(This article complements my article that assessed the first week of COP27 which can be found at https://www.ecosocialistdiscussion.com/2022/11/15/after-the-first-week-in-sharm-el-sheikh-cop27-is-at-the-brink/ )
COP27 – the 27th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – held last month in in Sharm El-Sheikh to confront the planetary emergency caused climate change faced failed spectacularly in the face of the most challenging set of circumstances a COP conference had faced since the Framework Convention was launched at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
It face a critical situation from the outset both in terms of the global geo-political situation today arising from Putin invasion of Ukraine and the stage that has been reached in the implementation of the UN COP process itself.
COP27 was only saved from total ignominy – at the last minute – by a long-overdue agreement to establish a ‘loss and damage’ (or reparations) fund into which the rich countries, who are the most responsible for climate change, would subscribe in order to help the poor countries, who are the least responsible for global warming, minimise and mitigate the impact of climate change and to transition to renewable energy.
Prior to the COP the UN secretary general António Guterres had argued strongly for such an agreement, warning that unless there is what he called an “historic pact” between the rich and the poor countries on this issue the planet could already be doomed.
The creation of such a fund had been, scandalously, kept off the agenda by the rich countries for 30 years, and was only forced onto it this year after under heavy pressure from the developing countries. There was no agreement, however, as to how much money should be paid into it, who should pay it, and on what basis. It was a step forward, never-the-less, but the only one that could be claimed at this conference.
Arguments will continue about the size of the fund and which countries will benefit, and there is a proposal to ask the International Panel on Climate change (the IPCC) to prepare a recommendation for the COP28 next year in Dubai in the in the UAE.
When it came to carbon emissions reduction, however, it COP27 was an unmitigated disaster.
The UN carbon emissions reduction plan – the so-called ratcheting up process adopted at COP21 in Paris in 2015 – which required each member state to determined its own carbon reduction target – termed Nationally Determined Contributions – and then to enhance them annually at implementation conferences that would be held for that purpose, had fallen apart before the conference was open.
Exactly what happened is not clear. What is clear is that the pledges made in Sharm El-Sheikh, far from building on those made in Glasgow, were well behind those made in Glasgow and that the process had suffered a disastrous retreat.
The energy debate
The general debate on energy was also a disaster. Not only had the Egyptian Presidency produced a draft text that blatantly favoured the oil and gas petro-states and the fossil fuel industries in the region, but it had opened the door to the biggest contingent of fossil fuel lobbyist that a COP conference had ever seen. All the world’s biggest oil and gas producers were there in force and they used it to the full. Saudi Arabia (no less) ran an event to an promote the ‘circular carbon economy’, under which carbon capture, hydrogen, and other bogus technologies were scandalously presented as clean.
A major target for them was the 1.5°C maximum temperature increase that had also been agreed in Paris. The session dealing with this became so heated that the EU threatened to walk out at one point if the 1.5°C maximum was not protected. Although a reference to the 1.5°C has remained in the final text the language is ambiguous and it is widely regarded as unreliable.
The agreement in Glasgow, for the first time, name (and shame) the coal, gas, and oil, as major threats to the future of the planet, and additionally, in the case of coal, to fix a date for ending its use altogether was also under attack. It was eventually successfully challenged by Saudi Arabia and other petro-states, supported by China, Russia, and Brazil, who had campaigned for their removal. Fossil fuels that had been declared obsolete or obsolescent in Glasgow had now been rehabilitated in Sharm El-Sheikh. To add insult to injury the conference agreed to define natural gas as a renewable energy source.
Alok Sharma (no less), the UK’s (Boris Johnson appointed) president of COP26, recently sacked from the cabinet by Sunak – but who appears to have become more strongly committed to the cause having been appointed to as a stop-gap – was visibly outraged by what had happened to the energy text and lambasted the conference in the closing session: “Those of us who came to Egypt to keep 1.5C alive, and to respect what every single one of us agreed to in Glasgow, have had to fight relentlessly here to hold the line. We have had to battle to build on one of the key achievements of Glasgow, including the call on parties to revisit and strengthen their Nationally Determined Contributions.”
Repeatedly banging the table he said: “We joined with many parties to propose a number of measures that would have contributed to this. Emissions peaking before 2025, as the science tells us is necessary – NOT IN THIS TEXT. A clear follow-through on the phase down of coal – NOT IN THIS TEXT. A commitment to phase out all fossil fuels – NOT IN THIS TEXT. The energy text, he said had been weakened in the final minutes of the conference to endorse “low-emissions energy”, which can be interpreted as a reference to natural gas.”
