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The wrong climate strategy of the United Nations
by Daniel Tanuro
Wednesday Dec 15th, 2021 4:49 PM
To stay below 1.5 °C, net global CO2 emissions must be reduced by 59 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.
80.2 percent of these emissions are due to the burning of fossil fuels.
In 2019, these fuels still met 84.3 percent of humanity's energy needs.
The wrong climate strategy of the United Nations
More renewables... and more emissions
by Daniel Tanuro
[This article published in Dec 2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.sozonline.de/2021/12/die-falsche-klimastrategie-der-vereinten-nationen/.]

The promised "climate neutrality" does not mean a "global phase-out" of fossil fuels.

Despite all the lofty promises, CO2 emissions continue to rise. The biggest polluters are simply betting that by 2050, or even 2060, technologies will be ready to "recapture" the carbon dioxide emitted.

The breakthrough of renewable energy is expected to provide a way out of the climate crisis. Their advance is indeed real, especially in the field of electricity generation. Over the past twenty years, the share of renewables in the global energy mix has increased by an average of 13.2 percent per year. The price of a green kilowatt-hour has become very affordable (especially for onshore wind and photovoltaics). According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), more than 80 percent of investment in the power sector will go to renewables over the next decade.

However, it is completely wrong to conclude that "the global process of phasing out fossil fuels is already in full swing," as the European Commission recently wrote. Rather, this statement is an outright lie. The share of fossil fuels in the global energy mix declined only imperceptibly from 2009 to 2019 - from 80.3 percent to 80.2 percent. Coal's share declined by only 0.3 percent per year on average from 1999 to 2019; natural gas's share increased by 2.6 percent from 2014-2019; and oil's share increased by 1.5 percent. So there is not the slightest hint of the beginning of a "global phase-out" of fossil fuels! Rather, global CO2 emissions continue to rise inexorably (with the exception of the 2008 crisis and the 2020 pandemic).
Why are there more renewables and more fossil emissions at the same time? Because renewables are not replacing fossil fuels, they are just a growing share of global energy consumption. This consumption is growing with capital accumulation, especially with increasing digitalization and the complexity of international value chains, which are two very energy-intensive dynamics.

There are two sides to bourgeois climate policy. On one side, capitalist governments compete to make nice declarations about "energy transition" and "carbon neutrality based on the best science." But implementation is more about favoring the companies that rush into the green technology market than saving the climate. That's why these same governments put the brakes on "transition" whenever it's important not to jeopardize GDP growth. The law of profit takes precedence over the laws of physics.

Rising energy prices
Tensions over energy supply in China have made this clear. China, an emerging power, is trying to assert itself as a global geostrategic leader. This ambition is inextricably linked to "responsible" climate policies such as green capitalism. Xi Jiping promised at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year that his country's emissions would fall by 2030; a little later, he even added that China would stop building coal-fired power plants abroad.
The ink on that was not yet dry when Beijing increased coal production in Inner Mongolia by 10 percent! Why? Because the "ambitious" climate goal and the post-pandemic recovery coincided. Orders for goods from China are flowing in, leading to a relative shortage of electricity. Russian exports, especially of gas, are not making up for the hole. So prices are rising...threatening the global recovery. Stagflation is looming. As a result, Beijing is reopening its coal mines.
The Financial Times is clear on this: "Like other energy markets facing shortages, China must 'perform a balancing act' by using coal to keep activity going while showing it is serious about its decarbonization goals. On the eve of COP26, this sounds awkward [sic!], but the short-term reality is that China and many others have no choice but to increase coal use to meet electricity demand."

It's worth mentioning that competitors in the U.S. and Europe have been careful not to criticize the Chinese decision. This is because an uncontrolled rise in energy prices in the workshop of the capitalist world would have cascading consequences for the whole world. The Chinese leadership is also very pragmatic: although it has imposed an embargo on Australian coal to punish Canberra for its attitude towards Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc., it turns a blind eye when Australian cargo ships unload their coal in Chinese ports....

