Since forming in 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP) has had a nearly annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to review implementation and make decisions regarding the framework convention. The 25th COP meeting in Madrid this year ended on Sunday with no significant initiatives to address the mounting climate crisis—again!
We can’t wait for the UN’s consensus process in COP because the big fossil fuel producers (US, Russia, the Gulf States) and the growing fossil fuel consumers (China, India) will continue to veto serious action. If we are going to defeat climate change, we are going to have to do it nation by nation. Our job in the United States is to fight for an Ecosocialist Green New Deal at home and by our example help lead the way toward a Global Green New Deal.
Carbon Markets Diversion
Much of the COP discussion focused on creating a carbon market, which could take the form of “cap and trade”—where one polluter with emissions below their allowable quota sells emission permits to another polluter above their quota—or carbon offsetting—where the polluter “offsets” its emissions by tree planting or other carbon reduction schemes. But this scheme doesn’t work! In fact, all regional carbon markets to date that have sold emission permits or offset emissions have failed to reduce emissions.
Statements and demonstrations by climate justice movement activists outside the COP decried carbon markets as a sell-out to the rich high-emissions countries, to big oil and gas, and to big finance capital, which stands to profit handsomely from the intermediation of carbon markets. The climate activists noted many fatal flaws in carbon market schemes:
- The proposed carbon prices are far too low to penalize polluters enough to incentivize a switch to clean renewable energy sources.
- Carbon markets incentivize polluters to set low targets so they can sell more excess pollution permits.
- Carbon markets do nothing to prevent the adverse local environmental and social impacts of fossil fuel projects.
- “Offsetting” markets have already provided cover for the eviction of indigenous forest dwellers not only for tree plantations, but also oil and gas extraction and agribusiness plantations.
- Trading allows energy corporations and petro-states to continue extracting and selling fossil fuels indefinitely.
An escalating carbon tax high enough to make clean renewables the only cost-effective option was not on the table. However, the nations pushing carbon markets, primarily the EU, could not agree on the technical details and pushed finalizing the plan to the next COP in Glasgow in December 2020.
Weak Emission Reduction Commitments
The other major focus of the COP was trying to get countries to increase their national emissions reduction goals under the 2015 Paris climate accord. Even if all countries implement their current commitments, which no major country has met, the Earth will warm more than 3ºC by 2100. The last time Earth was 3ºC warmer was 3 million years ago, when sea level was 25 meters (62 feet) higher, the polar regions were ice free, Antarctica was forested, and the tropical rainforests of today were arid savannas and deserts. Atmospheric carbon was 360-400 ppm. It has averaged 411 ppm in 2019.
At 3ºC, the carbon cycle is predicted to reverse, with more carbon being emitted into the atmosphere than is taken in by the biosphere, leading to a self-reinforcing global warming cycle that will lead to temperature further rising to a catastrophic 6ºC. The last time the Earth warmed to this degree, 95% of all living species went extinct.
The Paris goal of limiting global warming to 2ºC is a plan for climate catastrophe. As James Hansen and colleagues have demonstrated with climate modeling and paleoclimate data, 2°C could be irreversible, leading to a further rise to 3-4ºC due to climate system inertia triggered by tipping points of self-reinforcing warming changes. Even the more ambitious nominal UN goal 1.5ºC warming threatens to trigger these tipping points.
Hansen has also shown how it is still possible to bring atmospheric carbon and global warming back to 350 ppm and 1ºC by 2100 if the world rapidly reduces greenhouse gas emissions and draws down atmospheric carbon by afforestation and the restoration of living soils through organic agriculture. The first step to reach those goals by 2100 should be for the rich countries to undertake a crash program to zero out greenhouse gas emissions and go to 100% clean energy by 2030.
A coalition of African, European, Latin American, and Pacific Island states pushed for increased emission reduction commitments. However, the COP requires consensus in its decisions. The Association of Small Island States blasted Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Russia, and the United States for blocking more ambitious commitments. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement hung over the COP 25, adding to confusion, division, and the resentment of many countries at the US still throwing its weight around against real commitments to cutting emissions.
