COP25: As catastrophic fires rage, where are the climate solutions?

December 6, 2019
With permission of Alan Moir,

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres delivered another bleak warning about the climate emergency on December 2. He told the 197 country leaders assembled that global average levels of carbon dioxide have now gone over what used to be considered an “unthinkable global tipping point”.

“Global average levels of carbon dioxide reached 407.8 parts per million in 2018”, Guterres told the 25th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, also known as COP25, in Madrid.

“Not long ago, 400 parts per million was seen as an unthinkable tipping point. We are well over it.”

Further, he said, “The last time there was a comparable concentration of CO2 [carbon dioxide] was between 3 and 5 million years ago, when the temperature was between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius warmer than now and sea levels were 10 to 20 metres higher than today.

“The signs are unmissable.

“The last five years have been the hottest ever recorded.”

The last three reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “confirm that we are knowingly destroying the very support systems keeping us alive”.

Guterres pointed out that countries that continue to rely on fossil fuel energy over the next decade will push temperatures well over the 1.5°C target the voluntary Paris Agreement was hoping to prevent.

“Either we stop this addiction to coal or all our efforts to tackle climate change will be doomed,” Guterres said.

It is perverse that Australia, in the grip of out-of-control bushfires and drought, is being represented by Angus Taylor, one of the Coalition government’s fossil fuel industry proponents.

The UN conference is reviewing the December 2015 COP21 Paris targets, and is supposed to set new ones to be ratified next year in Glasgow.

But the Paris agreement has already failed. And despite sounding the alarm — again — the UN did not have a solution other than to allocate yet more funds for “resilience and disaster response and recovery” to “developing countries”. 

The UN chief’s promise to keep the climate on the “top of the agenda” and his appointment of the governor of the Bank of England as his new special envoy is an inadequate response.

The world has already warmed by about 1°C above pre-industrial times, meaning there is even less time to do what the Paris Accords are meant to be doing — limiting warming to 1.5°C.

Bleak outlook

The sheer scale of the climate emergency, summarised in a report from the UN Environment Program on November 29, shows that world leaders know what is happening and what is at stake. That report stated bluntly its findings were “bleak”.

The world is heading for a 3.2°C temperature rise on current carbon reduction pledges, it said. Unless global greenhouse gas emissions fall by 7.6% each year between 2020 and 2030, the temperature goal of 1.5°C will not be met. 

It said that as countries had failed to stop the growth in global GHG emissions since 2015 “deeper and faster cuts are now required.”

In particular it noted:

  • Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have risen at a rate of 1.5% a year over the past decade.
  • Fossil carbon dioxide emissions from energy use and industry, which dominate total GHG emissions, grew by 2% in 2018.
  • There is no sign that GHG emissions will peak in the next few years.
  • By 2030, emissions would need to be between 25% and 55% lower than in 2018 to put the world on the “least-cost pathway” to limiting global warming to below 2°C and 1.5°C respectively.
  • G20 members — Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States — account for 78% of all GHG emissions but 15 of these have not committed to a timeline for net-zero emissions. Only five have committed to a long-term zero emissions target. (The US has also initiated proceedings to leave the Paris Agreement.)
  • Seven G20 members — Australia, Brazil, Canada, Japan, the Republic of Korea, South Africa and the US — need to “step up” and Australia should not be cheating on its 2020 targets by using “carry-over” Kyoto carbon credits.

Overall, the UN report urged a “dramatic strengthening” of national targets in 2020, saying that had serious action begun in 2010 the carbon cuts required per year to meet the projected emissions levels for 2°C and 1.5°C would have been, on average, 0.7% and 3.3% per year. To meet the targets now, emissions need to be cut 2.7% per year from 2020 for the 2°C goal and 7.6% per year for the 1.5°C goal.

Can the world do this in time? 

Many climate activists are pinning their hopes on a significant roll out of clean energy technology. But can more, and cheaper, green energy really be the long-term solution?

Green growth?

Social anthropologist Jason Hickel argues that the climate emergency movement has to grapple with the idea that a switch to green growth will not fundamentally tackle the causes of the climate emergency.

The climate movement in the advanced capitalist world has to start talking about limits to growth and waste, he said. It also has to recognise that the Global South, which has been colonised and systematically ransacked for its resources over centuries, will need help from the Global North to grow in a sustainable way.

