The G7 governments saying they will phase out fossil fuels by 2100 isn’t closing the barn door after the horse has left. It is declaring an intention to consider closing the barn door after waiting for the horse to disappear over the horizon. It is okay to be feel underwhelmed by this.
The Group of 7 summit held earlier this month in Germany, representing seven of the world’s largest economies, ended with a declaration that these governments would commit themselves to a 40 to 70 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions and a complete phaseout in 2100, and an invitation for “all countries to join us in this endeavor.” A communiqué issued after the summit declared:
“We commit to doing our part to achieve a low-carbon global economy in the long-term including developing and deploying innovative technologies striving for a transformation of the energy sectors by 2050. … To this end we also commit to develop long-term national low-carbon strategies.” [page 17]
The G7 governments say they are acting under the impetus of last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and in anticipation of next December’s Climate Change Conference in Paris. In the conception of the IPCC report, greenhouse-gas emissions should be 40 to 70 percent lower globally in 2050 than in 2010 and “near zero” in 2100 to achieve a goal of holding greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million in 2100. Even that level is a substantial increase above the current level of 404 parts per million, at which the Earth’s climate is already undergoing dramatic changes.
The IPCC report, prepared by scientists from around the world but apparently watered down by the world’s governments, promises that mitigating global warming will be virtually cost-free and require no fundamental change to the world’s economic structure. Alas, there are no free lunches — the IPCC report’s insistence that techno-fixes will magically take care of carbon buildup, allowing humanity to continue the path it has been on since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, is dangerously unrealistic.
So what do the G7 governments have in mind? Their communiqué says they will increase the number of people in developing countries who have access to insurance, increase developing countries’ access to renewable energy and raise funds “from private investors, development finance institutions and multilateral development banks.” [pages 15-16] Try to contain your excitement when you read the G7 prescription for combating global warming:
“We will continue our efforts to provide and mobilize increased finance, from public and private sources. … We recognize the potential of multilateral development banks in delivering climate finance and helping countries transition to low carbon economies.” [page 15]
It may already be too late
Before we delve into the idea that the World Bank, funder of gigantic greenhouse-gas belching, polluting projects around the world, is the cure for global warming, and before we contemplate the idea that we can bind the policies of governments eight decades in the future, let us ask what actually needs to be done to prevent the climate from spiraling into a feedback loop that will accelerate species die-offs and dangerously disrupt agriculture and water supplies. The U.S. government’s climate agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, issued a study in 2009 that flatly concluded “there’s no going back.” The study, led by NOAA senior scientist Susan Solomon, found:
“[C]hanges in surface temperature, rainfall, and sea level are largely irreversible for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are completely stopped. … ‘It has long been known that some of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years,” Solomon said. “But the new study advances the understanding of how this affects the climate system.’ ”
Carbon dioxide thrown into the air stays in the atmosphere for a long time, warming oceans will retain added heat and transfer that back to the atmosphere, and we have yet to experience the full effect of greenhouse gases that have already been emitted. Global sea-level rises and major disruption to rain patterns will effect billions of people. The NOAA study said:
“If CO2 is allowed to peak at 450-600 parts per million, the results would include persistent decreases in dry-season rainfall that are comparable to the 1930s North American Dust Bowl in zones including southern Europe, northern Africa, southwestern North America, southern Africa and western Australia.
The study notes that decreases in rainfall that last not just for a few decades but over centuries are expected to have a range of impacts that differ by region. Such regional impacts include decreasing human water supplies, increased fire frequency, ecosystem change and expanded deserts. Dry-season wheat and maize agriculture in regions of rain-fed farming, such as Africa, would also be affected.”
A Massachusetts Institute of Technology paper, lamenting the widespread conviction that global warming can be reversed quickly when and if it is decided to do so, notes such beliefs are in violation of basic physics. The paper’s abstract says:
“[W]ait-and-see policies erroneously presume climate change can be reversed quickly should harm become evident, underestimating substantial delays in the climate’s response to anthropogenic forcing. … [Greenhouse-gas] emissions are now about twice the rate of GHG removal from the atmosphere. GHG concentrations will therefore continue to rise even if emissions fall, stabilizing only when emissions equal removal. In contrast, results show most subjects [of an MIT study] believe atmospheric GHG concentrations can be stabilized while emissions into the atmosphere continuously exceed the removal of GHGs from it. These beliefs—analogous to arguing a bathtub filled faster than it drains will never overflow—support wait-and-see policies but violate conservation of matter.”
