SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 203 November 2016

Paris hot air ratified

On 5 October, the United Nations announced that sufficient countries had ratified the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change for it to come into force on 4 November. The required 74 governments representing countries with nearly 59% of global greenhouse gas emissions had signed up. Many commentators called this a truly historic moment in the fight against global warming which could eventually go down in history as "the most impactful multilateral treaty of all time". US president Barack Obama said: "Today is a historic day in the fight to protect our planet for future generations. Today, the world meets the moment. And if we follow through on the commitments that this Paris agreement embodies, history may well judge this as a turning point for our planet".

Is this really true? Previous UN climate agreements have been greeted in the same way but have produced very little to address the problem. The countries involved have merely agreed to make pledges to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. These pledges have been unilaterally decided by the individual countries and there is no timescale for their implementation. It was trumpeted by the French government presiding over the Paris talks that this was a legally binding agreement, but the only legal requirement was to have a five-year review. No sanctions against countries that fail to meet their pledges were included in the deal.

Commentators and capitalist leaders have expressed delight that the agreement will come into force so soon, but it is clear why the big powers backed it: it contains no real commitments and will have virtually no impact on global warming. To claim otherwise amounts to a cynical deception. In fact, it was never intended that this would be a legally binding treaty – unlike the Kyoto protocol, signed in 1997, put into effect in 2005, and which ended in 2012. Kyoto at least had some meaningful clauses, even though in practice the firms targeted never faced any significant sanction.

The USA and China are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, and so the promises they made are the most important in the agreement. The US administration has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28% by 2025, from a 2005 baseline. China’s regime has said that its emissions will peak in 2030 or, rather, that this is the aim. There is a very wide range of projections of Chinese carbon emissions in that year, ranging from under ten billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, to nearly 18 billion tonnes (Carbon Action Tracker). It is widely accepted that the pledges made by the USA and China, even if fully implemented, are inconsistent with keeping global temperature rises below 2°C, above which global warming could become uncontrollable.

Evidence is also mounting that restricting temperature rises to 2°C above pre-industrial levels will be insufficient to prevent the worst consequences of global warming. This is recognised in the agreement by the statement that it will be necessary to "pursue efforts to keep warming below 1.5°C", without specifying what these efforts should be. It is clear that even the present 1°C rise in temperature is having devastating consequences – for instance, in the growing intensity of tropical storms such as Hurricane Matthew that devastated Haiti.

Another example is the melting of Arctic ice which is exceeding the worst fears of climate scientists. Walt Meier, ice scientist at NASA Goddard Research Centre, said recently: "It has been a record year so far for global temperatures, but the record high temperatures in the Arctic over the past six months have been even more extreme. This warmth, as well as unusual weather patterns, has led to the record low sea ice extent this year".

The record warming in the Arctic increases the danger of a so-called ‘methane apocalypse’. As the permafrost melts, methane gas can be released that is far more dangerous to global warming than carbon dioxide. Last year, New Scientist magazine reported that ‘gaping chasms’ have been discovered in Siberia, apparently caused by pockets of methane exploding out of the melting permafrost. There is still uncertainty about the quantities of methane that could be emitted, but the danger of a rapid deterioration of the situation exists.

The heads of government who signed the Paris agreement turned their backs on the real situation, not for the first time. While the agreement calls for unspecified action to restrict temperature increases to 1.5°C at some unspecified time in the future, there is new evidence that we could already be approaching this point. According to NASA research, the six-month period from January to June 2016 was the planet’s warmest half-year on record, with an average temperature rise of 1.3°C. There has been speculation that this is a blip caused by the present El Niño ocean current, but NASA’s Gavin Schmidt has said that, "while the El Niño events in the tropical Pacific this winter (2015/16) gave a boost to global temperatures from October onwards, it is the underlying trend which is producing these record numbers".

At the same time as world capitalist leaders were gathering in Paris in record numbers, they continued to promote policies that completely undermine the agreement. The USA is still expanding the fracking industry, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, while China has approved the construction of a record number of coal-fired power stations (Green China to Save the World?, Socialism Today No.201, September 2016). In Britain, the government has said it will ratify the Paris agreement before the end of the year but, since they formed a majority government in 2015, the Tories have dismantled much of the limited environmental legislation that has been passed in the last 20 years.

There is a ray of hope in the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party. His pledge to create a national investment bank could be used to push for new green technologies to be developed. However, the capitalist establishment will ferociously resist this if it does not see a profit for UK plc emerging. Of course, profits can also be made from the environment. China has cornered the market in solar and, increasingly, in wind power technology, and could make profits from this in the future. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see short-term profits being made from developing new environmental technologies and initiatives. It will be very difficult to challenge China’s domination of wind and solar, whereas other technologies will need big investments with a long payback period.

A possible candidate for investment by a state bank would be in the field of carbon capture and storage. Yet, the Tory government recently cancelled a project to develop a pilot plant operation because the costs were too high. The aim of this technology is to remove the carbon dioxide from burning coal and store it. To make this approach viable would need very large expenditure on research and development to find a safe way of storing large quantities of the gas. Other possible new green technology – such as into efficient long-distance transmission of electricity – would also need very big investment over a long period of time.

Because no short-term profit is likely to be produced by such initiatives, the capitalist establishment, banks and financial institutions will do everything they can to sabotage them. The British capitalists will oppose any significant unilateral action to tackle climate change, since this would be seen as giving their rivals a free ride. To overcome the opposition of the capitalist state, decisive measures will be needed to take control of the economy, moving it out of the hands of those who have created the present environmental danger. This will mean nationalising, with democratic workers’ control, the energy industries, banks and financial institutions, as a first essential step to address global warming.

Pete Dickenson

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