By Charlie Wilson
The pace of action is slower than the rate of breakdown
There is an argument about exactly how bad things are already. The Climate Change Advisory Group (CCAG), which is like an international climate version of Indy SAGE, considers that we are already at 1.35C above pre industrial averages. On that calculation there is no “carbon budget” left to stay within a 1.5C increase, so every gramme of carbon that goes into the air from now on has to be drawn back out again. This is not a matter of token offsetting gestures, but would need to be done on a colossal scale. The official UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) figure is that we are 1.2C above pre industrial averages and give us six years at current emission levels. This is urgent enough. In practice, global heating has risen in line with the “unlikely worst-case scenario” in climate models, with events not anticipated for 50 years already happening now.
Emissions are still growing. The rate of growth has slowed to 1.1% a year for the decade from 2010 – 2020, down from 2.5% a year between 2000 and 2010, but they need to be cut by half overall by 2030 to hit IPCC targets. In this context the effective abandonment of the annual ratchet, for every country to increase ambition at every COP, being reduced to encouragement to do so is both lackadaisical and detached from reality.
Fossil fuel companies are embedded in the COP process
There were 639 delegates representing fossil fuel companies embedded in national delegations. One in 50 of everyone who was there. They were not identified as such. Being on national delegations meant that they were directly taking part in the negotiations that mattered – in the rooms where it happened. In the run up to the COP, references in the latest IPCC report to the imperative to get off fossil fuels were eliminated from the Executive Summary that policy makers work from at the insistence of countries like Saudi Arabia. Adil al-Jubair, the Saudi Foreign Minister, stated “we don’t see this as a discussion about fossil fuels”, which begs the question what he does think it’s a discussion about. At the COP, attempts by India to generalise last year’s commitment to phase down coal to phase down all fossil fuels was blocked and, even worse, natural gas was affirmed as a “transition fuel”; despite the clear insistence of the IPCC that no new fossil fuel resources can be explored and developed if we are to stay below a 1.5C increase.
This was also the first COP at which oil and gas companies were represented in an official capacity, and next year’s COP will be held in the United Arab Emirates, which is likely to consolidate this trend.
Gas development in Africa is “fossil fuel colonialism”
As a result, outside and alongside the climate negotiations a number of deals were done to develop gas reserves, especially in Africia. This has been framed by its supporters as developmental, a way to get beyond the use of wood and dung for domestic cooking and heating on a continent in which 600 million people have no access to electricity. Tony Blair, always ready to send a reactionary message wrapped in progressive sounding bromide, commented “gas will be a transition fuel for them”. African leaders like Macky Sall, President of Senegal and others from Nigeria, Mozambique, Congo Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, Algeria and this year’s COP President Egypt, all lined up on the demand “why not Africa?”
This was driven by EU countries seeking supplies of natural gas to make up for the losses they imposed on themselves by putting sanctions on Russia in pursuit of the Ukraine war this year, with Olaf Scholtz visiting Senegal this Summer, and Italy also playing an energetic role. This underlines the hypocrisy of this position. Development of natural gas in Africa will not benefit most people in Africa, least of all those off the grid. No capitalist company seeking profitability is going to build a gigantic grid of gas pipelines connecting remote rural areas and urban slums. 89% of the projected infrastructural is geared to export.
And this is a short term sugar rush at best. Carbon Tracker points out that the increased rapidity of the EU’s transition to renewable energy – with targets for 2030 hiked from 22% to 45% of energy generation – will leave these gas fields and LNG export facilities as stranded assets within a decade, and the countries that build them will be left servicing the debts. Solar and wind is a better bet.
With the cost of solar energy halving in the last ten years, and the greater productivity of solar panels on a continent with a lot of sunlight, and intense sunlight at that, has already made it cheaper than power produced by existing coal plants in South Africa. But making the transition requires a level of financing ($35 billion by 2035) that is not available domestically. Africa largely leapt over landlines straight to Sat phones (mobiles). It could do the same with renewable energy. Financing a “dash for gas” in African countries is a diversion of funds needed to make a similar leap to solar and wind and, as Mohamed Adow of Power Shift Africa points out, treats the continent once again as a “resource pool for extraction and export and a dumping ground for practices and technologies no longer wanted elsewhere” on behalf of short term European demand.
