COP28 and the Myth of Green Capitalism

Global heating – the product of capitalism

The 28th climate change summit known as Conference of the Parties (COP28) was held in December 2023 and was even more of a farce than any of the previous 27 conferences. While the world is now undeniably facing a catastrophic climate crisis, which if unchecked will lead to the collapse of civilisation or even extinction of Homo sapiens, our leaders have made clear that they are not prepared to do anything serious about this if such action threatens the profitability or the accumulation of capital. Previously the major capitalist corporations, particularly the fossil fuel companies, have spent billions of dollars on think tanks trying to claim the science of global heating was a gigantic fraud, and more billions on lobbying groups to prevent politicians limiting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and to ensure business carried on as usual. Now, when the science has become incontestable to all but the flat-earth brigade, a new strategy has been devised, that of green capitalism. At its fundamental level it amounts to accepting the science which many governments and companies spent years denying, and instead using the climate crisis to open up new fields of profit, accumulation, and speculation, while, at the same time, spreading a halo of green over what amounts to the continued normal operation of the capitalist system. In what follows, we intend to examine the massive emerging operations of green capitalism which have sprung up. However, before that we wish to briefly examine the scientific evidence which has been published and which our rulers once again chose to ignore at COP28.

A brief update on the main scientific facts

GHGs released by human activity are preventing the earth radiating energy into space causing an energy imbalance. The trapping of energy by human activity is known as radiative forcing. Table 1 shows how this effect has increased about 70% between 2005 and 2019 according to the UN International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) in its update of its report AR6.(1)

<br/> Table 1

Table 1

More energy is being absorbed from the sun than can be released by radiation. The result is that the earth must warm to reach a higher temperature, at which it can emit more energy and so regain an energy balance. The UN predicts that even with all the voluntary commitments made at COP26 this will require a rise in temperature of between 2 and 50C above average temperatures in the 19th century. So much for the famous limit of 1.50C the world was pledged to meet at the 2015 conference (the Paris Agreement) and which COP28 pretended was still possible. The amount of energy being absorbed by the world every day is enormous. To put it in perspective it is equivalent to 80 times the amount of energy humanity uses every day. Another little known fact is that over 90% of this energy is going into the oceans, heating the seas and the poles.(2) The global temperature increase is highly uneven so at present land-based temperature rises are shielded from the amount of energy being absorbed.

Graph 1 shows the IPCC’s calculation of the amount of GHGs currently being released and the future releases, based on the current commitments, together with the reductions which must be made if the world is to achieve 1.50C or even 20C warming.(3) It is absolutely clear that there is no way, with the present measures, that these limited temperature increases can be achieved. This is because these measures are all based on the primary condition: that capitalist production and accumulation will continue unaffected.

<br/> Graph 1

Graph 1

The International Energy Association (IEA) categorically stated, in 2021, that the time for new oil and gas developments was over. If average temperature rise is to be kept to 1.50C, then world leaders must not develop new oil, gas, or coal beyond existing fields. Of course, this would reduce profitability of large sectors of the capitalist economy and was quite unacceptable. While the US and the Europeans, as usual, talked up their general commitment to sticking to the 1.50C threshold, they quietly ignored the IEA warnings. The US, for example, has increased its gas production to 11.4bn cubic feet per day and its oil production to 13.2 million barrels per day, both now the largest globally.(4) The UK has licensed drilling in new oil fields in the North Sea and opened a new coal mine. Our rulers always find an excuse for why they do the opposite of what they preach; the latest explanation is that oil and gas production must be increased because of Russia’s war in Ukraine. However, the fact is that governments worldwide have continued to massively subsidise fossil fuels year in and year out. The IMF, for example, calculated that the subsidies offered by governments to fossil fuel companies now amounted to $1.3 trillion annually!(5) The famous US Inflation Reduction Act, by contrast, directs $400bn of grants to clean energy over 10 years, or an average of $40bn annually.(6) The IEA calculates $5tn needs to be spent on clean energy annually every year up to 2030(7) if the Paris goals are to be met.

