We are publishing the text of the lead-off by cde Andreas Payiatsos at the discussion on the environment entitled “Green growth or green destruction?”, organized by Xekinima at the 28th summer camp of Antinazi Zone-YRE, held on Tuesday 3 August.
We are currently all witnessing an endless list of catastrophic incidents at global level, directly related to climate change. We are watching the planet plagued by heat waves and fires – such as those unfolding in Greece during the summer, by floods, cyclones, melting ice caps, but also by famine, which are the result of extended periods of drought in a number of regions. The list is actually endless…
In the past few days, in Germany, the most economically developed and richest country in Europe, about 200 people died, because the country was unable to cope with the amount of rain and overflowing rivers.
In Madagascar where there has been no rain for 5 years, 1 million people are starving to death and eating plant roots (until any, always late, help arrives). They are compelled to go as far as boiling leather from shoes, in order to fill their stomachs with something.
In Siberia, Alaska and elsewhere the ice is melting not only into the sea but also on the land, which becomes completely unstable. Buildings collapse and whole towns and villages have to be abandoned. At the same time, carbon dioxide and methane, stored in the ice and in the frozen ground for millennia, are being released into the atmosphere.
Today, no serious person can question the threat of the climate crisis. The question is why there are no substantial measures to stem it.
The problem has been known for decades
Environmentalists have been warning for decades that, if the planet overheats by 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, we will face terrible disasters, and if warming reaches 2 or 3 degrees Celsius, humanity will experience “apocalyptic” phenomena. We are still at 1.1 degrees Celsius above the average temperature of the pre-industrial era. Therefore, what we are currently witnessing are not the “horrific disasters” that are predicted, i.e. not the worst.
Under the threat of the climate crisis, governments and international organisations have been forced for some decades now to start discussing the necessary “measures”.
The Kyoto Agreement was ratified in 1997. The agreement aimed to limit the emissions of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, in order to prevent global warming from reaching 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level. This agreement was signed almost 25 years ago. It has produced no results.
Six years ago, in 2015, the Paris Agreement once more set the goal of tackling climate change. Again with no results.
14,000 scientists are warning
On 28 July this year, representatives of a group of 14,000 scientists again sounded the alarm bell, saying that we are going over the edge and something must be done.
They explained, in more detail, that out of 31 indicators measuring the impact of pollutants on global warming (“greenhouse gas effect”), 18 have gone red.
- Carbon dioxide and methane have reached all-time highs.
- The melting of the ice caps also has no historical precedent. The ice is melting 31% faster than scientists expected in 2015.
- The same applies to ocean temperatures and rising seas, which are now directly threatening 1 billion people living in coastal areas.
- The Amazon region in Brazil, often described as the “lung of the planet”, is currently emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, according to scientists.
Producing carbon dioxide while destroying the forests and the oceans
The reference to the Amazon needs to be emphasised, because the problem, globally, is not only the production of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. The issue is whether there are enough ecosystems on the earth that can absorb and store these gases. These ecosystems are forests, swamps, oceans, etc. The Amazon is just one of these examples – the best known.
It is a crime that, while pollutants are increasing, forests, oceans and other ecosystems are being destroyed – they are the only factors that could substantially reduce the extent of the problem.
In their statement, the group of 14,000 scientists point out that: “We are either too close, or we have passed a series of tipping points.”
The concept of “tipping points” in relation to the climate crisis refers to the acceleration of phenomena caused by global warming and their irreversibility (or extreme difficulty in reversing them).
For example, melting ice in Siberia and Antarctica releases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, which exacerbates the greenhouse effect. The result is rising temperatures, which in their turn exacerbate the melting of the ice caps. Thus, we have a destructive self-feeding vicious cycle with an ever-increasing momentum.
Therefore, if we have already crossed, or if we are very close to crossing some “tipping points”’, the existing plans for reducing emissions, prepared by the various governments and international organisations, are completely inadequate for the current situation and are in fact “merely paper exercises”. Even if we manage to reduce carbon emissions from (so-called) “man-made” factors, i.e. industry, agriculture, transport, destruction of forests and other ecosystems, etc., the greenhouse effect cannot be reversed if the figures are already beyond the “tipping points”.
What are the governments and institutions suggesting?
