Climate changes

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By MICHAEL ROBERTS*

The blame for a likely climate catastrophe lies not with “mankind”, but with industrial capitalism and its addiction to fossil fuels.

The sixth report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is nearly 4.000 pages long. The authors tried to summarize it and presented it as the “final opportunity” to avoid climate catastrophe. Its conclusions have not changed much since the previous publication, made in 2013; this time, however, they were more incisive.

The evidence is clear: the cause of global warming is known – presumably humanity; the planet is known to be warming (about 1° degree so far); It is also known that the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere they have risen since pre-industrial times, that is, they have increased by 30%; it is known that the warming shown so far has historically been generated by pollution. You have to go back several million years to see something similar to what you have today. During the Pliocene era (i.e. between 5,3 and 2,6 million years ago) the world had levels of CO2 from 360-420 ppm; now that value is approximately 415 ppm.[I]

In its summary for policymakers around the world, the IPCC clearly states that climate change and global warming are “unequivocally caused by human activities”. But, can climate change be blamed on all of humanity – rather than on the part that owns, controls and decides what happens to our future?

Of course, any society would have exploited fossil fuels to generate energy for production, heating, and transportation. But if this society were scientifically well informed, would it necessarily continue to expand the exploration and production of fossil fuels without any controls aimed at protecting the environment? Didn't it have to look for alternative sources of energy that didn't harm the planet the moment it became clear that carbon emissions were doing just that?

Indeed, it is known that scientists warned about this danger several decades ago. Nuclear physicist Edward Teller, as early as 1959, warned that the oil industry would eventually have a catastrophic impact on human civilization. Major fossil fuel companies such as Exxon or BP knew what the consequences of their activities were but chose to hide the evidence. They omitted themselves in the same way as the tobacco companies, which for decades hid the harmful effects of smoking.

The scientific evidence on harmful carbon emissions presented in the IPCC report is almost as uncontroversial as the evidence that smoking is harmful to health. Very little or almost nothing has been done, because the environment must not get in the way of profitability.

The fault, therefore, does not lie with “humanity”, but with industrial capitalism and its addiction to fossil fuels. In terms of population fraction, the wealthiest percentage of the world's population based primarily in the Global North has been responsible, over the last 25 years, for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the 3,1 billion people who made up the poor half of the world. humanity. A recent study found that the richest 10% of households use nearly half (45%) of all energy used in land transport and three-quarters of all energy used in aviation.

Moreover, transport is currently responsible for about a quarter of global emissions. SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles) were the second biggest driver of growth in global carbon emissions between 2010 and 2018. In fact, it's big business that pollutes primarily because of the very rich.

The IPCC presents an enormous amount of data to back up its conclusions, hoping that they will be irrefutable and alarming enough to force more radical change. It provides several scenarios on the evolution of global temperatures to know when they will reach the so-called Paris target, calculated at 1,5° degrees Celsius above average pre-industrial levels. Their main scenario is called “shared socioeconomic pathSSP1-1.9”. In this case, if net carbon emissions are reduced, the 1,5°C target will be achieved by 2040; but they would still rise until 2060, when they would then start to fall to reach 1,4°C by the end of the century.

But this is the most optimistic scenario of the five presented on the pace and intensity of global warming in the 5st century. Well, that first one is bad enough! The other scenarios are much darker. The worst of them would be the bottom of the table (SSP8.5-4,4); in this case, according to the best estimate, global temperatures would rise by 2100°C by 1. Since there is no better scenario than SSP1.9-XNUMX, all the others are worse, and even so, they were ignored by the IPCC.

Shared socioeconomic pathways

The SSP1-1.9 scenario turns out to be the most optimistic: global CO emissions2 they would be reduced to zero before or at most by 2050. In that case, there would be a big shift in priority in economic output; instead of pure economic growth, humanity would move towards sustainable development. Investments in education and health would increase and inequality could decrease significantly. Weather extremes would continue to grow in frequency, but the world would avoid the worst impacts of climate change possible. Global warming would be maintained at around 1,5°C, stabilizing around 1,4°C by the end of the century.

The SSP1-2.6 scenario is second best: global CO emissions2 would decline, but the end of their growth would be reached after 2050. This route assumes that the same socioeconomic changes as SSP1-1.9 would be achieved. But temperatures would be 1,8°C higher by 2100.

SSP2-4.5 is the “middle way” (ie the most likely scenario). CO emissions2 would fluctuate around current levels before starting to decline in the mid-2100st century, but would not reach zero before 2,7. Shifts towards a more sustainable economy and improvements in inequality would follow historical trends. Temperatures would rise by XNUMX°C by the end of the century.

The SSP3-7.0 path is one in which emissions and temperatures would continue to increase steadily, ending up at nearly double current levels at the end of the century. Countries would become more concerned about national security such that food production would be prioritized. Average temperatures would increase by 3,6°C.

