The West must do much more to tackle climate change

Flooding in Bangladesh August 2017

The clock is ticking towards catastrophic climate change – the world has started moving forward, but the West needs to do more and faster

By Ruby Cooper

The world has started moving forward in the fight to stop climate change. However the pace of progress is still not fast enough to avoid dangerous levels of global warming. Added to which US President Trump is undermining both the US and global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

On present trends the world is set for 3.4°C of global warming by 2100, according to the recent Carbon Action Tracker (CAT) report. This is more than twice as high as the internationally agreed aim of the Paris Climate Agreement – to pursue efforts to keep temperatures below a 1.5° C increase – to avoid catastrophic consequences for humanity.

The climate change that has already taken place is causing devastation across the world. Global average temperatures have risen to 1.1° C above pre-industrial levels. This has been caused primarily by burning fossil fuels, methane release from farmed cattle and agriculture and deforestation.

This year massive floods have swept across India, Bangladesh and Nepal, which have killed thousands and left millions of people homeless. Powerful hurricanes have hit the Caribbean and southern US, causing wide spread destruction. The impact of Hurricane Maria on the Caribbean nation of Dominica in September was particularly devastating. The World Bank calculates that the total damages and losses to Dominica is US $1.3 billion or 224% of its GDP. Dominica’s rainforest has been ‘destroyed’ and 38% of housing has been lost.

Climate scientists have consistently warned that extreme weather events of this character are a hallmark of man-made climate change and are set to become more frequent and severe as global temperatures continue to rise.

The Paris agreed limit of 1.5 degrees warming is important because it is scientists’ best guess of when climate ‘tipping points’ would be activated and further climate change would become unpreventable and irreversible – such as the melting of the polar ice caps and the Siberian permafrost.

A rise of 3.4°C by the end of the century, which is what the world is currently heading towards, would usher in an era of more extreme weather. This would lead to the displacement of millions of people and no doubt significant loss of life; due to harsher droughts, disruption of food production, storm surges and rising sea levels – flooding major cities across the world.

Countries’ commitments are insufficient to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees

The urgency to deepen the action nation states are taking to tackle climate change is pressing. Across the globe the commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions made by governments in response to the Paris Agreement, if all implemented, would result in a projected temperature increase by 2100 of 3.2°C above pre-industrial level. This is far higher than the goal agreed in Paris of 1.5 degrees. It is also higher than what was projected last year (a 2.8°C rise) – the increase being predominately a result of Trump’s decision to withdrawal the US from the Paris agreement.

International climate change talks, over the next few years, need to focus on states making stronger commitments that ratchet up their action plans. Campaigning needs to step up so that by 2020, when the Paris Commitment period begins, countries have made sufficient commitments that can achieve the Paris agreed goal of a 1.5 degrees rise.

Negotiations for new commitments under this ‘ratcheting up mechanism’ are due to begin next year, while this year’s recent UN Climate Change talks (in Bonn) focused on agreeing the rules and framework for how these negotiations will take place.

To be successful a significant shift is needed, especially in the West. The commitments made by the EU and by the US under Obama at the 2015 Paris Climate Summit need to be roughly tripled. The current EU target of 40% CO2 cuts by 2030 is insufficient to even meet a previous 2 degrees goal. Even more worryingly, the EU has recognised it is not on track to meet this weak target.

Action also needed before 2020

Whilst the commitment period under the Paris Agreement does not begin until 2020, Western countries – those primarily responsible for climate change – should also increase the action they are taking now. Global emissions ought to be declining after 2020, not further rising . In recent years they have flat-lined but they have risen again in 2017.

Despite the urgency, Western countries fought to keep any discussion of pre-2020 action off the agenda of this year’s climate talks in Bonn. However, developing countries scored a significant victory at the talks by securing agreement that pre-2020 action will be on the agenda of next year’s UN Climate talks. These are due to take place in Poland at the end of November 2018. As part of this there will be a global stocktake of pre-2020 action countries have taken and committed to. This will be an important moment to push for the EU and US to step up their immediate action – particularly on the issue of ending the burning of coal.

Who pays for climate change?