It is obvious the commitment to phase out fossil fuels is not serious and exists only on paper and as voluntary resolutions. Approximately half of the total carbon emissions at present in the atmosphere have been emitted in the last 30 years(8); that means they have been emitted since the establishment of the IPCC and the COP process. GHG emissions are now 6% higher than they were at the Paris COP of 2015 and in 2023 will set a new record. So much for the commitment of our leaders to save the planet!

The IPCC report of 2022 ends with the words:

The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal … any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action … will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future.

We have so far had nothing but delay and inaction and there is no reason to think this is about to change.


COP28 was held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which is the eighth largest oil and gas producer in the world, and the COP chairman, Sultan Al Jaber, is the chief executive of the national oil company (ADNOC). Before the conference, documents were leaked showing that Al Jaber was planning to use the conference to make oil and gas deals with various countries such as Mozambique, Canada, Australia, Colombia and others. Al Jaber also claimed that there was no science indicating a phase-out of fossil fuels was required to reach the Paris Agreement of limiting the average temperature rise to 1.50C. The conference, even more than the previous ones, has degenerated into a massive trade show with companies and countries having pavilions to negotiate deals. There were 85,000 registered delegates at the conference and it should come as no surprise to learn that 2,400 of them were representing oil, gas, and coal companies.

What all the COPs since the 2015 Paris conference have shown is the impossibility of voluntary limits halting GHG emissions. The agreement at the end of the latest COP, which was praised to the skies by our leaders, is yet another voluntary agreement. The delegate countries and 50 major oil companies committed to voluntarily phase out fossil fuels sometime in the undefined future. Though there was, of course, no commitment to produce less oil and gas. Instead there was a commitment by 50 oil producers to end flaring of methane from their plants and to eliminate methane leaks, both by 2030. This was voluntary and, according to scientists, the 50 companies are responsible for only a third of GHG emissions. The other so-called major achievement was the pledge by 120 countries to triple installed capacity of renewable energy by 2030, creating an installed capacity of 11,000 gigawatts. This is something experts consider extremely unlikely to be achieved. The final word on these pledges given by the IEA was that even if all the voluntary pledges were fulfilled, the emissions reduction would only amount to 30% of the reduction required to achieve the Paris commitment of 1.50C.(9) The UN has calculated that the present regime of GHG emission puts the world on track for a temperature rise of 2.90C, a temperature rise likely to trigger tipping points leading to environmental catastrophe.

The peripheral countries are looking for grants to decarbonise their economies but these, as we consider below, are not forthcoming or, where they are, they are often loans with interest rates above the current international levels. African and Latin American countries argued that exploiting their oil and gas wealth is critical to economic development. Alex Rafalowicz, director of the Fossil Fuel Non Proliferation Treaty Initiative, expressed their frustration:

Those most responsible for the climate crisis did not bring finance, technology, or actions to start phasing out fossil fuels...(10)

The EU carbon trading market made its own indirect comment to the outcome of the conference by reducing the cost of emitting a tonne of CO2 from €71 to €66(11) indicating they were not expecting any significant change to the cost of emissions and that they viewed the outcome of the COP as a green light to carry on polluting.

The myth of green capitalism

Green capitalism is actually a contradiction in terms. This is because capitalism requires continual accumulation of capital, requiring in turn the continual exploiting and depleting of nature’s resources. Infinite appropriation of nature resulting from capitalist production relations is demanded of a finite planet which necessarily leads to catastrophe whether capitalism is ‘green’ or not. Today, according to “The World Counts” we need 1.8 planets to provide the resources for our annual consumption and to absorb our waste. By 2030 it will be 2 planets.(12) While the destruction of the planet and global heating are no longer denied by the main intellectual forces in capitalist society, the predominant view is that a green capitalism can reverse the calamitous path we are hurtling along. Underpinning this is the naïve belief in the effectiveness of the market, which we are told, with proper inputs will solve the climate crisis. William Nordhaus, the economist famous for his 1991 paper on global warming, said in his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for economics in 2018, “There is no alternative to the market.”

