Marginal Notes on COP26 in Glasgow

Few scientists now question the link between human activity (primarily the use of fossil fuels) and climate change. Extreme weather events (summer heat waves, torrential rains, winter storms, ozone holes, etc.) are increasingly commonplace and are difficult to explain by resorting to natural variability alone.

The scientific basis for interpreting climate change dates back more than 150 years and the last 60 years of observations have proved a valid base for the construction of theoretical models capable of effectively correlating known causes with environmental effects. Greenhouse gases have been known to warm the planet since 1850-1860, and the link between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming has been hypothesised since 1938.

Briefly, the energy that the Earth receives from the Sun is in turn eventually emitted as infrared radiation. The infrared energy, leaving the earth's surface, is partially absorbed by the atmosphere, causing the planet's temperature to rise. The amount of energy absorbed, and therefore the extent of the thermal increase, is determined by the composition of the atmosphere; it has been experimentally observed that carbon dioxide increases the absorption of infrared radiation.

The prediction, based on the previously mentioned scientific theory, of an increase in the earth's temperature of about 1.1 degree centigrade between 1900 and 2020, mainly determined by the use of fossil fuels, has been verified.

The uniform distribution of heat from the atmosphere to the ocean depths takes time. It is estimated that the carbon dioxide emissions which have accumulated in the atmosphere to date will cause an increase in temperature of about 0.5 degrees centigrade in the seas and oceans in the near future. As the water warms up, it increases its volume. Thus sea ​​and ocean levels are expected to increase by at least 25cm by 2100.

According to rather conservative estimates, the concomitant melting of the glaciers will lead to a further increase of at least 25cm in water levels, with an overall increase of at least half a metre by the end of the century. Large coastal areas, now widely populated, will be submerged by water, making any type of cultivation impossible.

In poor countries like Tanzania, which depend for 30% of their GDP on agriculture, fishing and forestry, the situation could soon become unsustainable. The same can be said of countries like Vietnam, where rising waters would lead to the destruction of one of the most fertile rice fields in the world.

Then again, heating of water determines an increase in water vapour in the atmosphere. Water vapour is in effect a greenhouse gas, capable of absorbing heat and emitting even more when it condenses in the form of clouds or gives rise to storms. Vicious circles are thus generated where high temperatures and anomalous heat waves increase humidity, in turn generating extended downpours which help to increase the temperature at night and capture more heat near the earth's surface. High temperatures and water vapour can be a deadly mix in some conditions, since it is more difficult for the human body to lose heat by sweating in a humid climate. This is leading to an increase in mortality amongst that part of the population with no access to air conditioning systems. More and more observations indicate that the extreme climatic events we have witnessed in recent years are fuelled by an overall increase in temperatures and humidity.

Further data indicates a progressive expansion of the tropical zone from the equatorial belt towards the poles, helping to make previously temperate climate areas hotter and more arid and moving the areas affected by stormy precipitations at the same pace. The main factors scientists consider responsible for this phenomenon are increases in temperatures plus atmospheric dust which can also affect the air temperature and contribute to the formation of clouds. The clearest manifestations of these kind of changes are in the Mediterranean, in Australia and in California.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC — group of international experts on climate change) said that if the global temperature were to rise by 2 degrees Celsius compared to the pre-industrial era, 118 million people could find themselves living in conditions of extreme drought and famine.

These briefly mentioned topics (in a way that is anything but complete and in-depth) only serve to highlight that, despite the complexity of the topic and the various points that are still controversial and obscure, there are aspects that are now shared by a large part of the scientific community: the basic mechanisms and the dramatic consequences of global warming; the link between human activity and climate change which is becoming more and more evident from the experimental data as well as collected observations. Secondly, it is important to underline that the changes are already underway; if from tomorrow we were to miraculously stop carbon dioxide emissions, some effects of climate change (such as rising water) would still continue to manifest themselves in the near future.

In fact, carbon dioxide tends to persist in the atmosphere (unlike other greenhouse gases, such as methane, with a much shorter average life) resulting in a dangerous cumulative effect. About 50% of the carbon dioxide that is produced every day (an estimated 100 billion tons) will remain in the atmosphere for at least a thousand years. The time factor thus becomes crucial for adopting measures capable of limiting the trends already in place. The concentration of carbon dioxide, which has increased by 30% in the last 60 years, will double in 2050 (compared to the concentrations of the pre-industrial period) if current emissions remain unchanged.

To limit the increase in the average temperature of the planet to less than 1.5-2 degrees Celsius, the IPCC experts have indicated that carbon dioxide emissions should be halved by 2030, until they reach "net zero" in 2050.

Great expectations were therefore placed on the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change which took place in Glasgow (Scotland) from 31 October to 13 November (which saw the participation of 197 nations plus the European Union). It represented the most important international diplomatic meeting on climate since the 2015 Paris Summit.

During the summit, the various countries were required to provide an updated version of their plans to reduce greenhouse gases, with the main objective of not exceeding the global average temperature of 1.5 degrees centigrade (the so-called NDCs — nationally determined contributions).

The reduction, up to the complete elimination, of fossil fuels, plus the path and the funding necessary to achieve this objective, thus represented the crucial point of the conference.

