Production for production’s sake

Optimism over Bonn and COP23 is misplaced, writes Simon Wells

Tonnes and tonnes of it belching out daily

The 23rd Convention on Climate Change (COP23) in Bonn came to an end last week. According to Patricia Espinosa, the UN’s chief official on climate, it represented the continuing negotiations between governments to set out an “operating manual” to implement the 2015 Paris agreement by 2020.

According to the pro-business Climate Group:

To a large extent, the conference’s modest objectives - namely moving forward with developing the rules for the Paris agreement and agreeing how to conduct the first post-Paris stock-take of collective climate action - were met.

Concerns about how president Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement would affect the talks were also allayed, with the rest of the international community (largely) continuing discussions as normal.

On top of that, a significant US observer community of business, state and city leaders unequivocally demonstrated their commitment to bold climate action.1

I am afraid that is rather optimistic. COP23 came at a time when the Global Carbon Project released figures showing that carbon dioxide emissions looked set to rise by two percent in 2017 after having remained flat for the last three years - according to some, this increase results from the expansion of coal-fired power stations in China. If this trend continues, keeping temperature rises below 2˚C compared with pre-industrial levels will be unachievable. On top of this, the Union of Concerned Scientists has stated: “Especially troubling is the current trajectory of potentially catastrophic climate change due to rising GHGs [greenhouse gases] from burning fossil fuels.”2

The Paris agreement aimed to gradually reduce GHG emissions, but Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States, despite being the second highest emitter of carbon dioxide, would be withdrawing from the agreement, was hardly a trivial side-issue. True, a coalition of US states have committed themselves to “developing a policy to clean up pollution, make polluters pay and move toward a transportation system that runs entirely on clean, renewable energy”. However, the official US line remains committed to fossil fuel use and nuclear energy as so-called ‘climate mitigation strategies’.

And, yes, while Trump has promised to liberate US industry from its environmental shackles, there are many in the US who claim to be for a ‘100% renewable’ world. For example, Californian governor Jerry Brown is touted as one of the green heroes and ‘Trump resisters’ who promotes carbon offsetting through ‘cap and trade’ schemes. However, this particular mechanism merely exchanges verifiable emissions, plus transparent and legal requirements to reduce them, with a market-based system that allows the user to pollute by buying up carbon credits from doubtful and unverifiable sources. There is no public input, and it is the poorest who suffer under ‘cap and trade’. Jerry Brown, though feted by much of the mainstream media, is obviously promoting a false solution.

Protestors at COP23 chanted “Keep it in the ground” with reference to fossil fuels. But, when Brown was interrupted during one of the sessions, he responded to the activists with: “Let’s put you in the ground, so we can get on with the show here.” What he promotes is a techno-capitalism that will generate fat profits and supposedly save the planet.

Another aspect of the Paris agreement is the ‘loss and damage’ clause, which compensates vulnerable countries most affected by climate change. Naomi Klein and George Monbiot are amongst those who advocate a tax on the polluters and argue for “the urgent replacement of fossil fuels, by mid-century at the latest, with renewable sources of energy assisted by increasing the rate of the Climate Damages Tax over time”.3

This is not so far-fetched as it sounds, now that evidence has emerged that shows the oil industry was aware of the consequences of its own actions - it had been warned about it by its own scientists as far back as the 1950s. As we know, the energy industry continues to play down, deny and obfuscate the evidence, and through a public relations campaign deliberately promotes misunderstanding. But how effective a global tax would be - even assuming it was agreed - is a moot point. How would it overcome global inter-state competition and allow the big carbon emitters to continue making profits?

While those with illusions in COP23 still hold out hopes, what about the actions of the big global powers? China now accounts for around a third of all CO2 emissions. True, that amounts to some 7.7 tonnes per person, compared with the US’s 16.1 tonnes. But the so-called ‘developing world’ is determined to catch up with the so-called ‘developed world’. CO2 emissions in India, Brazil, Russia and Indonesia are remorselessly growing. Those heading the league table of per-capita emitters like to be seen to be doing something: eg, Norges Bank, which oversees the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, advised the Norwegian government it is going to dump all its shares in oil and gas companies. But it amounts to tinkering.

Closer to home, the Labour Party is committed to the Paris agreement, but also to ‘safeguarding’ the oil and gas industry. Likewise, it is committed to making ‘green’ gestures. There is, in fact, nothing radical about the Labour manifesto, with its calls for Keynesian growth and economic nationalism. The problem is the system of capital itself, which depends precisely on never-ending growth and increased production, thus making continual rises in carbon emissions a distinct danger.

Notes

1. www.theclimategroup.org/news/cop23-reflections-bonn.

2. https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/advance-article/doi/10.1093/biosci/bix125/4605229.

3. http://climateandcapitalism.com/2017/11/16/make-fossil-fuel-giants-pay.