At the end of last month newly elected US president Joe Biden hosted a virtual summit of 40 world leaders to discuss the climate crisis. Timed to begin on Earth Day, it marked an important staging post in the run up to the Cop26 climate talks planned for November. But it also signified the re-entry of the US into global climate politics.
In a sharp break from the climate change denialism of Donald Trump, Biden has placed action on the environmental crisis at the centre of his administration. At the summit – and to great fanfare in the media – he set out his core plans for tackling the climate crisis. And he called on other world leaders to join him in bold action to slash greenhouse gas emissions in the next ten years.
Indeed the headline figures look impressive. Shortly before the summit began the White House said that the US will aim to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by between 50 percent and 52 percent by 2030, based on 2005 levels. Biden said that the new US goal will set it on a path to net zero emissions by 2050, and that other countries now needed to raise their ambition.
Not to be outdone, Boris Johnson quickly stepped up to the challenge. Britain is due to host the Cop26 talks in Glasgow in November and the Tories have launched a diplomatic drive to set ambitious emission reduction targets. The plan is for other countries to follow suit. During the summit Johnson publicly accepted the recommendations of the Britain’s Climate Change Committee. The government body had called Britain to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 78 percent by 2035 and by 68 percent by 2030, with the aim of hitting net zero emissions by 2050.
We certainly need ambitious targets to cut emissions. The planet has already warmed by 1 degree and is currently on course for a 3 degrees temperature rise by 2050. Some scientists warn it could be even higher. Present levels of warming have already seen millions of people impacted by unprecedented storms, drought, flooding and other climate related crises.
The year 2020 began with vast areas of Australia on fire and a large part of Jakarta under water. And the super—cyclone Amphan caused the evacuation of some 2.5 million people from their homes in Bangladesh and West Bengal. It was also the hottest on record. Every day brings fresh evidence of the climate catastrophe, from fires blazing in the Arctic circle last July to the warmest ever ocean temperatures.
If anything the climate crisis is getting worse and has been even more exposed by coronavirus, itself a consequence of industrialised farming methods and destruction of the natural environment by agribusiness. The current Covid-19 pandemic has already killed over three million people across the globe.
Currently some of the poorest and most vulnerable people struggle to cope with the effects of warming. But if temperatures continue to rise as predicted, it is not clear whether humans could actually adapt to such a world. To be blunt our very existence is in question.
It is clear that millions of people across the globe can see that we face a massive environmental crisis and understand that the need for action is urgent. The global revolt over climate of 2019, including four million people taking part in the climate strike in September, helped push the issue onto the political agenda.
So do these pledges at the Biden summit mean that we have won and forced politicians, governments and business to finally take meaningful action over the question of emissions?
Not only have both Biden and Johnson set ambitious targets but both have pledged to “build back greener”. Biden has set out his Jobs Plan, with $2 trillion earmarked for investment in many areas of American society including addressing the climate crisis. Johnson urged world leaders to “get serious” at the climate summit and called on countries to come to Cop26 armed with ambitious targets and plans.
Under closer examination the measures proposed are dangerously inadequate. There are a number of problems we need to explore. Firstly the emissions targets themselves are not ambitious enough. Secondly none of the targets are binding, meaning there is a great gulf between what is proposed by politicians and the concrete action actually being taken. And thirdly the proposals rely on market solutions and do not break from the business as usual of the fossil economy.
It is first worth noting that even the term “net zero” can be misleading and allow for loopholes. It does not mean zero emissions but rather allows for emissions to continue as long as they are ‘offset’ by measures such as planting trees. This allows countries to claim ‘net zero’ emissions even if emissions are rising and locking in market mechanisms as a way to solve climate change. Such carbon markets will no doubt make the very rich even richer.
Despite appearing bold and ambitious the targets themselves fall well below what is required. One of the core demands of Extinction Rebellion was for the Britain to drastically cut its greenhouse gas emissions and hit net zero by 2025. That is 25 years earlier than the target Johnson has pledged to meet.
Failures of Paris
But even if we look at what has previously been agreed by governments these targets do not go far enough. This takes us back to the Paris Agreement of 2015, the outcome of the Cop21 climate talks which was signed by 196 countries. The Paris Accord forms much of the bedrock on which Cop26 will build.
The Paris deal aimed to keep the global average temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5 degrees”. Every country signing up to the Paris agreement set out a target, known as a “Nationally Determined Contribution” (NDC) for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by around 2030.
The problem was that the initial NDC pledges made in 2015 were insufficient to keep warming below 2 degrees, let alone 1.5 degrees. Steffen Kallbekken, director of the Centre for International Climate and Energy Policy, warned at the time that even if governments kept to their pledges that we would still be on track for warming of between 2.7 degrees and 3.7 degrees.
However the Paris accord contains a “ratchet” mechanism by which each country must toughen its target every five years. Therefore new NDCs were due to be submitted last December. Many countries were unable to do this due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so the UN is now urging countries to submit new NDCs so they can be scrutinised before the Cop26 talks.
