What a COP-Out!

The 27th world conference on climate change took place in Sharm-al-Sheikh in Egypt from 6-20 November 2022.  The urgency of action on climate change was set out in his introductory remarks by Antonio Gutteres, Secretary General of the United Nations, who made the following points:

“These climate conferences remind us that the answer is in our hands and the clock is ticking.”

• “We are in the fight of our lives, and we are losing.”

• “Greenhouse gas emissions keep growing, global temperatures keep rising…and our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible.”

• “We are getting dangerously close to the point of no return. And to avoid that dire fate all countries must accelerate their transition now, in this decade.”

• “Humanity has a choice: cooperate or perish.”

• “It is either a climate solidarity pact, or it is a collective suicide pact.”

So the issue is certainly urgent enough to merit the attention of the world’s most powerful people.

And indeed, the Conference was attended by all the great and the good – some 66,000 participants, including more than 120 heads of state and government, country negotiators and representatives from business and civil society and media. Also in attendance, however, were 636 lobbyists from the oil and gas industries, whose number was greater than any one delegation except that from the UAE. The argument in favour of admitting these representatives of the corporate fossil fuel sector was that it was necessary to procure the cooperation of this industry in reducing carbon emissions. But that was not what they did in practice! 

“…Saudi representatives pushed at the United Nations global climate summit in Egypt to block a call for the world to burn less oil, according to two people present at the meeting, saying that the summit’s final statement ‘should not mention fossil fuels.’ The effort prevailed: After objections from Saudi Arabia and a few other oil producers, the statement failed to include a call for nations to phase out fossil fuels” (Hiroko Tabuchi, ‘Inside the Saudi strategy to keep the world hooked on oil’ New York Times, 21 November 2022).

Robert Sandford, an expert in water conservation from McManus University in Canada, does not mince his words:

The oil and gas lobby completely corrupted the COP process. The proceedings and outcomes of COP 27 make it clear that the fossil fuel sector now owns the COP agenda. The sole aim of their presence there was to prevent, not promote, progress on dealing with the global climate threat. And they succeeded.

None of the agreements negotiated in Egypt are binding. Like the national emissions reductions target put forward by UN Member States under the Paris Climate Accord, the commitments made at COP 27 are all merely aspirational.

“There is no penalty for failing to achieve them. There have been 27 COPs since 1995 and still no formal binding agreement on cutting fossil fuel burning.

“Except for a small blip during the pandemic, fossil fuel burning globally continues to rise, not fall.

In addition he noted:

COP 27 was … sponsored by one of the world’s largest plastic polluters: Coca-Cola.

“It did not seem to register with organizers that the company’s relentless bottled water production is widely held in the global water science and policy community as a triumph of marketing over common sense.

Did the organizers not see that Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of COP 27 was an open invitation to blatant global greenwashing?”

This leads him to conclude that:

The obvious should not be missed here: Capitalism is not out of control, capitalism is in control – and COP 27 offers clear proof of that truth…”

Even before COP27 many people had come to the conclusion that it was at best going to be only an exercise in greenwashing.  Greta Thunberg declined to attend for that reason.  Neither China nor Russia took part.

The Saudis had two excuses they used to cover their contribution to sabotaging efforts to bring carbon emissions under control.  The first is that they have ambitious plans to reduce Saudi Arabia’s carbon emissions within its borders; and the second is that they are developing technology for carbon capture, to include building by 2027 a facility for storing as much carbon as is emitted by a two million motor cars in a year. If carbon capture can be made to work on a large scale, which has not yet been determined, it could be helpful in situations where there is no real alternative to using fossil fuels – although it is thought that at best it can only capture 60-70% of emissions – it can hardly be a substitute for reducing carbon emissions towards net zero in the first place.

As for the Saudis’ ambition substantially to reduce carbon emissions within their own borders in fairly short order, the words of Hugo Rifkind, writing in The Times, in connection with the UAE, seem to apply equally to Saudi Arabia:

Let’s not suggest the UAE isn’t trying. True, 30 per cent of its GDP comes from oil and gas, but as the Emirati president, Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, put it at Cop27 in Egypt, ‘we will continue to work towards reducing carbon emissions in the sector’. Great! … Exports aside, though, the country has proud plans to hit net zero within its own borders by 2050. Much like a really pious vegan who still owns an abattoir” (‘Take it from the soup throwers, Cop’s a cop-out’, 21 November 2022).

The bourgeois media are maintaining a discreet silence about the role of US oil producers with regard to this, although the US is the world’s top oil producer (at over 11m bbl/day or 33,556 bbl/day per million population), ahead of even Saudi Arabia (just over 9.3m bbl/day, but 295,689 bbl/day per million population) and Russia (just over 10m bbl/day or 69,689 bbl/day per million population).

Moreover, according to INN Oil and Gas Investing News, in 2022 “Number one on [the] list of the top 10 oil-producing countries is the US. Its output increased by 266,000 bpd from its 2020 level to reach 18,875,000 bpd last year” (Melissa Pistilli and Georgia Williams, ‘Top 10 Oil-producing Countries (Updated 2022)’, 8 November 2022).

What could be the reason for such reticence?

