Doomsday Happy?

"Mulan Wind Farm" by Land Rover Our Planet is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

By Charlie Wilson

This site has argued for some time that the two decisive crises the world faces this decade are the climate emergency and the US Cold War on China. These crises are increasingly coming together.

While the war in Ukraine has put the Climate Crisis on the back burner of public attention, it’s still burning; and ever more fiercely.

There is now an acute danger that backsliding from the Global North in general and the USA in particular could collapse the Paris climate process even before the 2024 US Presidential election. Deadlock in Congress is preventing any serious move forward to either provide state investment capable of meeting their 2030 target, or a framework within witch private sector investment could take off. Democrat negotiations to find something, anything, that Joe Manchin will accept look as though they will run out of time. With the Republicans likely to take control of at least one of the Houses in November, and the Presidency in 2024, the US state is moving in a grotesque dumb show from paralysis back to denial. This is already having a knock-on effect in the private sector, where executives like Larry Fink of Blackrock have announced that they won’t any longer be the “environment police”, monitoring their investments for environmental sustainability. This sentiment was put more graphically by HSBC “Head of Responsible Investment” Stuart Kirk, who asked “Who cares if Miami is 6 metres underwater in 100 years’ time?” Who, indeed? While he was slapped down for dropping the mask, he was the head of responsible investment for the bank and speaking for most of his class, who see considerations of human survival as far less important than making shedloads of money for themselves in the short term. This is why this class is structurally incapable of leading anything more than a partial and reluctant transition; and many of them are impatient with even that.

This has military feedback too. The US military’s Climate Strategy, while it talks of reducing its enormous carbon boot print (equivalent to France) to mitigate its impact, nevertheless is framed primarily like this. “The Army will remain the dominant land fighting force by adapting to changing global conditions including climate change. This strategy will position our installations and supply chains to better withstand extreme weather, improve our training relevancy to a changing world, and our Soldiers will fulfil their missions under the harshest conditions.” So, missions in harsh conditions. The thought that diverting the £817 billion defence budget to fighting climate change itself doesn’t occur to them. In the same way that finding £40 billion to fuel the war in Ukraine was rushed through in no time at all with a political consensus, but winkling out a few extra billion to transfer vital resources for carbon reduction in the Global South has been way too difficult for years. The awareness that this failure on the part of the world’s biggest economy to even make a gesture at doing its bit sets the whole of humanity on the path to disaster in the medium term, is perhaps an additional psychological motivator for the military brinkmanship we are currently seeing from the US and its more abject auxiliaries (like the UK). If climate breakdown is going to leave the world “cooked” as John Kerry put it, any thought of military restraint in the US’s push over rival countries red lines will be reduced. There might even be an element of vertigo about it. The desire to jump, to break the unbearable tension of waiting to fall.

The tagline for this year’s November COP in Egypt is “Together for implementation”, but the refusal of the USA and Europe to even discuss “loss and damage” compensation for the Global South prevents implementation through a denial of responsibility. The paradox of this is that the reason they oppose conceding the principle is that they know they are responsible for 92% of historic carbon emissions but want those on the receiving end of the damage caused by them to both cope with the impact and pay for it while they fold their arms (or point fingers). Not surprisingly they have been accused of betrayal.

There is nevertheless a mass climate movement in the United States and serious action taken by States and Cities managed to mitigate half the impact of the denialism of the Trump Presidency last time. Environmental solidarity with the rest of the world will inevitably be an essential component of the spiralling US domestic political crisis as this decade staggers from blow to blow; and it would be foolish to presume how this could turn out.

The rest of the world won’t stop in the meantime. The election of a Left wing President in Columbia committed, among other things, to no new Oil and gas exploration is a historic break in the US’s cornerstone ally in Latin America. The prospect of Lula being elected president in Brazil in November will break with Bolsonaro’s denialism and nihilistic desire to slash and burn the Amazon. The Pink Tide is coming back in, and its redder and greener.

But what matters most is what happens in China. The penny is beginning to drop in some sections of the mainstream left in the West that if China forges ahead with decarbonisation, while the USA mires itself into doubling down on fossil fuels, then China will be leading the global effort to save humanity – which will make sustaining popular support for a Cold War against it increasingly difficult.

A recent article in the New Statesman by Bernice Lee of Chatham House argued that the US and Europe should understand that China is making more of a transition than they like to make out, and should cooperate with it not misrepresent it. Here are some key points.

  • the Chinese government is laying foundations for a new, flexible and dispersed power grid – light years away from the current province-centred and coal-designed network. Political guidelines from Beijing to provincial leaders …released in 2022 point to a “unified energy market” mandating investments in energy storage, critical to making full use of wind, solar and hydro power. Allied to a goal to cut the cost per unit of battery storage by 30 per cent in five years, experts believe this – and new hi-tech power lines – will allow better sharing across regions as China heads towards a 2030 clean power target of 1,200 gigawatts. By 2025, China’s wind and solar capacity could hit 1,100 gigawatts shows analysis by Carbon Brief, double that of 2020. For context, current grid capacity is 2,300 gigawatts.
  • This spring we saw recommendations for the chemical and petrochemical industries, emphasising the need for low carbon development of these jobs-rich sectors. Goals for the sectors – which emit 14 per cent of China’s total emissions – include “green, safe and low-carbon” industrial development, with tougher restrictions on embodied carbon.
  • In March 2022… the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed no new coal plants will be built under the Belt and Road Initiative and announced a pivot to “green” infrastructure projects in power and transportation, industry and manufacturing.
  • Meanwhile, Carbon Brief reports the longest sustained drop in China’s carbon emissions for a decade; “an estimated 1.4% in the first three months of 2022, making it the third quarter in a row of falling emissions”. This is partly due to a reduction in carbon heavy construction and to Covid lockdowns in cities like Shanghai – more comprehensive, but therefore more effective and shorter than the Western experience – but also to a fall in oil use and a sharp increase in the contribution of renewable energy to the grid; with thermal power generation down 12% in April 2022 from April 2021, while energy generated by wind was up 15%, solar 25% and hydroelectric by 17% (due in this case to better conditions, not new installations). While this does not mean that China’s emissions have already peaked, it shows that its aim to peak emissions before 2030 is well within reach.

The contrast between the US doubling down on fossil fuels and China inexorably moving to renewables will be increasingly hard to deny.