A recent UN assessment shows that current NDCs would lead to a reduction in emissions of just 1 percent by 2030. Scientists have warned that the world must slash emissions in half by 2030 if it is to prevent devastating heatwaves, wild fires and floods.
So it was in this context that both Biden and Johnson were attempting to prove their green credentials on the world stage. By submitting ambitious pledges, they hoped other countries would follow.
However, the new US target pledged by Biden is not actually sufficient to meet the aspiration of the Paris agreement of limiting temperature rises to 1.5C above pre industrial levels. To do this the US would need to cut emissions by between 57 percent and 63 percent below 2005 levels according to Climate Action Tracker. As Mohamed Adow, director of the think tank Power Shift Africa said, “But truth must be told. It still falls short of what is needed from the biggest historical emitter and wealthiest country to stabilise global heating to below 1.5 degrees”.
So the targets themselves are not sufficient to limit temperature rises. But this also brings us to another problem of the Paris agreement and the NDCs. All of the pledges being made are voluntary. They are not legally binding on governments. Indeed the original Paris Agreement required no actual cut in emissions by any country before 2020. And it is still quite possible for countries to make strong pledges for emission cuts ahead of Cop26 but for this to have little actual impact.
In fact global energy related CO2 emissions are set for their largest annual rise since 2010 this year. There was a brief drop in emissions last year due to lockdowns. However, they then rebounded quickly and by December 2020 carbon output was outstripping 2019 levels. Data this month shows that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached 50 percent above pre-industrial levels.
It quickly becomes very clear there is a gigantic chasm between targets for emissions cuts and the actual reality of what is happening in terms of concrete policy measures. As Dr Niklas Hohne of New Climate Institute said, “There is not a single government that has the policies needed”.
In Britain, unsurprisingly perhaps, Boris Johnson consistently fails to match his rhetoric with action. A quick glance at recent actions of the Tory government shows this.
The government gave the green light for a new coal mine in Cumbria, although such was the outcry this is now subject to a public inquiry. It would be Britain’s first new deep coal mine in three decades with the aim of producing coking coal for making steel mainly for export until 2049.
This approval was given despite the fact that Britain along with Canada is a leading member of The Powering Past Coal Alliance. This is a key plank of Johnson’s strategy in the lead up to Cop26. Members of the alliance are meant to show they are on the pathway for eliminating coal fired power plants. While the coal from this new mine would mostly be exported it would increase emissions overseas and send a powerful message to other countries about what to invest in.
The Tories also agreed new licenses for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea. At the same time they scrapped the Green Homes grant for insulation and low carbon heating which was the governments only ‘green recovery’ measure. They have supported airport expansion and slashed support for electric vehicles. The British government also supported Australia’s climate sceptic former minister Matthias Cormann becoming head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
And most recently experts have argued that the recent decision to cut overseas aid from 0.7 percent to 0.5 percent of GDP will hurt countries trying to cope with the impact of climate breakdown.
It is clear there is very little being proposed that will enable the Tories to meet their pledges to reduce emissions.
Biden’s green revolution?
The Biden administration has stated it wants the US electricity grid to run 100 percent on clean sources such as solar and wind by 2035. In order to meet such goals it has framed an explosion in renewable energy and electric car production as a boon to American jobs.
Biden closed the two day virtual summit by calling for the global transition to renewables, as well as advances in electric cars and other technologies to be accelerated. He talked of how the production of renewable infrastructure would “create millions of good paying jobs around the world, jobs that bring greater quality of life, greater dignity to people”.
John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, has talked of a shift to clean energy in a transformation that rivals the space age or Industrial Revolution. “This is the greatest moment of transformation of our economy in our lifetime,” he told the Washington Post. “We need to seize it”.
So are the proposals transformative? In fact Biden’s much trumpeted infrastructure plan fails to deliver the levels of public investment needed to decarbonise at the pace and scale the climate emergency requires.
As historian Adam Tooze pointed out recently, to make a shift from gas and coal to solar and wind requires a vast amount of extra capacity. It also requires a new cross country transmission system to ensure that the clean power gets from the states with wind and sun to those that need it most. It would need to shift transport, and domestic and industrial heating to electricity too. That amounts to a lot of investment.
Where will the investment come from?
Biden’s Jobs Plan is the second of three major programmes being rolled out by the government. The first is the $1.9 trillion stimulus, and the third will be a family plan to improve the childcare system.
The Jobs Plan aims to address a number of issues – from inequality and unemployment, to infrastructure and the climate crisis. $2 trillion sounds a lot and as Tooze points out it could get even be closer to $2.7 trillion. But in reality it is pathetically inadequate.
About half of the Jobs Plan money is allocated to dealing with the climate crisis. However, unlike other recent stimulus programmes which have provided a rapid injection of funds it is spread over eight years and will only give out the money in ‘dribs and drabs’. Spending $1 to $1.3 trillion over eight years is around 0.5 percent of current GDP annually. This is far short of any reasonable estimate of the investment needed for decarbonisation.
