Don’t hold your breath

Simon Wells argues that failure is more or less predetermined

Much hype, much hot air

This week the COP21 (21st ‘conference of the parties’) climate talks are taking place - the first was in 1992, when the ‘parties’ (ie, governments) met in Rio de Janeiro.

Negotiators from 195 countries say they are aiming to reach some sort of agreement to address climate change. But there will not even be a minimal reduction in carbon emissions. The cards of each participant have already been laid on the table: in March voluntary pledges - known as ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ - were submitted. The consensus among climate scientists is that these pledges are not nearly enough to prevent global temperatures exceeding pre-industrial levels by the 2˚C considered to represent a threshold.

There are, of course, divisions between leaders of advanced capitalist and ‘third world’ states: why should poorer countries have to bear part of the cost for something caused by rich countries? Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister (India is the fourth largest carbon emitter after China, the US and the European Union), has claimed that the advanced countries that “powered their way to prosperity on fossil fuel” must continue to shoulder the greatest burden: “Anything else would be morally wrong.”

French president François Hollande, on the other hand, says that any agreement would have to be implemented by every country. In 2009, it was agreed that by 2020 there would be annual financing worth $100 billion from developed to poorer countries to ‘transition’ them to a ‘lower carbon development model’. But whoever commits the funds will have a say about the type of transition to be implemented. And the draft proposals this time around suggest that any deal should be reviewed every five years.

To be sure, the right sounds are coming out of the mouths of world leaders, as their gas-guzzling cars drop them off onto the green carpet for another photo opportunity. But don’t hold your breath. As German entrepreneur Ulrich Grillo has said, “The world climate conference in Paris will decide whether our industry remains competitive. Ambitious climate policy [must not] be a disadvantage for business.”1 And the pressure will be on the politicians to protect their own national industries. For example, the Australian government is retreating on its opposition to subsidies for fossil fuels, due to pressure from mining and farming interests.

This is the latest in what is a series of denouements. World leaders are committing themselves to nothing more than a voluntary action plan. True, Hollande has said: “We must leave our children more than a world without terror. Essentially what is at stake from this climate conference is peace.” And Barack Obama has declared that the “problem” could “define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other”. But US secretary of state John Kerry has pointed out that the talks will not deliver a binding treaty, just as previous attempts failed, because at the end of the day any treaty would have to be approved by a hostile US Senate.

Any reduction would have to include investment in low-emission technology. History shows that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the cause of the ozone hole, were phased out by voluntary agreement. And now even the pope is urging the bureaucrats at COP21 to correct the “dysfunctions and distortions” of existing development models: “We have yet to attain an international system of commerce which is equitable and completely at the service of the battle against poverty and exclusion.” However, Nobel prize-winner Mario Molina, who discovered the impact of CFCs, has said that it is “ridiculous” to think that the market can curb emissions to the extent needed.

What we can be assured of is that COP21 will fail. Governments may try to make risky investments profitable - green bonds, not oil shares; wind farms, not coal companies. But the drive of capital to constantly expand will mean that oil, gas and coal are still set to expand. The danger of global warming cannot be finally averted as long as capitalism continues.

Notes

1. http://blogs.ft.com/the-world/liveblogs/2015-11-30.