The central question that arises is what are the governments and international institutions, such as the European Union (EU), the European Central Bank (ECB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the 20 most powerful economies of the world (G20), etc., those who recognise the existence of a climate crisis, suggesting in order to tackle the crisis?
At the last G20 meeting held in Venice on 9 and 10 July (where all the above organisations were directly or indirectly present), there was a discussion about abolishing fossil fuels. But no specific timetable was set for this!
The point is not to acknowledge in general terms that fossil fuels must be abolished at some point, but to decide when and how this will happen.
The need to restore biodiversity, which is also absolutely essential, was also strongly emphasised. But again, on the question of when and how biodiversity will be restored, nothing was mentioned or decided.
Another “measure” that is generally adopted by governments and international organisations, and which was also emphatically discussed at the G20 meeting, is the pricing and taxation of the “carbon footprint”.
This involves increasing the price of goods on the market according to the carbon emissions during their production and transport process, or according to their carbon content. This is a completely dead-end proposal, which will be discussed in detail later in this text.
The harsh reality of numbers
Although almost everyone is acknowledging the danger and expressing their concerns, the EU is the only one of the world’s major powers that is discussing (…) taking some action. It has set up a timetable that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030, in order to bring them back to the levels emitted in 1990.
Despite the fact that even the European Union’s “plan” and measures are insufficient, the biggest polluters, the USA and China, are still… reflecting. There is no concrete plan or package of measures. This means that even if the EU met its targets and even if those targets were sufficient (which they are not – as we will develop further below), this is not enough to stem the climate crisis. This cannot be addressed by measures at the national or even continental level – international coordination, at the global level, is a prerequisite for tackling the problem.
As a result of the total absence of international planning, among other things, the evidence for the worsening of the problem is revealing.
Until 2019 (2020 is a special year because of the lockdowns) greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing every year, with 84% of the world’s energy being produced from fossil fuels (oil, lignite, natural gas) and only 5% from renewable energy sources.
According to the data so far (first 6 months) for 2021, a new record for carbon dioxide emissions is predicted for 2021.
Based on existing studies, in order to reach the zero emissions target in 2050, carbon dioxide emissions need to be reduced by 6% every year. But instead of dropping, pollutants are estimated to increase by 5% in 2021 and 3% in 2022.
It is not possible in the context of this short introduction to discuss the problem of plastics in depth. But it is common knowledge that the problem has reached tragic proportions. Plastics do not biodegrade, they simply break down into smaller and smaller particles. They can now be found everywhere, in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, in the food we eat, in every living organism in the sea and on land. They poison all living organisms. They are linked to all the diseases of ‘modern civilisation’ (as they are commonly called). But apart from that, as they are produced from hydrocarbons, they release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, adding to the greenhouse effect. [See more on this topic here]
In 2019, plastics production on the planet added 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases (1 metric ton = 1000m3). What are the estimates for the trajectory of plastics in the coming years? According to them, by 2030, an increase of 56% in pollutants from plastics production is predicted, and by 2050, an increase of 225% is predicted!
At the same time, Europe is deciding to phase out single-use plastics – which is, of course, a very positive step. But it is a drop in the ocean. If it reveals anything, it is the hypocrisy of governments and international organisations. Indeed, they are not eliminating all single-use plastics. For example, plastic cups are excluded, which constitute the largest volume. They are only excluding plastic cups from the phase-out agreement, in order not to displease the coffee industry.
Common sense versus capitalist interests
All this is completely absurd for us and society as a whole, but is considered perfectly reasonable for capitalists.
The example of mining in the Eastern Mediterranean is typical. A number of multinationals have entered the area in order to extract the natural gas in the region and then proceed with the building of the pipeline that will transport 20 billion metric tons of gas per year to the European Union. This is actually happening at the same time as the governments in the EU are proclaiming with emphasis, the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels!
Is it ever possible that the multinationals that will build and operate the mines and the pipeline, will accept the suggestions of various scientists and environmental organisations to abolish fossil fuels and simply shut them down? Is it possible that they will sacrifice the colossal profits they expect to reap? The answer is no. They will do so only if they are forced to.
For the same reason, the already running mining operations and the associated transport networks for extracted hydrocarbons will not be cancelled. No capitalist will ever willingly let go hundreds of billions of dollars of investments that yield colossal profits.
