World leaders will debate the “next crucial steps in the climate change process” at United Nations (UN) talks in Madrid next week.
The Cop25 negotiations will see officials from hundreds of countries argue about how to implement previous climate agreements, the 1990 Kyoto Protocol and the 2016 Paris Accords.
What happens in Madrid matters. And what happens in Glasgow next year matters even more—at this summit officials will log how they are implementing the Paris agreements.
Both summits are an opportunity for activists to put the climate emergency to front and pile pressure on our rulers to act. But are bodies such as the UN and international agreements between capitalist states the answer to climate catastrophe?
It can appear progressive that politicians are willing to sit down and negotiate treaties to slow down climate catastrophe.
Their talk of cooperation can seem like an alternative to the nationalist rhetoric of right wingers such as Donald Trump, who pulled the US out of the Paris Accords.
But international agreements have a poor record of delivering the action needed to tackle climate change.
Touted as “ground breaking” at the time, the Paris deal doesn’t offer any serious chance of taking on climate chaos. Some 180 states promised to “aspire” to keep global temperatures “well below” 2 degrees.
But since then the UN’s own scientific body—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—has argued that 1.5 degrees offers a much better chance of avoiding the worst-case scenario.
And the agreements over carbon emissions reached after two weeks of tense negotiations weren’t legally binding anyway. The agreement included the “carbon budget”—the amount that scientists said could be burnt without tipping the temperature over the 2 degree level.
But politicians set their carbon budget at 2.5 times higher than a level that would only give us a 66 percent chance of keeping the temperature low enough.
They promised to review countries emissions contributions every five years. But it took three years for politicians to even agree how to record emissions at last year’s summit in Poland.
The toothless nature of the agreements isn’t just down to politicians’ incompetence.
These summits aren’t based on an altruistic desire for international solidarity, but a tool for maintaining “business as usual” under capitalism.
Capitalist competition means that the fossil fuels giants and other corporations always try to maximise profits at the expense of workers and the planet.
If they didn’t, they would fall behind and a rival would take their place.
Under capitalism the state isn’t a neutral or democratically accountable body that can be used by whatever party people elect.
They are vast bureaucracies that look out for the interests of their own capitalists.
And like capitalist firms, capitalist states compete with one another for world markets and resources. So international negotiations bring together officials from capitalist states whose job it is to further their own interests of the global stage.
While these states have rival interests, they are united by a common goal of solidifying the capitalist system as a whole.
This means the ruling class sometimes looks to international bodies to further their interests.
But these international committees of the capitalist class have a bloody history of protecting their members.
The League of Nations—forerunner to the UN—is often presented as an attempt to build peace after the horrors of the First World War. The rulers of the US, Britain, France and the other victors wanted stability after the slaughter and the revolutionary wave that the war unleashed.
But the Western powers wanted a peace where they could still dominate weaker countries.
So, for instance, the League played a critical role in the European imperialist powers carve-up of the Middle East after 1918.
The UN has backed imperialist war with resolutions and troops on the ground, sometimes under the guise of “peacekeeping missions”. When powerful states disagree with UN decisions, they are willing to ignore them or just bypass the body.
One example is the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And how many UN resolutions have been passed about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians?
Yet US imperialism’s most important ally in the Middle East gets away with it.
Rather than reining in the powerful or ironing out global competition, international bodies reflect the inequality in the world system.
For instance, the UN climate bodies are deeply divided over how to tackle production of carbon emissions. It reflects how the shared interest of maintaining “businesses as usual” can come into conflict with the vested interests of each individual state.
Countries in the Global South, such as China or India, are industrialising at a much faster rate than others now.
Their development was partly held back by Western domination, but now they are catching up.
And states that industrialised earlier such as the US and Britain say that they are unwilling to cut back on carbon emissions until others do. They don’t want to risk falling behind rivals in the global economy.
In Britain the Climate Change Act 2008 commits the British government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 1990 levels. The bill said this should happen by 2050.
But instead of working to actually reduce emissions, government bodies massage the figures to make it appear as though this is happening.
The Committee on Climate Change claims that in 2018 emissions were 44 percent lower than 1990.
But that’s because their figures don’t include emissions from international aviation, shipping and imports—all huge contributors.
This dynamic is why decades of climate negotiations can look like the world’s most deadly game of pass the buck. Inger Anderson, the UN Environment Programme executive director, explained, “The world’s energy supply remains dominated by coal, oil and gas.
“They drive emissions levels that are inconsistent with climate goals.”
But it’s no surprise that emissions continue to rise when the agreement in Paris didn’t mention gas, oil and coal reserves. Fossil fuel production isn’t stopping, or even stagnating.
It’s growing—and one of the key sites lies just a few miles off the coast of Scotland.
Ten oil companies are pouring £6.8 billion worth of investment into six projects in the North Sea.
Mim Black from Extinction Rebellion Scotland blasted the plans, which are set for approval in the next year. “They stubbornly and greedily continue to pump as much oil as they possibly can out of the North Sea in pursuit of private profit,” they said.
“If this greed is allowed to continue, we face a future of climate apartheid, where the richest can afford to protect themselves from the worst effects of climate change and the rest suffer hugely.”
Mike Coffin, an analyst at the Carbon Tracker, said, “Companies who have expressed an ambition to align with the Paris agreement would be contradicting that ambition with their decisions.”
The projections make for gloomy reading. But, increasingly desperate warnings from climate scientists has helped spark a much bigger and more combative climate crisis movement.
The think tank has outlined plans for how oil giants would have to make huge cuts to their production by 2040 to keep emissions in line with Paris.
It said that BP would have to slash production by 25 percent, with other firms facing a cut of up to 85 percent.
And it said the fossil fuel industry as a whole should reduce its production by more than a third by 2040.
“The industry is trying to have its cake and eat it—reassuring shareholders and appearing supportive of Paris while still producing more fossil fuels,” said Coffin.
The UN admitted last that week that the worlds’ richest nations were set to sail through the targets set in Paris.
It outlined ten nations that had plans in plans to extract fossil fuels at a rate 50-120 percent higher than that proposed in the agreement.
The UN analyses the plans of Britain, China, US, Russia, India, Australia, Indonesia, Canada, Germany and Norway.
Under current plans, these ten countries would lead to 39 gigatonnes of carbon emissions—53 percent higher than what is needed to reduce temperature rise to 2 degrees.
And it’s estimated that the level is some 120 percent higher than what the maximum for 2 degrees would be. The research also said it was 280 percent over the limit of an amount that could limit warming to 1.5 degrees.
The projections make for gloomy reading. But the increasingly desperate warnings from climate scientists has helped spark a much bigger and more combative climate crisis movement.
It saw seven million people strike together to demand immediate action to save our world in September.
And the occupations hosted by Extinction Rebellion throughout central London have raised people’s sights that it is possible to resist our rules and fight for the planet.
Strikes, protests and occupations have won some gains.
Action by ordinary people, who have the power to shut down their system, is the way for winning genuine change. Waiting for the rich and powerful to reach an agreement is sure to result to the worst-case scenario for climate catastrophe.
The ruling class share the most important interest of all—the desire to keep their wealth and power. It’s this interest that is their guiding light and that prevents them from tackling the polluting firms destroying our world.
The real solution lies in building a world that has ordinary people making meaningful decisions about their lives.