From this standpoint, the final document produced by the summit ("Glasgow Climate Pact") was largely unsatisfactory and represents, in the words of the UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres, "a compromise that reflects the interests, the contradictions and the state of political will in today's world ”.

One example is the amendment proposed by India, shortly before the close of the summit. It asked to replace the term "phasing out" with "phasing down" in chapter IV article 36 of the final document, concerning the use of coal. However, although India was the only nation to expose itself, claiming its right to a "responsible use" of coal, China, South Africa, Iran and Saudi Arabia also fundamentally held to similar positions.

India has promised that it will achieve carbon neutrality (i.e. a balance between the carbon dioxide emitted and that absorbed) only by 2070, whilst China aims for 2060 (far from the 2050 indicated by the IPCC). They are not marginal countries, but respectively the third and the first world polluter (the United States is in the middle).

Scientists have estimated that if no measures are taken against climate change, then, by the end of the century the temperature will rise by about 3 degrees Celsius compared to the pre-industrial period, while it will rise by 2.4 degrees if the measures already undertaken are implemented properly and by 1.8 degrees if all the agreements and promises of the Paris and Glasgow Summits were to be strictly applied (a decidedly unlikely event and in any case inadequate compared to the objective of a maximum increase of 1.5 degrees).

The reluctance of India and China has deep economic roots. Coal is currently the cheapest energy source and is one of the key factors in the competitive capacity of Asian giants on the international market. (About 70% of India's electricity is produced by coal-fired power plants, according to an IEA [International Energy Agency] estimate the demand for coal in the country is even due to increase by 30% by 2030.)

To achieve the set goal of a 45% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, more than 40% of the 8,500 coal plants in the world would have to close in the next 10 years (and obviously without opening others). Considering that half of the plants are located in China which has indicated 2060 as the year of carbon neutrality, it is understandable that this goal is difficult to implement.

Obviously we must not forget that the Western states, "embittered" and "disappointed" by the Indian and Chinese attitude, are the main culprits of global pollution. A study by the Global Carbon project has shown that Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Japan, with 12% of the world’s population, have contributed to 50% of carbon dioxide emissions.

The situation would require the approval of binding agreements, capable of imposing drastic and immediate measures to reduce greenhouse gases. These have not occurred. The time factor remains, as already stated, fundamental: an annual emission cut of 3.7% would have been sufficient if it had begun from 2010, but already in 2020 the emission cut must be 9% to maintain the objectives of Glasgow.

In fact, however, the compromise reached in Glasgow is not legally binding. It is not an international treaty and therefore no sanctions are foreseen for those who do not respect it. Thus the summit was distinguished by many random promises and agreements without a precise plan.

Another aspect that the summit should have addressed was the problem of financing mitigation measures (emission reductions) and adaptation schemes (securing populations and infrastructures threatened by climate change) in the so-called "developing countries" (or rather, on the periphery of capitalism). The promise already made 10 years ago to provide developing countries with $100 billion a year, for six consecutive years has never been kept. The industrialised countries are supposed to fulfil this commitment (judged by many to be insufficient) by 2025. However, there are no details in the document on how to concretely establish the fund.

Although the summit can be considered a failure, it certainly cannot be assumed that there is no awareness, on the part of the bourgeoisie and its governments (as well as by an ever-growing part of public opinion), of the gravity of the situation and the dramatic consequences, albeit full of unknowns, that climate change could entail. It may seem paradoxical that this awareness does not give rise to adequate and agreed actions, but it is precisely the current economic system that is one of the main obstacles in this direction.

In the current mode of production the perennial drive to increase capital is a necessity, not one political option amongst many. Social reproduction itself is inextricably linked to the process of capital growth. Market logic therefore conditions every political choice, including the crucial environmental and climate issue: how costly might the energy transition path be? What would such a choice entail for a state’s productive and competitive capacity? What are the geopolitical consequences?

In fact, although they formally share the same objective, the various countries have different, opposing interests. The awareness that fossil hydrocarbons will have to be abandoned is undoubtedly widespread and technological change is considered inevitable. But each one wants this to happen in the most painless and gradual way possible (especially in countries that have become part of the new global production chains powered by low cost energy and, of course, in the states that live off the hydrocarbon trade). Thus, the change should take place without significantly hindering capital growth mechanisms, indeed, even better, it should turn into a new opportunity for profit.

However, the time capital requires for the energy transition (which the crisis of valorisation of the current cycle of accumulation could further extend), is hardly compatible with the speed of climate change. It is easy to believe that an aggravation of extreme weather events, including progressive desertification and the rise of ocean waters, will characterise the near future. This is without considering the risk of reaching climatic tipping points, i.e. upheavals of drastic and irreversible change that could lead to permanent environmental damage. A dramatic example could be the melting of the main glaciers which would lead to an increase in water levels of at least seven metres — a broad and controversial topic, on which we intend to return.

Precisely because it focuses on the need to accumulate capital, the current economic system is proving increasingly inadequate to respond to the serious climate problem it has generated. The environmental battle cannot be separated from a wider battle against capital and against all its manifestations: for a new order free from the logic of the market and profit, aimed at satisfying social needs — for communism.

Battaglia Comunista
20 November 2021


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Wednesday, December 8, 2021