Does the failure to reach an agreement to keep global temperature rises below 2 degrees celsius prove that capitalism has no answer to man-made climate change?
The COP-17 climate change talks in Durban earlier this month agreed to a binding greenhouse gas emissions agreement to be prepared by 2015 and entering into force in 2020.1 At least, that was the headline. In practice, the world's states agreed to enter discussions towards an agreement, and that could be sabotaged by any of the major players pulling out at any time.
There is widespread scientific consensus that to avoid dangerous, run away climate change, temperature rises will have to be kept to 2oC above pre-industrial levels. This was acknowledged in the Copenhagen Accord at the COP-15 summit in 2009 (which was issued after parties failed to reach a formal agreement). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change SRREN report states that this "implies that global emissions of CO2 will need to decrease by 50 to 85% below 2000 levels by 2050 and begin to decrease (instead of continuing their current increase) no later than 2015." Clearly, as the deal agreed at Durban, even in the best case scenario, will not even be drafted until 2015, this is not going to happen.
The world is currently on course for temperature rises of 4oC or more on pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. And as the BBC points out, "that's an average; some places could see twice that." This is a problem. It not only means the localised effects of climate change on crops and ecosystems will be severe, it means positive feedback effects are likely to kick in, accelerating the rise of global temperatures. This is already happening. The Independent reports that:
Dramatic and unprecedented plumes of methane – a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide – have been seen bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean by scientists undertaking an extensive survey of the region. The scale and volume of the methane release has astonished the head of the Russian research team who has been surveying the seabed of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf off northern Russia for nearly 20 years.
Blogger Adam Ramsey has suggested this could be 'the world's scariest news', since similar releases are suspected in the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, the "mother of all mass extinctions." So to put it mildly, the worst case scenario is pretty bad.
The obvious libertarian communist answer here is to point out that the endless economic growth required by capitalism is incompatible with finite ecological limits. This is certainly a powerful argument. One of the most detailed elaborations of this is the theory of the ecological rift, which holds that the problem is inherent to the very process of capital accumulation, and thus no solutions to climate change can be found without getting rid of capitalism.
Due to capitalism's inherent expansionary tendencies, technological development serves to escalate commodity production, which necessitates the burning of fossil fuels to power the machinery of production. (...) The theory of the metabolic rift reveals how capital contributes to the systematic degradation of the biosphere.
I am sympathetic to this argument. But I also worry that this under-estimates the flexibility of the capitalist system. In many ways, this relates to the argument about the possibility of reform (1, 2). So I'm going to play devil's advocate and explore the possibility of a capitalist solution. So, to start with, while it's true that "historically, economic development has been strongly correlated with increasing energy use and growth of greenhouse gas emissions", the IPCC argue that "renewable energy can help decouple that correlation". In other words, while the theorists of the ecological rift argue expanded commodity production requires burning fossil fuels, this isn't strictly true. It merely requires energy. Could this come from renewables?
The headlines certainly suggest so. "Renewable energy can power the world, says landmark IPCC study". The report itself is somewhat more modest. As of 2008, just 12.9% of the world's energy mix came from renewables. Of that, 10.2% was bioenergy (i.e. mostly burning wood, which may or may not be sustainably grown). Of the rest, 2.3% is hydropower, with the remaining 0.4% being made up of wind (0.2%), direct solar (0.1%), geothermal (0.1%) and ocean energy (0.002%). See chart below (from the IPCC SRREN report - click to see full size).
The IPCC's scenario-based report found that "more than half of the scenarios show a contribution from renewable energy in excess of a 17% share of primary energy supply in 2030 rising to more than 27% in 2050. The scenarios with the highest renewable energy shares reach approximately 43% in 2030 and 77% in 2050." So not quite the headline 'renewables can power the world', but certainly lots of scope for expansion. And there's nothing anti-capitalist about this. Renewables are potentially big business. While BP recently sold its solar division, which perhaps strengthens fears of greenwash, there's potentially lots of money to be made in renewables. An interesting project is the Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC), which is lobbying for solar fields in the Sahara desert to power Europe via High Voltage DC (HVDC) cables, a relatively new invention which allow electricity to be transmitted long distances for acceptable wastage.2
The problem they have is it's not quite competitive with fossil fuels. Which brings us back to the absence of a binding global agreement to reduce emissions. As the IPCC say:
Climate policies (carbon taxes, emissions trading or regulatory policies) decrease the relative costs of low-carbon technologies compared to carbon-intensive technologies. It is questionable, however, whether climate policies (e.g., carbon pricing) alone are capable of promoting renewable energy at sufficient levels to meet the broader environmental, economic and social objectives related to renewable energy.
They also say that direct state investment is needed. Both of these things are unlikely in the absence of a binding global agreement, and go against the flow of 30 years of neoliberal re-regulation. And while this is currently a distant prospect, there are significant capitalist interests pushing for it. The EU have taken this line at recent COP negotiations (having outsourced emissions-intensive production to China, India, Brazil etc, of course). As have numerous corporate lobby groups like We can lead or the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change. While China has been pursuing a very dirty industrialisation, it has also started to legislate on emissions and has become the leading producer of several key renewable technologies (solar panels and wind turbines, iirc). A binding global agreement would create a massive export market. So perhaps a deal by 2015 isn't as remote as it looks at first glance. As the 'We can lead' group put it:
We Can Lead is a nationwide coalition of more than 1,000 business leaders - innovators, entrepreneurs, investors, manufacturers and energy providers - who support comprehensive, forward-looking energy and climate policies in the United States which will catalyze and grow a portfolio of new and existing energy sources, create new American jobs and end our boom/bust energy cycles. The network includes small and medium sized companies to large-scale energy providers, Fortune 500 companies and leading consumer-facing brands. Sound energy policies are our best hope towards reclaiming America's competitive mantle as a leader in this next wave of economic growth - while working on climate stability and energy security. Now is the time for action.
Currently these voices are out in the cold. But so was Keynes before the depression, and the Chicago School before the breakdown of the Keynesian regime in the early 1970s. FT editor Martin Wolf has already pointed out we're in Britain's longest depression since WWI, "likely to generate a bigger cumulative loss of output than the “great depression”". And that's before the now likely double-dip recession kicks in. If economic stagnation prevails, those voices in the wilderness could be brought in from the cold like those before them. But we shouldn't get too excited. For one thing, a rise in energy costs (e.g. through carbon pricing), all other things being equal, will drive inflation, and especially food inflation. That means falling living standards. The price of a capitalist solution to climate change could be mass famine in large parts of the world.3 So we should certainly err on the side of communism, but I think it underestimates the flexibility of capitalism to think there can be no moves towards addressing climate change, even if they're too little, too late.
- 1'COP' = 'Conference Of the Parties' to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Kyoto Protocol was a protocol under the UNFCCC, and the annual COP talks are appended with the number to signify how many there have been. So the COP-17 in Durban was the 17th conference of the parties to the UNFCCC.
- 2This adds an interesting twist to the strategic significance of north Africa, in light of recent events.
- 3A focus on climate change also ignores numerous other ecological boundaries.