Capitalism: a scorched-earth system

Tackling global warming is, to state the obvious, a global problem. The environment and climate are everywhere. It is also inextricably linked to the global political economy: the way the world is run.

A consequence of greenhouse gas emissions, human-induced global warming is, by definition, a systemic crisis, a crisis of capitalism. Even the measurements for the amount of carbon in the atmosphere are comparisons with pre-industrial levels – the dawn of the 18th century industrial revolution and mass production driven by fossil fuels.

Report after report has detailed the interconnectedness of the environment and human activity, and the need for far-reaching action on this existential threat. Summit after summit claims success. In reality, however, the progress has been glacial.

The latest report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is another in a long line of such publications. It stands out, nonetheless. Its 43-page ‘summary for policymakers’ is backed by a technical report nearly 1,400 pages long. Just giving the full title indicates its scope: Climate Change and Land: An IPCC Special Report on Desertification, Land Degradation, Sustainable Land Management, Food Security, and Greenhouse Gas Fluxes in Terrestrial Ecosystems.

When all is said and done, it is an examination of the interaction between people and the land, human society and the environment. In other words, how the world capitalist system – based on the exploitation of workers’ labour in a no-holds-barred fight for profits between competing corporations and nation states – uses and abuses human and natural resources.

The IPCC, of course, does not frame it like that. As an intergovernmental body it cannot help but reflect geopolitics. The major powers wield the most influence. It goes through convoluted bureaucratic processes before arriving at diplomatic formulations that can be approved by government delegates.

It cannot challenge the interests of the major powers and corporations, regardless of the intentions of those working at the IPCC. Neither is this cut across by the fact that many individual members of the capitalist ruling class share concerns over climate change, or that lucrative profits are being made through environmentally sustainable products.

Nonetheless, the IPCC’s authoritative reports help identify the issues involved. They make important points on what measures could mitigate, and then reverse, the worst consequences of global warming, environmental degradation and destruction. Its latest report sounds an alarm: “Confidence is very high that the window of opportunity – the period when significant change can be made, for limiting climate change within tolerable boundaries – is rapidly narrowing”.

Early on, it states the importance of land: “Neither our individual or societal identities, nor the world’s economy would exist without the multiple resources, services and livelihood systems provided by land ecosystems and biodiversity”. It values these at $75-85 trillion a year to the global economy – broadly equivalent to the World Bank’s estimate of nominal global GDP.

According to the report, humans exploit 72% of the planet’s ice-free surface for food, clothing and other resources. Around 12-14% of this area is used for growing crops, 22% is managed or planted forests, and 37% is for grazing and other uses.

From 2008-17, the land absorbed 30% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Up to 45% of carbon stored in the land is held by the world’s forests. In addition, the top metre of the world’s soil is thought to contain three times as much carbon as the entire atmosphere.

The report says that around 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions released from 2007-16 came from agriculture, deforestation, peatland degradation and other land use. Livestock production accounts for around 33% of the world’s emissions of methane – a greenhouse gas 32 times more potent than CO2 over a 100-year period – and 66% of agricultural methane. Rice in flooded paddies is responsible for a quarter of agricultural methane.

One of the starkest stats in the report is that soil is being lost more than 100 times faster than it is being formed in ploughed areas, and ten to 20 times faster on untilled land. Land degradation is further exacerbated by climate change through increases in rainfall intensity, flooding, drought frequency, wind, sea-level rise and wave action. Around 10% of cereal production has been lost globally because of extreme weather events.

Three billion people live in ‘drylands’, mainly in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, areas particularly vulnerable to land degradation because of irregular rainfall and poor soil fertility. Global warming is projected to reduce crop yields across dryland areas.

If this is not met with increased productivity and reductions in food waste, it will result in the expansion of farmland into ever-more marginal areas. As cropland expansion is a main driver of soil erosion, this risks further desertification. It is a vicious circle. Food price rises – caused by climate change – could increase food insecurity, hunger and conflict.

A previous IPCC report said that ‘negative emissions’ will be needed to keep global warming within ‘safe limits’ – 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Negative emissions are ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in the land or ocean. Often cited is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) – growing crops, using them to produce energy, then capturing and storing the CO2 in the ground or sea. The technique has not yet been proven to work at scale.

The IPCC now warns that, if BECCS could be used at the level necessary to make a difference, it could lead to further soil degradation – through the imposition of monocultures and industrial-scale agriculture, forcing people off the land and undermining biodiversity. It would be a way of making the ‘global south’ pay for the climate crisis, a kind of environmental colonialism.

The IPCC concludes that there needs to be a big change in how land is used. It calls for policies for improving “access to markets, empowering women farmers, expanding access to agricultural services and strengthening land tenure security”. This vague aspirational pronouncement, however, sums up the limitations of the UN body. It can only advise and recommend – to representatives of governments locked in competition for commodities and markets.

This should raise fundamental issues for anyone campaigning on environmental issues and/or for the rights of workers, indigenous peoples and so on. The question is: can capitalism deal with the climate crisis? Inaction over global warming for decades provides a negative answer.

Locked into the drive for short-term profit, the capitalist system is incapable of long-term planning. Measures to halt global warming would inevitably impose colossal costs on capitalist production and distribution. Strict environmental standards and regulations would have to be imposed.

They can and must be campaigned for – alongside the struggle for jobs on living wages, housing and education, etc. Moreover, those directly exploited by big business – miners, energy-sector workers, land and other labourers – have the most important role to play in fighting for every improvement and step forward. Organised collectively, they can stop production – and the flow of profits.

Winning piecemeal reforms, however, will not be enough to tackle the global climate crisis. And there is a growing realisation that tackling global warming is not possible without far-reaching measures. The radical youth mobilised by Extinction Rebellion, determined individuals like Greta Thunberg, and even more-established commentators, increasingly denounce (to varying degrees) the system.

These sentiments, however, have to be realised through a programme for real change. For a socialist system where the working class can plan democratically the world’s resources, based on people’s needs and the long-term health of the planet we depend on.

Manny Thain