offered gifts of a bottle of ‘Pavalos-les-Flots’ perfume, a key ring, and stickers in the form of a fish, capping a somewhat surreal exchange.

While mayor Jeanjean appeared happy to adopt the proverbial position of sticking his head in the sand, a study published in the review Nature Climate Change in February 2016 and co-signed by 22 scientific researchers involved in climate change studies from seven different countries gave a stark warning, underlined by modelling graphics, of the urgency for political initiatives for the vast long-term future of the planet. „Here, we argue that the 20th and 21st centuries, a period during which the overwhelming majority of human-caused carbon emissions are likely to occur, need to be placed into a long-term context, including the past 20 millennia, when the last Ice Age ended and human civilization developed, and the next 10 millennia, over which time the projected impacts of anthropogenic climate change will grow and persist“, they wrote in their introduction to the study, entitled Consequences of 21st-century policy for multi-millennial climate and sea-level change. „This long-term perspective illustrates that policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems, and human societies – not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.“

That implies taking action now to counter problems that are not yet apparent, which is a disturbing prospect but also an exciting one – no less so than developing mass tourist resorts on strips of sand and swamps.

© Ted Aljibe / AFP

Climate change

The Philippines: Abandoned

The Philippines is one of the countries most affected by sea level rise. This will be costly, yet no help is forthcoming from the big industrialised nations – who disproportionately contributed to the changing climate which is causing the sea to rise.

von Jacque Manabat

In the capital, Manila, the sea level has risen by more than 80 centimetres over the last few decades. In Legazpi City, the increase is 30 centimetres and in southern Davao Bay it’s 24 centimetres.

The rising seas affect almost the whole population, because most Filipinos live by the water: the country is made up of 7,000 islands, with a total coastline spanning some 36,000 kilometres. The islands are flat, and the bays reach far inland. This makes them more vulnerable to rising sea levels. “In addition, we get tropical typhoons. If we do not take fast-paced measures, our agriculture and our food are at risk“, says Analiza Solis, an expert on the Philippine climate.

According to a 2012 study by the Asian Development Bank, the Philippines is one of the five countries most affected by climate change in the world. The coastal inhabitants in the east are most affected, as the prevailing wind pushes water up into the island’s bays.

The fifth world climate report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that sea level rise will accelerate. This will have devastating consequences for the Philippines. Higher water levels in the bays will mean that typhoons do more damage, and already around 20 of the tropical storms rage across the country every year.

According to a study by the environmental protection organization WWF, more than 13 million Filipinos will have to be relocated from the coastal areas. Even now, the floodwaters are reaching areas that have never been flooded before. The most affected are poorer Filipinos, who often live in condominiums which collapse even in light storms.

Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest storms on record, struck the Philippines in 2013. Haiyan destroyed rice stocks. Boats and fishing facilities were devastated. Many people had no access to food, and an estimated 6 million people in the Visayas region were displaced.

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Major climatic changes also affect the animal world. The Tubbataha reef on the island of Palawan is a valuable habitat for seabirds. But the island is slowly disappearing – since it was first measured in 2004 it has shrunk from 1.5 to 1.1 hectares.

The United Nations World Climate Council says that sea level rise could disrupt crop growth, and flood cornfields which could spread Dengue fever through the standing water. But to this day, the Philippines have no response against the threats to humans and animals. They have no resources to protect against these dangers. And the international community is doing little to help the first victims of climate change.

 

“We have not seen money from rich countries to help us adapt. We cannot go on. This is not life when we have to run away from storms, “says Naderev Saño, who represents the Philippines at the international UN conferences on climate change. Every destructive tropical storm costs his country two percent of the gross domestic product, and another two percent has to be put into reconstruction afterwards.

For a developing country like the Philippines, with almost 100 million citizens spread over thousands of islands, it is an unsolvable challenge to relocate those that will be worst affected. Storms are already transforming public schools into evacuation centers, which provide shelter to hundreds of displaced families. When the floodwaters subside, they return to the coasts to re-start their existence. They say they need to find food — and have no choice.