A similar understanding lies behind the UK government’s 2006 Stern Review on the “Economics of Climate Change”. This characterised climate change as “extreme market failure” because the costs of emissions were not reflected in monetary costs. Cost of externalities, he argued, need to be internalised via the price mechanism. Once correctly priced, the market will solve the climate crisis.

Of course, the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008, which showed how hopelessly inefficient the market is at solving problems, made no difference to the conclusions of capitalism’s economic Nobel Prize winners. This simply shows, as Marx pointed out, how the ruling ideas in society are nothing more than the ruling economic and social relations reflected in thought. Today the mainstream of capitalist thought still holds to the view that the climate crisis can be solved by giving free rein to the market by pricing in the so-called externalities through turning them into monetary commodities. The idea that technological improvements such as electric vehicles, heat pumps, carbon capture, and renewable energy, combined with carbon pricing, emission offsets, and so on will eventually solve the climate crisis informs the COP conferences. It follows from this that the first commandment of green capitalism is to preserve the prevalent social and economic relations as they exist in capitalist society today, while the second commandment is to open up new fields for the accumulation of capital.

“Green capitalism” is already under challenge as in Adrienne Buller’s The Value of a Whale, published in 2022. The book has the sub-title of “The illusions of green capitalism” and is a good demolition of its predominant myths. Buller appears to be influenced by the US Monthly Review School and the “metabolic rift” theory developed by writers such as John Bellamy Foster and Kohei Saito, whose recent book Capital in the Anthropocene we reviewed on our website,(13) though she also refers to writers who criticise this school. Buller’s book, however, comes to no conclusion as to what should be done, though it implies that an alternative world with common human ownership, providing for general human welfare is needed. This, she concludes, would likely spell the end of capitalism. Such a world sounds like a communist world. We can say it would definitely spell the end of capitalism and further, that such a world can only be constructed after social revolution has destroyed capitalism. Buller’s book, however, deals with none of this but does provide a detailed exposure of the dominant myths which the acolytes of green capitalism hold so close to their hearts.

Nature and the whale

The attempt by the IMF to commodify the whale and, after putting a price on it, to urge investment in whales and eventually include it in investment funds, provides a dismal metaphor for the whole myth of green capitalism. The IMF’s price, $2 million per whale, was calculated on the amount of carbon dioxide the whale sequesters in its life, priced at the emissions price for carbon, and the amount of paying tourism a whale attracts. The IMF then worked out the total carbon the entire whale population could sequester if allowed to return to pre-whaling numbers, and found this to be 1.7 billion tonnes per year. The next step was to carry out a cost-benefit analysis proving people should invest in funds for preserving whales. The cardinal premise behind all of this is that nature should be given a price, and carbon given a price, and these things should be brought to the market. Funds for investment should then be created and traded, allowing futures and derivatives to be created leading to a field for speculation and hedging.

The ridiculous nature of all this is that it totally ignores the rest of the biosphere in which whales, and of course humans, live. This is illustrated by the fact that many of the whales washed up on our coasts are deafened by marine engines and sonar and are so filled with heavy metals and other toxins, which we continually pour into the ocean, that they have to be disposed of in toxic waste disposal plants. The real-life sequence to this parable was that an actual whale Buller was watching, which sequestered carbon and attracted tourism, was subsequently killed by a ship’s propeller while being watched by tourists. For Buller, the whale stands as the sentinel of green capitalism, pointing to the destructive path we are following.