In addition, there is the problem that the world economy is expanding much faster than we are able to transition to clean energy, Hickel said. 

“If we carry on with growth as usual, then cutting emissions in half by 2030 would require that we decarbonise the economy at a rate of 11 per cent per year … that’s more than five times faster than the historic rate of decarbonisation and about three times faster than what scientists say is possible even under highly optimistic conditions.

“If we roll out a towering carbon tax and massive subsidies for clean energy, we might be able to decarbonise by 3 to 4 percent per year, but that’s nowhere near fast enough.”

It is imperative, Hickel argues, that the climate movement campaigns for “degrowth” rather than “green growth”. Politicians prefer the latter, Hickel said, “because it suggests that we can prevent a climate catastrophe without having to make any major changes to the economic status quo”.

Swedish climate scientist Kevin Anderson from Uppsala University agrees. “There’s no way that I can see how a wealthy part of the world, at an aggregate, national level, can deliver what would be necessary to stay below 2 degrees Celsius and still maintain a growing economy.”

While “degrowth” can imply that everyone needs to be worse off to survive, he said that was not true. Rather, “a significant minority” — about 20–30% of the world’s population — would have to reduce its material well-being so that the rest could enjoy an improvement.

Hickel says the climate crisis will only be solved when there is greater equality across a very unequal world. “The objective of degrowth would be to scale down aggregate resource use, energy demand and emissions, focusing on rich, high-consuming nations and how to do this while improving people’s well-being.”

A degrowth plan could include progressive taxes on resource use, emissions and waste; a shorter working week, aiming for full employment; an expansion of universal social services and an expansion of the commons — especially high quality public health and education.

Capitalism and endless growth

To those who argue this is pie in the sky, Hickel says such measures are more realistic than the idea that current Gross Domestic Product growth “can be permanently and absolutely decoupled from resource use and emissions” at a fast enough pace to reverse ecological breakdown.

Hickel argues that “capitalism transforms even the most spectacular productivity gains not into abundance and human freedom, but into new forms of artificial scarcity”.

Instead of translating productivity gains into shorter working hours, higher wages and guaranteed employment, capitalists have captured the benefits for themselves, increasing private profits while keeping wages low and retaining the threat of unemployment to discipline labour. 

Given that capitalism requires endless growth to extract maximum profit, any strategy that does not take into account which part of the economy should grow, and which should not, is going to fail.

North-South divide

The climate emergency movement has to focus on the vast and growing inequality between the Global North and the Global South.

Harpreet Kaur Paul summed it up, saying the global North “ate their fair share of carbon emissions decades ago”. If the impacts of climate breakdown are not the same for everyone, she said, then neither should the responsibility for financing “transformative” solutions.

“Between 1850 and 2002, countries in the Global North emitted three times as many greenhouse gas emissions compared to countries in the Global South, where approximately 85% of the global population resides.

“Within these countries, and globally, the wealthiest individuals, banks, agri-business and fossil companies are disproportionately responsible. The richest 10% of people produce approximately half of the earth’s climate-harming fossil-fuel emissions, while the poorest half contribute a mere 10%.”

Just 100 fossil fuel companies are responsible for 71% of anthropogenic GHG emissions.

Unequal power relations not only contribute to climate change, they are also “its roots”, Kaur Paul said, pointing to the long-lasting impacts of colonialism, discrimination and neoliberalism on those struggling against the worst impacts of the climate chaos they did not create.

Hickel points to Cuba and Costa Rica as examples of how GDP is an inadequate indicator of social progress, as both countries have a higher life expectancy than the United States with only a fraction of its income. 

“Both [countries] achieved their greatest gains during periods when GDP wasn’t growing at all. How? By rolling out universal healthcare and education.”

At a certain point, Hickel said, “GDP growth becomes less a proxy indicator of human progress and more a proxy indicator of [the] appropriation of resources, of ecosystems, of atmosphere, of public goods, of commons.”

Degrowth, for Hickel, would redistribute wealth. It would “scale down aggregate resource use, energy demand and the emissions of rich, high-consuming nations and do this while improving people’s well-being.”

In an epoch of climate emergency, it is easy to see the practical sense behind the idea of universal social goods and a reinstatement of the commons — health, education, water, energy, housing — to ensure people can access the resources they need to live well without high levels of income.

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