COP26 – the global climate meeting in Glasgow was a tragic failure

Andreas Payiatsos

“Ahead of the [COP26 meeting] meeting, the informal slogan was ‘keep 1.5 alive’. But to have a good chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C, global production of coal, oil and gas must start declining immediately and steeply. Nothing that came out of Glasgow suggests this will happen”.

When these words are written by the Financial Times (FT), one of the most authoritative news outlets of global capitalism, there is little to add to characterise the outcome of the Glasgow meeting. 

After Glasgow”, the FT adds, “it is time to recognise that the UN climate process does not work”.

The conclusions and frustration expressed by the FT dominate all the serious capitalist media worldwide. Many capitalist commentators understand that really drastic measures are needed to stop the looming climate catastrophe, but they don’t see that happening. There was a build-up towards COP26, which many of them presented as the most important meeting since Paris 2015. 

But in Glasgow nothing concrete was decided, except the general statements that serious efforts will be made to reduce greenhouse gases. We didn’t need a global meeting to hear this, the governments keep repeating it all the time…  

It was presented as a success of the conference that the delegates decided to meet every year. But they actually do that anyway. Since after 1992 when these meetings started, they have already had 26 meetings (in 29 years). 

The various countries announced their own emission reduction targets – these are voluntary “commitments”. But according to all the serious analysts, even if all countries keep their “commitments” (we can say in advance that this is highly doubtful) there is no way to limit the increase in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to the pre-industrial era, which is the goal of the UN and all these meetings. 

Critical situation

According to a recent Greenpeace statement, “the concentration of atmospheric CO2 [the primary greenhouse gas] has not been this high in at least 2 million years”, “the past five years (2016-2020) being the hottest on record since at least 1850” (when global temperatures began to be recorded). 

The climate crisis is a reality that does not need statistics and tables to be understood. The planet is experiencing it on a day-to-day basis: heat waves, droughts and famine, deadly wildfires, devastating floods and storms, rising sea levels, melting ice caps, etc. 

All this is happening when we are at 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. We are therefore only at the beginning of this process… 

If not checked immediately, the environmental destruction will at some stage enter a vicious circle, and many scientists believe that the process of crossing certain tipping points has already begun. This will increase dramatically both the extent and the intensity of climate change. As the environmental crisis deepens, islands and coasts will be submerged below sea level, which is expected to rise up to 7 meters, if not more, due to overheating and the melting of the ice caps. 

This is estimated to drive 1 billion out of their homes, making them climate refugees. Let us consider what the social and political consequences of this will be, when only 4 million refugees from Syria have caused a chain of political crises in the EU. 

As Bloomberg.com reports, “global crop yields could fall about 30% because of climate change, even as food demand is expected to jump 50% in the coming decades, according to United Nations’ estimates”. 

This could push another 2 billion people below the hunger line, in addition to the 856.4 million who are currently malnourished.

The COP26 “decisions” –even in the unlikely scenario that the various countries keep their commitments– will lead, according to researchers, to temperature rises of between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius. An analysis by Climate Action Tracker, says we are heading for a temperature increase of 2.4 degrees Celsius even if COP26 targets are met. 

Crocodile tears

“May I just say to all delegates I apologise for the way this process has unfolded… I am deeply sorry.”

With these words the British COP26 President, Alok Sharma, began his closing speech in front of the presidents, prime ministers and ministers from the 200 or so countries gathered in Glasgow.

He had to stop for several seconds to fight back his tears. Moved by their emotional president, the delegates broke into an applause. After that incident, it is certain that all these well-paid and corrupted apologists of the establishment felt much better… 

As mentioned above, the UN climate talks that are organised under the name COP (Conference of the Parties) started in 1992. During all that time greenhouse gas emissions have been steadily rising, breaking new records almost every year, with rare exceptions such as 2020, when international production and trade collapsed due to the pandemic. 

Their 26th meeting started on Saturday, October 30th, and would end on Friday, November 12th, at 6pm. It finally ended on the evening of Saturday, November 13th. Negotiations lasted until the last minute as there was a serious stalemate. Two days before India, supported by China, tabled an amendment to the final text replacing the objective of “phasing out” the use of coal, with the objective to “phase it down”. 

In other words, COP26 did not even manage to agree that at some point it wants to abolish the use of coal and lignite, the most polluting fossil fuels; it only agreed that it just wants to reduce it. 

There was a lot of discussion about this amendment by India and China, a lot of commentators accusing them of being responsible for the failure of the summit. Again, there is a great deal of hypocrisy involved . The original text summarizing the conclusions of COP26 referred to the aim of abolishing the use of coal and lignite, but made no corresponding reference to oil and gas. In other words, the major oil and gas producers (such as the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Norway etc.) could continue to pump oil and gas, but countries such as China and India that rely on coal and lignite would have to commit to their abolition. Of course, they refused to agree.  

“National” interests and capitalism 

Certainly, the burning of coal and lignite for energy production should be abolished, as coal-fired plants emit more greenhouse gases than any other fossil fuel combustion. 

But no ruling class is prepared to sacrifice its own interests for the sake of the health of others. The use of coal for energy production is the most polluting, but at the same time the most advantageous economically, particularly for countries having large deposits of it. Abandoning coal and transitioning the economy for the use of Renewable Energy Sources (RES) is costly – and ultimately makes any product more expensive (because of the more expensive energy used to produce it). No capitalist will sacrifice their profits for the sake of society – if they do, they will simply cease to be a capitalist, because they will be devoured by their fellow capitalists. This also applies to states within the antagonistic global capitalist framework. 