Though temperature and weather patterns are the most obvious effects of global heating, there are inescapable links between carbon emissions and the biosphere as the allegory of the whale shows. The ecological crisis, though less visible, is also critical. The Stockholm Resilience Centre claims that 6 out of 9 “planetary boundaries”, or processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth system, have been crossed.(14) Crossing boundaries increases the risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes. Together the boundaries mark a critical threshold for increasing risks to people and the ecosystems we are part of; they permit the earth to remain in the Holocene interglacial state which it has been in for the last 10,000 years. The boundaries are interrelated processes within the complex biophysical Earth system. This means that a global focus on climate change alone is not sufficient for increased sustainability. Instead, understanding the interplay of boundaries, especially climate, and loss of biodiversity, is key in science and practice. Alterations in the biosphere are leading to massively increased rates of extinctions not only of animals but also of plants and insects which we depend on for food pollination. If we continue to cross these boundaries the world is likely to enter, or has already entered, a new geological period which scientists have named the “Anthropocene” defined by human impact. However, it must be noted that mankind is a part of nature and that, for almost the entire history of Homo sapiens, mankind has lived in a sustainable relationship with nature. It is only under the period where capitalist social relations dominate the planet, that human activity takes on such a destructive dimension leading to the present collapse of the environment, a collapse on a scale which can be classified as geological, and which the term “Anthropocene” encompasses. The development of this new epoch is likely to result in a new period of mass extinctions possibly including Homo sapiens.

Any catalogue of the environment destruction which directly affects these planetary boundaries, and which continues year in and year out despite all the pious COP resolutions, makes dismal reading. One instance is the destruction of forests which are critical carbon sinks. In 2019, 36 million acres of forest was cut down – an area greater than that of England – and in 2020, despite the pandemic, destruction increased by a further 50%. Oil companies publish pathways to 1.50C which require forest offsets equivalent to the size of Brazil and which are quite impossible to achieve. Another example of a project so dear to the green capitalist fraternity is the conversion of transport to electric vehicles. The IEA envisages 230 million electric vehicles on the roads by 2030 - with no consideration for the amount of GHGs produced and the destruction of the biosphere that the mining and refining of lithium, nickel, cobalt, cadmium, copper, and other minerals for batteries will create. Extraction of all minerals is increasing steadily and a measure of this is that; between 2002 and 2015 there was 53% increase in mineral extraction which means that 33% of all mineral extraction since 1900 took place in this period.

Replacing car ownership, not reducing it, increases the necessary energy production. Like everything else in green capitalism this sees the solution as putting prices on nature and leaving it to market forces to solve the destruction of the biosphere. A team of researchers worked out that the total value of the biosphere was $33tn in 1996. A more recent survey by the World Economic Forum concluded that 50% of global GDP is highly or moderately dependent on nature which increased the value of the world’s ecosystems to $44tn! As Buller says, pricing complicated and interconnected ecosystems is nonsense and cannot possibly solve the ecological crisis. Of course, the bourgeoisie do not accept this and they are attempting to hypothetically parcel up nature into assets and create funds to mobilise capital, allow trading, speculation, derivatives, and so forth in these funds. The funds are generally known as Ethical, Social and Governance (ESG) funds and have become extremely large.

ESG Funds

These funds are allowing financial capital to amass ownership and control of green capitalism. In 2020 more than $1tn was invested in them(15), and the asset managers of these funds are shaping how capitalism responds to the climate crisis. The giant asset management company Black Rock has emerged as a leading financial force in green capitalism. Another example is the French banking giant BNP Paribas which has launched an ecosystem restoration fund. ESG funds open up areas of nature for trade. The fundamental idea behind the ESG is that governance of common goods in nature should be handed over to private capital and become a field of speculation. These funds appear to be reducing the financial impact of the climate crisis on capital values, but not on anything else. The scale of these funds is large but apparently they represent mainly relocation of existing capital rather than new capital. The question which must be asked is, where does the surplus value, which provides the dividends these funds pay, come from? Preserving whales or protecting forests does not create new value. Clearly the value these funds mobilise is syphoned off from the productive economy, probably via carbon tax, payment for carbon offsets, etc. However this, like financialisation in general, must represent a drain on the profitability of capitalism as a whole though, of course, the financial capitalists gain.

