Climate change – a complicated debate

Bill Woodrow, Hydrogen, 1994


The G20 meeting and the challenges of COP26

With humanity navigating the turbulent waters of global warming, world leaders from nearly 200 countries will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, from October 31st to November 12th, convened by the UN to discuss how to stop the ship from sinking.

cold and hot war

“There is no greater challenge for our country or for our world than climate change,” said then-presidential candidate Joe Biden in his government program, recalls Jacob Helberg, senior adviser to the geopolitics and technology program at Stanford University. . Helberg is a member of the strategic technologies program at CSIS [Center for Strategic and International Studies], a conservative Washington-based center for strategic studies, where he recently published a book – The Wires of War – about Chinese technologies and threats to US security. He also shares the leadership of a working group at the Brookings Institution on Chinese foreign policy and strategy.

In an article published last week, entitled “A Green Deal at COP26 Cannot Be a Green Light for China,” he warned that the US administration would face pressure to make diplomatic concessions to China in return for President Xi Jinping's cooperation on the matter. environmental. For Helberg, the United States is already facing a new Cold War, “which could well turn into a hot one”. Winning it should be "your top priority." If Biden gives in to China, in his opinion, “it will expose the United States to a risk as great as climate change: losing an increasingly intense conflict with Beijing”.

It doesn't just perceive it as a new Cold War. “The danger of real war is also increasing,” he says. He cites recent hypersonic missile tests and a decade-long military development that have given China the world's largest naval and ballistic missile force. “China is trying to alter the balance of forces in Asia by militarizing the South China Sea, threatening democratic Taiwan, exercising violent coercion on the border with India, and other initiatives.”

For Helberg, an agreement on environmental issues at the cost of appeasing relations with China “could damage the image of the United States as a superpower and reinforce the image, both in Asia and in the rest of the world, that Washington is not serious about its policies to confront Chinese power”. “America cannot send that message right now. As the Pentagon's war game shows, the United States must rapidly increase its military capabilities in the Western Pacific or run the grave risk of losing the Taiwan Strait war, with devastating consequences for the entire region.” In his opinion, the United States could not lead the way in dealing with any global issue, including climate change, if it did not protect the international system, which it has led since the end of World War II, from the Chinese threat.

a treacherous question

It's a worldview that, once shared by American political leaders, could lead us down a dead end (or an alley with only one way out). quoting Matthew Pottinger, national security adviser in the Trump administration, Helberg believes that the United States has been slow to respond to this new challenge. Considering it makes the climate change debate a tricky, treacherous issue.

The government could make concessions to China to reach a new global climate deal. He is concerned about a letter, signed by 40 “progressive” organizations, in which they state that “nothing less than the future of the planet depends on the end of this new Cold War between the United States and China”. They ask Biden and Congress to avoid the predominance of an antagonistic position in relations with China, and to prioritize multilateralism, diplomacy and cooperation to face the “existential threat posed by global warming”.

Not only that. They also recall that the United States is much richer than China, and is also “the greatest carbon emitter in history, responsible for a staggering quarter of all emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution”. By contrast, "China's historical emissions are half those of the United States, and per capita emissions in China are less than half the levels in the United States."[I]. For Alexander Ward, an analyst at the magazine Politico, the letter reflects the confrontation between two democratic currents: a “progressive” one, which promotes cooperation with China on issues such as climate change, and a “moderate” one, supporting cooperation, without neglecting confrontation.

"Sorry Boris, but without China the COP is a failure”

A different view is that of William Nordhaus, professor of economics at Yale and winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economics. He considers COP26 “very important”, the largest summit ever organized by Great Britain, a “turning point for humanity ”.

COP26 can only be a success if the super-polluters are present: “China, USA, India, Russia and Japan have to put aside their differences to face the problem of global emissions”, he says. But he does not view this with optimism. "I suspect COP26 will be the site of a global confrontation, with Mother Earth held hostage."

Neither Chinese President Xi Jinping nor Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the conference. Neither did the new Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida. Nordhaus associates these absences with the resistance of countries with many interests in fossil fuels, raw materials or meat production to possible summit agreements. This is not necessarily a position against carbon emission controls, but one of confrontation with Western democracies, since both China and Russia have set the goal of completely eliminating their carbon emissions between 2050 and 2060.

Nordhaus published a study on the reasons for the failure of carbon emission reduction policies. The failure is due, he explains, to the low price of carbon. According to the World Bank, the price per ton of carbon dioxide in 2019 was only around two dollars, which shows why efforts to reduce emissions have been so ineffective.