The outcome is indeed a disaster and will translate directly into more death, destruction, impoverishment, and refugees. Climate events become ever more severe as constrains on carbon emissions are lifted. It will speed up the arrival of tipping points that can take climate chaos out of control – possibly disastrously so. It will also give succour to the climate deniers and offset the defeats they suffered at Paris and Glasgow.
It’s true that this COP27 faced very difficult conditions. Putin’s war triggered an obscene scramble back to fossil energy when it is abundantly clear the only answer to either the economic or the environmental crisis is a rapid transition to renewable energy – which is getting cheaper all the time. The UK government immediately issued 90 new gas and oil extraction licenses for the North Sea and is seeking an agreement to important large quantities of fracked natural gas from the USA.
Putin’s war, however was there long before COP27 and the Egyptian organisers did nothing to counter it. In fact they cynically exploited it for their own ends in order to get emissions restrictions lifted or watered down.
So where do we (and the movement) go from here?
The one thing that must be ruled out as a result of all this would be for either the radical left or the wider movement to boycott future COP conferences or indeed the whole COP process. It would simply compound the problem. It was being discussed widely before Sharm El-Sheikh and it has continued since – both within the radical left and in the wider movement. Greta Thunburg called for it before Sharm El-Sheikh and George Monbiot advocates it in his Guardian article of November 24.
Whilst a boycott by the radical left would be mainly an act of self-harm (or self-isolation) a boycott by the wider movement would demobilise the climate struggle at a critical time. Most climate campaigns and NGOs would refuse to follow such a call anyway. The front-line countries certainly would do so because they see the COP process – with all its problems – as their only chance of survival. That is why they mount such a ferocious battles at every COP conference.
There has also been a major change in the climate struggle since the 2015 Paris Accords. This is because the task the UN COP process faces has changed from reaching agreement on a plan to reduce carbon emissions (the Paris Accords) to persuading 190 countries with varying political regimes and vested interests to accept their responsibilities and implement it. This is a huge task, not least against adverse global geo-political conditions.
It is clear that the UN has failed to do this and it is a big unresolved problem. It is important that the left and the climate movement recognises this reality. It is pointless to pretending that this problem does not exist. That they are simply refusing to act when all they would have to do if they wanted to resolve climate change is snap their fingers – which is exactly what George Monbiot argues in his Guardian article. He puts it this way:
“So what do we do now? After 27 summits and no effective action, it seems that the real purpose was to keep us talking. If governments were serious about preventing climate breakdown, there would have been no Cops 2-27. The major issues would have been resolved at Cop1, as the ozone depletion crisis was at a single summit in Montreal”. (He is referring to the 1987 UN Montreal Protocol which banned the use of ozone depleting substances in order to protect the ozone layer that was threatening the future of the planet.)
This is glib in the extreme since there is absolutely no comparison between banning a substance that was easy to replace with no major consequence to anyone involved is totally difference to abolishing fossil fuels to which the planet has been addicted for 100 years and has massive vested interests behind it. If you misunderstand (or misrepresent) the scale of the problem it is hard to contribute to its solution
The key strategic dilemma
What we actually face is some hard strategic choices. The problem as I argued in my first article, is that only governments – and ultimately governments prepared to go onto a war footing to do so – that can implement the structural changes necessary to abolish carbon emissions and transition to renewable energy in the few years that science is giving us. The radical left can’t do it, the wider movement can’t do it, and a mass movement can’t do it – other than by forcing governments to act.
We are facing a planetary emergency. And under conditions it is only the UN Framework Convention – or something with a similar global reach and authority – organised on a trans-national basis, that is capable of addressing the 190 individual countries that will need to be involved and convinced if it is to be effective.
It is also, in terms of the climate justice movement, the only forum through which the climate movement can place pressures and demands on the global elites and around which we can build the kind of mass movement that can force them to take effective action.
Socialist revolution (unfortunately) is not just around the corner, but the task we face is time-limited. We have less than ten years to stop global warming and after that an ecosocialist society can’t build on a dead planet.
The task we face, therefore – whether it fits our plans or whether we like it or not – is to force the global elites (however reluctantly) to introduce the structural changes necessary to halt climate change within the timescale science is giving us – and we can’t do that by turning our backs on the COP process only by engaging with it more effectively and building a mas movement to force it to act against the logic of the capitalist system that they embrace.
What kind of mass movement?
