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Climate change window closing fast

The chance to prevent runaway climate change is slipping away. Global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil-fuel combustion reached a record high in 2011 and there is nothing to suggest the trajectory will change this year or in the foreseeable future.

A 6.1% increase in CO2 emissions in countries outside the economies within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was only marginally offset by a 0.6% reduction inside the major economies,  according to estimates from the International Energy Agency.

The rise was driven by Chinese coal burning power stations which created a 9.3% increase, or 720 million tonnes more CO2 released into the atmosphere and by increased industrialisation in India where emissions rose by 8.7%. That makes India the fourth largest emitter behind China, the United States, and the European Union, overtaking Russia.

CO2 emissions in the United States fell by 1.7% due to a switch from coal to natural gas, an exceptionally mild winter, the recession alongside higher oil prices and fewer car journeys. The Obama government's rush to create new coal-fired power stations, to facilitate cheaper-than-oil energy generation, could quickly reverse that, however.

In the EU too there was a reduction of 1.9%, due to a cut in industrial production and a relatively warm winter. However, the EU is also set to turn this small reduction back by giving up on renewables and “rebranding” gas produced by fracking as “green fuel”. This is in spite of research showing that taking the production and burning process as a whole, fracking emits as much harmful greenhouse gas as coal, including large quantities of very harmful methane.

Per capita CO2 emissions in China and India still remain just 63% and 15% of the average within the advanced capitalist economies. The argument runs that, to achieve so-called climate justice, they must be allowed to increase emissions until they reach average levels.

Per capita increases do not, however, translate into higher energy use for the poorest people, who continue to struggle with light and heat. They represent rather the transfer of emissions from the consumer economies of the West to the manufacturing base in the East. The poorest in Asia and Africa will be the greatest sufferers from the impacts of climate change, as the elites in those countries grow richer.

However it is achieved, the science shows that to limit global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels (a scenario that will itself bring dramatic changes to world climate) emissions must peak in 2017. IEA Chief Economist Faith Birol said the 2011 data provides “further evidence that the door to a 2°C trajectory is about to close".
China had made significant progress in slowing the rate of its increase, but this was neither a sufficient nor quick enough reduction.

Coal accounted for 45% of total energy-related CO2 emissions in 2011, followed by oil (35%) and natural gas (20%). Therefore the way to achieve a rapid reduction is to cut use of ALL these fossil fuels, not only the most harmful. This could be achieved by a massive energy efficiency and energy saving programme, and by switching to renewables.  

There is no political will on the part of any governments to take the measures needed to achieve peak emissions in 2017. The drive to industrialise and ferocious competition in world markets, makes it impossible for them to co-operate to achieve it. A transformation in politics and democracy so that decisions are made on behalf of people and planet as a whole, rather than in the interests of “growth” and profits, is absolutely necessary. Without it, runaway climate change become unstoppable. 

Penny Cole
Environment editor
31 May 2012

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David Schwartzman says:

Bill McKibben just published "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math"at

Here is my response:

McKibben’s article could not be more timely, highlighting the growing danger of our world plunging into irreversible catastrophic climate change (C3) if rapid and radical reduction of carbon emissions is not implemented. He is right to point to the fossil fuel industry as an enemy, but I find his focus both too narrow and too broad, too narrow because this industry is an integral component of the Military Industrial Complex (MIC), more precisely the Military Industrial Fossil Fuel, Nuclear, State Terror Complex. And too broad because he lumps all fossil fuels together with the main focus on hydrocarbons (petroleum), rather than prioritizing the rapid phase out the consumption of coal and non-conventional petroleum (mainly tar sands and fracked gas).

Why focus on MIC, more specifically on militarism and the imperial agenda of the US and other major capitalist countries in connection with the threat of C3? McKibben has long ignored this issue, in contrast to other prominent environmentalists such as Lester Brown and Jeffrey Sachs who have called for big cuts in the military budget. I doubt it is because the Pentagon is “going green”, i.e., boosting biofuels and solar power in Afghanistan. As Michael Klare put it the Pentagon is the “oil protection service”, the military arm to make the world safe for transnational capital. Most critically, the imperial agenda blocks the global cooperation and equity required to prevent C3, witness the failure of Durban and Rio 20. The U.S./Israeli war threats to Iran and continuing U.S.-led demonization of Chavez and Correa are all about regime change to widen the control of MIC over global hydrocarbon reserves. And there are wider targets for what should be called the “resource protection service”, including rare earth metals. lithium and coltan used in aerospace and wind technologies.

