COP-out 26

This weekend, COP26 meets in Glasgow, Scotland.  Every country in the world is supposed to be represented in meetings designed to achieve agreement on limiting and reducing greenhouse gas emissions so that the planet does not overheat and cause widespread damage to the environment, species and human livelihoods across the planet.

We are currently on track for at least a 2.7C hotter world by the end of the century – and that’s only if countries meet all the pledges that they have made. Currently they are nowhere near doing that. Governments are “seemingly light years away from reaching our climate action targets”, to quote UN chief Guterres.

Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are on course to surge by 1.5 billion tonnes in 2021 – the second-largest increase in history – reversing most of last year’s decline caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Global emissions are expected to increase by 16%, not fall, by 2030 compared with 2010 levels.

COP stands for the Conference of the Parties to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which set the stage for all international cooperation on climate.  According to the UN, the top three priorities of the Glasgow COP26 are to: 1) keep the global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees celsius through “rapid, bold emissions cuts” and net-zero commitments; 2) increase international finance for adaptation to at least half the total spent on climate action; 3) meet the existing commitment to provide $100 billion in international climate finance each year so that developing countries can invest in green technologies, and protect lives and livelihoods against worsening climate impacts. The reality is that even these modest priority targets are not going to be agreed in Glasgow and certainly not met in application, given the current make-up of governments and the plans of industry and finance around the world. 

There is no longer any plausible scientific argument against the view that human activities are having a profound effect on the climate.  The dwindling band of ‘climate sceptics’ have been silenced (at least in the mainstream media) by the overwhelming and increasing evidence that fossil-fuel based industrial and energy production and transport is causing rising carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions and this is the the cause of global warming.  Moreover, global warming since the industrial revolutions of the 19th century has now risen to the point where it is destroying the planet.

But what is not so understood is that this impending (and already beginning) disaster could still be averted and reversed and without a significant cost to governments.  Indeed, the latest report from the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2021 shows that we know what to do about it, in substantial detail and at an affordable cost. But there is no political will to do so by governments, beholden are they to the fossil-fuel industry, to aviation and transport sectors and to the demands of finance and industrial capitalists as a whole to preserve profits at the expense of social need.

Already there is a yawning gap between government commitments to reduce emissions to be offered at COP26 and what is necessary.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that limiting global average temperature increases to 1.5C requires a reduction of CO2 emissions of 45% by 2030 or a 25% reduction by 2030 to limit warming to 2C.  113 governments have offered National Determined Contributions (NDCs), which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by only 12% in 2030 compared to 2010.

The world’s governments plan to produce more than twice the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C. Governments are collectively projecting an increase in global oil and gas production, and only a modest decrease in coal production, over the next two decades. This leads to future production levels far above those consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C or 2°C.  In 2030, governments’ production plans and projections would lead to around 240% more coal, 57% more oil, and 71% more gas than would be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

Indeed, G20 countries have directed around USD 300 billion in new funds towards fossil fuel activities since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic — more than they have toward clean energy. According to the International Energy Agency, only  2% of governments’ “build back better” recovery spending has been invested in clean energy, while at same time the production and burning of coal, oil and gas was subsidised by $5.9tn in 2020 alone.

Which countries are to blame for this failure to do anything remotely close to avoiding the environmental disaster.  China is usually picked out as the main culprit.  It is currently by far the world’s biggest emitter of CO2 and is planning to build 43 new coal power plants on top of the 1,000 plants already in operation.  But China has some excuses.  It has the largest population in world and so its per capita emissions are much lower than most other major economies (although it’s the mass that counts).  Second, it is the manufacturing centre of the world providing goods for all the rich countries of the Global North.  As a result, its emissions are going to be huge because of the consumer demand for its products globally. 

Moreover, historically, cumulative emissions built up in the atmosphere in the last 100 years come from the rich previously industrialised and now energy consuming North.  There is a direct, linear relationship between the total amount of CO2 released by human activity and the level of warming at the Earth’s surface. Moreover, the timing of a tonne of CO2 being emitted has only a limited impact on the amount of warming it will ultimately cause. This means CO2 emissions from hundreds years ago continue to contribute to the heating of the planet – and current warming is determined by the cumulative total of CO2 emissions over time.