The SSP5-8.5 path is the doomsday scenario. CO emissions2 would practically double by 2050. The global economy would continue to grow rapidly with the exploitation of fossil fuels; current lifestyles would continue to be energy intensive. Thus, global average temperatures would reach 4,4°C higher as we entered the XNUMXnd century.

No probabilities are offered for any of these other alternative scenarios – hope and expectation remain that SSP1 will happen. But the growth rates of emissions and temperature are already on much faster trajectories. The planet has already warmed between 1,0 and 1,2°C depending on how this is measured (current value or decadal average). The trend is well established and tends to surprise for the worse rather than for the better. Furthermore, the rate of change in atmospheric chemistry is unprecedented, and this change continues to accelerate.

Even with the 1,5°C target, sea level rises between two and three meters above historical levels will be seen. Cases of extreme heat will prove to be about four times more likely. Heavy rains will contain about 10% more water, making them 1,5 times more likely to occur. Many of these changes are already irreversible, such as rising sea levels, melting Arctic ice, and warming and acidifying oceans. Drastic reductions in emissions may prevent worse climate change, according to IPCC scientists, but they won't return the world to the more moderate climate patterns of the past.

Even if we assume that SSP1-1.9 targets can be achieved by 2050, cumulative global CO emissions2 would still be a third larger than the current 1,2 trillion tons of CO2 issued since 1960. This would push the CO2 above 500 ppm, i.e. 66% higher than levels observed in the pre-industrial period. This perspective implies that there will be a 1,8°C increase in warming by 2050 – not 1,5°C.

The reality is that the very low emissions scenario considered by the IPCC is unlikely: the global temperature will likely reach 1,5°C well before 2040. It will likely reach a much higher level even with SSP1 conditions in place, that is, with a 50% reduction target in CO emissions2 2050 up.

Global warming is likely to reach around 1,8°C by 2050 and 2,5°C by the end of the century. This means that there will be more droughts and floods than currently predicted and even more suffering and increasing economic losses: a loss in world GDP of between 10 and 15% has been calculated for current trajectories. Note, in addition, that double this figure is estimated for the poor Global South.

António Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations, analyzed the material produced by the IPCC to criticize and blame the most polluting industry: “This report must sound like a death knell for the coal and fossil fuel industries, before they destroy the our planet". But how? First, it is not enough to end government subsidies and funding for these sectors, even if this is done by governments across the world. Instead, there must be a global plan to phase out energy production from coal and fossil fuels.

Left-wing Democrat Robert Reich, a former Clinton administration official, believes the answer is to stop lobbying oil companies, curb oil exploration, ban oil exports and make oil companies pay damages. However, he does not consider it necessary that they cease to be private property. But could a plan really succeed to stop global warming without the energy companies going public?

The energy sector would need to be nationalized and brought under a global plan to reduce emissions and expand superior renewable energy technology. This means building renewable energy capacity ten times greater than what is currently available. This would only be possible through planned public investments that shift jobs from fossil fuel companies to green and environmental technology companies. Well, the latter could thus function as a lever for the creation of new jobs.

Secondly, public investment is necessary to develop technologies for extracting carbon from the atmosphere in order to reduce the stock of pollutants existing there. The IPCC says that removing large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere - thus going beyond the net-zero target - "may be able to reduce warming", but carbon removal technologies "are not yet ready" to work on a scale that would be needed. Most of them “have undesirable side effects”. In other words, private investment in this field has so far failed to fulfill this mission.

Decarbonizing the world economy is technically and financially feasible. It would be necessary to commit around 2,5% of global GDP per year to investments in areas aimed at improving energy efficiency standards in buildings, automobiles, transport systems, industrial production processes. As well as to massively expand the availability of clean energy sources in such a way as to achieve zero emissions by 2050. This cost is nothing compared to the loss of income, employment, life and living conditions for millions of people, something that is expected to happen in the future.

Ending fossil fuel production based on public ownership of companies, within a global investment plan – that seems like just a utopia, critics may say. Now, it is known that market solutions such as pricing and carbon taxation, usually defended by the IMF and the EU, will not work, even if implemented globally… Therefore, the results will not be achieved.

Less than three months remain until the delayed COP 26 conference in Glasgow. The two previous major conferences produced absolutely nothing, whether COP 15 in 2009 in Copenhagen or COP 21 in 2015 in Paris. The latter produced the Paris Agreement, but this concert of nations only committed them to voluntary emission reduction targets. If fulfilled, they would increase global warming by about 2,9°C. Glasgow already seems to be setting itself up as another failure.

*Michael Roberts is an economist. Author, among other books, of The Great Recession: A Marxist View.

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the website The next recession [].

Translator's note


[I]Parts per million (ppm) indicates the amount, in grams, of solute present in 1000000 grams of solution. It is a quantity that serves to relate the mass of the solute with that of solutions.

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