SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 195 February 2016

Paris talks:

Diplomatic triumph, climatic tragedy

Given the scenes of jubilation at the end of the Paris climate talks in December, it might appear that the United Nations has proved its critics wrong. A worldwide deal to tackle global warming was struck by 195 countries. And they not only promised to limit warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels – above which the effects, such as droughts, floods and sea-level rises, could become irreversible. They also set a goal of 1.5°C, through the restriction of the greenhouse gases which are driving global warming.

The sense of relief was echoed in the media. Fiona Harvey, environmental journalist at the Guardian newspaper, described the scene: "At 7.16pm, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, returned abruptly to the stage, flanked by high-ranking UN officials. The last-minute compromises had been resolved, he said. And suddenly they were all on their feet. Fabius brought down the green-topped gavel, a symbol of UN talks, and announced that a Paris agreement had been signed. The delegates were clapping, cheering and whistling wildly, embracing and weeping. Even the normally reserved economist Lord Stern was whooping. Outside the hall, a Mexican wave of standing ovations rippled across the conference centre as news reached participants gathered around screens outside for the translation into their own language. The 50,000 people who attended the summit had been waiting for this moment, through marathon negotiating sessions and sleepless nights". (14 December)

In addition, prior to the Paris conference (known as COP21), 187 countries had pledged to cut their carbon emissions – known in UN jargon as ‘intended nationally defined contributions’ (INDCs). It was a marked contrast to the Copenhagen talks in 2009, which ended in complete disarray, amid bitter criticism and fallouts between governmental representatives.

So, have the world’s governments finally taken stock of this existential threat, and are they now locked onto a course to tackle it? Has the profit-driven capitalist system shed its short-termism, replacing it with a newfound far-sightedness?

Unfortunately, it may have been a grand piece of diplomatic theatre, but the substance of the Paris talks did not match the elaborate media spin. For starters, the world has already hit nearly 1°C of warming. And it is thought that, even in the very unlikely event that the INDC promises are implemented, a rise of somewhere between 2.7°C and 3°C is expected. In any case, the INDCs are not legally binding.

Martin Wolf gave a more sober assessment: "The Paris agreement is far more than the world could have reasonably expected a year or more ago. But it is also far less than the world needs. As it stands, it will at best slow the pace at which the world reaches a possible disaster". (Financial Times, 15 December) It imposed no limits on emissions from aviation or shipping. There was never any intention of agreeing a treaty, which would be legally binding. There will be no sanctions on countries that fail to achieve the goals agreed at COP21.

Richard Chatterton, head of climate policy for Bloomberg New Energy analysts, said: "The deal reached in Paris is weak, containing no concrete increase in the level of ambition to address climate change, and simply urges countries to do more over time". He noted the call for five-yearly reviews of carbon targets, and for countries to explain how they aim to attain them. But these were "accompanied by language that could allow countries to maintain the status quo for years to come". He added: "We have got to understand the limits of Paris. It is certainly not sufficient. If you judge it by the science, it’s clearly not strong enough. It’s also clearly not strong enough for poor countries". (Guardian, 14 December)

The big claim is that the COP21 agreement is, for the first time, a truly global climate pact. The 1992 accord in Rio de Janeiro was the first official recognition of the problem by the countries at the UN. Then came the 1997 Kyoto protocol, which demanded that rich countries cut their carbon pollution, although it was never ratified by the US (then the world’s biggest carbon polluter), among others. The attempt to produce a new pact at Copenhagen failed miserably in 2009.

Yet Paris failed too. There remains a massive gulf between the so-called ‘advanced capitalist countries’ and the ‘developing’ world. Historically, the industrialising western powers drove carbon emissions and are responsible for the vast majority of the increased carbon in the atmosphere. John Kerry, representing US capitalism, ensured that the Paris deal was stripped of any binding commitment to meeting emissions reduction targets. He also ensured that no nation could claim compensation for the effects of global warming. Kerry’s positon was dictated by the Obama administration’s desire to avoid having to get agreement through the Republican-dominated Senate. Instead, president Barack Obama will sign up to the deal by exercising executive power. Of course, the US’s position also bailed out the other rich countries.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Tory government reinforced its destructive, anti-environmental credentials. Just a week after the Paris agreement, it backed plans to allow fracking under national parks and slashed support for solar power by 90%. The government had already cancelled a £1 billion competition to develop carbon capture and storage, and has blocked onshore wind farms. Amber Rudd, Britain’s energy secretary, derided the 1.5°C goal as merely ‘aspirational’: "At the moment it is only the 2°C that’s operational", she pointed out.

