Long Hot Summer, Fighting in the Burning House

Forest fires and flooding - 2021

By Charlie Wilson

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies. But in battalions.” Hamlet.

This will be the pattern. Climate breakdown impacts will multiply, intensify, come thick and fast on each other’s heels and begin to overlap; potentially overwhelming our capacity to deal with and recover from them. The North West American heat domes from late July followed rapidly by more in Yakutsk, Turkey and Japan and the first ever Met Office heat warning in the UK. Then the torrential rain and floods in Germany, Belgium, Austria, Iran, China, Mumbai, Lagos, Arizona, Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan.

This is not benign, gradual “global warming” that might be dealt with slowly in the fullness of time; during which politically inconvenient decisions can be kicked down the road without consequence. Nor is it something the wealthy countries can build a wall to keep out. The fires and floods are on both sides of the wall. This is a chronic underlying condition becoming increasingly acute and requiring immediate action and investment. If we don’t borrow from the future, there won’t be one.

Action falls short

On Tuesday 20 July, the International Energy Authority released an analysis pointing out that only 2% of the world’s expenditure on Coronavirus measures and recovery has been on clean energy transition. As a result of that they predict that CO2 emissions will rise by 4-5% a year for the next two years and “there is no peak in sight”. On a global scale the investment in clean energy is just 35% of the amount the IEA assesses as necessary to be on track for global temperatures not to rise beyond 1.5C. In the most developed economies, the figure is 60%.

So, the countries with the biggest responsibility for creating the crisis and the greatest resources to do so are doing just over half of what they need to do domestically, while equally failing miserably to enable the world that they dominate and exploit to do even a fraction of that. The IEA is clear that the problem for developing countries is that they do not have the fiscal resources to invest in the transition.

This makes the failure of the G7 to meet the target date (of last year) to pay the $100 billion pledged to developing countries to enable them to cope with immediate climate impacts and develop without reliance on fossil fuels, both an “unforgivable moral failure” (Gordon Brown) and a demonstration that dominant power is not the same as world leadership. The UN estimates that there is already a $70 billion annual gap for addressing climate impacts before you get on to transformative investment. So, that’s $70 billion a year just to stand still. In the meantime, the shortfall has to be made up by borrowing from Western banks.

This failure is a matter of choice. The contrast between the $100 billion unfulfilled climate pledge and the $1043 billion the G7 invests in military expenditure every year is stark.

The US has pledged to raise its current contribution to $5.3 billion by 2024. That is just under the amount that Jeff Bezos spent last week to go into space for four minutes.

Blame game

In a neat piece of historic amnesia that infuriates the developing world, John Kerry’s argument at Kew this week that “China is now the largest driver of climate change” evades the carbon price paid by the rest of the world for the developed countries to get as wealthy as they are – and for the average US citizen to amass a carbon footprint more than double that of the average Chinese. The historic responsibility for current levels of climate emissions is clear.

92% has come from the Global North.

The Global South – the whole of Africa, Latin America and Asia (including China and India) – is responsible for 8% so far – just 1% above the figure for the UK alone.

Kerry is talking from both sides of his mouth. He calls for more action from China to meet 1.5C, while proposals from his own administration that fall well short of meeting that target are being blocked by the Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats in the Senate. Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that Xi Jingping has pledged on a call with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron that China “would use the shortest time in world history to go from a carbon peak to carbon neutrality”. He calls for co-operation, but has not agreed to a Chinese proposal – made at the Anchorage Foreign Ministers Summit in March – for a joint working party with the US to push global co-operation.

Old King Coal

An illustration of the sleight of hand being used is that the G7 Summit in June pledged to “take concrete steps towards an absolute end to new direct government support for unabated international thermal coal power generation by the end of 2021”. The emphasis here is on “direct government support”, which puts a spotlight on China, because it has a state dominated economy. It avoids taking account of investment by the private sector, which dominates in the West. Recent research on this shows that 87% of global finance for coal projects comes from outside China – principally from banks based in the USA, Japan and UK.

Positive moves on this from China – in June, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China – one of the country’s biggest coal financiers – said it would phase out coal lending and has already said it will not fund Kenya’s $1.2 billion coal-fired power plant or Zimbabwe’s $3 billion 2,800-megawatt Sengwa coal project – will need to be accelerated and matched by Western private finance to make the progress we need.