It contrasts with the $16.3 trillion that Bernie Sanders, with the support of 250.org founder Bill McKibben, has deemed necessary. It also falls well short of the Thrive Act proposal, supported by groups associated with the Green New Deal, which is asking for $10 trillion with 80 percent focused on climate. These proposals show the scale of the challenge and expose just how modest Biden’s plan is.
The tameness of the plan is in the detail. For example, although Biden promotes the idea of electric cars, he does not mandate all vehicles sold by 2035 to be zero emission models.
And then there is the question of how it will be funded. As Tooze points out the original Green New Deal advocated spending at the scale required by the climate crisis then taking care of the funding. Crucially it meant that the level of climate spending would not be dependent on how much revenue can be raised. However, after the initial surge of unfunded relief spending, Biden is now linking investment to revenue. And in order to avoid a fight over tax rises – even just restoring America’s corporate tax rates to their pre Trump levels – that means limiting the overall size of the investment package.
Tooze concludes that “Biden’s climate programme appears hobbled by constraints, lacking in focus and inadequate in ambition. And this is before the Jobs Plan has even been submitted to the grueling process of Congressional bargaining”.
So essentially, Biden does not want to upset big business. In fact the very opposite – they are part of his solution. On the second day of the virtual summit the billionaires, the CEOs and other business leaders including Bill Gates, joined the world leaders to offer their vision of a climate friendly transformation of the economy.
But for Gates and other business leaders their priority is how to continue making a profit and enriching themselves. In his recent book How To Avoid a Climate Disaster Gates argues that climate change is “a huge economic opportunity”. For him, “the countries that build great zero-carbon companies and industries will be the ones to lead the global economy in the coming decades”.
This is remarkably similar to Biden’s recent comments that countries that act on the climate crisis will “reap the economic benefits of the clean energy boom that’s coming”. Gates argues for government economic intervention to help encourage corporate innovation and develop the technologies that he argues are needed to save the world.
The implication is that governments should take the initial investment risk and then hand over to the private sector to develop further in the pursuit of profit. Again this is very similar to Biden’s proposals and his talk of ensuring both public and private financing. Professor Daniela Gabor, a UWE Bristol economist, warns of a “massive expansion of state-mediated greenwashing” and worries that western central banks will end up sanctioning and eventually bailing out greenwashed private finance.
But the solution to climate change is not just a technical question that can then be dealt with by the markets and business. Instead it requires political will and a break from the fossil fuel economy. And this is the problem. It is not just about how much investment there is in renewables, electric cars and clean technologies. We need to offset the power being generated by fossil fuels rather than just adding to the general energy mix.
If we are serious about cutting carbon emissions then we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. But – as Naomi Klein pointed out at the time of the Paris Accord in 2015 – coal, oil and gas were not mentioned once in the text of the agreement. Similarly aviation and shipping — both major contributors to emissions — were not mentioned either. So rather than challenging the power of the fossil fuel industry, the Paris deal allowed for business as usual.
To deal with climate change would mean challenging the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industries. But Biden is not prepared to do that. We saw this clearly in the run up to the presidential election when he refused to say he would ban fracking, instead committing himself to stopping it only on federal land. Since 90 percent of fracking takes place on non-federal land this was pretty meaningless.
Indeed, here he follows the policy set by Barack Obama. During his Presidency Obama looked to the power of ‘fracked gas’ marketed as the ‘cleanest’ of the fossil fuels and as a bridge fuel away from fossil fuels. In reality an abundance of fracked gas meant big business did not have to break from the fossil economy. And it has left the US with an even further entrenched infrastructure of fossil fuel investments. This includes from fracking wells, pipelines, power plants and a boom for petrochemical industries churning out plastics. These would all have to be retired to meet the ambitious emissions targets now being set.
But there is no mechanism for driving fossil fuels out of the system either in the Cop process or Biden’s Jobs Plan. Instead the very opposite is happening. The International Energy Agency estimates that government subsidies for the consumption of fossil fuels amounted to some $400 billion in 2018.
And while politicians discuss emissions targets, the world’s biggest 60 banks have provided $3.8 trillion of financing for fossil fuel companies since the Paris climate deal. A recent NGO report found that overall funding for fossil fuels is on an upward trend with the finance provided higher in 2020 than in 2016 or 2017. US and Canadian banks make up 13 of the 60 banks analysed but account for almost half of global fossil fuel financing over the last five years. At the same time funding for the 100 fossil fuel companies with the biggest expansion plans actually rose by 10 percent.
Such investment and financing of new reserves is the exact opposite of what needs to be done if we are to prevent a climate catastrophe. It proves clearly that we cannot rely on the mechanisms of capitalism to deal with the problem. Indeed the logic of profit making at the heart of the system is what has created and fuelled the climate crisis.
Instead we have to look to the potential for change on a much bigger scale. The climate mobilisations of 2019 raised the slogan ‘system change not climate change’. As we head towards the Cop26 talks in November activists, climate campaigners and trade unionists must come together once again to organise, protest and strike. We need to demand radical action to prevent climate catastrophe – action that goes far beyond what is being proposed by Biden and Johnson.
- Amy Leather is author of a new pamphlet, Capitalism & the Politics of Food