Martin Empson explains what COP26 is and why global summits have a history of failure to take the action on climate change that’s needed, in an extract from his new pamphlet The Great Climate COP Out
World leaders will descend on Glasgow for the COP26 climate summit in November. Delayed a year by the COVID crisis, it is being talked up by politicians and the media as a “last chance” to solve the climate crisis. But, as the name suggests, it is actually the 26th summit in a quarter of a century of failure.
The year 2021 has brought home the terrifying reality of the climate crisis. Flooding, wildfires and hurricanes have hit tens of thousands of people across the world.
On 8 August, the US Fire Centre reported over 39,000 wildfires burning 3.5 million acres. At the same time—but receiving less media attention—fires in Siberia were bigger than all the other fires in the world combined. Smoke from them was detected at the North Pole for the first time.
The environmental crisis is exacerbated by existing social fault lines—class, gender and race. In Madagascar, a prolonged drought saw 1.1 million people without food. Aid agencies said it was the first famine caused solely by climate change.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report, published in August, warned of “code red” for humanity. The IPCC said that the worst scenarios for climate change would only be avoided through immediate government action.
Many activists will hope that COP26 will deliver the action we need to avoid catastrophe.
But talk of COP26 as the “last chance” for the climate masks reality. The COP process has been a failure.
Despite pledges by politicians today—and their predecessors since the 1990s—the environmental crisis has become rapidly and dramatically worse.
COP26 is the 26th meeting of the Conference of the Parties—the signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The first COP meeting in 1995 led to what is probably the most famous international agreement on climate change—the Kyoto Protocol, in 1997. The first period of the Kyoto Protocol ran until 2012, when it was extended at a COP meeting in Doha, Qatar until 2020.
While it seems like progress is being made, the process is slow and flawed.
There was an infamous meeting of the COP in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009. Copenhagen was supposed to agree further emissions cuts that built on those agreed in Kyoto and saw major mobilisations by environmentalists, trade unions, NGOs and the left.
The reality was very different. Barack Obama arrived and announced an Accord, agreed separately between the US and China, India, Brazil and South Africa. A deal at Copenhagen that would impose binding emissions cuts on the US economy was the opposite to what US capitalists wanted.
The Copenhagen Accord made it look like action was agreed, but stripped out any binding commitments to action.
In 2015, the Paris Agreement was signed amid much fanfare. One small step forward was the decision by delegates to agree to limit warming to below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. And to say that this should “preferably” be kept to 1.5 degrees.
It was won through a combination of pressure from negotiating blocs from the Global South and small island nations inside the summit, and the big protests outside.
At the heart of the Paris Agreement were commitments to make Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Essentially NDCs are promises by countries of how much they intend to reduce emissions. The problem was that the NDCs pledged at Paris would, according to the UN itself, take the world to 3.2 degrees of warming.
Even if countries were to make pledges at the correct levels, the NDCs are not legally binding or enforceable. While Paris was portrayed as a major step forward, the detail of the agreement showed the opposite.
Why does COP fail?
The reality of the Paris Agreement has been even more disappointing in the years since it was signed. Signatory countries were due to submit updated NDCs in 2020.
The independent scientific website Climate Action Tracker, which monitors government action, found that by July 2021 some 94 countries had not updated their targets. And only 16 countries had submitted stronger targets.
But the problem with COP is not just that countries are unable or unwilling to adhere to strong emission reduction targets.
The Global North—particularly the most powerful economies and especially the US—have disproportionate power in the negotiations.
By promising cash or applying political pressure, they can influence other countries. For instance, in the run up to the COP15 conference in Copenhagen, African politicians and negotiators were demanding major action and help for the continent. But by the time of the conference some of these had collapsed into a much softer position.
According to Mithika Mwenda of the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance, this meant “undermining the bold positions of our negotiators and ministers… and threatening the very future of Africa”. This was so shocking that the G77 group of Global South countries’ lead negotiator, Lumumba Di-Aping from Sudan, was moved to tears.
The climate politics we need
The year 2019 saw the emergence of an inspirational new climate movement. It seemed to explode onto the streets out of nowhere, but had deep roots.
The COP process has seen protests and demonstrations over many years. On two occasions—during the Copenhagen and Paris COPs—global protest movements took place on a massive scale.
Such demonstrations are important as they can pressure the negotiators for stronger action.
But in the aftermath of Copenhagen, the environmental movement was demoralised for several years. That demoralisation arose out of a misplaced hope that the summit would bring about real change.
If we are to build a longer-term climate movement and fight for climate justice and a sustainable society, we need a different set of politics.
Firstly, we need to understand that the COP process is part of the capitalist system. Any real challenge to the workings of capitalism will be shut down by the most powerful economies. There is no reason to believe that Joe Biden will be any different at COP26.
The White House statement on his April 2021 Leaders’ Summit on Climate explains his agenda for COP. There is nothing in it about fundamentally challenging the fossil fuel economy.
Biden’s statement contains much emphasis on new technology as a solution. These technologies will mean “enormous new economic opportunities to build the industries of the future”.
He wants to see solutions that allow capitalist accumulation to continue, or offer new opportunities to make money.
Capitalism is not simply destructive to the environment because it burns fossil fuels and degrades natural resources. The root cause of capitalism’s ongoing environmental damage is because it is a system based on endless growth.
Capitalists have to constantly expand in order to avoid going under because they are locked into competition with one another. This expansion requires more resources and more fuels. As the revolutionary Karl Marx explained, the capitalists cannot break from this logic.
“Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake—by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie,” he wrote.
Capitalism is a system fueled by competition between individual corporations and governments. There will be no serious action on carbon emissions because it is not in the interest of each individual entity to do so.
In order to deal with the environmental crises that we are experiencing today, we need to take on the system itself. This means building movements that can demand radical action from governments, but also challenge the system’s priorities.
In the short term, we should raise demands that will begin the transition to a zero carbon economy.
We need a rapid shift in all sectors of our economy—building, transport, agriculture, energy generation and housing. Environmental activists, together with socialists and trade unionists need to place workers’ demands at the heart of our movement. The fight for a “just transition” must be a fundamental part of it.
The increasing recognition of the importance of voices from the Global South, Indigenous movements and Black people is also important. It is a step towards building a united movement that can challenge capitalist destruction of the environment.
Capitalism can never be a sustainable system. Even if capitalism could abandon fossil fuels, it would still cause environmental destruction due to its unsustainable relationship to the planet.
Marx explained that capitalism destroyed the historic relationship that human society had had with the natural world, turning nature into a commodity.
And he argued that this led to a rupture in the “metabolic relationship” between human society and the natural world. This relationship, under capitalism, was no longer sustainable. Capital just saw nature as part of the production process.
Writing in 1857-8, he said, “For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognised as a power for itself. And the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production.”
But Marx didn’t just criticise capitalism. He argued that it would be possible to create a sustainable world, and create an entirely different relationship between humans and nature.
Such a socialist world would be based on radically different economic priorities. Production would be for need, not for profit. In a socialist society, production would take place democratically, with workers discussing what needs to be made.
Such democratic economic planning would be very different from the topdown state planned economies of Russia and the Eastern Bloc, which claimed to be communist.
Marx argued that the power to overthrow capitalism lay among the workers whose labour is essential for it to function.
At one of the key demonstrations outside the Copenhagen COP, radical activists first raised a slogan that has become increasingly common on climate protests—“System Change not Climate Change”. Today, as capitalism continues to give us economic and environmental crisis, we need to scrap it, and build a revolutionary alternative.
Read Martin’s full pamphlet The Great Climate COP Out online here