There are currently no agreed sources of finance for the loss and damage caused by climate change. This is an issue which disproportionately impacts the developing world – the countries that are not primarily responsible for creating this crisis. The Paris Agreement currently does not include loss and damages on its agenda despite developing countries demanding that new additional finance is urgently needed. Instead discussions on loss and damage are part of a separate, more low level technical process within the UN called the ‘Warsaw International Mechanism or ‘WIM”. The WIM has yet to bring forward any concrete plans on financing for the loss-and-damages associated with climate change and the next ‘review’ of the WIM is not scheduled to take place until 2019.

There is also insufficient funding for adaptation and mitigation to climate change. The Green Climate Fund, which is accountable to the United Nations, was set up in 2010. It had a target of providing $100 billion annually by 2020, yet over the past seven years the fund has collected only $9.2 billion cumulatively.

The West caused climate change – and it should pay for it. But it is not and the US is stalling progress on this issue.

Trump has announced the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement, but until 2020 the US will remain formally part of the international discussions. The US’ seat at the table is being used in a disruptive way. So, during the Bonn talks Trump ‘s adviser George David Banks intervened to say his priority was to fight ‘differentiation’ between the industrialised ‘annex one’ countries and the rest in the UN climate arena. This essentially means the US is pushing for there to be no difference in the obligations of the countries that have caused the climate change crisis, who have the resources to pay for it; and the countries who neither caused the crisis nor have the resources to clean it up.

Trump’s climate change denial vs Xi’s climate change leadership

The contrast between the US’ and China’s approaches on climate change is stark.

Trump is a climate change denier. He infamously described climate change as ‘a Chinese hoax’ – a rejection of modern science and a refusal to face up to the greatest threat to humanity at the present time.

During his first year as President, Trump’s words have regrettably been followed through with action on this front. Domestically Trump has cut government environmental agencies and funding, whilst pursuing an energy policy with fossil fuels at its heart. Internationally Trump has withdrawn the US from the Paris climate change agreement. At the most recent climate change talks in Bonn, the US delegation organised a panel on fossil fuels – a move which US billionaire and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg described as akin to ‘promoting tobacco at a cancer summit.’

Significant forces in the United States are actively opposing Trump’s climate change policy. A coalition of US cities, states and businesses which represent over half of the US economy have come together under the leadership of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and California governor Jerry Brown in the ‘America’s Pledge on Climate Change’ initiative which aims to ‘ensure the United States remains a global leader in reducing emissions and delivers the country’s ambitious climate goals of the Paris Agreement.’ While this is a positive political development and is contributing to the further isolation of Trump on this question, the pledges so far collected only deliver a third of the pledge made by Obama in the Paris Agreement, which was again only about a third of what is needed from the US to meet 1.5 degrees increase.

Xi Jinping’s recent speech to the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party set out a dramatically different approach to Trump’s and underlined China’s growing international leadership in the global battle to stop climate change. He set out the priorities for China’s future as to ‘develop a new model of modernisation with humans developing in harmony with nature’ and preserving the Earth as an ‘oasis of the existence of mankind.’ Xi explained that China must ‘cherish our environment as we cherish our own lives.’

Xi sees China’s role as playing a leading positive role. He said ‘Taking a driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change, China has become an important participant, contributor, and torchbearer in the global endeavour for ecological civilisation.’

China has taken radical measures domestically to tackle climate change. This Includes taking bold action to reduce China reliance on fossil fuels, particularly coal. New pledges to cut coal are already achieving big results: by the end of this year the number of coal mines in China will drop to about 7,000 from the 10,800 that there were in 2015. Over the next three to five years China plans to cut its coal capacity by 500 million tonnes – a large proportion of the 2.8 billion tonnes of coal used this year.

At the same time China continues to massively expand its investment in renewable energy. China is the world’s leading producer of wind and solar power. For example, three out of the top 10 wind turbine companies in the world are Chinese and ten out of the world’s top 10 solar companies are Chinese.

In 2016 China invested $103 billion in renewable energy – which was 36% of the world total according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s annual report on global trends in renewable energy.

As a result of this radical action to cut fossil fuels and lead the way on renewables, China is expected to exceed its targets on reducing greenhouse gas emissions as pledged in the Paris climate change agreement.

Both in rhetoric and action the US and China provide radically divergent approaches to the issue of climate change.

Hope for the future

China’s growing international leadership and domestic action to tackle climate change provides great optimism for the future in this critical battle for humanity.