© Noel Celis / AFP

Climate change

A village on the edge of the world is disappearing

In the Philippines, sea level rise – relative to the height of the land – is greater than in any other region of the world, according to our data. This means that the frequent typhoons inflict even more damage, and threaten people like Pepe and Soledad Cabasag.

von Jacque Manabat

In the calm before a storm, fisherman Pepe Cabasag nailed boards to his old house. Made of wood and aluminium, he wanted to protect his house and himself from the approaching typhoon. Hours later, the storm arrived – whipping wind gusting through the village of Caroan. The village is in the northern Philippines, in the province of Cagayan.
Cabasag is deaf and visually impaired, so he could neither see nor hear the monstrous storm ravaging the village. But he could feel how strong the wind was when it knocked him off balance. His wife Soledad dragged him inside. The two crossed themselves and crawled into their bed, praying that the typhoon would not destroy their little house. They were praying all night. The typhoon raged for hours, with howling gusts and torrential rain smashing the picturesque village. Water leaked from the ceiling of their house, the roof in tatters.
It was windy in the morning. They crawled out of the remains of their hut, collected what they could still find, and set about repairing it.

Three typhoons hit their community every year, on average. “Sa awa ng Diyos, andito pa kami!” says Soledad: Because of the grace of God we have survived. Pepe is a fisherman in Gonzaga Cagayan, in the northeast of Luzon, the main island of the Philippines. He catches oysters to sell at the local market. The sea feeds them; providing them with fish, crabs and prawns. But now it has become an enemy.
The majority of the 40 kilometre-long coastline of the region is located on the Babuyan Sea Ridge. Nature is heavenly here. There are 139 acres of beach, 69 acres of mangrove forests and 348 acres of coral reefs. The province of Cagayan is also one of the regions most affected by monsoon rain and storms. According to the Philippine Institute of Geology, these coastal residents are constantly threatened by floods, erosions and landslides. Sometimes one typhoon is followed immediately by another. In the summer of 2015 the north of the Philippines, including the province of Cagayan, was hit by three typhoons. They brought destruction and flooding.

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After every storm, the inhabitants have a Sisyphean task – they have to repair the damaged houses before another one strikes. Because they can’t relocate, they rebuild on the same bit of land where the storm tore up their house. At least, they do if the land is still there. More than ten hectares have been lost to the sea; around 100 concrete houses, nipa huts and small buildings that were standing ten years ago are no longer visible, sunk by the rising sea.
One of the lost buildings was the Brgy Caroan Elementary School, where teacher Roselyn Campano was once a student. She remembers that the school was more than a kilometre from the coast. Today its disappeared into the water. “The sea has eroded it,” says Campano. She is now teaching at another elementary school and is afraid for the youth in her village.
Campano takes pictures after every storm that hits the residential areas. She has watched an average of five houses every year get washed into the sea. “My favorite motif is the sunset. I have tears in my eyes when I think that our village will soon be eradicated from the map forever,” she says.

Gonzaga’s mayor, Marilyn Pentecostes, says, “We hope that Congress and the government will help protect our people, for example with a dam.” The rising sea level is one man-made threat. The other was shown by an American study in which scientists predicted that areas in the North of the Philippines, where magnetite and black sand are mined, will continue to sink and in 30 to 70 years will be totally submerged.

Rising seas and sinking land: The people of Cagayan face a double threat.

© unsplash.com / Josefin Brosche Hagsgård

Climate change

Where the harbours are drying out

The sea level is rising everywhere in the world, except along the coasts of Finland and Sweden. But the sea is still rising here; it's just that the land is rising faster.

von Jòn Bjarki Magnússon



 

“We should be pretty safe for now“, says Martin Vermeer, a professor of geodesy at Aalto University in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, when talking about the effects of sea level rise in his home country. While global sea level is currently rising at an average of three millimeters per year Finland´s landmass is rising three to nine millimeters per year. In Scandinavia, the so called post-glacial uplift has been ongoing for ten thousand years or since the pressure from the huge weight of the glaciers was lifted off the land at the end of last glacial period.

