Copenhagen Conference on climate change

The Copenhagen Conference on climate change concluded with an accord, hastily cobbled together in last-minute negotiations on the evening of Friday 18 December between US President Barack Obama and the leaders of major developing nations – China, India, Brazil and South Africa.  This accord, not a binding treaty, is merely an expression of aims, recognising as it does the scientific case for keeping the rising in global temperatures to 2ºC.  It calls upon developed countries to provide $10bn a year until 2012, rising to an annual sum of $100bn by 2020, to support developing countries adapt to climate change and to mitigate its effects.  This sum falls far short of the $100bn a year that is required according to the EU estimates.  In addition to the paucity of funds to help developing countries, the accord says nothing about who pays to whom.

Disappointing cuts by developed countries

The US has promised to cut its emissions by 17 per cent by 2020, compared with 2005 levels, which reduces to a miserly 3 per cent on the levels of 1990, the baseline year under the Kyoto protocol; the EU has pledged a cut of 20 per cent on 1990 levels; and so too has Japan, but by reference to 2005 levels, which amounts to a single-digit reduction compared to 1990; most developing countries, China and India included, have agreed to curb the future growth of their emissions, with China committed to reducing the growth of her carbon dioxide output per unit of gross domestic produce by 40 to 45 per cent by 2020.  Many countries, instead of committing themselves to a single target of reduction in emissions, have merely pledged to abide by a range.  The EU, for instance, has hinted that it will deepen its cuts to 30 per cent below 1990 levels if other countries too agreed on ambitious targets.

The cuts promised by the developed countries fall far short of what is necessary to prevent the emissions growth to catastrophic levels.  The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made it perfectly clear, and the Group of 77 plus China have repeatedly demanded, that developed countries need to reduce their emissions by 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 and by 90 per cent by 2050.

The developed countries, who together account for half of all global emissions and are responsible for changes in global climate resulting from accumulated greenhouse gasses emitted by them over the past two centuries, by their refusal to make the necessary deep cuts in their emissions, have disappointed environmentalists and hundreds upon hundreds of million of poor people round the world, who are the most likely victims of erratic rainfall, melting glaciers, rising sea levels and the resultant inundation of coastal areas, extreme and freak weather conditions, consequent upon this failure.

Bitter reaction from developing countries

No wonder, then, that a large number of developing countries were bitter about the outcome.  Lumumba Di-Aping, thte leader of G-77, likened the rich countries’ stance to genocide.  Many of these countries were furious at what they rightly perceived as a deal imposed on them by the most powerful.  During the heated discussions in the UN’s principal meeting room, which were still continuing as the sun rose on Saturday (18 December) morning, a Venezuelan representative cut her own hand to symbolically demonstrate how the rich countries spilled the blood of the poor.

Accord – not a treaty

It being starkly clear by 9am on Saturday morning that Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua were implacably opposed to the accord, the latter could not be formally adopted as a decision of the UN meeting, for such a decision required consensus among all participating countries.  Instead, the decision-making body of the UN opted for the much weaker option – the “decision to note” the existence of the accord.  The result is that it leaves countries free to sign up to the accord if they so wish, while requiring a consensus at a new general meeting so as to turn the accord into the basis for a fresh UN treaty on climate change.

The section of the accord designed to indicate commitments to reduce emissions by big economies is blank, but is supposed to have been filled by the end of January 2010.  That gives the UN a further six months of hard bargaining and tough negotiations to win approval, followed by an attempt at turning such approval into a treaty – possibly at another climate conference under the aegis of the UN planned for Mexico City in December 2010.

The UN Conference in its entirety did not feel able to endorse the proclamation, which concluded two years of tortuous and detailed negotiations, built upon more than a decade of prior talks.  For two decades the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been recognised, but thus far there has been only one attempt at a globally binding treaty – the failed 1997 Kyoto protocol, which never met with US ratification and placed developing countries under no obligation.

President Obama described the Copenhagen vacuous declaration as an “important breakthrough”, saying that it is “the first time in history all major economies have come together here in Copenhagen to ensure that international action to significantly reduce emissions is sustained and sufficient over time”.

The truth is that the Copenhagen accord fell abysmally short of that which is required to avert catastrophic climate change.  Even the Financial Times, in it leading article, entitled ‘Dismal outcome at Copenhagen fiasco’, described the accord as “worse than useless” and “the emptiest deal one could imagine” (21 December 2009).

To avert catastrophe on the climate front requires global cooperation and collective action.  Further, it requires developed countries to cut their emissions drastically and agree to a generous transfer of funds and technology to developing countries in order to enable the latter to cope with, and adapt to, climate change.  Unless this is done, the next conference in Mexico will only prove to be a repeat performance of this year’s Copenhagen.

Two positive outcomes

The only two positive outcomes of Copenhagen are: first, that five of the current and future large emitters of carbon – the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa – agreed for the first time that scientific evidence dictates “deep cuts in global emissions” to prevent average temperatures from rising more than a disastrous 2ºC; second, that China made a commitment to join the global fight to reduce climate pollution.  According to Jeremy Symons of the National Wildlife Federation, China’s measurable pledge to back global efforts to reduce carbon emissions was the conference’s most important development.  “This breakthrough”, he said, “is important for the global climate efforts, as well as encouraging the [US] Senate to move forward and deliver the climate and clean energy bill to the president”, adding that “China will act, and the China excuse is off the table”.

Socialism the only solution

While the China excuse would doubtless be off the table, there is one basic problem of which the likes of Jeremy Symons take no note, that is, the driving force behind capitalist production.  Profit is the regulator of production under capitalism and the extraction of “the maximum profit is the motor of monopoly capitalism” (Stalin).  In its never-ceasing chase after maximum profit through “the exploitation, ruin and impoverishment of the population of a given country”, through “the enslavement and systematic robbery of the peoples of other countries, especially backward countries”, and through “wars and militarisation of the national economy”, monopoly capitalism cares not a hoot about ‘trifles’ such as climate change.  It does not hesitate for a moment in trampling upon human life, and the prerequisites for a decent human existence, if these stand in the way of securing by it of maximum profit.  The clogging up of the world’s cities with motor cars, and the resultant pollution, are just one example of the madness of life under capitalism – driven solely by the need of monopoly capitalism to secure the maximum of profit.

Undoubtedly, public pressure can force the leading powers to reduce somewhat the emission of greenhouse gases and provide some amelioration in the near future.  That, however, is not the solution.

Only the overthrow of capitalism, and its replacement by socialism, whose basic law is “the maximum satisfaction of the constantly rising material and cultural requirements of the whole of society through the continuous expansion and perfection of socialist production on the basis of higher techniques”, can lay the real basis  for tackling climate change and other urgent problems facing humanity.  In other words, those who want to aspire to be green must become red first.[1]


[1] The remarks appearing in quotation marks in the preceding two paragraphs come for Joseph Stalin’s epoch-making pamphlet Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, pp 39-41, FLP Peking 1971.