In an interview with The Guardian newspaper in the run-up to the twenty-seventh Conference of the Parties to the UN climate convention (COP27) – held in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh from November 6-20 – the USA’s climate envoy John Kerry lamented how climate negotiations over the past year between China and the US, the world’s two largest economies and responsible for around 40% of global carbon emissions, had been interrupted “due to events that are nothing to do with climate”. (26 October)
“I personally vehemently disagree with that” said Kerry, who was the US Democratic Party’s presidential candidate against George W Bush in 2004. “Climate is a universal issue, a universal threat. Without political ideology, without political party. It does not represent global competition. It represents a global threat to the world”.
The twelve months since the last COP summit in Glasgow have seen double digit global inflation for the first time in nearly 40 years and the prospect of a world economic slowdown or recession.
There has been the Russian invasion of Ukraine in which, for the first time since the end of the cold war 30 years ago, a significant world power with nuclear weapons is attempting to impose by force of arms its own capitalist economic, territorial and strategic interests against another capitalist nation state militarily supplied by the US.
In the same period, the Joe Biden administration published the latest US National Security Strategy that described China as “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge”. It followed this up with further restrictions on exports to China of semi-conductor microchip technology (critical, amongst other things, to the environmentally significant production of electric cars).
Yet the Guardian’s environment correspondent Fiona Harvey can blithely muse in the Kerry interview that such events “should not, in theory, affect climate negotiations, which are supposed to be held in a separate bubble from other geo-political concerns”.
At least she said ‘in theory’. The brutal reality in practice is that the Sharm el-Sheikh summit once again proved that the political representatives of the world’s most powerful capitalist nation states (and the formally ‘non-market economy’ dictatorial Chinese regime) are unable to overcome their competing economic and political interests to find a way to avert future catastrophic climate change.
This is a systemic issue – a failure of capitalism, the globally dominant economic and social system of organising human relations – and only a ‘politics’ (that dread word) that aims at a complete change of system, to a democratic socialist planned economy, can provide a solution.
However ‘vehemently’ supporters of the current system protest at the idea.
Summit for nothing
Desperate to show something for their labours, the Sharm el-Sheikh delegates hailed a decision by this COP gathering to establish a ‘loss and damage’ fund to rescue and rebuild the physical and social infrastructure of developing countries hit by climate-related extreme weather events.
The experience of Pakistan loomed large, devastated by this year’s climate-exacerbated monsoon rains that caused $30 billion of damage (nearly 9% of its GDP) while the country is responsible for just 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
But the details of the fund, to be run by the UN, will not be presented for agreement for a year, with nothing resolved on how much should be paid in, by whom, and on what basis, with hard pledges coming to just $262 million.
Thirteen years ago, at the COP15 summit in Copenhagen, it was agreed to raise $100 billion a year to help poor countries adapt to climate change, through building flood defences, heat-proofing buildings and so on.
But no more than $83 billion has ever been raised in any single year, with Oxfam, estimating a smaller figure for the amount generated, calculating that even of this financial aid 70% was in the form of rich-country loans to poorer countries.
No wonder the ideologically pro-capitalist Economist magazine cynically, but accurately, characterised the new ‘loss and damage’ fund as a “gesture”, “paltry” in its sums but “worthwhile”, “to the extent that [it] may help keep the COP process on the road”. (26 November)
What really damns the final agreement reached at Sharm el-Sheikh, however, is the steps back that were taken even compared to the summit text, also ‘paltry’ in fact, approved at the COP26 conference held last year in Glasgow.
The Glasgow COP ended with an agreement that governments would “revisit and strengthen” their plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), in time for COP27.
The aim was for global emissions to peak by 2025, as a step to their halving by 2030 compared to 2010 levels, considered as the only chance possible to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius (1.5C) above pre-industrial levels.