“Globally sea level rises by about three millimeters per year in the last decade, whereas the land uplift, the post-glacial uplift in Scandinavia for example, reaches up to nine millimeters per year, so it is about three times faster than the sea level is rising at the maximum“, says Stefan Rahmstorf, professor of Physics of the Oceans at Potsdam University and Head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. „That is why many places, especially around Scandinavia, experience relative sea level drop.“

The fact that the land in Finland is rising at the same rate as the sea or even faster means that sea level is dropping everywhere along the coastline. The same goes for Finlands neighboring country, Sweden, where land is rising at similar rates. This is causing problems along the coastlines of these countries such as for the shipping industries in the area. „The conditions for sea transportation in the area is getting more tricky“, says Sven Knutsson, professor of Soil Mechanics at Luleå University of Technology.

Fennoscandian land uplift (mm/yr) relative to the centre of the Earth. Land is rising 9 mm per year where the center of the glacier was but only 1-2 mm at the old margins, for example by the west coast of Norway. (Finnish Geospatial Resarch Institute.)

The port of the town of Luleå in northern Sweden is one of the biggest in the country when it comes to shipping goods and the biggest in terms of tons passing through. An easy and open access to the Baltic Sea is fundamental for the large iron ore industry and other industries in the area. But now it is being threatened.

“The land rise itself is creating a more shallow port“, says Henrik Vuorinen, the managing director for the port of Luleå in Sweden. Vuorinen describes how the port, which was built in the mid seventies, is getting to shallow for the larger ships that are coming into the port nowadays. „During these last forty years, the land has risen by approximately half a meter due to the post-glacial rebound.“

This is why the town of Luleå is working on a project to deepen its port so that bigger ships will be able to freight goods through there. „We plan to make a rather large dredging operation to deepen the fairway into Luleå“, says Vuorinen who hopes that the new and deeper harbor will be ready by 2023. The so called Iron Port Project, which is partly financed by the European Union, will cost about 1.7 billion Swedish crowns.

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Luleå is a town in northern Sweden highly affected by the post glacial uplift that has been ongoing for last ten thousand years.

 

Drying lakes

But the shallowing sea water in the Baltic Sea is not the only thing worrying people in the area, says Sven Knutsson, professor of Soil Mechanics at Luleå University of Technology. Swedes are known for enjoying a swim in their fresh water lakes during the hot summer months but inhabitants of Luleå and surrounding areas are now worried about their lakes. As the the land rises they slowly become smaller and shallower. Knutsson describes how grass is already growing in these shallow lakes making them more dirty and less attractive than before.

“It becomes more of a muddied terrain instead of this open free space it used to be with its clear water“, Knutsson says adding that there is an ongoing discussion amongst the locals on what can be done about this. „There is a very strong debate in our city if the city should make some measures in order to keep the water surface free which is of course very expensive and they would be fighting against nature and loose anyway.“ Other things people are concerned with is the constant growth of the numerous small islands in the Baltic Sea. „Islands which were separated with water earlier are now connected“, says Knutsson.

Finland is gaining new land

Across the Baltic Sea people are facing different problems. Ostrobothnia makes up a land area in Western Finland where floods have become more common due to land rise. Martin Vermeer, a professor of geodesy at Aalto University in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, describes how land is rising faster by the coastline than further east which is causing rivers to tilt. „The big rivers flow from the east to the Gulf of Bothnia, and because of the land is rising more in the west than in the east, it is tilting“, he says adding that this can cause big river floods especially during spring time when the rivers are full of melting snow water.

Another more positive effect people in Finland are experiencing due to land rise is all the extra land that is being added to the coastline. „Finland is gaining seven hundred hectares every year due to this uplift“, says Vermeer, stressing that a very thin strip is added to the western coastline of Finland every year. „And after a generation or so it is noticeable that there is more land than on old pictures.“ Newly added land is by default owned by the state but people owning land adjoining it can claim it. This has sometimes caused a stir between neighbors claiming the same land with such issues ending up in courts.

Although the inhabitants of Finland and Sweden do not have to worry about the effects of sea level rise for now it is highly likely that will change in the near future. As the atmosphere warms the sea level will likely continue to rise at accelerating rates, says Vermeer. „As temperatures go up the sea level rise will increase further and even Finland won´t be safe after that.“

Climate change

Is Paris burning?

Laurence Tubiana was the French ambassador for international climate negotiations in Paris 2015 and is now CEO of the European Climate Foundation. For her, the international commitments are showing striking results

von Laurence Tubiana

When the French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump jointly celebrated the anniversary of the French Revolution and commemorated the victims of the terrorist attack in Nice on 14 July 2016, Macron highlighted an issue closely interlinked with the future of the free world and the fight against terrorism: climate change.