The West/Global North is still failing to support the Global South, prioritising war instead
There has finally been a discussion on Loss and Damage. There are now three tiers to climate change funding. Mitigation – to stop it happening. Adaptation – to make it possible to live with the changes we can’t stop. Loss and Damage – to pay for the impacts that are already happening. The less invested in mitigation, the more expensive adaptation and loss and damage will be, unless the idea in the Global North is that the South can take it on the chin and lump it. Global South countries have been pushing for a Loss and Damage facility since the early 90s, as they are where most of the impacts are being felt hardest. This autumn’s floods in Pakistan which inundated a third of the country, displaced 33 million people, killed 1,200, destroyed 12,718 kilometres of roads, 390 bridges, over1.8 million homes is the most dramatic recent example of this.
The Global North has been resisting this because they have caused the problem and know it; having grown rich with 90% of historic global emissions, and they don’t want to accept liability. The result from this COP has been to agree to set up a facility on the basis of ruling out liability and with no serious money committed. The process for this is supposed to be set up in negotiations over the next year and agreed at COP 28. All sorts of models are in play. One is the “Global Shield” Insurance based model being pushed by Germany. The US model is also to rely on private finance. There are proposals to rejig the rules for the World Bank. So, a patchwork of initiatives can be expected that would make the structure of the Holy Roman Empire look simple, with a lot of attention paid to how Global North financial institutions can turn a profit on it as a bottom line for getting it going.
The focus of this fund is for the “most vulnerable”. So, not the whole Global South. Pakistan, for example, would not be covered. There is no obligation on large developing countries like China to contribute to the fund, but China has indicated that it will provide investment of its own volition. If this is on a decent scale, it will bounce the Global North into trying to match it for fear of losing influence in the same way that the Belt and Road initiative has had them scrabbling for a finance model to compete with it.
If this works on the same lines as the funding for mitigation, in which the Global North has still not managed to eke out $100 billion a year pledged at Copenhagen in 2009 and due by 2020, we can expect increasing impacts to be met with eye dropper funding and regression into increasing poverty across the majority world. The contrast with the $65 billion the USA alone has stumped up to fuel the Ukraine war in the last 8 months is instructive of their priorities.
A last minute proposal from the EU to support Loss and Damage in return for all countries aiming to peak emissions by 2025, contributions from large developing countries like China and an enforcement mechanism was a clear attempt to make the poorest countries bear the cost. If the price of a Loss and Damage facility for a country like Mozambique, with per capita carbon emissions of 0.37 tonnes, is to peak its domestic emissions in three years’ time and accept countries with wealth, power, large armies and much bigger per capita carbon footprints policing it, it’s hardly surprising they weren’t keen. The G77 plus China bloc were solid in their resistance to this.
Al Gore has conceded that the Global South will need “trillions not billions” by 2030. The climate movement needs to target a decrease in military spending as a source of this funding.
Progress depends on countries raising and exceeding existing targets
There’s some hope here from China, where emissions have dropped for four successive quarters, by as much as 8% April – June, even though electricity demand increased by 10% in 2021, largely due to a rapid increase in renewable energy generation, now up to 18% of the overall energy mix, combined with a slowdown in construction, even while their economy grew faster than the USA. It’s also the case that their target of 20% vehicles being electric by 2025 has already been met according to the CCAG, with 50% of the world’s EVs in China. These are now a third cheaper than petrol/diesel vehicles. Their 2030 target for renewable energy installation looks like being met by 2025 or 6. This does not mean that China’s emissions have already peaked, as the projected 3.2% growth rate for this year is very slow by Chinese standards and is expected to pick up. But it makes it more likely that that peak will be hit far earlier than the current 2030 target.
