COP26: Enough blah blah, only struggle pays off
The increasing number of climate disasters around the world is the result of a warming of “only” 1.1° to 1.2° Celsius above the pre-industrial era. From reading the IPCC’s special 1.5°C report1 , any reasonable reader will conclude that everything, absolutely everything, must be done to keep the Earth well below this level of warming. Beyond that, the risks increase very rapidly.2 There is even a growing possibility that a cascade of positive feedbacks will cause the planet to tip irreversibly towards a “hothouse” that would eventually result in sea levels thirteen or even several dozen metres higher than they are today.3 An unimaginable dystopia... certainly incompatible with the existence of seven billion human beings on Earth!
Given the time lost since the Earth Summit (Rio, 1992) – and since Paris – it is not certain that the 1.5°C limit can still be respected (at the current rate of emissions, it will be exceeded around... 2030!) What is absolutely certain, however, is that the race to the abyss cannot be stopped without getting out of the productivism inherent in the market economy. As Greta Thunberg rightly said, “The climate and ecological crisis simply cannot be solved within the current political and economic systems. This is not an opinion, it is simply a question of mathematics”.4 With COP26 remaining “within the framework of the current economic and political systems”, the prognosis is clear: the Glasgow conference will not stop the catastrophe any more than previous conferences.
Does this mean that we can ignore what will happen in Scotland? No, there are important issues on the summit agenda. For example: how many countries will raise the level of their “climate ambitions”?5 To what extent will the gap between countries’ commitments and what needs to be done globally to save the climate be reduced?6 In the commitments of the major polluters, what will be the respective shares of actual domestic emission reductions, as against “carbon offsetting” by forest sinks, capture and sequestration, and so-called clean investments in the South? Will the “new market mechanism” for carbon decided in principle by COP21 be implemented and how?7 Will a global price for carbon be adopted, or will rich countries impose it de facto via a carbon tax at the borders?8 Will these countries finally honour their promise to pay one hundred billion dollars annually to the Green Climate Fund, in order to help the global South meet the climate challenge? Will they continue to turn a deaf ear to the poor countries that are demanding compensation for the growing “losses and damages” that global warming is imposing on their peoples? And so on.
These questions will be the subject of fierce arm wrestling between state representatives, depending on their economic interests and geostrategic rivalries. Not to mention that the mobilizations of social movements will be able to influence the outcome, on certain points and to a certain extent. For example, it is important to put obstacles in the way of “carbon offsetting”, and if this system could be banned, it would be an important victory for the people. Analysing the COP outcomes in detail will provide lessons on the state of capitalism and the acuteness of its systemic crisis. However, we should not be under any illusions: overall, COP26 will remain “within the framework of the current political and economic systems”, as Greta Thunberg says. So we can be categorical: basically, Glasgow will not solve ANYTHING.
More renewables... and emissions
Against this radical view, it is sometimes argued that the breakthrough of renewables could offer a way out of the crisis. Their advance is indeed real, mainly in the power generation sector. Over the last twenty years, the share of renewables in the global energy mix has increased by an annual average of 13.2%. The price of the green kWh has become very advantageous (especially in onshore wind and photovoltaics). According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), over the next decade, more than 80% of investments in the electricity sector will be in renewables. But it is completely wrong to conclude that “the global process of phasing out from fossil fuels is already well underway”, as the European Commission recently wrote.9 In fact, this statement is an outright lie. In ten years, the share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix has declined only imperceptibly – from 80.3% in 2009 to 80.2% in 201910 ; over twenty years, only the share of coal has declined, but very slightly (-0.3% on average per year); that of natural gas has increased by 2.6% and that of oil by 1.5% (from 2014 to 2019). There is not the slightest hint of the beginning of a “global phase-out” of fossil fuels! This is why global CO2 emissions continue to rise inexorably (except for the 2008 crisis and the 2020 pandemic).
Why are there more renewables and more fossil emissions at the same time? Because renewables do not replace fossil fuels: they only account for a growing share of global energy consumption. This consumption continues to grow in line with the accumulation of capital (increasing digitalization and the complexity of international value chains, in particular, are two very energy-intensive dynamics)11 . Bourgeois climate policy thus has two sides, like Janus. On one side, capitalist governments vie with each other with fine declarations about the “energy transition” and “carbon neutrality inspired by the best science”. But their commitments are more about favouring the companies that are rushing into the green technology market than about saving the climate. That is why, on the other side, these same governments put the brakes on “transition” whenever it is necessary to maintain growth in GDP. The law of profit thus takes precedence over the laws of the “best science” of physics. This is what the tensions over energy supply in China have brought to the fore.