Laurence Tubiana, Chefin der European Climate Foundation

Laurence Tubiana, Chefin der European Climate Foundation

Laurence Tubiana, CEO of the European Climate Foundation

When the French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump jointly celebrated the anniversary of the French Revolution and commemorated the victims of the terrorist attack in Nice on 14 July 2016, Macron highlighted an issue closely interlinked with the future of the free world and the fight against terrorism: climate change.

In light of President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, Macron emphasized the importance of the agreement as a key instrument to secure a stable future for the citizens and the economies of this world in their bilateral conversations.

With his focus on the Paris Agreement, Macron joins a long list of world leaders, both political and economic, who have reinforced their support of the agreement again and again over the past weeks and months – not least at the recent G20 summit. Still, given the weight of the US on the global stage, many still wonder whether „we’ll always have Paris“.

The political direction suggests we will. More than just an international treaty, the Paris Agreement was designed to be a catalytic force in the global economy. It was intended to provide investors and businesses with a clear signal on future direction of economic development. Less than two years since it was officially adopted in December 2015, the results are striking.

At the World Economic Forum earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping clearly stated his intention for China to become a world leader in climate change mitigation, and around fifty countries have ratified the Paris Agreement since the US elections last November. But the place to look for the answer to this question is not only high-level politics. The last weeks and months have demonstrated that cities, regions and the real economy are pulling in the same direction.

Since 195 countries, including the EU, approved the agreement in Paris, big coal projects have been stalling globally – in Australia, the power company Engie decided to close the world’s most polluting coal plant and in Germany there are plans to phase out the majority of its coal plants in the coming decades. China has slashed its coal growth and many coal projects have been cancelled in India. Coal-fired plant construction globally decreased by 62% in the past two years, bringing the well-below 2˚C temperature limit within reach. As a result, global greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector have flatlined for the third year in a row.

A major game changer has been the continuous drop in prices of reneable energy generation, with new record lows on a monthly basis. It is expected to become the cheapest source of electricity in G20 countries by 2030, and it already is in some regions today.

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Since the inception of the Paris Agreement and spurred on by the air pollution crisis in cities across the world, car manufacturers are increasingly turning towards electric and hybrid vehicles, with India announcing plans for a 100% electric car fleet by 2030, Volvo announcing to only sell electric or hybrid cars as of 2019, and France’s new climate plan to ban all diesel and petrol vehicles by 2040. Such developments both in the transport sector and other economic sectors harbour unprecedented business opportunities for those ready to drive the transition to a new reality.

The Paris Agreement has entered turbulent waters since the US presidential election. But in spite of ordering agencies to row back on America’s once ambitious climate policies, at the state level the country continues to invest in renewables and drive low-carbon innovation in areas such as battery storage. Moreover, cities and regions have become a key actor on climate action, as they experience the impacts first hand and will have to drive implementation of new systems and infrastructure on the ground. To underline their commitment to the Paris Agreement, mayors, governors, businesses, investors and university leaders recently published their „We’re still in“ coalition, and the state of California is preparing a Global Climate Action Summit for non-state actors in 2018.

But while these actions have brought the Paris Agreement’s objective to limit global temperature increase to under 2 degrees celsius within reach, all work is not done. Even as the low-cabon transition continues, the considerable gap between current emissions trajectories and a pathway to 1.5° remains. Collaboration between countries to establish their pathways to climate neutrality in 2050 will be key to closing this gap and to driving investment into existing technology as well as into the research and development necessary for the new innovations that will be vital to our collective success.

The political shifts that have occured during 2016 are certainly testing the resilience of the Paris Agreement, but the evidence so far suggests that it is holding strong. This was demonstrated most recently by 19 of the 20 leaders of the biggest economies worldwide when they declared at the G20 summit in Germany that the Paris Areement is irreversible – leaving Trump isolated from the group on this front. And somehow ironically, President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement has actually catapulted climate change high up on the public and political agenda.