In total, humans have pumped around 2,500bn tonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) into the atmosphere since 1850, leaving less than 500GtCO2 of remaining carbon budget to stay below 1.5C of warming.  This means that, as the Glasgow COP26 takes place, the world will collectively have burned through 86% of the carbon budget for a 50-50 probability of staying below 1.5C, or 89% of the budget for a two-thirds likelihood.  More than half of all CO2 emissions since 1751 were emitted in the last 30 years.

In first place on the historical rankings is the US, which has released more than 509GtCO2 since 1850 and is responsible for the largest share of historical emissions with some 20% of the global total. China is a relatively distant second, with 11%, followed by Russia (7%), Brazil (5%) and Indonesia (4%). The latter pair are among the top 10 largest historical emitters, due to CO2 from their land.

The biggest emitters or consumers of carbon apart from the fossil fuel industry are the richest wealth and income earners in the Global North who have excessive consumption and fly everywhere. It is the military (the biggest sector of carbon consumption).  Then there is waste of capitalist production and consumption in autos, aircraft and airlines, shipping, chemicals, bottled water, processed foods, unnecessary pharmaceuticals and so on is directly linked to carbon emissions.  Harmful industrial processes like industrial agriculture, industrial fishing, logging, mining and so on are also major global heaters, while the banking industry operates to underwrite and promote all this carbon emission. 

And the US is really doing little to control or reduce the fossil fuel industry.  On the contrary, crude oil and gas production is rising fast and exploration is being expanded.  The Biden administration recently announced plans to open millions of acres for oil and gas that could ultimately result in production of up to 1.1bn barrels of crude oil and 4.4tn cubic feet of fossil gas. Being by far the biggest emitter in history, as well as the world’s number one oil producer, doesn’t seem to embarrass the US while it claims to be a climate leader.

Indeed, most major oil and gas producers are planning on increasing production out to 2030 or beyond, while several major coal producers are planning on continuing or increasing production.

No wonder the governments of the fossil fuel producers and consumers, like Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are among those countries asking the UN in Glasgow to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels; or for paying more to poorer states to move to greener technologies.  China may be the world’s largest polluter but it is pledging to bring its emissions to a peak before 2030, and to make the country carbon neutral by 2060.  And it is already a renewable energy leader, accounting for about 50% of the world’s growth in renewable energy capacity in 2020. The world’s most populous nation is also out in front on key green technologies such as electric vehicles, batteries and solar power.

Across 40 different areas spanning the power sector, heavy industry, agriculture, transportation, finance and technology, not one is changing quickly enough to avoid 1.5C in global heating beyond pre-industrial times, according to a report by the World Resources Institute.

And yet the cost of phasing out fossil fuel production and expanding renewables is not large.  Decarbonizing the world economy is technically and financially feasible.  It would require committing approximately 2.5 percent of global GDP per year to investment spending in areas designed to improve energy efficiency standards across the board (buildings, automobiles, transportation systems, industrial production processes) and to massively expand the availability of clean energy sources for zero emissions to be realized by 2050. The IEA reckons the annual cost has now risen to $4trn a year because of the failure to invest since the Paris COP five years ago. But even that cost is nothing compared to the loss of incomes, employment, lives and living conditions for millions ahead.

But it won’t happen because, to be really effective, the fossil fuel industry would have to be phased out and replaced by clean energy sources.  Workers relying for their livelihoods on fossil fuel activity would have to be retrained and diverted into environmentally friendly industries and services.  That requires significant public investment and planning on a global scale. 

A global plan could steer investments into things society does need, like renewable energy, organic farming, public transportation, public water systems, ecological remediation, public health, quality schools and other currently unmet needs.  And it could equalize development the world over by shifting resources out of useless and harmful production in the North and into developing the South, building basic infrastructure, sanitation systems, public schools, health care.  At the same time, a global plan could aim to provide equivalent jobs for workers displaced by the retrenchment or closure of unnecessary or harmful industries.  

All this would depend first on bringing the fossil fuel companies into public ownership and under democratic control of the people wherever there is fossil fuel production.  The energy industry needs to be integrated into a global plan to reduce emissions and expand superior renewable energy technology.  This means building renewable energy capacity of 10x the current utility base.  That is only possible through planned public investment that transfers the jobs in fossil fuel companies to green technology and environmental companies.

