There are three reasons Cop26 proved such a spectacular debacle: A planet-wide collective action problem over “free-riding”. A global coordination failure. And… capitalism!
“Make no mistake, the money is here, if the world wants to use it,” said Mark Carney, the former Bank of England Governor who today serves as UN climate envoy while also representing an alliance of financiers sitting on a pile of $130 trillion worth of assets. So, what does the world want? If only humanity had the power to organise a global poll based on one-human-one-vote, such a species-wide referendum would undoubtedly deliver a clear answer: “Do whatever it takes to stop emitting carbon now!” Instead, we have COP26 and a decision-making process culminating into the colossal fiasco currently unfolding in the fine city of Glasgow.
The failure of COP26 reflects our failed democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. President Biden arrived in Glasgow as his people back in Washington were pushing through Congress his infrastructure bill – an exercise in corrupt politics that decoupled the bill from any serious investment in renewables, dropped polluter taxes, maintained oil subsidies, and funded an array of carbon emitting infrastructure such as new roads, airports etc. Meanwhile in the European Union, the rhetoric may be a bright green but the reality is a dark brown – with even cash-rich Germany commissioning new lignite-fired power stations and looking forward to copious amounts of natural gas promised by Mr Putin in exchange of green-lighting his Nordstream2 gas pipeline.
Europe’s failure is doubly sad because if the EU is capable of one thing that’s the creation of a paneuropean Renewable Energy Union which, alas, our leaders are not even debating. And as if it were not enough that the US and the EU are betraying the green transition within their jurisdictions, they are fermenting a New Cold War against China. Yes, China is a heavy polluter. But, setting aside the inconvenient fact that China is already investing in climate change amelioration more than the US and the EU combined ($3.4 trillion over this decade), the West’s choice to target China now is inconsistent with the vital US-EU-China common front against climate disaster.
Three are the reasons COP26 is proving a spectacular debacle. The first reason is a planet-wide free-riding trap. Large businesses, as well as states, take a leaf out of St Augustine’s prayer “Lord please make me chaste but not just yet”. Everyone prefers a planet on which no one emits carbon to a planet that sizzles. But, everyone also prefers to delay paying the cost of transition to non-polluting practices whatever everyone else does: If the rest of the planet do the right thing, the planet is saved even if you selfishly delay your costly conversion to environmental probity. And if the rest of the planet do not do the right thing, why be the sucker who does?
The second reason is a global coordination failure. Mark Carney is, in this sense, correct: Yes, mountain ranges of cash are lying idly in the global financial system, its ultra-wealthy owners keen to invest it in low-carbon activities. But, a private investment in, say, green hydrogen, will only return profits if many other investors invest in it too. But they will only do so if they think that others like them believe that most investors like them will think that everyone else of their ilk will… invest in green hydrogen. And so they sit around waiting! Meanwhile, corporations, communities and states join this waiting game, unwilling to take the risk of committing to green hydrogen until Big Business does. Tragically, there is no global coordinator to match the available money, technologies and needs.
The third reason is… capitalism. From its outset, it gained pace through the incessant commodification of everything, beginning with land, labour and technology before spreading to genetically modified organisms, even a woman’s womb or an asteroid. As capitalism’s realm spread, priceless goods turned into pricey commodities. The owners of the machinery and the land necessary for the commodification of goods profited while the rest progressed from the wretchedness of the 19th century’s working class to the soothing fantasies of mindless petit-bourgeois consumerism.
Everything that was good was commodified – including much of our humanity. And all the bads that the same production process generated, were simply released into the atmosphere. To power the capitalist juggernaut, carbon stored for millennia in trees and under the surface was plundered with only the private costs of mine, land and factory owners to slow down its use. For two centuries immense wealth, and corresponding oodles of human misery, was produced by exploitative processes depleting ‘free’natural capital, carbon in particular. Workers around the world are now paying the cost to Nature that the capitalist market never bore.
Free-marketeers would like us to believe that business has yielded to science and is, thus, ready and willing to step into the void of government inaction. We must not believe this for a moment. Yes, Mark Carney is right: The money for the belated green transition is here and it is ample. Those who possess it will, undoubtedly, invest it to supply, say, green hydrogen if we, society, pay them to do so. But, at the same time, they shall not cease voluntarily from producing other stuff whose production entails releasing into the air the next stored carbon ton.
This is why polluters adore NET ZERO targets. Because they are a brilliant cover-up for not restricting emissions. In exchange for quicksilver, non-verifiable offsets, it gives them licence to continue to plunder the planet’s remaining stored carbon until the point comes when their marginal private cost surpasses their unit revenue. By cynically placing NET ZERO at its centre, COP26 became nothing more than an expensive cover-up for continued emissions. And so, hiding behind COP26, the great and the good lie to the young, lie to the vulnerable and even lie to themselves that the “money is there” to be invested in the planet’s salvation.
What needs to be done? Two things at the very least. First, a complete shutdown of coalmines and new oil and gas rigs. If governments can lock us down to save lives during a pandemic, they can shut down the fossil fuel industry to save humanity. Second, we need a global carbon tax, to increase the relative price of everything that releases more carbon, and from which all proceeds should be returned to the poorer members of our species.
To earn a shot at rising to the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, we must first confront both the funders and the owners of the fossil fuel industries. Though this clash will not guarantee our future, it is a necessary condition for us to have one.
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