It is no coincidence that the “sensitive” European Union, while it bans plastic cutlery and straws (but as already pointed out, not cups!), strongly supports mining in the Eastern Mediterranean and the pipeline that will transport the gas!
Apart from the profits per se, competition also needs to be taken into consideration. Any capitalist enterprise will simply not survive, if it stays behind in the race to compete for profits and for expansion. No capitalist will ever sacrifice their profits for the sake of any moral principle, and this has nothing to do with the capitalists’ mood or ethics, but with the logic and functioning of the capitalist system itself.
On the other hand, competition does not only concern enterprises, but also states. The example of the trade war between the US and China is very telling.
If the US retreats from fierce and ruthless competition and assumes the costs involved in protecting the environment, they will leave space for China to dominate the planet. If China retreats, it will lose the race once and for all and will be threatened by the rise of India. Competition for the planet’s “pie” will not let capitalists put the environment ahead of their profits and the race for dominance.
In this context, today’s “weak” Europe (which until a century ago was the dominant power on the planet) is trying to implement its own “green policies” which are incomplete and cannot be effective.
As mentioned above, the environmental issue is one that can only be effectively addressed through international policies and international planning. Given the competition between the capitalists, it is impossible to coordinate such planning.
Taxing the “carbon footprint”
A central element of EU and international policy to tackle the climate crisis is, as already mentioned, taxing and pricing of goods based on the carbon they contain, directly or indirectly. That is to say, the more carbon is contained or associated with a commodity, the more expensive it will be priced.
Put simply, carbon footprint taxation in principle means increasing the price of petrol, gas and heating oil. This, of course, is of little concern to the rich (who pollute the environment far more than the lower social layers, according to a recent OXFAM study). Such a policy will hit directly the lower social layers.
Apart from the direct use of hydrocarbons, the “footprint” is also found in all plastic goods, as plastic is based on hydrocarbons. But almost every product, e.g. metal utensils, has some “footprint”, as energy is needed to produce them, and in today’s conditions energy is mainly produced from hydrocarbons (oil, lignite, natural gas).
How much should the carbon footprint be priced? Here is a serious point of disagreement among economists. Some value it at $14 per metric ton while others value it at $386 per metric ton! The gap is obviously so big that it is irreconcilable.
This in itself reveals the bankruptcy of the capitalist governments’ efforts. Carbon tax-pricing is central to their policy but they can’t even agree on the price!
The reason they insist on this policy, which at first sight seems utterly paradoxical, is because they “don’t know” any other policy. Their starting point is that production must be in the hands of private capital, which must indisputably show profitability. Therefore, in order for them to shift from fossil fuels to Renewable Energy Sources (RES), it should be more profitable to switch to the latter. Profits from fossil fuels should decrease – hence the increased tax on the “carbon footprint” – while profits from renewables should increase – hence the huge subsidies to renewables.
This process, however, is so inconsistent, full of contradictions and backlashes, under the influence and pressure of the business lobbies, that meanwhile the climate crisis is tending to get out of control.
Instead of cutting down fossil fuel extraction, investment in fossil fuel extraction continues unabated and on top of that it is even being subsidised!
Since 2015 to date, $3.3 trillion ($3.3 thousand billion) have been granted internationally in subsidies for fossil fuel extraction. This has been happening while renewable energy sources are being subsidised with the aim, supposedly, of replacing fossil fuels. We thus have, in their full dimension, the contradictions and hypocrisy of capitalism.
And that’s of course not all. For the sake of renewable energy, in several countries, no mountain has been left without being overrun by monstrous constructions – wind turbines. These destroy precisely those ecosystems that “absorb” and capture carbon dioxide. All this supposedly in the sake of saving the environment!
In all cases, even when a government tries to move towards a carbon tax, the multinationals are there to remind them who has the last say. The Australian government tried to raise taxes on fossil fuels… but then had to back off and ended up increasing their subsidies by 48% compared to 2015! And this was not the only case. The Canadian government increased subsidies by 40% and the US government by 30% since 2015, precisely when the Paris Agreement, aiming to reduce hydrocarbons, was signed.
How can the disaster be tackled?
A number of urgent measures are absolutely essential.
There must, of course, be a shift to renewable energy sources (RES) but it should be done with respect for the environment. There needs to be a plan. Instead of randomly placing wind turbines on forested mountain tops, in areas of outstanding natural beauty or in coastal regions of high ecological value etc., ultimately causing enormous ecological destruction, an alternative should be found.