But only 24 countries have submitted new NDCs since Glasgow, with the UN calculating that the plans, with the revisions included, would still see emissions increase by 10.6% by 2030 and a temperature rise of between 2.1C and 2.9C, with a best estimate of 2.5C.
That is an ‘improvement’ on the Glasgow pledges, which would have led to a 13.7% increase in emissions by 2030 and a 2.7C temperature rise, but nowhere near what is needed.
The assembled representatives of capitalism at Sharm el-Sheikh resolved this little problem by dropping the commitment to a 2025 emissions peak target altogether.
The 1.5C target was first set at the COP summit in Paris in 2015, which agreed to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels” and pursue “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C”.
The 1.5C goal was firmed up following the 2018 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which looked at the different consequences of a 1.5C or a 2C warming.
The impact was worse in every aspect, with between a twelfth and a fifth of the earth’s land mass transforming from one to another of the different terrestrial biome types at 2C – tropical rainforest, boreal and temperate forests, savannah, grasslands, deserts and tundra – 50% more than at 1.5C.
Around 420 million additional people would be exposed to record heat in a 2C world and millions more dangerously exposed to sea-level rises.
The IPCC also calculated a ‘carbon budget’ for the earth, the amount of cumulative carbon-dioxide emissions that would produce a specific amount of warming, coming to a figure of 2,890 billion tonnes of carbon that could avoid average temperature rising by more than 1.5C.
Some 2,390 billion of this had already been emitted by 2019, with a further 40 billion tonnes emitted each year since. Ten more years of emissions at today’s rates would be enough to use up the entire ‘budget’.
But the Sharm el-Sheikh final text limited itself to a “phase down [of] unabated coal” use – but no other fossil fuels – and an endorsement of “low-emissions energy” which could be interpreted as a reference to gas.
A 1.5C-plus world would be a disaster for humanity. But the world’s capitalist politicians are heading towards it, and dragging us behind them, with their eyes wide open.
Green transition and the market
To limit temperature rise to 1.5C is still technically possible. It is also the case that there has been a dramatic fall in costs of renewable energy – solar photovoltaic energy became about 90% cheaper during the 2010s – so that they are now below, or at the lower end, of the range for energy generation by fossil fuels.
A McKinsey Global Institute report estimates that an annual average of 9.2% of GDP must be spent on ‘green investment’ to achieve a carbon net zero economy by 2050, the next step after the 2030 target (of halving emissions) in the ‘pathway’ to 1.5C.
But with power plants, cars, boilers and so on being continuously replaced anyway on a normal depreciation cycle, their estimate of the ‘incremental spending’ – additional investment – needed to replace them with green alternatives is much lower, at 0.9% of GDP. The IMF calculates the figure as between 0.6% and 0.9% a year over the next decade.
But even this, an expenditure of less than one percent of annual output, still requires a massive reallocation of capital; and capitalism, an anarchic system based on competition between rival capitalist companies and their organisation into contending nation states, will not be able to effect the transition.
The chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, Martin Wolf, pondering on the outcome of Sharm el-Sheikh under the heading, ‘The market can deliver the green transition – just not fast enough’, identified the obstacles, among many, of “the overhang of low marginal cost installed capacity” and “resistance to the loss of existing business in production, refining and distribution”. (FT, 22 November)
A green transition would leave some companies, and the finance capital tied to them, with ‘stranded assets’ of unusable fossil fuel reserves and associated production patterns totalling trillions of dollars.
While some sectors would gain from decarbonisation, others however, including steel, construction and chemicals, would face a proportionately greater hit.
Attempting this ‘reallocation’ while the commanding heights of the economy remain in private hands would create a ferocious competition between different sectors of capital, including regulatory evasion, ‘investment strikes’ and direct sabotage, to avoid being the loser.
That is why public ownership under democratic working class control and management of the major companies that dominate the economy must be the first component of any serious programme to combat climate change.
And, with the competing interests of different capitalist nation states at stake as well – the “oil producers will defend their interests to the death as they showed at COP27”, writes Wolf – workers’ internationalism too.