The US Undermines the COP
Even though every country on earth pledged to work to “avoid dangerous climate change” as part of COP, global greenhouse gas emissions have been accelerating since it began, except for during the depths of the Great Recession. Even since the much-heralded Paris climate agreement, GHG emissions have been increasing.
The US is in no small part responsible for the failure of the COP. It has consistently opposed a climate treaty with enforceable emissions reductions, the desired outcome that the global climate action movement and a majority of the world’s nations have worked for.
In 2009 at the Copenhagen COP, the newly-elected Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, burst uninvited into a side meeting of leaders of the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) who were trying to come to agreement on emission reduction goals. Obama arrogantly announced upon entering the room, “Are you ready for me?” Obama insisted that they broker a deal they could then impose on the rest of the COP. The US sponsored deal would replace legally-binding emissions reductions commitments that were hoped for by most countries at the COP. In its place would be a mere acknowledgement of the scientific basis for limiting global warming to 2ºC without even making 2ºC a goal. The side deal also announced a Green Climate Fund to help poor countries reduce their emissions and mitigate climate change damages, though without any binding commitment to fund it.
The side deal the US insisted on got agreement from the BASIC countries as the best they could get from the US at Copenhagen. Obama then announced in a news conference the “deal” that only five countries had seen at that point. Obama then immediately jetted back to Washington to beat an incoming snowstorm. After much criticism and complaints by the countries of the EU and the Global South, the side deal was grudgingly accepted. The whole sordid episode prompted US Greenpeaceleader Phil Radford to call Obama “the man who killed Copenhagen.” In Paris in 2015, the US took the same position that enforceable limits were unacceptable. The resulting Paris climate agreement only called for the voluntary limits, which as we have noted currently add up to 3ºC global warming if they were to be implemented, which they have not.
The COP meetings have also been infested with fossil fuel corporations holding lavish side events to lobby and co-opt participants of both the governments and the NGOs attending.
COP has been unable to enforce the climate justice commitments embodied in the Green Climate Fund. The rich countries that have emitted most of the greenhouse gases have failed to fund it. Rich countries said the would to fund it at $100 billion a year by 2020, but have raised only $8 billion since it started a decade ago. The new pledges leading into this year’s COP came to $9.8 billion, which remains a tiny amount compared to the need. The US, the largest cumulative carbon emitter, both historically and currently on a per capita basis, owes the biggest climate debt. Yet the Trump administration has reneged on $2 billion that was previously pledged by the Obama administration.
The US Must Set an Example
Obama proudly boasted to Texas oil executives last year that he made the US the number one producer of fossil fuels on the planet. Trump has continued to push the expansion of coal, oil, and gas production and consumption. Trump calls climate change a hoax and the Democrats act as if it is a hoax.
I have put forward a detailed Ecosocialist Green New Deal plan and budget for climate action and economic justice. Its Green Economy Reconstruction Program would transform all sectors of the US economy to zero greenhouse gas emissions—not only energy production (28% of emissions), but also the transportation (29%), manufacturing (22%) residential and commercial buildings (12%), and agriculture (9%). The Ecosocialist Green New Deal would provide for a just transition and environmental justice through its Economic Bill of Rights that would guarantee jobs, incomes above poverty, affordable housing, comprehensive health care, lifelong tuition-free public education, and a secure retirement.
The transition phase will also generate a huge number of American jobs building new alternative energy and transportation infrastructure, millions of them. We estimate that the Ecosocialist Green New Deal that I’m proposing will create 38 million new jobs and create a green products factory in every Congressional district now dependant on the military industrial complex to build useless bombs!
The Ecosocialist Green New Deal would move the US to a peace economy by ending wars for oil and converting most of the military/industrial complex, the world’s largest institutional carbon emitter, to civilian production powered by clean energy. In the budget for the Ecosocialist Green New Deal that I am proposing, much of it is funded by 75% cuts in military spending. It commits $100 billion a year of those savings from military spending cuts to a Global Green New Deal to help poor countries jump out of the 19th century fossil fuel age into the 21st century solar age. That kind of positive help for poor countries will do far more to promote peace with the planet and among its peoples than the current US global military empire.