When the price of energy rises in the workshop of the world...
The context is well known: China, a rising power, is seeking to assert itself as a global geostrategic leader. This ambition has become inseparable from a “responsible” climate policy, like green capitalism. This is why Xi Jiping promised in Davos that his country’s emissions would start to fall before 2030; he even added a little later that China would no longer build coal-fired power stations abroad. So much for that side. On the other side of the fence, the ink was barely dry on the newspapers reporting these statements when Beijing increased coal production in Inner Mongolia by 10%! The reason for this decision was the coincidence of “more ambitious” climate targets and the post-COVID recovery. Orders for Chinese-made goods are pouring in, causing a relative shortage of electricity. Russian fossil fuel exports especially gas, which is also a burden on Europe – are insufficient to plug the hole. So prices are rising... which threatens the global recovery. Stagflation threatens. As a result, Beijing is reviving its coal mines.
The Financial Times’ assessment of the situation is clear: “China, like other energy markets facing shortages, ‘must perform a balancing act’ of using coal to maintain activity while showing its commitment to decarbonization targets. On the eve of COP26, this sounds uncomfortable (sic!) but the short-term reality is that China and many others have no choice but to increase coal consumption to meet electricity demand.’”12
It is worth noting that competitors in the US and Europe were careful not to criticize the Chinese decision. For one obvious reason: an uncontrolled spike in energy prices in the workshop of the capitalist world would have cascading consequences around the world. The Chinese leadership is also very pragmatic: while it has imposed an embargo on Australian coal – to punish Canberra for its stance on Taiwan, Hong Kong and other issues – it turns a blind eye when Australian cargo ships unload their coal in Chinese ports... The bottom line is: do not trust the climate messaging of capitalist politicians on ecological transition – even when they drape themselves in the banner of “communism”. In the end, it is Capital that will have the last word, not the climate. In the People’s Republic of China as elsewhere.
... more fossils are being burned in the name of “ecological transition”!
Clearly, these tensions on the energy market highlight the unsolvable contradictions of the capitalist “energy transition”. China is indeed the world’s main supplier of photovoltaic panels (most of which are manufactured in Xin-jiang, using forced labour). It is also the main producer of these “rare earths” whose exploitation and transformation require large quantities of energy and which are indispensable for many green technologies... While humanity is on the brink of a climatic abyss, the capitalist logic of profit thus leads to this obvious absurdity: it is necessary to burn more coal, thus emitting more CO2... to maintain profits... on which the transition to renewables depends!
China being the “workshop of the world”, the problem is immediately global. What will be the impact on overall climate policy? COP 26 is supposed to “raise the ambitions”. This might be done on paper, to convince people that the situation is under control. But there is a long way to go. A recent UN report points out that fifteen countries (including the US, Norway and Russia) are projecting fossil fuel production in 2030 to be more than twice the limit compatible with the Paris Agreement! Globally, in 2030, the limit would be exceeded by 240% for coal, 57% for oil and 71% for gas!13
A specialist quoted by the Financial Times, does not accept that “coal shortages and energy price rises are only a short-term and cyclical problem in China”. Rather, she says, the episode highlights “the long-term structural challenges of the transition to cleaner energy systems”. She is right. The structural challenge is this: there is no more room for manoeuvre; emissions have to be reduced immediately, radically. Therefore, it is not enough to say in the abstract that renewables could replace fossil fuels. We have to say concretely how we will compensate for the extra emissions resulting from the fact that we have to use fossil fuels to manufacture the renewable energy converters, especially in the beginning. Technically, this challenge can only be met by reducing overall production and transport.14 Socially, this technical solution can only be envisaged in turn by massively sharing the necessary work, time and wealth. We will come back to this in the conclusion, but it is clear that the two branches – technical and social – of the solution are totally incompatible with the capitalist logic of market competition. It is in this context that the promises of “carbon neutrality” must be examined.-
The true face of “carbon neutrality” and “green deals”
Since Trump handed over to Biden, the world’s main polluters have been declaring their intention to achieve “carbon neutrality” by 2050 (2060 for Russia and China) by implementing various varieties of “green deals”. But this carbon neutrality is a decoy designed to lull public opinion. In theory, the concept is built on the idea that it is impossible to completely eliminate all polluting emissions of greenhouse gases, so that a “leftover” will have to be compensated by removing carbon from the atmosphere. But in practice, capitalists and their political representatives conclude that they can send urgent drastic emission reductions to hell, because one day in the future, a technological deus ex machina will remove from the atmosphere every year, not a “leftover”, but 5, 10, even 20Gt of CO2 (current global emissions: about 40 Gt). As a result, while the European Union and the United States should reduce their emissions by at least 65% in 2030 (to stay below 1.5°C and respect their historical responsibilities), their commitments in the framework of “carbon neutrality” only consist in “reducing” them by 55% and 50 to 52% respectively.15
Underlying this strategy is a completely insane idea: called “temporary overshoot scenario”. It consists of letting the temperature rise above 1.5°C while betting that “Science” will later cool the Earth with “negative emission technologies” (NETs).16 However, (1) most of these NETs are only in the prototype or demonstration stage; (2) we are already very close to the tipping point of the Greenland ice sheet – which contains enough ice to raise sea levels by seven metres17 ; (3) therefore, assuming that NETs work, it is quite possible that they will be deployed after a massive process of ice break-up has already begun. In this case, the damage will be obvious: the “temporary” overshoot will have led to a permanent cataclysm...