The bottom line: The climate messages of capitalist politicians are not to be trusted, even if they cloak themselves in the garb of "communism". In the end, capital has the last word, not the climate, in China as elsewhere.

In the name of "ecological transition": more fossil energy!
The tensions in the energy market illustrate the irresolvable contradictions of the capitalist "energy transition". China is the world's largest supplier of photovoltaic panels (most of which are made in Xinjiang using forced labor). It is also the main producer of "rare earths," which are essential to many green technologies but require large amounts of energy to mine and convert. Capitalist profit logic leads to an obvious absurdity: more coal must be burned to maintain the profits on which the transition to renewables depends!

Since China is the "workshop of the world", the problem is immediately global. How will this affect overall climate policy? COP26 is supposed to "set its sights higher." That may succeed on paper. But there is still a long way to go.

A recent UN report points out that fifteen countries (including the U.S., Norway and Russia) are projecting fossil fuel production in 2030 to be more than double the limit agreed to in the Paris Agreement! Globally, it would then be exceeded by 240 percent for coal, 57 percent for oil and 71 percent for gas!

The Financial Times quotes an expert who rejects the view that "coal shortages and energy price increases are only a short-term and cyclical problem in China." Rather, it shows "the long-term structural challenges of transitioning to cleaner energy systems." In this, she is correct. The structural challenge is this: There is no more wiggle room; emissions must be brought down immediately and radically. It is therefore not enough to say in the abstract that renewables can replace fossil fuels. We need to say in concrete terms how we will compensate for the additional emissions caused by having to use fossil fuels to produce the renewable energy converters, especially in the initial phase.

Technically, this challenge can only be met by reducing overall production and transportation. Socially, this solution can only be envisioned through a massive reduction in necessary labor time and redistribution of wealth. Both sides of the solution, the technical and the social, are totally incompatible with the capitalist logic of market competition. It is in this light that the promised "carbon neutrality" must be examined.

"Carbon neutrality" is the wrong way to go
Since Biden took office, the world's biggest polluters have declared that they will achieve "carbon neutrality" by 2050 (Russia and China by 2060) through various kinds of "green deals." However, this is only to lull public opinion.

In theory, the concept is based on the idea: because it is impossible to completely eliminate all environmentally harmful greenhouse gas emissions, the "rest" must be compensated for by technically removing carbon from the atmosphere. In practice, the capitalists and their political representatives then conclude that they can go to hell with urgent drastic emission reductions because one day in the future a technological deus ex machina will remove not one "remainder" but 5, 10 or even 20 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year (current global emissions: about 40 gigatons). Thus, the EU and the U.S. would need to reduce their emissions by at least 65 percent by 2030 to stay below 1.5°C and meet their historic responsibilities. Under a strategy of "carbon neutrality," they would only need to reduce by 55 and 50 to 52 percent, respectively.

This strategy is based on a completely crazy idea: the so-called temporary overshoot scenario. It consists of letting the temperature rise above 1.5 °C and betting that "science" will later cool the Earth with "negative emission technologies" (NETs). But the fact is:

Most of these NETs are only at the prototype or demonstration stage.
We are already close to the tipping point of the Greenland ice sheet - and it contains enough ice to raise sea level by seven meters.

It is therefore entirely possible that NETs, assuming they work, will be deployed after a massive process of ice breakup has already begun. In that case, the "temporary" overshoot will lead to a permanent disaster....