Carbon tax

The carbon tax is a fundamental element of green capitalism. It attempts to put a monetary value and a tax on each tonne of carbon emissions, and was one of the earliest attempts to use the capitalist market to control the climate crisis. It has so far completely failed to do this. A flat tax which all consumers pay has been tried in various countries but not been successful. A consequence of this sort of taxation is that it penalises the working class who pay a larger proportion of their income on energy than the bourgeoisie, and so leads to even greater inequality. The other system adopted by the EU in 2008 was a cap and tax scheme. Industries or services are given an allowance and taxed for emissions above the allowance. The cap was set by government and excess carbon dioxide taxed at a rate set by the government. The unused allowances allowed by the cap can be traded on a carbon market or cancelled out by buying offsets. The scheme allowed the capitalist class to set the cap and the rate of tax. The scheme turned into a fiasco with large emitters having too favourable a cap and trading it. It is estimated large emitters made €50bn profit from trading their allowances since the scheme was started, meaning that, instead of the polluter paying, the polluter profits.(16) The current average price per tonne is between $40 and $80 but in 2020 according to the IMF the average price was $2/tonne. Such low prices reduce any incentive to save CO2 emissions. Some scientists estimate the price needs to be set at $14300 per tonne to achieve 1.50C, which is itself an indication that the pricing system will never be effective. Carbon pricing reflects the desire of large capital to maintain their profits and to continue to accumulate. BP, Shell, Exxon and the American Petroleum Institute have all published statements on the need for a carbon price. That the top global polluters have now reversed their previous policy of preventing this, which they pursued over a five year period, shows that they now understand it will be ineffective. As with the biosphere, establishing rights to pollute that can be bought, sold, and converted into financial assets opens up new fields of speculation.

The offset market created by carbon trading is fundamentally a way of avoiding cutting emissions; however, it has grown enormously. It was apparently worth $1bn in 2021! Offsets allow avoidance of decarbonisation by allowing polluters to offset their pollution by buying stands of forests, peat bogs and similar carbon sinks. The market is largely unregulated and allows such things as NOT cutting down forests, or only clearing fire breaks to prevent forests being burned, to be treated as tradable offsets! As could be expected, an industry of brokers trading offsets to polluters has sprung up, taking a handsome cut of the price for the offsets from the countries having the forests or other sinks. Offsets like this allowed Total, for example, to claim a $17 million shipment of gas was carbon neutral. In general, however what these offsets result in is enclosure of land in countries in the global south, mono-species plantations being established, and displacement of local communities.

Funds to fight climate crisis

At the COP conferences for a number of years, the rich nations have pledged to provide $100bn in funding to help the poorer nations’ transition to green energy and to decarbonise their economies. This was presented by the leading countries of the global north as charity. But the figure of $100bn was never achieved and the funds provided were not charity. In 2021, $80bn was gathered but the IMF calculated that 80% of these funds were loans and 40% of these loans were at above the market rate of interest. In effect this represented a transfer of value from the poor nations to the rich. This is part of a general transfer of wealth from peripheral nations to the capitalist core nations via debt, cheap labour power and trade between capitals of higher organic composition with those of lower. Exports from the peripheral countries such as agricultural products, raw materials, and minerals remain low-cost as labour power is cheap and environmental costs are not included. According to UNCTAD, between 2000 and 2018 $440bn per year flowed from just 16 low income countries to wealthy northern economies.(17) The returns which poor countries can make on new assets are substantially lower than the liabilities they owe through debt repayment. Since the 1980s the IMF has imposed structural adjustment programmes as conditions for its loans which include liberating capital flows, privatising public assets and deregulation. The effect is to open up these countries to northern capital and the COP funds are basically a continuation of this process.

