‘Time for action’ read the subheading of the United Nation’s most recent climate change conference, known as COP25. Held in Madrid in December, it was the right call. Following record forest fires in California and the Amazon, and against the backdrop of bushfires raging across Australia, it appeared that, at last, the UN might mean business. That it would put the world’s governments on red alert and ensure decisive action is taken to halt the global warming caused by ever increasing emissions of greenhouse gases.
At the start of the annual gathering of representatives from 190 governments and dozens of agencies, NGOs and businesses, the UN issued a stark warning: greenhouse gas emissions had risen 4% since the Paris accord of 2015 and the world will need to cut them by 7.6% every year of the next decade to stay within the limits advised by climate scientists.
Those limits would see global warming of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, the threshold beyond which sea-level rises, droughts, storms and floods are expected to devastate swathes of the globe. The UN also pointed out that greenhouse gas emissions had increased 0.6% in 2018.
The stated aim of COP25 was to get governments to recognise the need to bridge the gap between the targets set in Paris – to cut or at least slow the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 – and the advice that much deeper cuts are needed. Although announced to much fanfare, the 2015 agreement – an acknowledgement not a commitment – was widely recognised as being nowhere near enough; it would see earth’s temperature rise by 3.2C.
Despite this sense of urgency, however, practically nothing was achieved. In fact, with the stakes as high as they are, it was a backward step, a very bad COP.
It was no accidental failure. A powerful coalition of states with strong links to fossil fuels – the US, China, India, Brazil, Australia and Saudi Arabia to the fore – ensured no progress would be made. Donald Trump’s climate-change denying administration had signalled its intention to leave the Paris agreement in 2020, anyway.
Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is busy opening the Amazon to big-business loggers, mining companies and cattle farmers, devastating the lives of indigenous peoples and landless workers, the environment and the planet. This dovetails with his all-out assault on public services, workers’ pay, conditions and rights, along with increased discrimination against women, LGBTQ+ people and many others.
Meanwhile, record temperatures and huge bushfires have swept through New South Wales and other parts of Australia – as prime minister, Scott Morrison, enjoyed a holiday with his family in Hawaii. Lives have been lost, thousands of homes destroyed, millions of animals killed. With protests outside his home, Morrison was compelled to cut short his holiday.
Feeling the heat of this mass pressure, Morrison has had to pay lip-service to concerns over global warming and his right-wing government’s mishandling of Australia’s climate crisis. Nonetheless, his administration runs on coal – up to now, unashamedly. As with all such governments, he does so with hypocritical, populist appeals on jobs for miners, a strong economy and keeping electricity prices down.
To frame the extent of COP25’s abject failure, it took the whole of the first week to draw up the text on the future of carbon markets. Yet, by the end of the fortnight of talks (plus 40 hours), midday 15 December, there was still no resolution of this issue – a hangover from the Kyoto protocol of 1997. The second week was optimistically titled the ‘high-level segment’ where decisions would be made. That didn’t happen at all.
Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, lamented: “Why are we here in 2019 talking about a failed policy from 1997?” (The Guardian, 14 December) She and other environmentalists criticised the talks for focusing on what they call ‘narrow technical issues’, such as carbon markets.
Clearly, it makes no sense from an environmental point of view, hence Morgan’s lament. But these issues rise to prominence in a system based on the drive for profit, that compels companies and nation states to engage in a tooth-and-nail fight for market share. And capitalism is a global system, forcing everyone and everything to play by its rules.
Brazil’s right-wing government, for instance, counts the Amazon rainforest as part of its emissions-cutting goals, as a carbon sink. This removes the incentive to cut emissions in other areas of its economy. Brazil can also sell carbon credits to other countries on the basis of preserving forest land – while it accelerates deforestation. The governments of those countries then count the carbon credits towards their own emissions targets – removing, in turn, the incentive to cut emissions elsewhere. It is a greenhouse gas emitters’ licence.
From the Australian government’s point of view, the carryover credits from the Kyoto protocol could account for 80% of its emissions reduction target. From the short-term perspective of these governments and their corporate backers, it simply pays to pollute.
The last throes of COP25’s near-dead body saw negotiators wrangle over the financial assistance given to developing countries hit by the effects of global warming – known in UN jargon as the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM). This is another important issue. For instance, when cyclone Pam hit Vanuatu in 2015, it caused loss and damage worth US$600 million, 64% of Vanuatu’s GDP. Yet it received international support covering only 10% of the costs.
A US state department official explained why this matters to his administration: “The WIM should be a constructive space to catalyse action on the wide range of loss and damage issues. A divisive conversation on blame and liability helps no one”. (The Guardian, 15 December) In other words, people in poverty-stricken countries can get lost, why should the world’s major economic and political powers – the countries that have driven greenhouse gas emissions for 150 years, along with today’s biggest emitters – pay?
Just when it looked as though future emissions cuts would be completely ignored, a dubiously titled ‘high ambitions coalition’ – the EU and some developing countries – put on a show of riding to the rescue. It was underwhelming to say the least. They moved a resolution asking for stronger plans on cutting carbon, a plaintive plea for governments to recommit to Paris 2015 – in 2020! Five more wasted years.
COP25 felt like the end of the road. Yet capitalism’s climate-change circus will pitch up in Glasgow in November to do it all over again, presumably with Boris Johnson in the chair. The inaction contrasted with the half-a-million who marched through Madrid at the start of the conference and with the tens of thousands demanding real change in Australia.
COP25 calls to mind the definition, generally attributed to Albert Einstein, that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. This specific insanity, however, is hardwired into the capitalist system. Capitalism drives environmental destruction and global warming. It also causes poverty, conflict and war. And it is based on an insatiable thirst for profit. Profits, in turn, come from the exploitation of the working class. And that is where we can find the solution.
It is a harsh reality that, unless and until the environmental movement grasps this systemic link, it will be unable to break out of capitalism’s twisted logic. Demonstrating, lobbying and appeals for individuals to change their behaviour, of course, play a part. If that is as far as it goes, however, the movement remains limited, essentially, to imploring big business and its government representatives to do more, be more ambitious, to see the light.
There is an urgent need to link up workers’ and environmental struggles. The central role workers play in production and distribution means they have colossal potential power to shape how the economy is run. The organised working class, adopting a democratic, socialist programme – and allied with environmental and other activists – could ensure that the economy is planned according to what society really needs. We could then eliminate the huge waste and duplication inherent in competitive capitalist production – and the generalised poverty and destruction it causes.