But let's assume that the temporary exceedance of 1.5 degrees remains very limited: What would the world then look like, all disasters aside, under the "growth strategy" of "carbon neutrality"? The proposals of the International Energy Agency (IEA) give an impression of this. They are sobering:
- To achieve "zero net emissions" in 2050, we would need twice as many nuclear power plants, according to the IEA.
- We would have to accept that one-fifth of the world's energy would continue to come from burning fossil fuels (emitting 7.6 gigatons of CO2 per year).
- We would have to capture this 7.6 gigatons of CO2 each year and store it underground in geological reservoirs (whose impermeability to water cannot be guaranteed).
- We would need to use 410 million hectares of land for industrial monocultures of energy biomass - equivalent to one-third of permanent agricultural land.
- We would need to use this biomass in place of fossil fuels in power plants and other combustion facilities (again, capturing emitted CO2 and storing it underground).
- We would produce "blue" hydrogen from coal (again, the CO2 must be captured), in the hope that industrial electrolysis would later make it possible to produce "green" hydrogen at a competitive price.
- We would have to double the number of large dams.
- We would have to continue destroying everything, even the moon, to extract the "rare earths" that are essential for the gigantic investments in "green technologies." Who would want to live in such a world?
Plan and planning
The IEA has a plan, others have plans, but there is no question of planning. Taboo. The neoliberal order is to coordinate the "transition" to "carbon neutrality" - through taxes, incentives and a global emissions trading system. The EU is at the forefront of this with its "Fit for 55" plan. The EU pioneered emissions trading in its major industrial sectors, and it will extend it to construction, agriculture and mobility. The worse insulated the house, the more polluting the car, the more the price will rise for consumers.

So those with lower incomes will be disadvantaged. Economies of the South will also be penalized by "carbon offsets" and CO2 taxes at the borders - and so will their populations. And all this for a plan that will not even meet its inadequate target, unattainable through market mechanisms.

A 52 or 55 percent reduction in emissions is better than nothing, you might say. No doubt, but plans like "Fit for 55" are not even "going in the right direction" (contrary to what some experts say). Climatically, it doesn't get us any closer to the goal of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees: there's a big difference between 55 and 65 percent reduction by 2030, and once we're on the wrong track, the gap can't be closed after that, as the extra CO2 has accumulated in the atmosphere. Socially, plans like "Fit for 55" also go in the wrong direction because they mean an intensification of colonial domination mechanisms, economic exploitation of nature, and neoliberal policies on the backs of dependent workers. We have no more time to make mistakes. In order to go "in the right direction," we must set the right course from the first step.

In fact, a question of mathematics
Greta Thunberg has spoken of "a simple question of mathematics," quite rightly. The numbers in the climate equation are indeed perfectly clear:

To stay below 1.5 °C, net global CO2 emissions must be reduced by 59 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.
80.2 percent of these emissions are due to the burning of fossil fuels.
In 2019, these fuels still met 84.3 percent of humanity's energy needs.
Fossil infrastructures (mines, pipelines, refineries, gas terminals, power plants, etc.) tie up capital investments for forty years.

The value of the fossil fuel energy system is estimated at one-fifth of the world's gross domestic product. But this system, whether it has paid for itself or not, must be eliminated.
With 3 billion people lacking basic necessities, and the richest 10 percent of the population accounting for more than 50 percent of the world's CO2 emissions, the "simple math" inevitably leads to a series of policy consequences:

- The catastrophe can only be stopped by a two-pronged movement that reduces global production and puts it at the service of real human needs, democratically determined while respecting natural limits.
- This dual movement necessarily includes the abolition of useless or harmful production and superfluous transportation, and the expropriation of the monopolies in the energy, financial and agricultural sectors.
- The capitalists, of course, do not want this conclusion: in their opinion, it is criminal to destroy capital even to avoid a monstrous human and ecological catastrophe.

So the alternative is dramatically simple: either a revolution will allow humanity to liquidate capitalism in order to reappropriate the conditions of production of its existence, or capitalism will liquidate millions of innocent people in order to continue its barbaric course on a mutilated and perhaps uninhabitable planet.

The article is an excerpt from the introduction to the new book by Daniel Tanuro and Michael Löwy: Luttes écologiques et social dans le monde. Allier le vert et le rouge [Ecological and social struggles in the world. Connecting the green with the red]. Paris: Editions Textuel, 2021.

Daniel Tanuro is an agricultural engineer, Marxist ecologist, and author of Climate Crisis and Capitalism (Cologne: Neuer ISP Verlag, 2015).

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