Democratic Socialist Movement

For Struggle, Solidarity and Socialism in Nigeria

By - DSM

COP17 confirms: no end to global warming under capitalism

COP17 confirms: no end to global warming under capitalism

By Liv Shange, Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) South Africa, (CWI South Africa)

On November 27, as 25 000 delegates flew into Durban to begin the COP17 climate summit, eight people were killed in the city’s townships and shack settlements as their homes were flooded or crushed by torrential rains and landslides. And while the delegates were pontificating about extending the Kyoto Protocol and the financing of cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, inside a luxurious convention centre, the oil industry revealed plans to expand global exploration and production by 10% in 2012.

19 years of United Nations’ (UN’s) talks have proven completely irrelevant: greenhouse gases stand at their highest ever level in the atmosphere, the increase in the planet’s temperature is accelerating towards catastrophic “tipping points”, working class and poor people across the world are paying for the protection of corporate profits over climate with their lives – and the outcome of Durban’s COP17 equals continued increases of greenhouse gas emissions, entrenched commodification of our forests and air and more direct control by big business.

“Durban Platform for Enhanced Action”

After two weeks of negotiations, the UN’s 17th Conference Of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP17) came up with the “Durban Platform for Enhanced Action”, which was hailed by the South African government, the European Union and others as a “historic” success. The three key pillars of the “platform” are: keeping the Kyoto Protocol, which was to expire this year, alive (in name) until 2017; agreeing to try to reach a new global agreement with some kind of “legal force” by 2015 to come into effect by 2020; a funding model for the Green Climate Fund (which was announced in 2009 as a means to assist ‘developing’ countries on climate issues but which has remained empty of funds).

In reality, the best that can be said about these alleged steps forward are that they are likely to be of no consequence. Worse, they entrench further the financialisation of natural resources through carbon trading and “offsets” – false “solutions”, pushed by capital and its political representatives through the UN, that only drive global warming further down a spiral of disaster.

The global warming threat

“Global warming” is the dramatic increase in the Earth’s temperature which started with the establishment of industrial capitalism about 200 years ago. Since then the total increase in the planet’s temperature is about 0.8°Celsius. It is clear that this increase in global temperature is caused by human activity such as the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests and seas. Emissions (release) of so-called greenhouse gases – such as carbon dioxide (CO2), and methane (CH4) – into the Earth’s atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels (e.g. coal, oil, petrol) are resulting in the planet retaining more heat. The major sources of these carbon emissions are the metal industries (mining, smelting, manufacturing), fossil fuel energy generation (e.g. coal fired power plants), the commercial agriculture industry and the use of fossil fuel-driven cars. Emissions account for about 75% of the “greenhouse effect” or global warming.

Another 25% is caused mainly by the destruction of the planet’s forests and seas. The trees and plants of forests and phytoplankton of the seas act as the planet’s “lungs” – “breathing in” CO2 and “out” oxygen (O2). Phytoplankton in the seas – the Earth’s major source of oxygen and storer of CO2 – has decreased by 40% since 1950.

If carbon emissions continue at the present pace, global warming risks reaching “tipping points”, when the higher temperature would set in motion self-reinforcing processes of carbon emissions which would be beyond human control. In other words, even if human societies managed to completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions after this point, emissions and climate change would still continue. Climate scientists estimate that a 2°C increase in the planet’s temperature would mean a very high risk of reaching such tipping points. If the economies of the world were to adhere to the agreements now confirmed through COP17, the world would be set for an increase of 3-4°C this century. The most current scientific projections indicate t hat at the present rate the increase could go above this up to 9°C – a total climate disaster, especially in vulnerable areas such as southern Africa.

Action needs to be taken to limit global warming to 1.5°C. To have a chance of achieving this, CO2 emissions should be cut by at least 50% by 2020, and by a minimum of 90% by 2050. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 4th Assessment Report the turn to cut emissions needs to be made by 2015 at the latest if there is to be a chance to limit the temperature rise to 2-2.4°C (still a dangerous level). The glaring gap between these recommendations and the reality of accelerating emissions is a death threat to life on the planet.

Despite the existence of the knowledge and financial capacity to end carbon-emitting technologies and replace them with renewable energy (such as solar, wind, wave and geothermal energy), this is not being done. Within the capitalist system’s chaotic chase for profit and imperialist rivalry no meaningful action to stop emissions and global warming is possible.

