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Lessons for India: Ecological revolution in France to ban plastic bags and levy penalties on food wastage

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By Rajendra Shende

In month of May in 1789, the simmering debate between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy on the proposed royal reforms sparked the French revolution. It quickly spilled all over the country. The ‘commons’ or the so called ‘Third Estate’ started holding their own assembly. Within a span of six months, by December, prison of Bastille and palace of Versailles were stormed and the debate on new structures that included, inter alia, principles of legal equality, began to set in.

This week, on May 26, the French lower house of parliament approved a ‘Royal’ bill, pushed patiently but vigorously by France’s Ecology Minister, Segolene Royal. The bill, called ‘the energy transition for green growth Act’, passed by 308 votes for and 217 against, heralds the beginning of the French ecological revolution. It nurtures the tunes for the global leaders preparing for the UN meetings this year, first in September in New York on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and later in December in Paris, for climate meeting that is expected to shape up the global agenda to decarbonize the post-2015 development and wean away the humans from addiction to fossil fuels.

The French revolution had a worldwide impact on the politics, economics and social dimensions. The 21st century French bill, if approved by the upper house – the Senate – has the potential to have a spill over impact at the Paris meeting. The bill aims to reduce French dependency on nuclear power to 50 percent by 2025. Today, France relies more on nuclear power – 75 percent of its energy – than any other nation in the world – with no record of a major nuclear accident in the 53 years since its first nuclear plant went on stream. France now plans to shut down nearly 40% of its 59 nuclear reactors in the next decade.

Considering that Japan, even after the Fukushima disaster, is contemplating restarting its nuclear reactors to restore its share of electricity production from nuclear power to more than 30%, French plans are stunningly ‘green’.

The bill forbids big supermarkets from destroying unsold food. Food no longer fit for sale would have to be donated to charities or to farms for use as animal feed or compost. The global food waste has reached shocking proportions. In a world where over 840 million go hungry every day, at least one-third, or 1.3 billion tonnes of food produced each year, is lost or wasted, as per a FAO report. Even a quarter of this could feed all the world’s hungry people, as per the report.

Food loss and waste amounts to roughly $680 billion in industrialized countries (mainly through consumer and market waste) and $310 billion in developing countries (mainly during harvesting and in bringing to the market). The French bill includes the penalty of 75,000 Euros and two years’ imprisonment for the breach of this measure by large and medium supermarkets.

The new law would also ban plastic bags in all supermarkets and stores from January 1, 2016. Only biodegradable bags made from potato or maize would be allowed. Many countries in the world have banned plastic bags in some form or the other. However, such bans are mainly applicable to thicker heavy bags and implementation remains a problem. France is going to ban plastic bags of all sizes.

Under the bill, every enterprise employing more than 100 people would be needed to provide how they would save fuel used for transportation. State, local and city councils would be required to buy at least 50% of low emission vehicles when they renew their fleets of buses, starting in 2020.

Sharing vehicles will be promoted among the public. A reduced toll rate on expressways for light vehicles with very low emission and creation of special bike routes are included in the bill. This measure would force all private owners of houses and apartments to renovate their properties by 2025, if they consume a high amount of energy, one that exceeds 330 units per sq metre per year.

More than 93 percent of the French, as per latest survey, believe that current natural disasters are due to global warming. The French are looking forward to the Paris climate summit and welcome the passing of the Segolene Royal’s ecological bill and its energy transition for green growth and the reduction in Greenhouse Gas (GHG)emission.

Former couple, President Hollande and Segolene Royal, has worked together on an energy transition and sustainable development initiative. While President Hollande is busy travelling around the world persuading and urging the global leaders for the success of the Paris Climate meeting, his former wife is taking the lead on the domestic front to demonstrate that ‘charity begins at home’. Quite contrary to what Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette did in 18th century.

(Shende is an IIT-alumni and chairman of the TERRE Policy Centre. He is also a former director of the UNEP. He can be contacted at shende.rajendra@gmail.com. With inputs from IANS)

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Concerns Rise Over China’s Stand at United Nations Human Rights Council

China has passed human rights reviews twice before this one, while more than 120 countries Beijing's human rights record during the most recent process.