None of this is on the agenda at COP26.

18 thoughts on “COP-out 26

  1. Of course they won’t deal with the fundamentals! We knew what was in store for us and the planet 70 years ago if we didn’t make fundamental, transformative changes to capitalism and the fetish of consumption that now, most of the planet is well addicted to.

  2. Hello Michael, are you still a Marxist?

    You say on several occasions that we have the means and the technological feasibility to turn around – it wouldn’t even be expensive – but who says so? Since the 1970s, between 4.3 and 5 million people died in the South of the Congo – it is the biggest humanitarian disaster of the post-war period and why does that happen? There are several reasons, prominent among them is that there a lithium and kobalt mines and other mines of strategic rare earth metals and other compounds. The can all dream about electric cars that emit no CO2, it is pure fantasy. Look it up if you want. The resources of lithium are limited – some say 25 years, other 50 years, whatever it is, we cannot base a reversal towards some sort of a ‘sustainable’ future on any of these technological ‘advances’. It won’t work.
    I very much doubt that anything will work in the longer term (and by the way, these figures you quote in the beginning at also under discussion, there is for example a paper by Friedrich et al who predict a rise of global temperature of 4.3 degrees C by 2100 and that this according to their best scenario, the worst scenario is over 7 degrees C). If, however, and I know what I am talking about, I am old-ish now, growing up in the 1970s, if we cut back production to the level of the 1970s, which was, by all means, not a bad time to be alive and many things (like for example careers) were much easier then than now, we can get out of it, it suffices to cut GDP growth by 50 %. I am sure you know this argument. There are countries with much less GDP growth than the rich countries and with much disposable income, still people seem to be doing well, they have health care and this and that (Roefie Hueting has done work on this and El Serafy and Lutz of the UN and later some others). Instead of all these data, hammer in the point that the reason why there is climate change is that we have capitalism. We will eventually go to hell all of us because no sensible policies can be implemented. There are no technological fixes for climate change. Given the economic system, there are no political decisions to be made, that is the reason why there aren’t any. My god, in 1974 Willy Brandt addressed the UN explaining that climate change would result in increasing flows of refugees, that is why he wanted to create a statue of ecological refugee (as I said, in 1974!). Look at it now. You can forget your turnaround in my opinion.

    1. It’s not about cost, it’s not about technology, it’s about getting rid of capitalism, something that obviously ain’t going to happen, before it’s too late to do anything about climate change, let alone replacing capitalism. Unfortunately it would seem that the end of capitalism is also the end of civilisation. Of course life will continue, we just won’t be around to appreciate it. I think Engels said it best in ‘The Dialectics of Nature’:

      “…we have the certainty that matter remains eternally the same in all its transformations, that none of its attributes can ever be lost, and therefore, also, that with the same iron necessity that it will exterminate on the earth its highest creation, the thinking mind, it must somewhere else and at another time again produce it”. —
      Frederick Engels, from the introduction to ‘The Dialectics of Nature’, 1883.

  3. Michael, as you are a self-identified Marxist economist, is it not appropriate for you to concentrate your ‘analytical’ effort on measuring how the working classes globally will be impacted by climate change, and the economic instruments used to ‘reduce climate change’. I feel that you are providing ‘analysis’ of the event itself, which has been done to death. It seems you are heavily invested in the scare story, rather than the possible impact of ‘action’ on your constituency.

  4. “That requires significant public investment and planning on a global scale”.

    And surely the simplest way to achieve that *right now*, is to enable – literally – a statement made by the BIS at Davos a few years back: “Central banks might have to buy the fossil industry”.

    Because to deal with this global climate change emergency, we indeed need to implement the ‘mother of all command economies’, ie globally. because the private sector, free-market players seeking to maximize their own profits during the transition will not be capable of bringing about the global transition to green quickly enough, for all the reasons you have outlined.

    This is why Glasgow will fail, owing to the dominant mainstream private sector, ‘price-signalling’ free market ideology which dismisses a role for government planning in the economy.

    You yourself also rather casually dismiss the costs of the transition; governments in the rich world have trouble implementing carbon taxes, and are reducing their overseas aid budgets (partly due to accumulated covid rescue debts), while the 3rd world cannot afford carbon taxes; that’s why the BIS statement commands attention.