However, there are still considerable challenges, and all countries – particularly Europe – will have to ratchet up existing efforts to reach the Paris objective. If Europe wants to reclaim its role as a leader of international efforts to curb climate change, it will need to show that it is able to promote strong and coherent ambition in its own laws.

The months to come will be an opportunity to show that no single country can sow division among a united group of nations working together for everyone’s benefit. The UN climate change conference in Bonn (COP23) and the international climate summit in Paris hosted by Macron will be the next big moments for the world’s leaders to prove to their citizens that they are taking their futures and their security seriously, and to underline their ambiton with concrete action.

© Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP

Climate change

Carbon pricing could stop climate change

Ottmar Edenhofer is a climate scientist and head of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin. He says we must raise the price of carbon to promote zero emission technologies and to generate revenue for the poor.

von Ottmar Edenhofer

Climate change could hardly be reversed at this point. But it can be slowed down. One possible means with which international climate policy could accomplish this is carbon pricing. As an instrument, carbon pricing is effective because it operates at three levels: it provides incentives for zero carbon technologies, it punishes the use of fossil fuels, and it generates revenue.

Klimaexperte Ottmar Edenhofer

Klimaexperte Ottmar Edenhofer

Thomas Trutschel/photothek.net

If we want to achieve the two-degree-target with high probability, the atmosphere can only absorb another 800 gigatons of CO2, in total. However, the Earth still harbors about 15,000 gigatons of CO2 in the form of fossil fuels. This means that at least 40 per cent of the Earth’s oil, 40 per cent of the gas and, especially, 80 per cent of the coal will have to remain in the ground.

Nonetheless, many countries are still relying on the use of coal, which stands by far as the world’s cheapest source of energy. Moreover, the use of coal, oil and gas on a global scale is subsidies by the countries with an estimated US$150 per ton of CO2, if all externalities, such as negative health impacts, are included. Thus, the political and economic challenges are immense.

In a first step, as has been shown by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), huge progress could be made by dismantling the exorbitant coal subsidies. Through this measure alone people in 70 countries of the world could gain universal access to drinking water, in 60 countries to sanitation, and in 50 countries to electricity over the course of the next fifteen years—provided that the money presently going to coal subsidies was diverted to the construction of these infrastructures. At the same time, this measure would function as a poverty alleviation program.

The industrialized countries would likewise benefit from carbon pricing. In particular the finance ministers—even if they do not care much about climate policy—stand to benefit from this regime. A group of U.S.-American Republicans, for example, proposed the introduction of a carbon tax to Donald Trump. After all, if the president’s infrastructure plans proved to exceed the allocated budget, Trump may possibly warm up to a carbon tax. Finally, similar to an eco tax, a carbon tax can be used to lower other taxes, such as income taxes or capital gains taxes. It could also be used to improve the public transport system.

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A suitable forum for promoting carbon pricing internationally would be the group of the 20 major economies (G20), since climate protection stopped long ago being a topic only extending to the environment. Moreover, the current political climate appears more favorable than ever to the introduction of a carbon price: Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has expressed her support of the carbon tax, as has the president of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim. Even in the financial sector, Mark Carney, head of the British Central Bank, is proposing a carbon price.

Last but not least, China—the largest emitter of greenhouse gases—has announced that it will launch the world’s largest emissions trading scheme in 2017. Together with Europe, the People’s Republic could create the world’s largest carbon market. If this was to happen, the turnaround of international climate policy would be as irreversible as climate change is today.

Ottmar Edenhofer is the director of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), chief economist at the Potsdam-Institute of Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Professor of the Economics of Climate Change of the Technical University Berlin.

Climate change

Healthy soils might save the climate

Ute Scheub has carried out a global investigation into farmers who regenerate humus on their land, and found that fertile soils can reduce the CO2 content to safe levels. Scheub pleads for diversified and natural crops.

von Ute Scheub

Ending the climate crisis is possible within a few decades. The solution is literally at our feet: nature can, with the miracle of photosynthesis, take carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide back to where it originates — into the ground. New studies confirm: only one per cent more humus on global soils would be enough to reduced the CO2 content to largely safe levels.

There is too much carbon, the base of all life, in the air and too little in the ground — due to deforestation and agro-industrial practices that release it and let it oxidize to CO2. At least one quarter of soil globally is already damaged. Carbon is the main component of humus on which the life cycles of all plants, animals and humans depend. Without humus there is no food and no life. Finish, end, out.