Everyone in this debate argues that a powerful mass movement will be needed to force the change that is necessary in this struggle – including George Monbiot. It is an aspiration, however, that begs many questions. What kind of mass movement do we need? It would (by definition) have to be the broadest possible coalition of progressive forces that has ever been built (we have to save the planet) and therefore not initially socialist. A movement capable of confronting the kind of societal break downs that are likely as climate impacts intensify. But how would it come into existence and how would its subsequent direction of travel be determined?
Such a movement must include those defending the ecology and the climate of the planet in any different ways. It must include the indigenous peoples who have been the backbone of so many of these struggles along with the young school strikers who have been so inspirational over the past 2 years. And it should include the activists of XR who have brought new energy into the movement in the form of non-violent direct action.
Movements that rise spontaneously are more likely to go to the right than the left depending on the experiences gained forces in the course of their formation and the balance of political forces within them – and the strength of the socialist (or indeed ecosocialist) forces within such a movement will be determined, at least in part, by the role such forces have played in the development of such a movement and the political legacy they have been able to establish. It must also have a progressive political and environmental driving force within fighting for an environmentally progressive direction of travel.
Forcing major structural change against the will of the ruling elites will not only need a powerful mass movement behind it but and environmental action programme behind it such as – abolish fossil fuels, for a rapid transition to renewables, for a socially just transition, make the polluters pay, retrofit homes – that can command mass support, not just amongst socialists and environmental activists but amongst the wider populations as they are impacted by the ecological crisis itself.
The key to this is to make fossil fuel far more expensive than renewables by means that are socially just, that redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor, that can bring about a big reduction in emissions in the time available, and (crucially) is capable of commanding popular support. This means heavily taxing the polluters to both cut emissions and to ensure that the polluters fund the transition to renewables.
As long as fossil fuel remains the cheapest way to generate energy it is going to be used. An important mechanism, therefore, for bringing about big reductions in carbon emissions in a short period of time must be carbon pricing – making the polluters pay. This means levying heavy taxes or fees on carbon emissions, as a part of a strongly progressive and redistributive taxation system, that can win mass popular support.
One proposal on the table in this regard is James Hansen’s fee and dividend proposition. It provides the framework for very big emissions reductions, here and now whilst capitalism exists, and on the basis of a major transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor (as argued above) in order to drive it forward.
It would need, as he recognises, to go alongside a crash programme of renewable energy production to meet the demand that his incentives would create. It would also need a major programme of energy conservation, a big reduction in the use of the internal combustion engine, the abolition of factory farming and a big reduction in meat consumption.
UN has made a unique contribution to the struggle against climate change – capitalist institution as it inevitably is – having identified the problem soon after it entered public consciousness 32 years ago. It has confronted opposition from many of its member states, and It has been successful, along with its specialist divisions such as the IPCC, in winning the war both against the climate deniers – who were massive backed by the fossil fuel producers for many years – and winning the scientific community very strongly over to the climate struggle without which we would not be where we are today.
It has also been key – along with relentless pressure from the ecological crisis its self – in transforming global awareness of climate change to a level without which the options was are discussing today would not exist.
Today, however, the UN faces a pivotal moment. Its carbon reduction strategy has fallen apart – from the Paris Accords and the Glasgow agreements. Unless this is addressed urgently it could paralyse the UNs environmental work for many years. It could weaken the global justice movement and open the door to increasingly disastrous climate events, leading directly to tipping points that could take climate chaos out of control.
Unless urgent changes are made it will not be just the Paris Accords and the Glasgow agreements than are no longer fit for purpose but the whole approach to climate change adopted in 1992 under the UN Framework Agreement on Climate change; the 1997 Kyoto
The UN must stop handing COP conferences over to countries that cannot:
- Support the project the UN is collectively seeking to promote
- Ensure the basic right to campaign and protest
- Support the project the UN is collectively seeking to promote
- Drastically limit fossil fuel lobbies the kind of access to its conferences
- Seek to ensure that the UN’s carbon reduction project is a success.
A very good start would be to accept Lula’s offer to hold the 2025 COP in the Amazon rain forest, which would be a huge boost to the movement.
Guterres told us in his opening speech in Sharm El-Sheikh that “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 on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.
In his closing speech, he told us that:
“Our planet is still in the emergency room. We need to drastically reduce emissions now – and this is an issue this COP did not address. The world still needs a giant leap on climate ambition.”
He was absolutely right on both counts. His commitment and his passion for the cause have never been in doubt. His task now must be to make the necessary changes in order for his warnings to be translated into actions by making the UN COP carbon reduction process fit for purpose in terms of the challenges we face in the twenty-first century.
Alan Thornett November 29th 2022.