Even more discretion is being exercised regarding the carbon footprint generated by US-inspired endless wars, such as the war in Ukraine to which the various imperialist countries are contributing fuel to feed flames to the fire in seemingly limitless quantities!

War has brought widespread suffering, death, and destruction, but its impact on climate and the environment is less understood. Billions of dollars worth of guns, tanks, support trucks, and fighter jets are involved in the battle, consuming huge amounts of fuel and resulting in significant greenhouse gas emissions that remain difficult to quantify and are rarely discussed.

Greenhouse gas emissions from military operations are greater than we might think. Estimated by Brown University, U.S. military operations have caused 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases emission since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan through 2018. It is equivalent to the annual emissions of 257 million passenger cars, more than double the number of cars on the road in the US. And according to a study published by The Left group in the European Parliament, the EU’s military sectors had an annual carbon footprint equivalent to 14 million cars in 2019, before the outbreak of war in Ukraine. These are just the emissions in peacetime, while the emissions after the outbreak of war in Ukraine will only be higher” (Norah Jiaxuan Zhang, ‘How the War in Ukraine affects the fight against climate change’, Katoikos.world, 18 August 2022).

So as millions of people around the world suffer from an abrupt fall in their standard of living as a result of the energy crisis caused by the Ukraine war, itself brought about by Nato’s aggressive enlargement towards the very borders of Russia, they need also to be worrying about the fact that the very future of humanity is being threatened by the substantial additional carbon emissions arising from imperialist wars.

If The Times is to be believed, “To prevent the worst possible climate disasters, the world has less than eight years to halve fossil fuel carbon emissions if it is to stay below 1.5C and 28 years to reduce them almost completely if it is to reach net zero by 2050 in line with the Paris Agreement…

To stay in line with a climate target of 1.5C, per capita emissions would need to be about one tonne of carbon dioxide per year. Many countries in the global south are already achieving that whereas in some countries in the global north, individual consumption is as high as 14.9 tonnes in the US, 14.3 in Canada and 15 in Australia. China, by comparison, emits 6.6 tonnes per person” (Rachel Lavin, ‘The world has a new curve to flatten’, 21 November 2022). The UK stands at 5.5, having made progress in the last few years in reducing carbon emissions – but clearly even in the UK there is a long way to go, and so little time left to get there!  The per capita emissions in most third world countries are significantly lower.  India’s per capita emissions, for instance, stand at 1.91.

However The Times continues: “Policies in place as of November 11 would continue to release between 30 and 60 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions for the remainder of the century resulting in an almost 3C rise in global temperatures — a catastrophic result. Based on 2030 targets alone it would still result in a 2.4C rise” (ibid.).

One might have thought that in view of the urgency of the situation, such an august collection of world leaders and high-level influencers as were participating in COP27 would have taken decisive action – but not at all! Why on earth not?  The answer lies, of course, in the economics of capitalist profiteering, as is admitted, with not a little dismay, by Martin Wolf of the Financial Times:

Whatever else may be wrong with economics, its starting point is correct: people do indeed respond to incentives [only financial incentives, i.e., profits, can bring about responses under capitalism, of course]. Suppose renewables provided the dominant technologies for energy supply; suppose, in short, that it was more profitable to use solar, wind or other renewable sources of energy than fossil fuels. Market forces would then drive the transformation of economies in a climate-protecting direction on their own”.

The problem, however is that as yet it is not more profitable to use renewable sources of energy than fossil fuels. Progress is being made in that direction but: “it is not fast enough to be transformative within the relevant timescale”.

The bad news is that this fall in costs has not been transformative enough, quickly enough. A rise in the share of renewables in electricity generation has indeed occurred. In the EU, it reached 25 per cent in 2021. But in the world as a whole it was still only 13 per cent. Meanwhile, total emissions from all sources have not fallen. Yet, if the 1.5C limit is to be kept alive, total emissions have to fall sharply by 2030, particularly in electricity generation. For this to happen, there must be a huge expansion in the use of what the International Energy Agency calls ‘low-emissions sources’, the bulk being from renewables, while use of unabated fossil fuels falls by a third. To remind ourselves, this is in the next eight years.

“Additions to renewable energy capacity have stabilised, not accelerated in recent years.

Nothing happened in Sharm el-Sheikh to suggest this is likely. The reasons for the relatively slow adjustment to renewables so far, even as they have become more competitive, are many: the overhang of low marginal cost installed capacity, not just in electricity generation but also in heating, transportation and industry; the costs of a fast transition to alternatives; resistance to loss of existing business and employment in production, refining and distribution; resistance to building solar and wind farms; resistance to undertaking needed investments in systems integration; and difficulties in arranging finance for emerging and developing countries, but also for households just about everywhere. Delaying everything is sheer inertia.

“China has been making the largest additions to renewable capacity, by far. China adds almost as much capacity as the rest of the world combined.”

Martin Wolf ends by admitting that the market cannot act fast enough to avert disaster, but various political measures could and should be taken that would produce the desired results.  But what makes him think, in the wake of the total failure of the Sharm al Sheikh COP27 that in the absence of revolution to overthrow the malign influence of the profiteers on all bourgeois governments and political leaders, such political measures could be taken on a world scale?  

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