Investment in renewable energy is rapidly growing. In 2015 the total amount of money invested globally in renewable energy capacity, early stage technology and research and development was $286 billion – which was more than six times higher than investments in 2004 and set a new global record. At the same time, coal and gas-fired electricity generation attracted less than half the investments made in solar, wind and other renewables capacity, which stood at $130 billion and $266 billion respectively.

The cost of renewables energy as a result of this huge expansion over the past decade continues to fall and is fast becoming the cheapest way to generate energy across the world. The exponential drop in the price of solar electricity caused by the scale of Chinese investment in the past decade now looks set to be repeated in the field of electric vehicles, where Chinese investment has caused the price of EV batteries to begin to drop exponentially, allowing a Chinese company BYD to bring to market an electric car for just $8,000.

In 2016, of all the energy generated, 10% came from renewables and 80% came from fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas. The challenge for humanity over the next few decades is to rapidly reverse this situation and completely phase out fossil fuel emissions before 2050.

The actions of the Indian government show that rapid progress is possible on this front. India is forecast to exceed its own renewable energy target it set in Paris by nearly half, three years ahead of schedule. India predicts that 57% of its total electricity capacity will come from non-fossil fuel sources by 2027 – their Paris Agreement target was 40% by 2030.

This year’s radical steps taken by India and China to reduce their reliance on coal are calculated to reduce global warming by 0.2 degrees.

The West must do more

The main issue internationally, in closing the gap between the current trajectory of over three degrees warming by the end of the century to keeping temperatures below 1.5 degrees, is the need for faster and more radical action from the West.

Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement is a major problem – as the US’ commitments added up to approximately 0.5 degrees of warming. A large coalition US cities, states and businesses are working together to meet the US’ commitments despite Trump – though as noted above, this is not enough to deliver the US’s fair share of keeping the world below 1.5 degrees.

Fair shares vs pledged action - graphic

Figure 1: From Fair shares: a civil society equity review of INDCS – available here

In the context of Trump’s straightforward presentation of himself as the champion of fossil fuels, Europe, and especially the UK, France and Germany, are trying to position themselves as global leaders on climate change.

But in reality Europe has seen sluggish progress on both renewable energy and the move to electric vehicles, and is not moving away from fossil fuels anywhere near fast enough.

Europe is facing three key questions. First, will it move away from coal fast enough? Germany is central to this. Germany gets 40% of its energy from coal. Second, will the EU move from coal to renewables, or instead seek to promote gas? In Britain the Conservatives have an explicit policy of ‘phasing out coal to replace with gas’. In this context Britain continues to give generous tax breaks to fracking companies, has cut funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency measures like insulating homes. Third, will European car manufactures make the necessary investments to move to electric vehicles, including shared and autonomous vehicles, or will this be solely led by China?

Progress is needed on all three questions over the next year to create the political context for Europe to make the dramatic increase in its climate commitments that is needed.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is leading the way in presenting a vision of how this can be made a reality. The Labour Party’s ‘For The Many Not The Few’ manifesto set out a commitment for Britain to do its fair share to meet the 1.5 degree Paris goal while improving the lives of people in Britain with a massive programme to create 1 million green jobs by investing in clean energy, a nationwide scheme to reduce carbon emissions and energy bills by insulating people’s homes, and a goal of ending illegal levels of air pollution by introducing clean air zones across the country.

An urgent priority for socialists

Preventing catastrophic climate change is essential for humanity. Action that is taken over the next few years will make the difference between millions of people living or dying in years to come. Between whole nations surviving, or the massive displacement of peoples as significant sections of the world become uninhabitable. Between hunger and widespread famine, or a world that can retain enough arable land to continue to sustain the human population.

Socialists need to step up the fight for an urgent end to the use of fossil fuels. A central demand within the imperialist countries must be that they raise their climate commitments so that a 1.5 degrees maximum rise is possible. They also need to take more action to reduce emissions now, before 2020. Plus these states should meet their commitments to the rest of the world to finance climate action and technology transfer in developing world that enables a fair transition to a green economy that creates high-skilled, decent jobs for those who had been in high carbon industries.

In the words of Fidel Castro at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit: ‘Tomorrow will be too late to do what we should have done a long time ago.’