The shadow of Ukraine
COP27 was meeting under the shadow of the war in Ukraine, which has produced the biggest disruption in global energy markets at least since the Iraq war of 2003 if not the energy crises of the 1970s.
Notwithstanding the disparity between the Russian state and the USA the war is at bottom the product of the clash between two rival imperialisms – with no ‘side’ offering anything to the working class – in an increasingly multi-polar world.
But this example of ‘reallocating capital’ only shows how, with the continued organisation of society on the basis of competing capitalist nation states, the system will never be able to achieve the harmonious re-organisation of world economic relations on a net zero carbon basis.
Europe is set to install 39GW of solar power in 2022, up 44% from 2021, in response to the current situation. But the main consequence of the war for energy production has been to entrench the position of fossil fuels.
Profits at the world’s seven largest oil companies have broken records, with the biggest major, the USA’s ExxonMobil, making $43 billion in the first nine months of 2022, 19% more than during the same period in 2008 when oil was trading at its all-time high.
On the back of a profits bonanza, gas production is being expanded in north America, Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe to the extent that, if all the planned projects were realised, the greenhouse gas emissions would take up about 10% of the total amount of carbon that could be safely emitted by 2050.
The Climate Action Tracker research group estimates that the oversupply of liquefied natural gas that will result by the end of the decade, another example of the Ukraine war-induced ‘reorganisation’ of global energy markets, will be about five times as much gas as the European Union member states imported from Russia in 2021.
And once the production and distribution infrastructure is built it becomes the ‘low marginal cost installed capacity’ that Martin Wolf refers to, that creates a sectoral interest in keeping it in use.
Realising the incapacity of their system to meet the climate challenge a growing number of capitalist politicians and their coterie are beginning to abandon even the pretence that the 1.5C target can be met.
“Who really believes that we can halve global emissions by 2030?”, says Daniel Schrag, who was a scientific advisor to Barak Obama’s administration, when “it is so completely outside the realm”, he laments, of the “economics and politics of the world”. (The Economist, 5 November)
“Is it technically feasible?” he asks. “I guess. But it’s so far from reality that it’s kind of absurd”. But what is really absurd is that control of the future conditions of human existence on the planet remains in the capitalists’ hands.
No cause for gloom
The shambles at Sharm el-Sheikh, another failed COP summit, should not however be a cause for unrelenting gloom.
Assessing the not substantially different outcome of the Glasgow COP in the equivalent 2021 edition of Socialism Today (No.254, December-January 2021/22), we pointed out how “the environmental crisis is now unavoidably integral to the economic, social and political crises that will confront the capitalist system in the years ahead”, which has only been confirmed since.
“Climate change and its escalating consequences will both generate and feed into the mass movements that will come”.
“In the process it will certainly not be impossible to compel different capitalist classes across the globe to enact climate measures – in their national terrains and internationally – if they see their rule in jeopardy; even if only in partial and temporary (and thereby potentially reversible) retreats”.
“But it is this constant tension between the interests of the planet and those of capitalism”, we went on, “which is also the reason why the potential threat to the ruling classes posed by mass opposition to climate change needs to be followed through; the most important conclusion not just from COP26 but the almost 30 years of failed climate talks that preceded it”.
“It is not the working class and the poor, nor the middle classes either, who are responsible for the possibility of runaway climate change. It has been under the capitalists’ stewardship of society that the planet has been brought to the perilous position it is in today”.
“If mass movements in response to the climate crisis and other crises can be built that seriously challenge the capitalists’ rule – the only way the ruling classes will be forced to act – why should they stop there?”
“The struggle to save the planet is not separate to but part of the struggle to take power out of the hands of the capitalists and begin a new collaboration of peoples in a socialist world”.
The only thing changed by Sharm el-Sheikh is that the need for socialist politics – and not just protest politics on the climate or anything else – is even clearer than before.