RES construction needs to be coordinated by scientific studies, that will indicate where to place which kind of RES. In some cases, wind turbines generate electricity by oscillation: so they can be placed, for example, next to motorways and generate electricity as the air currents caused by passing vehicles move. Small wind turbines and photovoltaic panels can also be placed on buildings’ roofs. Renewables should first be installed in cities and areas that are already environmentally degraded (e.g. industrial areas), instead of installing them within fragile ecosystems. Apart from that, we need to conduct studies concerning the optimal use of technologies for renewable energy sources. And expand research into other forms of green energy like the optimal production and mass introduction of hydrogen as a primary fuel. Needless to say that all new investment in hydrocarbon extraction must be cancelled here and now and that a plan is needed to drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels on an annual basis.
Capitalists are not going to do this. That is why it is necessary to nationalise all energy-related industries – which means bringing them under the ownership, management and the control of the society.
Public transport and transport of goods is one of the most important factors that pollute the environment. Electric cars are not without serious consequences for the environment, especially when the electricity that charges their batteries is produced with the use of hydrocarbons and when the batteries they use to store it involve pharaonic-scale mining in the global South. A truly green policy would drastically reduce car use. This requires efficient public transport powered by energy generated from renewable sources.
Efficient public transport means regular services that get people anywhere, comfortably, quickly and free of charge. This is the only way to substantially reduce the use of private cars. Capitalists will never adopt such measures, because for them urban (as well as long-distance) transport must provide profits.
This is why the transfer of transport to the ownership and democratic management of society is required.
The same applies to public urban transport and long-distance transport. In China, the fastest train on the planet has recently been put into service; this can travel at 600 km per hour, the same speed as an aeroplane. It moves with electromagnetism, on special contactless rails. This technology can largely eliminate the use of aeroplanes, which are currently the most polluting means of transport. Research is needed into the use of trains and aeroplanes that leave the smallest possible environmental footprint. Huge investments need to be made in this direction. But no capitalist is going to invest there because they would not find profit in them.
That is why it is essential that transport, including the airlines, is taken out of the hands of the private sector and placed into the hands of society.
The International Monetary Fund
Even the IMF was forced to recognize the reality described above.
In a recent statement they mention:
“ Private investment in productive capital and infrastructure faces high upfront costs and significant uncertainties that cannot always be priced. Investments for the transition to a low-carbon economy are additionally exposed to important political risks, illiquidity and uncertain returns, depending on policy approaches to mitigation as well as unpredictable technological advances“.
Exactly! For all these reasons, big private capital and the notorious “market forces” are not expected to take any meaningful initiative to save the environment and secure the future of the planet, because their profits from such initiatives are not guaranteed. Thus, their social function leads to destruction. Saving the environment requires clashing with big capital and “market forces”.
Hope is in the movements
The measures listed above are not exhaustive, but absolutely necessary and indicative of what needs to be done. The capitalists and their governments will not adopt them unless they are forced to. This is something that only movements can impose.
There are a number of very important local movements developing. They are trying to connect and coordinate at the national level. Coordination is even extending beyond national borders like for example the Greek, Turkish and Cypriot organisations coordinating with a banner called “Don’t dig / Kazma Birak / Μας σκάβουν τον λάκκο“. We also saw the amazing youth movement to stop climate change that erupted in 2019 and was embraced by millions of young people around the world. It shows the awakening of the younger generation on a mass level. The pandemic may have halted it, but one way or another it will come back.
The message of these movements, apart from being a message of struggle, is also one of internationalism, based precisely on the understanding that there are no solutions on the national or even continental level.
Finally, the movements create the hopes and possibilities for new political formations of the left that are willing to confront the system in a real and decisive way. If the system can behave today in such a destructive and arrogant way, it is because the Left on a mass basis is almost “non-existent”. It has either capitulated to the pressures of the system and has become a part of it, or it is fragmented and sectarian- not even showing any willingness for serious cooperation.
But we know from history, that anytime we had great class struggles and social explosions, they were also reflected at the political level. The movement’s objective is to overthrow all the destructive policies of capital; the political goal is to build the forces that will remove power from the capitalists and hand over the management of the economy and everyday life to the popular strata, so that it can serve the needs of the overwhelming majority and not the interests of a small elite of the super-rich.