Planet left to fry

Eddie Ford is not surprised that Cop27 was a failure, all participants are committed to growth for the sake of growth

With everybody now home from Sharm el-Sheikh, the overwhelming consensus about Cop27 is that it was a failure - even compared to the previous conference in Glasgow, which was hardly something to celebrate. In a completely unedifying spectacle, oil-producing countries and high emitters conspired to weaken and remove key commitments on greenhouse gases and phasing out fossil fuels. This only bodes ill for the next UN ‘Conference of the parties’ (Cop28). This will be held in Dubai - a petrostate that, as part of the United Arab Emirates, is one of the world’s biggest oil exporters! Guess what is going to happen there?

Telling you a hell of a lot, there were more fossil fuel lobbyists at Cop27 than delegates from the Pacific islands, which their industry is pushing below the waves. Indeed, the global oil and gas industry has raked in an average equivalent of $1 trillion a year in profits for the last 50 years by exploiting a natural resource that should belong to us all. Imagine if such financial firepower was aimed at decarbonising the world.

Anyway, after the usual marathon final negotiating session, which in this case ran 40 hours beyond its deadline, the final communiqué that emerged was extraordinarily thin on details and utterly inadequate - if not an outright betrayal. Alok Sharma - a non-cabinet member of the UK government, who was given the task of leading the official opposition to global warming - said the 1.5°C target “remains on life support”. But that is far too generous: the patient has actually died!

As many readers will remember, the 2015 Paris agreement contained two temperature goals - to keep the rise “well below 2°C” above pre-industrial temperature averages from about 1850; and to “pursue efforts” to keep the increase to 1.5°C. Science since then has conclusively proved that 2°C target is not safe, to put it very mildly, so at Cop26 in Glasgow last year countries agreed to focus on the 1.5°C limit, deemed to be the safety threshold. However, since the commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions turned out to be too weak to stay within this limit, they also agreed to return each year to strengthen them in a process known as ‘the ratchet’.


But at Cop27, mainly at the behest of Saudi Arabia, Russia and other petro-states - not to mention China and Brazil - some countries tried to renege on the 1.5°C goal and do away with the ratchet. They did not succeed in totally abolishing that commitment, but with criminal irresponsibility they did manage to remove the Cop26 target for global emissions to peak by 2025, and to halve global emissions by 2030, in order to limit temperature rises to 1.5°C - effectively rendering the target useless. All this when by now we are meant to be in a situation of massive reductions of CO2, yet what we have actually seen is a continued rise. Scarily, it seems we will reach 1.5°C by the end of this decade, or shortly after - then, at least as things stand at the moment, it looks as if we will go way beyond that target.

Last year at Glasgow, a commitment to phase out the use of coal had been agreed - though at the last minute it was watered down by China and India to a phasing down - something that had reduced Sharma to the brink of tears. Quite incredibly, given that we have had 30 years of conferences on climate change, that was the first time that a resolution on fossil fuels had been included in the final text. Some countries at Cop27, led by India, wanted to go a little bit further and include a commitment to phase down all fossil fuels - which became the subject of intense wrangling late into the Saturday night. Yet in the end, ludicrously, the commitment remained the same as that in Glasgow. Perhaps even more absurdly, the final text also included a provision to boost “low-emissions energy” - which at first sight might sound encouraging. But that could actually mean anything from wind and solar farms to nuclear reactors - or coal-fired power stations fitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Naturally, it could also be interpreted to mean gas, which certainly has lower emissions than coal, but is still a major fossil fuel. Obviously, many countries at Cop27 - especially those from Africa with large reserves to exploit - came to Sharm el-Sheikh hoping to strike lucrative gas deals. Crazily, we could be in a situation where nuclear, gas or even certain types of coal-fired technology could be redefined as green! Those whom the gods wish to destroy …

On a slightly more positive note, if you feel so inclined, an attempt to remove the Glasgow commitment to double the amount of funds going into ‘adaptation technology’ was defeated. Such technology aims to make communities less vulnerable to the floods, droughts, sea level rises, crop disasters, etc that unfortunately lie ahead, as the planet heats up - which involves building flood defences, preserving wetlands, restoring mangrove swamps, regrowing forests, rewilding, seawalls, moving communities to higher ground, protecting road and rail links from storms and inundations, and so on. These measures, and far more, can help countries to become more resilient to the impacts of climate breakdown. However, scientists warn that the promised funding of about £40 billion post-Glasgow is still massively below what will be needed in the near future - some saying that the total funding required for adaptation is at least $2.5 trillion by 2030.