Yes, McKibben does recognize that “even if you could force the hand of particular companies, you'd still have to figure out a strategy for dealing with all the sovereign nations that, in effect, act as fossil-fuel companies”. But all sovereign nations are not equal with respect to exerting power in the present world. Is Venezuela really the equivalent of the U.S.?

And now returning to his too broad focus advocated in this article. To be sure, McKibben’s heroic efforts to block the X-L Keystone Pipeline identified big carbon-footprint tar sands as a “game-changer for the climate” (Jim Hansen’s words). In this article McKibben urges “effective action” that “would require actually keeping most of the carbon the fossil-fuel industry wants to burn safely in the soil, not just changing slightly the speed at which it's burned”. But only conventional petroleum can supply the energy needed to create a wind/solar power infrastructure to replace the fossil fuel-dominated existing supply of global energy, while simultaneously minimizing future carbon emissions bringing us closer to C3. Coal and unconventional petroleum (tar sands, fracked gas and oil shale) have significantly higher carbon emissions per energy delivered and should be rapidly phased out. And this is exactly what is on the agenda of

McKibben points out “even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere.” Hence, carbon sequestration with transfer from the atmosphere to the soil and crust is imperative to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels below the safe limit of 350 ppm (hence “”). This is not "clean coal"! In our own study, we show that a full wind/solar transition is achievable in no more than 30 years with the consumption of less than 40% of the proven reserves of conventional petroleum, while supplying sufficient energy to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere using a combination of global agroecologies increasing soil carbon storage and solar-powered-industrial-burial of carbonate in the crust. This approach would maximize the possibility of reaching a safe atmospheric CO2 level before the tipping points to C3 are reached as well as ending energy poverty in the global South, reaching a rough minimum delivery necessary for state of the science life expectancy for everyone on Earth (for details go to

Finally, McKibben points to a strategy: “If people come to understand the cold, mathematical truth – that the fossil-fuel industry is systematically undermining the planet's physical systems – it might weaken it enough to matter politically. Exxon and their ilk might drop their opposition to a fee-and-dividend solution; they might even decide to become true energy companies, this time for real.” And while McKibben quotes George Monbiot, here is something more relevant to this issue from this Guardian columnist, writing about Rio 2012:

“World leaders at Earth summits seem more interested in protecting the interests of plutocratic elites than our environment… 'To see Obama backtracking on the commitments made by Bush the elder 20 years ago is to see the extent to which a tiny group of plutocrats has asserted its grip on policy.’…The environmental crisis cannot be addressed by the emissaries of billionaires. It is the system that needs to be challenged, not the individual decisions it makes. In this respect the struggle to protect the biosphere is the same as the struggle for redistribution, for the protection of workers' rights, for an enabling state, for equality before the law…. Without mass movements, without the kind of confrontation required to revitalize democracy, everything of value is deleted from the political text. But we do not mobilise, perhaps because we are endlessly seduced by hope. Hope is the rope from which we all hang.” (Guardian June 18, 2012)

I submit that McKibben is not being as radical as reality itself. Will Exxon go green because of political pressure? Or are the requirements for a robust Global Green New Deal higher, the actual transfer of power from the 0.1% to the 99.9%, including nationalization of the energy industries. The political requirement for realizing the “other world that is possible” is transnational, multidimensional class struggle. Class struggle in the 21st Century transcends the narrower conceptions of the 19th and 20th centuries centered around the activity of the industrial working class. 21st Century class struggle encompasses the creative activity of the 99%. It is profoundly democratic, aimed at expanding democracy to all spheres, political, economic and social. Maybe McKibben is thinking along these lines already, but he is not yet willing to advocate this path. But it should be ours.

David Schwartzman
Washington DC
July 21, 2012

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