No capitalist solution

Neither the climate crisis nor the resulting ecological crisis will be solved as long as capitalism is the global system of production. The fundamental reason for this is that the system does not produce for human needs; it produces for profit, and this necessarily requires continual accumulation of capital. This, in turn translates into the need for continual growth, which entails growth in energy consumption producing carbon emissions, environmental destruction, and consumption of resources which the planet is unable to replenish. This is a recipe for environmental collapse and is leading to a new period of mass extinction. Significant sections of the capitalist class now understand this but are simply unable to change course as the COP conferences confirm. They are, in fact, trapped in the logic of a system they do not control! Their latest counter measure is to trumpet the virtues of green capitalism as the panacea that will save the planet. However, green capitalism is still capitalism and therefore just a continuation of all these problems, though its cheerleaders try to camouflage this and disguise the fundamentals of what is going on. We have shown how the basic premise of green capitalism is to preserve capitalist relations and to create a new field for capital accumulation by enabling capital to take control of the climate crisis. This is producing an increased polarisation of wealth allowing the central capitalist countries to syphon more value from the peripheral countries, but is not addressing the basic problems. It is clear this strategy cannot continue without leading to social collapse. Though capitalist production, profits and accumulation may continue, even if large parts of the world become unsuitable for life, a point will be reached at which the present level of civilisation cannot exist. At this point, however, it will be too late to reverse the collapse.

Only a higher system of production, producing for human needs, can reverse the catastrophic course we are following. How can this be constructed? Capitalist society is a class-divided society and the capitalist class, who hold power, will not give up their wealth and privileges without fighting to the death. The overthrow of capitalism requires social revolution. The only force able to overthrow capitalism and build a new world is the working class. Its position as the class which produces all the value on which the entire capitalist system depends gives it the leverage to overturn the whole system. Its situation as a collective producer class enables it to form a socialised global community producing for human need. It enables it to abolish wage labour, countries, and money and construct a genuine communist world.(18) This is the precondition for dealing with the climate crisis. We need to attack the issue on a global basis, drawing up global plans for eliminating GHGs, eliminating waste production, and implementing technical solutions to the massive problems we face. For the global working class to overthrow the present system it needs to become conscious of what needs to be done and how to achieve this. For this an international revolutionary political organisation is required. The urgent task of the present is to construct such a political organisation.

As we wrote in Revolutionary Perspectives 19:

The efforts of those fighting global warming will inevitably fail as long as capitalism remains the global system of production. Hence, the only effective fight against the climate crisis is the fight to build a genuine communist society and a political organisation to assist in the overthrow of the present system. This is what the Internationalist Communist Tendency is fighting to do and it is the only way through which we have a hope of reversing the horrendous damage capitalism is inflicting on planet earth.(19)

Communist Workers’ Organisation




(2) See: Chris Rapley, Five Times Faster: Rethinking the Science, Economics, and Diplomacy of Climate Change,


(4) Reported in Financial Times 5/12/2023

(5) Financial Times 3/12/2023




(8) Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, CO2 and Greenhouse gas emissions. Quoted A. Buller in The Value of a Whale p.188

(9) Financial Times 19/12/2023


(11) Financial Times 16/12/2023



(14) The 6 are: biochemical flows, both nitrogen and phosphorus; fresh water change; land system change; biosphere integrity; climate change, including carbon dioxide concentration and radiative forcing; and novel entities.

(15) A. Buller The Value of a Whale p.152

(16) A. Buller The Value of a Whale p.60

(17) UNCTAD 9/12/2019 Quoted A. Buller The Value of a Whale p.199

(18) This has nothing whatsoever to do with the system of state capitalism which existed in Russia which retained wage labour, money and exploitation and was a type of capitalism controlled by the state.


Thursday, February 1, 2024

Revolutionary Perspectives

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