SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 225 February 2019

Katowice climate cop-out

The self-congratulations, usual at the end of UN climate change conferences, were hardly ever less justified than in Katowice, Poland, last December, where the latest event was held. Called COP24 – the 24th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – it was supposed to pave the way for the implementation of the 2015 Paris climate change agreement due to start in 2020.

The mutual back slapping was out of order. The main business had been to adopt a ‘common rulebook’ for the Paris agreement, but the resulting rulebook was full of evasions, buck-passing and ambiguities. Still less called for was the self-congratulation, considering the background to the conference: the publication of the latest alarming global warming data and the election of climate change-denying president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

In addition, the conference refused to endorse the report of the UN’s own Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That had called for urgent action to restrict global warming to a 1.5C rise above pre-industrial levels. Two degrees of warming is currently written into the Paris agreement but growing evidence that the increase of only one Celsius we have at present is linked to extreme weather events led to a rethink by the IPCC.

The conference coincided with new data by the Global Carbon Project (GCP) research body, published in the Environmental Research Letters journal, which predicted a rise in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2018 of 2.7%, the largest increase in seven years. Carbon dioxide output is the main driver of global warming. This follows a rise of 1.6% in 2017, dashing the hopes of some climate scientists that the flatlining of emissions for the previous three years marked the turning of the tide.

As highlighted in this column many times, CO2 output trends are very dependent on events in China, which was responsible for about half the 2018 global increase. Professor Corinne Le Quéré, a lead scientist at the GCP, links the recent stimulus given to the construction industry in China to an estimated 4.7% rise in greenhouse gas emissions in that country in 2018, according to the Carbon Brief website. The GCP thinks this might turn out to be as high as 7.4%.

The main culprit is cement production because it is the most energy intensive industry and is at the heart of the new construction boom. Le Quéré also says that there are early indications that the government is planning another multi-trillion renminbi stimulus this year. The USA, the second biggest polluter after China, also recorded a large, estimated rise of CO2 emissions in 2018, after flattening off earlier in the decade. To put these increases in context, the IPCC has said that carbon output must decline by 45% in the next eleven years to give a chance of reaching a 1.5C target for warming.

At the Paris conference in 2015, pledges – known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – were made by each participating country for how much they would reduce emissions when the mechanism starts in 2020. These pledges would then be compared regularly, added up and assessed to track how the programme was going. This required a rulebook for how countries would measure and report their emissions, based on common scientifically reliable methods. But the Katowice final report decided to allow countries to use ‘nationally appropriate methodologies’. This ambiguous formulation gives a green light to member states to bend the rules and massage the data.

Brazil, in the aftermath of Bolsonaro’s election, immediately moved to exploit this loophole. As part of a proposed carbon market, Brazil was trying to obtain offsets that would count towards its emissions targets as a result of its large rainforest cover, since that absorbs CO2. The delegation tried to undermine a proposal in the complex Article Six on carbon markets to prevent double counting of emissions – where both the country buying the offset and the one where the emissions originated would receive a credit. This led to an impasse and the issue was deferred to the next conference, COP25, in Chile in November.

Another controversial topic was climate finance, in particular the pledges that industrialised western countries agreed to make to help poor nations mitigate and adapt to climate change. One hundred billion dollars a year were promised by 2020, with a new, higher goal to be set by 2025. Getting to the 2020 target is still a long way off, but even the claims for what has been achieved so far have been described as meaningless, due to loopholes in the way the donations are accounted for. In addition to genuine climate finance donations, the $100 billion figure includes commercial loans. In the past, these have even been used to finance the building of coal-fired power stations! Under Article Nine of the proposed rulebook, countries will still not be obliged to distinguish between commercial loans, equity, etc, and genuine climate finance.

Furthermore, the NDCs due to begin in 2020 are so low that they would result in a catastrophic 3C warming when implemented – or rather, if they are, since there are no sanctions attached if targets, however minimal, are not met. Recognising the hopelessly inadequate level of the NDCs, Paris called on member states to come up with new, more ambitious pledges by 2020. With time rapidly running out, this was still not on the agenda of COP24. The can was kicked down the road yet again.

Climate justice was not on the agenda in Poland, either. That and the photographs in the press of the exuberant celebrations of the massed ranks of UN bureaucrats at the end of the Katowice conference were a provocation to the yellow vest protesters in France. Initially, they were mobilising against French president Emmanuel Macron’s new fuel tax, which he justified by the fight against climate change. The reaction of one demonstrator in France was entirely understandable: "The elites are talking about the end of the world and we are talking about the end of the month!" (Financial Times, 29 December 2018)

Climate change deniers, or climate change effects deniers, could try to exploit the Katowice conference’s disregard of climate justice by opportunistically and hypocritically saying that the elites want to make workers and the poor pay for tackling global warming. Backing them will be right-wing populists like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Andrzej Duda, president of Poland. He deliberately sited the UN conference in Katowice to highlight the importance of the country’s highly polluting brown coal industry centred there.

Their propaganda is unlikely to be answered by the UN since the imperialist countries that dominate its bodies want the working class and poor to foot the bill for tackling climate change. The great majority of CO2 emissions are the responsibility of big corporations not workers. These firms, particularly big oil and coal, will resist with all their power any attempt to deprive them of the super-profits they make from exploiting workers and the environment. Taking these companies into public ownership, run democratically in the interests of the whole of society, will be one of the major first steps to begin to tackle the dangers facing the planet from global warming.

Pete Dickenson

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