Let us assume, however, that the temporary overshoot remains very limited (this would in any case require much more severe emission reductions than those currently under discussion): in this case, all cataclysm aside, what would the world look like under the “growth” strategy of “carbon neutrality”? We can get an idea from the proposals of the International Energy Agency (IEA).18 They are edifying. In fact, to hope to achieve “zero net emissions” in 2050, according to the IEA, we would need: twice as many nuclear power plants; to accept that one fifth of the world’s energy continues to come from fossil fuel combustion (emitting 7.6Gt CO2/year); to capture and store these 7.6Gt of CO2 underground each year in geological reservoirs (whose watertightness cannot be guaranteed); to devote 410 million hectares to industrial monocultures of energy biomass (this represents one third of the agricultural area under permanent cultivation! ); to use this biomass instead of fossil fuels in power stations and other combustion installations (again capturing the CO2 emitted and storing it underground); to produce “blue” hydrogen from coal (again capturing the CO2!) in the hope that industrial electrolysis of water will make it possible to produce “green” hydrogen at a competitive price later on; to double the number of large dams; and... to continue to destroy everything – even the moon – in order to extract the “rare earths” that are indispensable for the gigantic investments to be made in “green technologies. Who wants to live in such a world?
Market policies, social and ecological disaster guaranteed
The IEA has a plan, others have plans… but there is no question of planning. Taboo! Neo-liberalism is supposed to coordinate the “transition” to “carbon neutrality” – through taxes, incentives and a global emissions trading system. The European Union is at the forefront with its “Fit for 55” plan. The EU has been a pioneer in implementing emission rights in its major industrial sectors and will extend them to the construction, agriculture and mobility sectors. The more poorly insulated the house or the more polluting the car, the greater the price increase for consumers. Those with lower incomes will therefore be penalized. The economies of the South will also be penalized - and through that their populations – by means of “carbon offsetting” and carbon border taxes.19 And all this for a plan that (unless we cheat) will not even reach its inadequate target, unattainable by market mechanisms.
Reducing emissions by 52 or 55% is better than nothing, one might say. No doubt, but contrary to what even some specialists say, plans like “Fit for 55” are not “going in the right direction”.20 Climatically, they do not put us on the path to staying below 1.5 degrees of warming: there is a significant gap between the path to 55% and the path to 65% reduction by 2030, and this gap cannot be closed afterwards, as the CO2 corresponding to this gap accumulates in the atmosphere. Socially, plans such as “Fit for 55” are not going in the right direction either, as they imply an accentuation of the colonial mechanisms of domination, the commodification of nature and neoliberal policies on the backs of the working classes. But there is no time to make any mistakes. In order to “go in the right direction”, we need to set the right course from the very first step.
Yes, it’s a simple matter of maths
Let’s return to the quote from Greta Thunberg at the beginning of this article. The young Swedish activist is quite right to call it “a simple matter of maths”. The figures in the climate equation are indeed perfectly clear:
1) staying below 1.5°C requires a reduction in net global CO2 emissions of 59% by 2030 and 100% by 205021 ;
2) 80.2% of these emissions are due to the combustion of fossil fuels;
3) in 2019, these fuels still covered 84.3% of humanity’s energy needs (we have known for years that 9/10ths of the reserves should remain underground, but exploitation and exploration continue as if nothing had happened!);
4) fossil infrastructures (mines, pipelines, refineries, gas terminals, power stations, etc.) - the construction of which is not slowing down, or hardly at all - are forty years investments for capital;
5) the value of the fossil fuel energy system is estimated at 1/5th of the world’s GDP but, amortized or not, this system must be scrapped, because renewables require another one.