More heating even if we stopped today
A commentary published on RealClimate, a Web site published by working climate scientists, calculates that if greenhouse-gas concentrations were kept constant at today’s level, there would still be an increase in global temperatures of as much as 0.8 degrees Celsius — combined with the global warming already experienced, that is close to the 2-degree overall rise widely believed to be the outer limit to avoid catastrophic damage to Earth’s ecosystem. But to achieve even that equilibrium requires immediate, significant cuts to greenhouse-gas emissions. The commentary says:
“[C]onstant concentrations of CO2 imply a change in emissions — specifically an immediate cut of around 60 to 70% globally and continued further cuts over time.”
“Immediate” as in now, not decades in the future. The actual proposed cuts, in the near term, are far less than that range, and less than initially meets the eye. The baseline of measurement is being shifted, for example, so that the benchmark against which the reductions are measured are higher than previously set. Environmental Defence Canada calculates that the Harper government’s switch to using 2005 rather than 1990 as the baseline reduces the goal by more than half. In a report, the group writes:
“The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) and the Kyoto Protocol (1997) both used 1990 as the reference or base year. Most countries still use 1990 as the base year but some have started using more recent base years. Since the Copenhagen summit in 2009, Canada has been using 2005 as a base year. This makes comparison between targets more difficult. It also makes targets look stronger than they are since Canada’s carbon pollution increased significantly between 1990 and 2005. For example, the Canadian government’s pledge to reduce emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 by 2030 is actually less than half as strong … when expressed using 1990 as the base year.” [page 3]
Emissions from the Alberta tar sands have increased almost 80 percent since 2005 and the Harper government has every intention of boosting tar sands production as much as possible, including plans for multiple pipelines, while equating environmentalists with terrorists. Environmental Defence Canada notes that the Harper government has no intention of regulating tar sands oil and flatly declares Canada’s post-2020 target “the weakest in the G7 to date.”
The potential global warming just from the Alberta tar sands is so large that the U.S. environmental scientist James Hansen believes it will be impossible to stop runaway global warming should that oil be burned.
Assigning contributions isn’t straightforward
The point here isn’t to single out Canada. But its cumulative greenhouse-gas emissions since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution is the ninth highest in the world, a ranking likely to rise if plans of current oil and gas companies come to fruition. So the argument sometimes made that Canada isn’t a significant contributor to global warming because of its small population isn’t true. The United States, not surprisingly, is easily the biggest culprit, having emitted 29 percent of the world’s cumulative greenhouse gases, according to calculations by the World Resources Institute.
China ranks second, with nine percent of the world’s cumulative greenhouse-gas emissions, and the top 10 countries account for 72 percent. (Italy is the only G7 country not among the top 10.) But even here, it could be argued that China’s ranking deserves an asterisk. Western multi-national corporations have eagerly transferred production to China, particularly U.S. companies such as Wal-Mart and Apple. So much of those Chinese greenhouses gases are the responsibility of U.S. corporations. A paper led by Glen Peters of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo estimates that, in 2008 alone, the U.S. imported as much as 400 million tons of carbon dioxide in Chinese goods.
Regardless of source, global warming does not come without costs. The nonprofit organization DARA claims that global warming already causes 400,000 deaths per year, and that “the present carbon-intensive economy moreover is linked to 4.5 million deaths worldwide each year.”
Can the World Bank and International Monetary Fund realistically be part of the solution to global warming, as the G7 communiqué would have it? No! The World Bank has poured billions of dollars into dams, power plants and other projects that worsen global warming, and shows no sign of altering its indifference to environmental costs. The World Bank and IMF also promote neoliberalism and austerity programs around the world; immiserating people makes them more vulnerable, not less, to the stresses of global warming and pollution.
The amount of industrial carbon dioxide emissions thrown into the atmosphere from 1988 to 2014 is equal to all the emissions from 1751 to 1988, according to the Climate Accountability Institute. That continually rising rate of emissions is reflective of the ever more intensive pressures for growth capitalism imposes, and the continual movement of production to the places with the lowest wages and weakest environmental laws imposed by capitalist competition, stretching supply chains ever longer, is itself a contributor to global warming.
The G7 communiqué is nothing more than wishful thinking that no real change is necessary. There are no free lunches: The world has to drastically reduce its consumption. As this is an impossibility under capitalism, another world is not only possible, it is necessary in the long run for our descendants to even have a livable world.