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The 22nd session of the U.N. Human Rights Council meets in Geneva on Feb. 25, 2013. RFA

Rights activists are increasingly worried that Beijing’s influence operations are having a negative impact on the work of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which concludes its 40th session on Friday.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) China director Sophie Richardson warned in an article this week that China is seeking to undermine the mission of the U.N. Human Rights Council from within.

She also cited HRW research in 2017 which reported threats and harassment of U.N. staff involved in human rights evaluation by Chinese officials.

“As we head towards the final phase of [China’s U.N. human rights review], ask yourself: What other government threatens #humanrights treaty body experts?” Richardson tweeted on Thursday.

“As an [Human Rights Council] member #China is expected to uphold highest standards,” she wrote in another tweet, referencing a report in The New York Times. “Instead it tells people that merely attending an event is a ‘hostile act.'”

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During the recent round, the Chinese government said it accepted most of the 346 human rights recommendations put forward by the council. VOA

According to HRW’s 2017 article based on a 97-page report: “Chinese officials have at times harassed and intimidated U.N. staff, experts on treaty bodies, and independent experts focusing on specific human rights issues.”

The 2014 death in detention of activist Cao Shunli, who was detained on her way to a U.N. human rights event in Geneva, also sent a “chilling” message to Chinese activists who may want to participate in the U.N. human rights process, the article said.

HRW isn’t the only human rights organization worried about Chinese influence at the U.N.

Renee Xia, who heads the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network, reported from a side-event of the Human Rights Council conference in Geneva this week that it was “standing room only.”

“Strong show of interest despite #China urging countries not to attend,” Xia tweeted.

“The strong attendance was more remarkable esp. after #China officials went to many countries’ diplomats at the U.N., Geneva, to threaten them with “serious consequences” if they attended the side events,” she wrote in another tweet.

“#Bullying at the UN must stop!” she wrote.

‘So many restrictions’

Wang Dan, a former leader of the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square, is also in Geneva this week.

“To tell you the truth, my feelings during my two days here are that China has huge influence at the U.N.,” Wang told RFA.

“For example, at one side-event, it wasn’t just the Chinese delegation who spoke against [criticisms of Beijing’s rights record], but other countries came to speak in support of China’s position,” he said.

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“Many of the countries participating in the Human Rights Council are actually the ones that are carrying out the most violations of human rights, Pixabay

Wang said tight controls over public speech also make it less likely that the ruling Chinese Communist Party will have to face criticism of human rights violations coming from within its own borders.

“There are a lot of people online in China, but they are under so many restrictions,” he said. “You can’t mention the Tiananmen Massacre. You can’t mention [late Nobel peace laureate and political prisoner] Liu Xiaobo. You can’t say this, you can’t say that.”

“I don’t think that’s how you define freedom … but then the Chinese point to the U.N. charter, which says that all member states must be respected,” he said.

‘Autocratic rule the default’

Veteran New York-based rights activist Liu Qing said the work of the council had become “unrecognizable” to him.

“Many of the countries participating in the Human Rights Council are actually the ones that are carrying out the most violations of human rights,” Liu told RFA.

“The only purpose of these countries in insinuating themselves into the Human Rights Council is to curb the positive role of the Human Rights Council and make autocratic rule the default setting on the international stage,” he said.

Amnesty International blogger Shao Jiang wrote in December 2018 that Beijing is reinterpreting universal human rights as merely the right to survival, freedom to access food, and regards other definitions of human rights as secondary to trade and economic development.

“The Chinese government has appointed government officials as independent experts into the UN’s Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, and the U.N. treaty bodies,” Shao said.

China has passed human rights reviews twice before this one, while more than 120 countries Beijing’s human rights record during the most recent process.

During the recent round, the Chinese government said it accepted most of the 346 human rights recommendations put forward by the council.

Also Read: Myanmar Government Calls Ethnic Armed Groups To Attend Collective Peace Discussions For The First Time

The United Nations now reports annually on government reprisals against human rights defenders participating in U.N. human rights efforts, Richardson wrote in an article in The Hill last December.

“China has topped the list of offenders in every report issued,” she said. (RFA)