To reduce these emissions and reach the goal of zero emissions, the world economy would have to replace much of its energy infrastructure. Fossil fuels accounted for 84% of the world's energy consumption in 2019. Reducing emissions to zero over the next four decades would require between $100 to $300 trillion, says Nordhaus.

green colonialism

There are other points of view. Vijaya Ramachandran, director of Energy and Development at the Breakthrough Institute, a research center on energy, conservation, food and agriculture in Oakland, Calif., considers the environmental policies of rich countries to be “green colonialism”.

He cites the case of Norway, a major exporter of fossil fuels, whose government he accuses of trying to stop some of the world's poorest countries from producing their own natural gas. "With seven other Nordic and Baltic countries, Norway is pressuring the World Bank to stop funding natural gas production in Africa and elsewhere as early as 2025."

Norway is “the richest country most dependent on fossil fuels in the world”. Oil and gas represent 41% of its exports, 14% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and between 6% and 7% of employment. It has the largest hydrocarbon reserves in Europe and is the third largest exporter of natural gas in the world. What they propose is that the bank finance the production of clean energy in the developing world, such as green hydrogen, or through the installation of intelligent microgrids for energy production.

The idea that some of the poorest people in the world could use green hydrogen – arguably the most complex and expensive technology available for energy production – and build, in a few years, smart microgrids on the scale needed, “is absurd”. Let's call it what it is, says Ramachandran: Norway is proposing a green version of colonialism. The problem is not just Norway. "It's the rich world telling the global South to stay poor and not develop, which cannot be done without a huge increase in energy use."

Hypocrisy, in Ramachandran's opinion, is not unique to Norway. President Joe Biden, he says, has just asked energy suppliers to increase production to satisfy US demand. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also set ambitious climate targets, but has given German businesspeople enough time – almost 20 years – to move away from using coal as an energy source.

More than 400 million people live on less than two dollars a day in Africa. Their needs are too great to be met only by green energy production technologies, which are too expensive for these governments.

Modern agriculture, which the African continent needs to feed its people and provide rural youth with more than subsistence agriculture, is heavily dependent on oil and gas. Synthetic fertilizer, needed to improve crops, is also best produced with natural gas, as is its transport sector, which relies on oil and gas.

More than a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa are responsible for less than 1% of the world's carbon footprint. Even if these countries tripled their energy production from natural gas alone – which is unlikely, thanks to the availability of renewable resources like hydropower – global emissions would only increase by about 1%. Denying those billion people access to more electricity, Ramachandran said, would mean they would likely remain in poverty and much more vulnerable to the effects of global warming, for which rich countries are largely responsible.

G20 “vague promises”

It is not just COP26 that faces enormous challenges. Last week, the leaders of the G20, the group of 20 most developed economies, met in Rome. The announcement that they had approved a tax of at least 15% on the profits of multinational companies caught the attention of the media. The average tax levied on these corporations has dropped from about 40% in 1980 to 23% in 2020, according to data from the Tax Foundation, a Washington-based conservative group that monitors tax policies.

In 2017, it was estimated that around 40% of the profits of multinational companies – more than 700 billion dollars – were deposited in tax havens. Applied to companies with annual revenues of more than $850 million, it is estimated that this new tax could provide around $150 billion annually.

But it is a measure that will need legislative approval in almost all countries, and in countries like the United States this could be difficult. Another complex issue is the decision on where to collect this tax. Shifting the tax base from where these companies produce – usually in impoverished countries – to where they are headquartered – usually in developed countries – could penalize nations such as Nigeria, Pakistan and many others in the developing world.

Held on the eve of the Glasgow summit on global warming, the agreements adopted by the G20 on this issue were not received with much optimism either. Participants agreed that substantial measures are needed to keep the temperature 1,5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as agreed in the 2015 Paris Agreement. But the final G20 communiqué provided only vague promises, with no set timetable.

The meeting also made reference to the debt crisis, which appears in the wake of the measures adopted to stimulate the economies of the South, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. The G20 welcomed the progress of the Debt Service Suspension Initiative, which allowed at least USD 12,7 billion of total debt service to be postponed between May 2020 and December 2021, benefiting 50 countries. But that debt has increased by $500 billion over the same period and the G20 governments' agreement does not involve private creditors, leading analysts to see a new crisis looming.

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR). author of Political crisis of the modern world (Uruk).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.


[I] The letter can be read at

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