    Now of course the BIS has an unlimited currency-issuing capacity, an idea ridiculed by some commentators on this Marxist blog, because they can’t get their heads around the concept of non-inflationary ‘money printing’ in reserve banks.

    Nevertheless we can indeed kill two birds with one stone, ie, by mobilizing (via a global command economy) as much of the global private economy and its resources as required, to shut down fossil and go green ASAP. while simultaneously reducing discretionary consumption in the private market economy, as much as is required for global resource (re-)allocation, to save the planet from global warming.

    All for “free” (except for ‘opportunity costs’) ……and btw the potential for the private sector to make profits out of a green transition progressively reduces, as free sun and wind increasingly power the global economy, another reason why sufficient private sector investment will not be forthcoming.

    Oh Glasgow, you will be painful to watch….

    1. The central banks;the fossil fuel industry;the IT-Military Industrial Complex; the Equity-funded Davos circus, are all one.

      We “Western Marxists” all know that the core states we live in live by war, and what’s to be done will be done elsewhere.

      We can help by leaving off back-biting and uniting behind all anti-imperialist/anti-war movements, for example, the Black Aliance for Peace.

      …Meanwhile, instead of smashing England’s Bastille, we watch, hopelessly, Assange being judged by seedy aristocraps in powdered wigs.

  5. ”Beijing promises its carbon dioxide emissions will peak before 2030, but experts say world’s top emitter needs to do more.” Headline in today’s Aljazeera. I have read,however, that the emissions of the US military are excluded from its totals. Can anyone comment?

    1. @jlowrie, a quick google gives this: “In 2017, the amount of (US military) CO2 generated came to 59 million tons, a figure that’s higher than many industrialized nations”. Trump of course solved that problem by withdrawing from Paris… but I suppose Biden will have to deal with it, and include it in US emissions.

      As for claims that China needs to do more: China is already adopting renewables at a faster rate than any other nation: “(China) is currently the world’s largest producer of wind and solar energy, and the largest domestic and outbound investor in renewable energy.”

      But that won’t stop the money-grubbing, hypocritical, self-interested finger pointing that will be on full display at Glasgow.

  6. I have to defend Michael. Of course capitalism has created the means to damage the planet, but then dialectically, so must it also have created the capacity to reverse this damage. The self-inflicted ‘war on terror’ which has cost $8 trillion would have paid for two years of remediation, and the list goes on. The $1 trillion spent on arms which Marx called throwing money into the sea, could be used to turn sea water into drinking water for the people of this world to end all shortages. What has nothing to do with Marxism is the view that there is no capacity or limited capacity. The question as always is, who owns this capacity and therefore to what use is it put.

    Here are a few slogans for Glasgow. The only way to rescue a hot planet with a cold heart is even hotter politics. Workers of the world unite all you have to lose is 2.7 degrees.

  7. I love it when people say, “but then dialectically….” as a moral, religious qualification. The issue hidden beneath the but “then dialectically” is that of necessity–as if capitalism is a necessity; as if this “damage” that needs to be “reversed” is a necessity, a hell through which we must pass to reach Eden, utopia, or…California. “Sure thing, capitalism created the death camps but then dialectically…it must also have created the means to reverse this damage.” Swell. Doesn’t mean a thing to those who perished in the camps….or even those who survived. Timing is everything comrades. Being late is as good as not being period.

    The only means that capitalism has created to reverse some of the damage it reproduces on expanding scales is the opportunity for its overthrow, its abolition, through social revolution. All this talk about “mobilizing the private economy” or the mistaken notion that the BIS, (an institution so accommodating to the Nazis in WW2) has any currency issuing capacity, gets us nowhere. Like COP 26, the Paris Accords, Green New Deals.

    1. Ok if not the BIS, what about a UN authorized ‘Green Bank’ with unlimited currency-issuing capacity. to fund the necessary global transition to a green economy?

      What is your is your ‘Marxist’ solution, to achieve the fastest roll-out of solar/wind + pumped-hydro storage + smart grid, around the globe?

    2. You’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Of course capitalism cannot reverse it only workers can. Hence my remark about ownership. But yes always the solution is in the contradiction.

  8. What about socialist revolution, with unlimited power to expropriate the means of production, certainly more realistic than notions of capitalist banks saving the world?