UN’s travelling COP circus

Since 1992, the UN has led climate talks. Since 1997, the Kyoto Protocol has bound some of the advanced capitalist countries to limit their carbon emissions. While some European countries have made limited cuts in emissions, much of the carbon-intensive production has simply been moved to the underdeveloped world, e.g. China which is not covered by Kyoto. China has now passed the United States, which never joined Kyoto, as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas. Kyoto’s main drive has been to turn the atmosphere into a commodity through the “cap and trade” system. In theory this would lower emissions as governments would issue a limited amount of permits ro pollute for companies to buy, and as companies would gain “carbon credits” if they manage to keep emissions below the cap. The credits are sold at a profit (allowing the buyer company to emit the same amount that was saved). The total failure of this market-driven “solution” is illustrated by a simple fact: the permits in circulation today exceed the world’s capacity to emit greenhouse gases – a result of governments handing out large amounts of permits anxious not to be at a disadvantage with rival capitalist powers.

Cap and trade, and other market-driven programmes, have just added to the obstacles on the road towards ending global warming, and thereby also furthered the disintegration of the climate talks themselves. COP15 in Copenhagen 2009 was effectively sidelined by last-minute backroom discussions between the US and China, with India, Brazil and SA as hangers-on which produced a very vague “Accord” on emissions cuts which was totally out of touch with the scientific recommendations. COP16 in Cancún merely tried to cover up this fiasco by accepting the “Copenhagen Accord” as official policy.

COP17 again confirmed how each COP now serves to further undermine the legally binding climate framework of the UN. While the negotiations were prevented from actual collapse, they have also been emptied of all substance. The official death declaration of the Kyoto Protocol was put off – but Kyoto now only covers the EU and a few underdeveloped countries which together stand for 13% of global carbon emissions.

A funding mechanism for the Green Climate Fund was formulated, providing for private companies’ direct access to the fund without passing any government structures. If implemented, this would further strengthen big business’ control over the direction of climate change “mitigation and adaptation” schemes. Another step in this direction is the continuation of talks on the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) – another market-driven mitigation scheme, this time putting price tags on the world’s forests (this is already in operation, often with disastrous consequences).

The most celebrated feature of the “Durban Platform” is the inclusion of arch-rivals China and the US amongst others in the agreement to try to reach an agreement in the future. The vague formulations of this text show that the problems were just postponed in Durban. Even if this process against all experience would run smoothly, to begin implementation of whatever would be agreed only in 2020 would be years too late.

No solutions under capitalism

Carbon emissions and global warming cannot be stopped under the framework of capitalism and its institutions. While the most enlightened members of the ruling classes realise that something has to be done, their system does not allow the kind of planning according to the kind of priorities that is needed. National governments exist to represent the interests of the ruling class of their countries, which use the nation state to outrival their capitalist competitors. The UN can only try to mediate the rivalry amongst the imperialist states, particularly sharp in times of economic downturn – it cannot resolve it. The working class’ coming to power through socialist revolutions internationally would end this destructive competition.

A socialist transformation of society means taking the economy and natural resources out of the hands of the tiny elite which holds them today, putting them instead under the democratic control and management of organised workers and poor communities. Replacing the chaotic rule of monopolistic markets with democratic planning driven by the needs of people and their environment would lay the basis for the massive shift that is needed in the entire set-up of production and society. Socialist planning could allow massive investment in renewable energy, means to save energy and research and development into more renewable energy. It could eliminate the massive waste built into today’s capitalism, as it would be driven by producing lasting use values instead of as many commodities as possible. It could break the power of e.g. the motor industry and provide free public transport. It could also prioritise assisting those who are already worst affected by climate change, and allow the underdeveloped regions of the world to grow their economies without sacrificing the atmosphere.

The planet’s climate future will not be decided in negotiations between the worlds’ current rulers, but by the class struggle which will see these rulers overthrown. The most critical task in countering global warming therefore is the creation of fighting, socialist and ecologically aware working class parties which must place the struggle against global warming as a key priority on their programmes by exposing that it is as bound up with the immediately felt day-to-day struggles for access to electricity, water, decent work and education as it is to the need to end capitalism. Also the ecological crisis facing humanity is a crisis of revolutionary leadership. The alternatives of socialism or the “barbarism” of ecological disaster have never been more starkly posed.

This article is originally published in the May-July 2012 Issue of Izwi labasebenzi, the paper of DSM South Africa.