Elaine Graham-Leigh looks at the results of the Cop27 conference in Egypt, and argues that lack of action on climate change is not accidental, but a result of failings in the system
The Cop26 talks in Glasgow in November 2021 were dubbed a fragile win by the then Cop President, Alok Sharma. The year of climate extremes which followed, with 33 million people displaced by flooding in Pakistan and China registering the greatest heat anomaly ever recorded have underlined how far that claimed win was more spin than substance. In reality, the pledges made at Cop26 had us on track for a disastrous 2.7oC of warming. The claimed victory was on the basis that it nevertheless did the groundwork for countries to come back with detailed proposals which would both confirm and extend the pledges made in Glasgow.
Predictably, though, that hasn’t happened. As one commentator confirmed, ‘nothing has been implemented.’ The UN Environment Programme called 2022 ‘a wasted year’. The detailed pledges which have been submitted have only shaved a predicted 1% off global emissions by 2030, and that’s if they are kept, which is of course very much not a given. We’re still on track for between 2.4oC and 2.7oC of warming by the end of the century. The contrast between the repeated failure to call for the phasing out of all fossil fuels (the Cop27 statement echoes Cop26’s in calling only for the phasing down of coal) and the climate catastrophes we’re seeing across the world, could hardly be more clear.
Campaigners at Cop27 fought hard for the loss and damage fund for poorer countries facing climate disasters, and extracting this from the wealthy countries was indeed impressive. It’s worth remembering though that at the moment the fund is a promise with no actual money in it. Whether countries do actually pay in what they’ve promised remains to be seen.
The finger of blame for Cop27’s failure has been pointed largely at fossil-fuel company lobbyists, more than 600 of whom were at Sharm-el-Sheikh, as if the problem is simply politicians being too weak to withstand the blandishments of a few ‘elderly billionaires’. It is certainly true that the largest fossil-fuel companies, having profited to the tune of £150 billion this year, wanted to ensure the flow of profits would continue. They weren’t the only industry lobbyists there by a long way, as big agriculture was also out in force.
It is becoming clear though that this Cop has also been a centre for fossil-fuel deals between governments, such as a new deal organised by the US for Egypt to supply Europe with gas in exchange for renewable energy investments. There were clean-energy deals being done as well, but the presence in force of the fossil-fuel industry underlines how, post Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the focus is on replacing Russian gas with fossil fuels rather than on a rapid move into renewables.
At the same time, in the UK, we’ve had a particularly clear demonstration of how the Tories just don’t think the climate crisis is worthy of their attention. Rishi Sunak, of course, was not originally intending to attend the talks at all, until he was shamed into a U-turn. When he gave a statement in the House of Commons about Cop27 and climate policies, his cabinet ministers showed how seriously they take the issue by, as Private Eye put it, making ‘a stampede for the exits’, so that by the end, only Penny Mordaunt was left (Eye 1586).
Sunak may have upheld the ban on fracking, but the autumn statement was light on any serious measures for tackling the climate crisis. The energy efficiency measures announced don’t come into effect until 2025, and there was nothing at all about onshore wind or solar power. At the same time, it is possible that the windfall tax on energy generators could end up falling more heavily on renewable generators than on the fossil-fuel firms.
The confirmation that the government is pressing ahead with the Sizewell C nuclear power station has been welcomed by some as a step away from fossil-fuel electricity generation, but nothing has changed in the nature of nuclear power since the spring, when Johnson claimed to be ‘bringing nuclear home’. It is still a technology inescapably linked to nuclear weapons, and its modern incarnations are also marred by severe difficulties in actually getting them online. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, nuclear is no sort of solution.
All this emphasises how the lack of action on the climate crisis stems from the system. Since Nicholas Stern in 2006, there have been voices from within the ruling class calling for climate action, but when you have figures like the Executive Director of the UN Environment programme saying that ‘only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster’, the strain between the need to act and the inability to do so is evident.
Sunak justified his initial decision to stay away from Cop27 by saying that he had to concentrate on the economic crisis at home. This didn’t go down as well as he had doubtless hoped, not least because it was predicated on the erroneous idea that the crises are separate. There is a wide understanding that the extreme weather, soaring food and energy prices and inflation are part of the same systemic crisis.
The Cop26 talks posed the question, that if governments around the world can’t address what they themselves are now agreeing is an existential threat, what are they good for? The question of what we, faced with the failure of governments to even come close to addressing the climate crisis, can do about it is asked and answered on the streets and in the workplaces.
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Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate Crisis. Her sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.
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