    1. Exactly. Good answer. The most advanced. Only the social ownership of the means of production completely and definitively eliminates the evils of Capitalism. From private property (the problem) to social and cooperative property (the solution). And that is ONLY achieved with a revolution. The rest of the solutions, the reforms, only postpone the evil if they manage to get ahead, a rather unlikely and unreal issue in a regressive and reactionary historical phase like the current one. Another different thing to take into account, and as a political tactic to convince the Neil Hallidays of the world, which are all reformists of all kinds, reformists that we will finally have to attract to the revolutionary cause to produce the greatest possible political hegemony, tell them: ” well, I support your TMM (or any other reform) but in return you support a social revolution. ” As the MMT will not succeed because there are objective, material and scientific conditions that prevent it, conditions expressed in the private ownership of productive capital, N. Halliday and the rest of the reformists will have to abandon their colored mirrors, their false solutions and embrace the revolutionary cause. I am quite sure that F. Engels and Rosa Luxemburg, among others, would agree with this political tactic.

    2. You have not understood the concept of a central {global) “Green Bank”.

      On one level we are agreeing: a ‘Green Bank’, authorized by the UN to purchase the entire global, privately-owned fossil industry, certainly implies a ‘socialist revolution’ in power generation, at the global level. A central ‘Green Bank’ is obviously not a “capitalist bank”, unlike currently-constituted national central banks – and private banks – in capitalist economies.

      [Oddly, only money created ex nihilo in private banks (when they write loans – create deposits – for credit worthy customers) is permitted as the source of a nation’s money supply; central banks only create reserves for private banks, and cannot themselves create and spend debt-free money into the economy, as proposed by MMT).

      You appear to not understand the fact a central ‘Green Bank’ (as suggested) can create debt-free public money out of thin air (an MMT insight) while operating alongside private banks serving capitalist means of production in free market economies.

      So who is offering the more “realistic” proposition? Central bank money printing to fund the transition is certainly the simplest option…and for free…. (apart from opportunity costs).

      But it’s possible both of us will have to wait for everyone on earth to be much more negatively affected by climate change, before the private sector market is suspended, to facilitate the fastest transition to a net zero economy.

      1. ‘’ A central “Green Bank” is obviously not a “capitalist bank”, ‘’
        Your main mistake is this. And from that error all the others derive. That would not be a bank owned by all citizens, but rather a bank created and governed only by governments. All the official banks (World Bank, IMF, BIS, etc.) are already so today, and do these governments need to repeat it? they are dominated only by the (large) capitalist corporations. Capitalist corporations that are the only real governing entities. It would not be a capitalist bank legally but it would be “in fact.” Historical evidence proves it and you, nor anyone else, can disprove it.

      2. Concept: A central ‘Green Bank’ owned by the UN member governments, authorized to issue debt-free currency, to fund the most efficient transition to net zero emissions in all nations.

        Because we will experience the mother of all market failures, if we attempt to transition via ‘price signalling’ in free markets. [That’s why sufficient private sector investment has not been forthcoming in the past decade, because consumers don’t want to pay more as a result of carbon taxes, while investors won’t invest without carbon taxes; and the fossil industry won’t accept $trillions of fossil assets being stranded by regulation/mandate, without compensation]

        Note: all the institutions you mentioned are largely post war creations of the US government, after Keynes’ proposals for a post-war ‘clearing union’ (an international trade deficit-and-surplus-equalizing mechanism) and a ‘Bankor’, (an international unit of exchange), were rejected by the victorious, self-aggrandizing Americans, at the famous Bretton Woods Conference (in 1944).

        Those banks you mentioned all function like private lenders; the IMF is especially notorious and deserves its moniker:”Instant Misery Fund”, for the way it pauperizes nations with debt and economy destroying policies such as privatization, higher taxes, lower pensions etc.

        I hope you can now see that ‘my mistake… from which all others derive” is no such thing. None of those institutions you mentioned are authorized to issue *debt free money* on behalf of the international community.

        I think you are in fact rejecting the very concept of the capacity of central banks (and treasuries) to issue national currencies (created ex nihilo) to fund specified projects, when you write: “Historical evidence proves it and you, nor anyone else, can disprove it.”

        The fact that such a central bank has never existed historically, doesn’t prove anything about its possible future existence.

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