Humus formation, however, takes carbon from the CO2 supersaturated atmosphere. The initiative www.4p1000.org, which was launched by the French agricultural minister at the climate summit in Paris, demonstrates with reference to the UN climate council IPCC and its figures that with only four per thousand of humus per year the global new emissions could be neutralised. Humus also makes the soil fertile and species-rich, protects it against droughts and floods, renews groundwater and drinking water, promotes healthy plants, animals, and people, regenerates the small water cycle and thus entire landscapes, drives back desertification and desolation, and creates millions of meaningful jobs. A win-win-win solution.

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How? Through regenerative agriculture — an ecosystems  approach that actively supports the regenerative powers of nature and improves soils, air, water, biodiversity, food sovereignty, health and justice. Its methods include plough-less soil tillage, permaculture, Terra Preta, holistic pasture management, agro-forestry systems, indigenous forest gardens, woodland pastures and more. We can build up humus if we no longer plow the soil but directly sow and always cover it with intermediate crops and green manures; if we compost organic waste with vegetable carbon to produce black earth (“terra preta”); if we keep livestock under trees or on rotating pastures (“holistic management of pasture”). Grassland makes up about 40 per cent of the global land surfaces and therefore has a very high potential to fix CO2. Also deserts and desolate landscapes can be regenerated as the Loess Plateau in China shows or the Demeter project Sekem in Egypt, which has literally created 4,000 jobs on sand.

Many other agricultural pioneers show how to do it, and the Global Alliance www.regenerationinternational.org makes them visible. Small is beautiful, small is fruitful! A purely biological feeding of the world is possible and necessary, because it helps in the healing of ecosystems. Even more: In a world full of violence which continues to create new waves of (environmental) refugees, regenerative agriculture is a key to peace because it creates a new perspective for many millions of people in rural areas.  

For this, however, the global agro-industry intertwined with Monsanto & Co has to be pushed back. We need a coalition of small farmers, environmental, climate and food movements. According to Ronnie Cummins, co-founder of Regeneration International, it requires a “massive grassroots army of earth regenerators: three billion small farmers and villagers, ranchers, shepherds, forest dwellers, urban gardeners and indigenous communities — assisted by a few billion conscious consumers and urban activists.” Regeneration is possible — locally, regionally, nationally and globally.

Ute Scheub is a freelance journalist in Berlin. She co-founded the taz and its environmental editorial and published a total of 18 books.

Rising Seas are causing storms and flooding. In some regions people are literally standing in the water where before it was dry land© unsplash.com / Eric Garcia

Searise

How rising sea levels are changing the world

Climate change is altering the coasts of our planet: washing away sandy beaches, submerging islands and flooding plains. Our analysis of more than 700,000 tidal heights worldwide shows that climate change has long been a reality for the coastlines of the world. Hundreds of millions of people are affected.

von Annika Joeres

In the past six months, CORRECTIV, together with journalists from seven countries, has been collecting a wealth of data and now, for the first time, is making it accessible to the public. Since 1933 a British organisation, the Permanent Service of Mean Sea Level (PSMSL), has collected the tidal heights at ports around the world. In more than 2,000 places, the British have set up meters and taken, from some of them, monthly readings.. It is the most illustrative method of measuring the effects of global climate change. Satellite-based measurements began only in 1993.

We have selected 500 places which are particularly well documented and mapped them globally. The map not only gives you a glimpse into the past — it also shows how the levels will change in the future. “Where the sea level has risen strongly, it will continue to rise strongly in the future,” says Anders Levermann, researcher for climate impact in Potsdam and New York. Levermann is the main author of the last world climate report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and has set the course for a scientific consensus. Changing currents could influence the sea level locally, adds Levermann, but the global trend remains.

No continent will be able to escape the swelling waters. So the sea level in southern Marseille, France, is 10 centimeters higher today than it was 30 years ago. On the North Sea island of Borkum the difference is 6 centimeters — where in 1980 one could still stand with dry feet you need rubber boots today. The top ten most affected cities are mainly in Asia. The capital of the Philippines, Manila, for example, has levels that are 40 centimeters higher than 30 years ago.