In reality, however, such targets are meaningless in terms of tackling global warming. The destruction of Britain’s manufacturing industry over decades means that the UK imports most of its manufactured goods. Therefore, it has effectively shifted production process emissions offshore, particularly to China. The recent breakneck growth of the Chinese economy (now the largest carbon polluter, emitting 27% of the global total) and also India (third behind the US) have added a new dimension. India is dependent on coal for about two-thirds of its energy needs, and aims to more than double coal output to 1.5 billion tonnes this decade, on the basis that coal provides the cheapest energy currently available for its rapid industrialisation.

So, how can a means of measuring global emissions be introduced that takes into account these wide differences in development? And how can the cost be shared out?

It is impossible on the basis of a system which is driven by the need to make profits – through the exploitation of the working class, and of natural resources – and which is based on competition between companies and the nation states in which they operate. What is clear is that the advanced capitalist countries have no intention of paying for the warming they have caused – either by funding sustainable economic development around the world, or by compensating for the devastating effects of global warming.

Moreover, the vast majority of commentators and climate scientists cannot see beyond the capitalist system. Nicholas Stern, the whooping lord mentioned earlier, wants financial institutions, including the World Bank, to drive investment into low-carbon energy, to reclaim land and forests, and to develop clean and efficient cities. He wrote: "It is absurd that with real interest rates close to zero around the world, developing countries are still paying such a high premium to access finance for wind, solar and other renewable energy projects, which have higher upfront capital costs but, of course, very low running costs. Governments must eliminate the wasteful hundreds of billions of direct subsidies for fossil fuels, and redirect some of this money towards clean energy. They should also ensure that strong carbon prices are applied across the entire economy to begin removing the trillions of dollars in implicit subsidies for damage caused by fossil fuels". (Guardian, 13 December)

Lord Stern does not propose, however, to nationalise the financial system to provide funds for poor farmers, or to develop agricultural production sustainably. Instead, he aims to convince big business to do good. Of course, he is right to draw attention to the glaring contradiction that sees global support for renewable energy (around $121bn a year) widely viewed as a waste of government money, while the G20 nations support fossil fuels to the tune of $452 billion. But again, the problem is systemic.

The short-term, profit-driven capitalist system is hard-wired to consume fossil fuel energy. It fights wars to secure its control. It engages in protectionism for the same reason. The powerful vehicle and energy companies pour billions of dollars into safeguarding their privileged position, and their profits – buying off establishment politicians along the way. States such as Saudi Arabia wield immense power on the world stage because of their control of oil resources. World and regional powers support these notoriously reactionary regimes through arms and other deals.

In short, there are colossal vested interests – economic, social and political – in maintaining the very system which is wrecking the planet and exploiting billions of people. Martin Wolf was correct when he wrote: "Average global temperatures have risen by nearly 1°C since the industrial revolution and limiting warming to 1.5°C would require another revolution". (Financial Times, 15 December) He means the replacement of fossil fuel energy with renewables, and a radical shift in production and distribution. In reality, getting to grips with this global climate crisis would require a much more deep-rooted revolution.

The only way to provide for people’s needs, while protecting the environment, is through a democratically organised, socialist economic plan. On the basis of human solidarity, we could see genuinely sustainable development. The capitalist ‘market’ can never do it.

The Paris talks were widely seen as make-or-break for the UN. COP21 is thought to be the biggest ever gathering of world leaders. None of the major countries wanted to be seen as wrecking a deal that had come so close. Pilita Clark summed it up: "The relief in the convention hall was profound. The most important immediate outcome of the Paris agreement is that it was not another flop like Copenhagen. The paradox of UN climate negotiations, where all countries have an equal vote, is that they are destined to produce deeply compromised agreements with a limited chance of having a positive impact on lowering emissions. But they can easily have a negative effect on such efforts if they fail in the way the Copenhagen conference did in 2009". (Financial Times, 15 December)

Significantly, there is a growing realisation of what is at stake. It is commonplace now to see banners calling for ‘system change, not climate change’ on environmental protests. That is a recent development. The role of the workers’ movement is to explain why that needs to be socialist change. Trade unionists taking action to defend and extend public transport, or campaigning for alternative plans of production to use the skills of workers in the nuclear and weapons industries in socially useful employment, and others, can play a central role in the environmental movement.

Internationally, it is the workers and the poorest people who are most at risk from the effects of climate change. Their natural allies are the organised working class around the world. Strengthening those links, and building that international movement, will be the best way to secure a sustainable future for coming generations and for the planet.

Manny Thain

Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page