There has also been progress with Australia acknowledging the crisis and putting forward a more ambitious, albeit still woefully inadequate, target and the defeat of Bolsonaro in Brazil holding out hope that Lula will halt the deforestation of the Amazon. 23 out of 190 countries upped their targets this year.
The potential for the dramatically falling costs of renewable energy technology to reach a tipping point in investment will be crucial, probably why there are so many fossil fuel lobbyists at the COP trying to build in firewalls and obstacles to this taking off.
The Inflation Reduction Act is an America First carbon reduction plan
The paradox of the Inflation Reduction Act in the USA is that it sets up a series of investments and incentives designed to reduce the USA’s carbon emissions by 40% by 2030, while at the same time encouraging further fossil fuel exploration and infrastructure. This would still undershoot the needed drop of 50% for the entire world, which means the US cut would need to be substantially bigger. Moreover, an aspect of this framework that is now coming home to roost is that incentives are built into domestic, or at least, after a bit of haggling with Canada, North American manufacture; whether this is for EVs or renewable energy. When you combine this with the cost of energy being a fifth of what it is in Europe, this is leading to a significant shift in investment out of the EU (and UK) across the Atlantic.
The subsidy for a gigafactory in the US is reckoned to be $600-800 million, compared to 155 million Euros in the EU. An example of the immediate effect of this is that Spanish based energy company Iderola is planning to place over 51% of its investments in 2022-3 in the USA, compared to 27% in the EU. This tendency within the “rules based international order” for the rules to be updated on the hoof in the interests of the strongest powers is leading to the EU to threaten to take this up as a breach of World Trade Organisation rules on the limits of state aid. This is a paradox of the US trying to “decouple” itself and its allies from China economically, but at the same time screwing them over within its own bloc.
A local footnote in this struggle between the biggest imperialist trading powers in the delusionary minor player that is the UK is that the “British Volt gigafactory” in Blyth that Boris Johnson used to grandstand about looks stillborn for lack of finance (and expertise on the part of the company, which looks as iffy as some of those that got contracts for PPE). At present, with the EU’s level of subsidy, there are 41 gigafactories on the stocks in the EU compared to just 3 in the UK (one of which is Blyth which looks like staying a muddy field for quite some time). It’s reckoned that to maintain current levels of vehicle manufacture, the UK would need 7. At present it looks as though vehicle manufacturers are looking to invest elsewhere; Jaguar in Slovakia, BMW aiming to build electric Minis in China and the electric van start up Arriva heading for the USA.
The “Build it in Britain” policy that is part of Labour’s attempts to paint a green policy red, white and blue is a local equivalent of the Inflation Reduction Act without comparable resources to back it up. A Labour government seeking to build a significant local green manufacturing sector would need a bribe for international capital on at least a par with the US or the nationalisation of key sectors.
The climate struggle is a class struggle
There are an increasing number of studies thatreveal the qualitatively different carbon footprints of different social classes. Last year, OXFAM showed that the rising emissions of the wealthiest 10% – those on more than $80,000 a year roughly – will take us beyond 1.5C regardless of what the rest of us do, while that of the upper middle 40%, which is most of the working class in the Global North, is declining and that of the bottom 50%, most of the people in the Global South, is negligible.
A similar study published in Nature Sustainability this September draws comparable conclusions. That the richest 10% have a carbon footprint of 70 tonnes each, compared to a global average of 4 .79 tonnes and an average for sub Saharan Africa of just 0.6 tonnes. The richest 1% were responsible for a quarter of the growth in emissions since 1990. To keep within the 2030 global target, the poorest 50% in the USA would have to cut their emissions by just 5%, but the richest 10% would have to cut theirs by 90%. The richest 1% in China would have to cut their emissions by 70%, while the poorest 50% could increase theirs by 250%.
This puts the question of growth and degrowth in context and makes policies of swingeing redistribution not simply a matter of desirable social justice, but an imperative of environmental survival. This argument should be being put throughout the climate movement and taken up in and through anti austerity campaigns too.