So, with three billion people lacking the basics and the richest 10% of the population emitting more than 50% of global CO2, the “simple maths question” inescapably leads to a series of policy implications:
- staying below 1.5°C by leaving fossils in the ground while changing the energy system and devoting more energy to satisfying the legitimate rights of the poor is strictly incompatible with continued capitalist accumulation;
- the catastrophe can only be stopped by a double-pronged movement, which reduces global production and redirects it to the service of real human needs, democratically determined, while respecting natural limits;
- this double movement necessarily involves the suppression of useless or harmful production and superfluous transport, and the expropriation of the monopolies of energy, finance and agribusiness;
- the capitalists obviously do not want this conclusion: according to them, it is criminal to destroy capital, even to avoid a monstrous human and ecological cataclysm;
- The alternative is therefore dramatically simple: either a revolution will allow humanity to liquidate capitalism in order to reappropriate the conditions of production of its existence, or capitalism will liquidate millions of innocent people in order to continue its barbaric course on a mutilated, and perhaps unliveable, planet.
These strategic implications do not mean that we can simply repeat “one solution, revolution”. They mean that there is nothing to expect from neoliberal governments, their COPs, their system and its “laws”. For more than thirty years, those in charge have claimed to have understood the ecological threat, but they have done almost nothing. Or rather, they have done a lot: their policies of austerity, privatization, deregulation, aid to maximize the profits of multinationals and support for agribusiness have fragmented consciousness, eroded solidarity, ruined biodiversity and disfigured ecosystems, while pushing us to the brink of the climate abyss. These politicians are nothing more than managers at the service of the death logic of capital. It is futile to hope to convince them of a different policy: at best they can only back down in the face of power relations.
Hope is in the struggles
An alternative is needed, and therefore a programme of demands. It is not written in stone, we have to work it out step by step, starting from the real movement. To do this, we must not start from the level of consciousness of the working classes, but focus in the first place on the need for a coherent global response to the objective situation diagnosed by climate physics. In short: we need a plan to stay below 1.5°C of warming by leaving fossils in the ground, without temporary overshoot, without carbon offset, and biodiversity offset; a plan that excludes dangerous technologies like BECCS and nuclear; a plan that develops democracy, propagates peace, respects social and climate justice (principle of differentiated responsibilities and capabilities); a plan that strengthens the public sector and makes the 1% pay for producing less, transporting less, and sharing more – work, wealth and resources. This plan must eliminate unnecessary and harmful production while ensuring the collective reconversion of workers into useful activities, without loss of pay; it must, in particular, get us out of agribusiness and the meat industry, and usher in the reign of agroecology. This is obviously an anti-capitalist plan. But its strength is that it is vital, in the literal sense of the word: it is indispensable for saving life.
There is no point in denying it: we are far from such a plan today. It will take a great deal of determination, patience and courage to convince people, by overcoming the defeats suffered by our social camp. The obstacles to overcome are terribly numerous. In such a situation, the danger of mass despair cannot be ruled out. But melancholic sideration solves nothing. As Gramsci said, one can only predict the struggle, not its outcome. Let us not forget the terrible lessons of the 20th century: under capitalism, the worst is always possible. So we must keep repeating: only collective struggle can reverse the trend and it is never too late to fight. Of course, what is lost is lost, the extinct species will not come back. But no matter how far we go into the catastrophe, the struggle can always reopen the way to hope.
To fight, we must be aware not only of the terrible dangers but also of what can strengthen the alternative. Paradoxically, the sheer scale of the danger can strengthen us, provided we see in it the possibility of a necessary revolutionary change. The staggering crisis of legitimacy of the system and its representatives strengthens us: we do not have to respect those people who let the ecological catastrophe grow without doing anything, even though they were well informed. The diagnoses of climate change science strengthen us: they objectively argue in favour of a plan of the type outlined above. The growing mobilization of international youth strengthens us: they are standing up against the destruction of the world they will have to live in tomorrow. The new feminist wave strengthens us: its fight against violence spreads a culture of care, the opposite of the commodification of beings. The admirable resistance of indigenous peoples strengthens us: their vision of the world can help us to invent other relationships with nature. The struggles of peasants strengthen us: by saying no to agribusiness, they are putting alternative modes of production into practice every day. We can win the ethical battle and move mountains.