At the same time, a surprising effect can be seen on our map: in the Scandinavian countries, the land is rising faster than the water. Some ports are literally high and dry. In the city of Vaasa in western Finland, the land has risen by almost ten centimeters according to our data, and in the town of Bodo in northern Norway by as much as 25 centimeters. The reason: the crust of the earth, which was previously compressed by ice sheets several kilometers thick, is still expanding after the melting of the glaciers.

The extent of the sea level rise depends on how much polar ice melts. The ice melt is difficult to predict: its speed depends on how much air is trapped in the ice, how dense the ice is, and how old. Water, in turn, warms up more slowly than air and stores heat for longer. Researchers led by Detlef Stammer at the Hamburg Institute for Oceanography are currently working on computer simulations which look at how various factors affect sea levels, such as solar radiation, man-made CO2 in the atmosphere, and the effect of aerosols. “In the end it proves to us that a prediction is extremely difficult,” says Stammer. What is certain is that the global trends will continue.

Researchers at the IPCC currently assume a global rise in sea levels between 20 and 80 centimeters by the year 2100. By the year 2200 or even 2300 it could be a few metres. An enormous range that will decide the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Recently, the forecasts have been revised upward by a considerable degree.

“The fact that the sea levels will rise even faster in the coming centuries is now an absolute consensus — and also that this is due to human-induced warming,” says climate impact researcher Levermann. However the researchers are in disagreement as to how much the ice caps at the poles will change. “We have most probably underestimated their influence so far.” According to Levermann if one day the ice sheets of Greenland completely melted, they  alone would make global sea levels rise by seven meters.

Man has always lived on the coasts of this earth. To this day, cities near the water grow rapidly and attract twice as many people as those in the interior of the country. “The social, economic and political development of a country is concentrated on the coast,” says Derryl Colenbrand from Cape Town, South Africa. However our data – which is lacking across the continent – also attests to the economic isolation of Africa: tidal heights have only been recorded in South Africa and Zanzibar. Other ports were apparently not important enough for the British officials to measure their levels.     

Our data also shows that climate change affects humanity differently. The sea is rising worldwide at an average of 3.4 millimetres a year, but wind, currents and waves influence the level regionally. In some regions, the sea level rises ten millimeters per year, three times faster than the global average.

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What is certain is that the closer people live to the sea, the more they will suffer from climate change. Parts of the Philippines could cease to exist, as islands with their own languages ​​and cultures sink. Millions of people in Bangladesh, one of the lowest countries on earth, are threatened. Broadly speaking, countries in the global South often don’t have sufficient resources to protect themselves from storms and floods. African countries for obvious reasons, prefer to invest in roads and hospitals rather than in dykes.

Wealthier states are better prepared. The devastating storm surge on the North Sea coast of Europe in 1953, for example, has led to better protection measures, which are still paying off. But European citizens will also have to leave their homes. As will the North Americans: as Storm Sandy tragically showed in New York, the US has not done enough to protect its coasts. There is a danger that the luxurious houses in the Rio Parana delta in Argentina will perish, and in the south of France, in Palavas-les-Flots, hotels and beach bars are under threat from floods.                      

In Japan, scientists are trying to breed coral reefs to build living barriers against the rising water with the help of nature. And there is one more piece of good news: Climate change is making mankind work on global solutions for the first time.

So what to do? What now? We would like to present five positions:

Laurence Tubiana was the French negotiator at the UN climate summit in 2015 and is now the CEO of the European Climate Foundation. Even though the euphoria has now subsided after the Parisian summit, Tubian still sees it as a signal of hope. International treaties mean that even the powerful coal industry is looking for alternatives.

Ottmar Edenhofer from the Berlin Mercator Institute hopes for a global CO2 tax. It would make climate-damaging energy forms such as coal expensive and thus unattractive. At the same time this could provide money for the victims of climate change.

There is another, previously little noticed solution, that was presented for the first time in Paris: a new agriculture. Because healthy, humus rich soil can store CO2.

CORRECTIV- climate expert Annika Joeres counts on enlightened and more frugal citizens: A climate friendly everyday life can be worth living for everyone.

And put the seas that are swelling worldwide into their place.