After three decades of resistance from the US to the idea of a “loss and damage” fund for poorer countries, followed by Donald Trump’s removal of America from the Paris climate agreement, the Biden administration finally relented - promising $11 billion for the project. Of course, this spending will likely be blocked by the House of Representatives, when it falls under Republican control in January - barring a last-gasp funding deal prior to Christmas. But do not cheer too quickly, as they have not agreed as to who will be a donor and who will be a recipient, or how much money should be paid in and on what basis. In other words, at this stage, it is an ‘agreement’ to agree about nothing. A key aim for the European Union at the talks was to ensure that countries classed as developing in 1992 when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed - thereby having no obligations to act on emissions or provide funds to help others - are considered potential donors.

Will China be paying into this fund as the world’s largest emitter of CO2, which is not surprising as it has a population of 1.41 billion people? Or, on the other hand, is it going to be receiving funds? After all, China only started to industrialise recently - but, when you look at Britain and US, they have been busily pumping out CO2 and other greenhouse gases for a century and a half or more. Or what about Russia, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states - victims or villains? Donors or recipients? On this point, it is interesting to look at pictures of the demonstrations in Egypt in favour of the ‘loss and damage’ fund. To my eyes, the protestors look very well-dressed and manicured. Undoubtedly the regime would thoroughly approve of the fund, as it hopes to be a beneficiary - enabling president Sisi and his immediate circle to acquire yet another luxury house or yacht. But this will be something to wrangle over for many years to come.

Predictably, the White House has signalled, in a monumental display of hypocrisy, that its longstanding image as global climate villain should now be pinned on a new culprit: ‘red China’. According to Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate advisor and now with the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington DC, the priority for president Biden when it comes to climate will and should be “China, China, China” - which is “the only game in town”. For him and John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, the Biden administration has got to get Beijing to reduce its emissions, whatever it takes, even if it means carbon border tariffs or increased sabre-rattling. Apparently, there are two groups to blame for the climate impasse - “communist China and America’s Republican party” - and Beijing should be a climate outcast along with Russia, yet “they are not in the crosshairs of activists”. As for US imperialism, it is the victim, it seems.


What runaway global temperature change means is not just that things get a bit less chilly in Britain and a little hotter in the tropics. Rather, it is the distinct possibility of some sort of qualitative shift in the climate, leading not only to more severe weather, but to the whole system switching off and other systems switching on - feedback loops with rapidly escalating effects. If this were to happen, it would be extraordinarily disruptive to the global economy and human life on this planet.

Speculatively, this could end up with a situation where the US wheat belt turns to desert. Or you could have a scenario where the Gulf Stream, which keeps Britain warmer in winters and milder in summers, could ‘switch off’ - meaning, given that we are on the same latitude, that the UK could end up with the sort of weather they get in Labrador: ie, wet, foggy and cold. Other more terrifying consequences could include the heating of the Amazon, which could turn the rainforest to savannah, transforming it from a carbon sink to a carbon source, and in polar regions, the melting of permafrost and the release of that powerful greenhouse gas, methane. With habitats devastated across the world, thousands of species are now facing extinction, ranging from polar bears and tigers to monarch butterflies and sea turtles - a hideous process that could be dramatically accelerated if the planet’s coral reefs disappear. Planetary heating of 1.5°C will see between 70% and 90% of coral reefs disappear. At 2°C, 99% will be destroyed.

For communists it is not surprising at all that Cop27 was a resounding failure. The governments of the world are committed to the expansion of capital and growth - not on the basis of need, but purely growth for the sake of growth in order to produce more capital. That is the nature of the system, causing a rupture in the metabolic interaction between humanity and the rest of nature. Capitalist agriculture, the meat and dairy industry, rapacious mining, generating power using coal, oil and gas, the car economy, the arms economy, the growing division between town and country, etc, are responsible for the ecological crisis.

That is why it is right to call the Anthropocene ‘the Capitalocene’.