This law engraved in the capitalist system is intensified in the current epoch of the trade war between US and China. We don’t just have the usual competition for a bigger slice of the international market between the major economies, we also have the struggle for global domination between two superpowers. The competition is thus becoming even more acute. 

Subsidies for adjustment?

The issue of adaptation costs for the less industrially developed countries is actually a matter of interest for the majority of the world’s countries – the so called “developing” countries. Their contribution to global pollution is of course very small, since their weight in the world economy is small. The USA and China alone, for example, account for 40% of air pollution. But if there is to be a comprehensive plan for a transition involving these countries (to stop the rainforests of Latin America, Africa and Asia from burning, for example), it will have to be based on a necessary financial aid from the rich industrialised countries. This is a general assumption at all climate meetings, including COP26. 

Since 2009, rich countries have pledged to provide $100 billion every year to poor countries to help with this transition. This was one of the points on which the Paris Agreement in 2015 was based to fight the battle for 1.5 degrees Celsius. But these funds were never released. 

At COP26 they redefined their targets for 2022-3. But apart from the huge delay –which reveals the criminal attitude of the “developed” countries towards the climate– there is another element: the vast majority of this money is not aid, but loans! According to the humanitarian organisation OXFAM, only 1/5 of this amount will be donations, the remaining 4/5 will be loans! 

So new loans to the indebted “global South” when they cannot repay the previous ones, reveals “humanitarianism” and “concern for the environment”, in all its glory!

Deforestation and methane 

The COP26 President said that the final agreement may not be what they wanted, but it was still important to have an agreement. 

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the target of 1.5 degree Celsius was still alive “but on life support”. No comment needed here either. 

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who sparked the global youth climate movement in 2019, denounced the leaders of the 200 countries gathered in Glasgow for too much “blah-blah-blah”. She is not wrong. 

Some decisions were taken by some countries, in which the US delegation played a leading role. It is obvious that Biden is trying to get rid of the legacy of his predecessor who said in 2017 “In the East, it could be the coldest New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming…”. So, many countries (around 100) have signed a voluntary agreement to reduce methane emissions by 30% by the end of the current decade, as well as to stop deforestation within the same period. 

But this is basically wishful thinking, no concrete commitments were made on how this will be done. 

It is worth noting here that among the governments that agreed to stop deforestation was that of Brazil’s Presidend Z. Bolsonaro. 

As Al Jazeera reports,  

“Between 2009 and 2018, the average rate of deforestation in the Amazon was 6,500 square kilometres per year. Since Bolsonaro has been in government in 2019, the average annual rate has risen to 10,500 square kilometres… In October, 877 square kilometres of Amazon rainforest were deforested, an increase of 5 percent over the areas deforested in the same month in 2020…” 

So, these are the results, in practice, of Bolsonaro’s policies, but he had no problem going to Glasgow to… commit himself to the fact that by 2030 the deforestation of the Amazon will have stopped (meaning, apparently, of whatever is left of the Amazon). 

In conclusion 

If the world’s powerful individuals present in COP26 haven’t got somewhere, it’s not because they are “stupid”. It is because they are capitalists – and as such they are criminals against societies and the planet, and will continue to be.

Their “inability” to find a way to overcome the climate crisis leads them to spasmodic actions such as planting monstrous wind turbines in mountains, forests and even “Natura” areas, destroying the environment in the name of saving it. They are incapable of achieving an organised transition from “dirty” fossil fuels to renewable energy sources for the additional reason that this requires serious international coordination which they cannot achieve. 

The result is an energy crisis like the present one, in which the price of gas, oil and electricity has skyrocketed because, among other things, wind turbines did not perform as expected this past summer because the winds were weak. 

The functioning mode of the capitalist system actually puts a brake on any serious effort to address the climate crisis, because the system is based on profit and competition, both between businesses and states. It cannot and will not sacrifice its profits and the struggle for domination for the sake of the environment and cannot achieve meaningful international coordination because of the national rivalries. 

It will always do “too little, too late”, always spasmodically and inefficiently. What is needed to address the environmental crisis is: 

  • Clear and binding targets, not just for containment but for reversing the global warming process by drastically reducing emissions 
  • An immediate halt to deforestation and the destruction of the oceans that absorb carbon dioxide 
  • Clear, concrete and binding plans to get rid of coal and hydrocarbons by the end of this decade
  • Nationalization of all energy extraction and production companies. Energy production cannot be profit-driven
  • Nationalization of the transport sector. Trains to replace planes where possible. There are trains running at speeds of hundreds of kilometres per hour, so the necessary investment in infrastructure must be made. Urban transport should be of high quality and free of charge so that people have a serious incentive to stop using cars
  • A decisive and well-organised shift to renewables and other forms of green energy such as hydrogen so that there are no major energy shortages that drive up prices
  • Serious study of where renewables are placed – no to the outrageous destruction of mountains, forests and beaches through the plantation of wind turbines in the name of saving the environment
  • Intensify research into energy storage in environmentally friendly ways (batteries that have less impact on the environment such as liquid air batteries, hydrogen, etc.)
  • A serious international plan to coordinate efforts 

Capitalist governments are not in a position to take such measures because they do not want the state to interfere in the economy (which the capitalists consider their vineyard) and because their concept is basically to provide profit incentives to get the private sector moving. They cannot go beyond the limits of their system. That is why the only prospect that exists is through the development of mass movements that can force governments to move in the afore mentioned directions, and through the building of new mass parties of the radical and revolutionary left that can claim power, the power to implement a program like the one outlined above.

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