Opinion: At Cop26 the stage is set for a battle over the next phase of capitalism
1 November 2021
Bewildered by the talks? Try viewing them as a struggle among three blocs of countries, companies and protest movements, says Professor Simon Lewis (UCL Geography).
The most important UN climate change talks since the 2015 Paris Agreement are upon us, with more than 120 world leaders are arriving in Glasgow for Cop26. The question now is, amid all the big talk, will it make a difference?
Given that Cop1 was held in 1995 and carbon dioxide emissions are now 14 billion tonnes a year higher than back then, we can be forgiven for thinking Cop26 is all a charade. But this time it is different, because it is a battle not only over reducing carbon emissions, but also over the rules of a new phase of capitalism that will affect us all.
Governments are facing extreme pressure to act now. Climate impacts are hitting home. The climate crisis is no longer abstract and no longer about the future. The heatwaves, floods and droughts we experience or see in the news, and endless reports of more to come, make catastrophe easier to imagine. Public pressure gets ever higher, from Insulate Britain blocking roads to surveys showing most people are seriously concerned about the climate emergency.
Scientific reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have unflinchingly shown that we can only stabilise Earth’s climate by reducing greenhouse gas emissions to an average of zero, known as net-zero emissions. This means that the transition away from fossil fuel energy is not a matter of if, but when.
The transition to powering society using renewables is also now technologically and economically feasible. The costs of wind and solar have plummeted to below the cost of building plants to produce electricity generated by oils and gas, with further falls expected. The economic argument for inaction is now gone.
Given that countries and companies have left it to the last possible second to take action, and the stakes are sky high, an avalanche of announcements are arriving. What should we make of them?
The bewildering complexity of the Glasgow talks can be seen, at its simplest, as a battle among three major blocs of countries, companies and protest movements. They aren’t formal groupings and don’t negotiate together, but can be grouped as they want similar outcomes.
The first is composed of the income poor and vulnerable countries, marginalised communities and the protestors who will be outside the SEC as negotiations take place. They want urgent action to limit warming to 1.5°C, the finance to achieve this, and a plan to adapt to climate change. Equity is at the heart of their demands.
The second bloc want to delay climate action by almost any means necessary. These are extractive states, such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Australia, and their allies in the fossil fuel and airline industries.
The third bloc want a transition to net zero that consolidates their position of power in the world. This is composed of the EU, US, and China, big companies such as Unilever and Amazon, along with much of the financial industry. Aside from China they all argue for markets to deliver net zero efficiently.
The three-way battle has already led to some surprising and rapid changes. Countries accounting for some 77% of global carbon dioxide emissions are now covered by mid-century net zero announcements, including countries traditionally hostile to climate action, including Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Australia, as well as the US, EU, UK and China.
But why are climate delayers voluntarily announcing net zero targets? This may be a mix of global opprobrium from the first bloc and plain cynicism because they think they won’t face the consequences of missing these targets. However, it is also likely to be because within the third bloc the EU have agreed, and the Democrats in the US have proposed, “carbon border adjustments” to impose tariffs on high carbon imports. This means exporter countries will need to reduce their emissions to access these huge markets.
This battle to shape the future will continue in Glasgow as countries negotiate rules on transparency, which would allow the UN to check what various nations are doing to achieve their targets. Negotiations on the rules governing carbon markets will also be tense. The prospect of interlinked markets for a new fungible global commodity – carbon – is a bonanza that banks and the financial industry are pushing for. But many are wary that carbon accounting tricks will trump real emissions reductions.
Overall, there are serious problems with the seemingly sensible thinking of bloc three: that if governments in the core zones of the global economy invest to kick-start a green industrial revolution, then the market will drive down prices for new technological solutions that outcompete fossil fuels and drive down emissions, and carbon border adjustments will bring the world with them.
Critically, this will not be anywhere near enough to shut down most of the fossil fuel industry and actually resolve the climate problem. Stopping new exploration for fossil fuels needs to go hand-in-hand with investing in alternatives. Yet, many governments who set themselves up as rational followers of the science are self-delusional. They cut emissions at home while also licensing yet more oil, coal and gas for export. Norway, the UK, the US and Canada are all doing this.
A perhaps more fundamental problem of the EU, US and UK market-driven approach is that markets are not fair. The Covid vaccines scandal has shown how new technology and market approaches have left billions vulnerable. Unprecedented international cooperation is needed to tackle the climate crisis. And within countries, if the transition to net zero is not experienced as a fair and just transition, plans will be derailed and catastrophe beckons.
Glasgow is a pivotal moment. The world cannot afford any more delays in climate action, so the climate-wreckers must not get their way. But for the most powerful countries and companies, they must realise that a transition to net zero can’t be achieved by relying on markets. They need to listen to the vulnerable countries and people. Solving the climate crisis needs action that is both fast and fair.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 1st November 2021.
-Original article in The Guardian