We can win the ethical battle and move mountains. It is a question of articulating and bringing together struggles against all forms of exploitation and oppression and of circulating the knowledge that goes with it. This confluence is decisive. It is the only way to set in motion a movement so massive that it will make it possible to glimpse once again the concrete possibility of a profound change of society, at once ecological, social, feminist and ethical. In the current context, a powerful societal groundswell will most probably be indispensable for the working class and its organizations to break the productivist compromise with capitalist growth. In any case, this break is a major challenge: we will not win the battle for the Earth if producers do not rise up against productivism. We need to prepare for this uprising. Through speeches and demands that combine red and green (in particular the massive reduction of working hours without loss of pay), but this is not enough: we need to multiply concrete initiatives to bring together and network the trade union, ecological, feminist, peasant and indigenous lefts at the global level.
In this context, particular attention must be paid to territorial struggles against productivist mega-projects that destroy nature and people. It is here that the social and the environmental are challenged to overcome the barriers that capital erects between them. Naomi Klein, in her book on the climate crisis, has proposed to call these struggles by the general term of Blockadia.22 It is in the crucible of this “ecological Blockadia”, and in its convergence with a “social Blockadia” of the “Yellow Vests” type, that an alternative to the steamroller of Capital will emerge: an eco-socialist project to live well on this Earth, to wash it clean of the stains of capital, and us with it.
26 October 2021
Written for the Fourth International website, this contribution takes up some extracts from the introduction to the book Luttes écologiques et sociales dans le monde. Le rouge s’allie au vert (Ecological and social struggles in the world. Red meets green), edited by Daniel Tanuro and Michael Löwy, Textuel (to be published end of October 2021)
- 2In particular: the risk of extreme weather events, the risk of major cities of this civilization disappearing under the sea, and the risk of large areas being rendered uninhabitable by the combination of heat and humidity.
- 3Will Steffen et al., “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene”, PNAS, Aug. 2018.
- 5Currently seventeen countries plus the European Union have raised their ambitions. https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-cop26-climate-change-summit.html#link-67cd21b3
- 6Based on the “nationally determined contributions” (the countries’ climate plans), the warming will be 2.7 to 3.5°C in 2100.
- 7This “new market mechanism” is to replace and aggregate the various systems previously implemented under the Kyoto Protocol. Its modalities will largely determine the possibilities to circumvent domestic emission reduction obligations. Negotiations on this issue led to the failure of COP25.
- 8The border tax is part of the “Fit for 55” strategy proposed by the European Commission
- 9EU Commission, Communication “Fit for 55”.
- 11As a reminder: emissions from aviation and shipping are exploding but are not attributed to any state.
- 12Financial Times, 8 October 2021.
- 14I made this point in Green Capitalism: Why it can’t work (Merlin/Resistance Books/IIRE, London, 2013). As Smil Vaclav says in Energy and Civilization, A History (Paperback, 2018), it is a “fundamental law”: “Every transition to a new form of energy supply has to be powered by the intensive deployment of existing energies and prime movers: the transition from wood to coal had to be energized by human muscles, coal combustion powered the development of oil, and today’s solar photovoltaic cells and wind turbines are embodiments of fossil energies required to smelt the requisite metals, synthesize the needed plastics, and process other materials requiring high energy inputs.”
- 15“Reduce” in quotes, because the European and US green deals make extensive use of alternative mechanisms to domes-tic emissions reductions, such as tree planting and purchases of “carbon credits”.
- 16NETs remove CO2 from the atmosphere, geoengineering (so far discouraged by the IPCC) sends a fraction of the sun's radiation back into space. Use of nuclear power it is now called “low-carbon technology”.
- 17According to the IPCC's 1.5°C report, the tipping point of the Greenland ice sheet is between 1.5 and 2°C of warming compared to the pre-industrial period.
- 19Too little attention is paid to the fact that this border tax will impose on the global South the price of carbon charged in the North. It therefore contravenes the principle of differentiated responsibilities and capabilities enshrined in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
- 20For example, François Gemenne (professor at the University of Liège and Sciences Po, interview in Le Soir, 18 July 2021) and Jean-Pascal van Ypersele (former vice-chairman of the IPCC, professor at the Catholic University of Lou-vain, interview on RTBF): https://www.rtbf.be/info/societe/detail_ des-inondations-extremes-le-giec-les-annoncait-en-1990-rappelle-jean-pascal- van-ypersele?id=10804972)
- 21IPCC, 1.5°C report. Net emissions are obtained by deducting from CO2 emissions the increases in absorption by for-ests and soils, provided that these increases are deliberately induced. 59% is a global target. Taking into account the different responsibilities of the North and the South, developed countries would have to reduce their emissions much more drastically (for the EU: by at least 65%) by 2030, and reach “net zero emissions” well before 2050.
- 22Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs the Climate, A. Knopf, 2014.