Ruling class split and the prospects for an unjust transition

The impact of the recent extreme weather has begun to get through to the most impervious of places. The Daily Telegraph has just run an opinion piece arguing “the inevitable change in our climate, now horribly underway, is going to legitimise bits of the Left that hitherto were considered extreme. Unless conservatives use the state to preserve as much liberty as possible, a green-Left alliance will eventually be elected that uses environmentalism as cover to redistribute power and money. If you want to save capitalism, you’ve got to go green”. The imperative here is the preservation of an inequitable distribution of power and money and the “liberty” of those who have it to hang on to it.

The split in the ruling class – between those who want to continue with business as usual, see the melting ice caps as a great chance for oil exploration in the Arctic, hope to ride out and profit from the coming social instability, while buying doomsday boltholes in New Zealand or Patagonia as a last-ditch insurance policy, and those who will try to find solutions compatible with capital – is sharply apparent in the stand-off in the US over Biden’s infrastructure Bill; where the clout of these two factions is fairly evenly matched, and leading to paralysis.

The EU, where the current that thinks this crisis can be “managed” with a few adaptations is in charge, gives a clearer indication of what an attempted unjust transition could look like.

The EU Commission – as part of their Fit for 55 plan to reduce emissions 55% by 2030 – has come up with a plan to impose import tariffs on countries producing goods with a higher carbon intensity than industries sited in the EU. If agreed, these would come into force by 2026. This could hit imports from the US and Australia, but would primarily be directed at the industrialising parts of the developing world. This would mean that the costs for the EUs greening programme would be partly paid for from the tariffs imposed on countries without the capital to green themselves.

A parallel domestic proposal “means asking those who are least responsible for our current climate crisis – but who are most exposed to climate disasters – to pay the highest price for the energy transition” according to FOE Europe. While this includes positive proposals to increase energy efficiency targets and make them binding at EU level, to make homes stay warmer in winter and cooler in summer using less energy, renovate public social housing, encourage members states to set up national transition boards to develop energy poverty indicators and mitigation strategies, to direct a proportion of energy saving programmes to energy poor households,

The proposal to introduce the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) to buildings and transport – while heavy industry continues to benefit from exemptions and free allowances under the existing ETS – leaves individual consumers to meet the cost of carbon permits; particularly tenants who can’t afford to pay for energy efficiency upgrades and people in areas without decent public transport. This would be around 429 Euros a year for an average household in a situation in which 50 million EU citizens already live in fuel poverty. The European climate foundation found that this would “have little additional impact on emissions from these sectors but would significantly increase living costs for poorer households”. Lose, lose.

The inherent inequality of these sort of market-based approaches reflects why the various home insulation programmes in the UK have been such dismal failures. The total flop of the Green Homes Grant – now dropped with no replacement – hardly needs rehearsing. But even the more successful initiatives – in putting the “liberty” of the market before the imperative to decarbonise in the most efficient and rapid and equitable fasion – get everything the wrong way round. The renewables tariffs rewarded people who could individually afford to put solar panels on their roof, while passing the costs on to those who could not. It also meant that, while there was a significant uptake while it lasted, installations were carried out in penny packets here and there, instead of rolled out on a central plan that could have secured economies of scale, secure supply lines and consistent employment, and had a bigger impact on energy use, carbon emissions and peoples bills.

Resistance to this aspect of these proposals from trade unions, environmentalists and consumer groups has been joined by a number of member states, including France, reflecting a salutary experience. An attempt to impose a blanket increase in fuel duty by Macron in 2018 led to the Gilets Jaunes rebellion. This was primarily from people who had been priced out of living in major cities – while still having to work there and commute in by car in the absence of viable public transport – facing an increase in fuel costs that would push them under. Hence the slogan “You are concerned about the end of the world. We are concerned about the end of the month”; which means that there is no viable solution without being concerned with both.

The Wall St Journal – an articulate mouthpiece for the section of the ruling class that wants to brass things out, while dumping costs and penalties downwards at home and abroad – has argued recently that “voters have started noticing how much they’re each going to have to spend to reduce carbon emissions, and they don’t like it”. The GMB union has calculated that the average cost of the UK’s current net zero plan up to 2050 is £33 per household per week. Roughly what the average household spends on clothing, footwear and alcoholic drinks. Averaged out, you might think that a reasonable price to pay to secure a liveable planet for our grandchildren, but this sort of flat tax approach misses the point that – precisely because this is small change for some and an unbearable burden for others – to make a successful transition we need to “redistribute power and money” exactly as our Daily Telegraph columnist fears.

In the meantime, the fight in the burning building will go on.