As the ugly war in Ukraine drags on, with more lives lost and atrocities (apparently) committed, energy and food prices hit yet more highs. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the UN publishes a monthly global price index. The FAO Food Price Index reached yet another record high of 159.3 points in March, up 12.6% from February.
Oil and gas prices are also near all-time high levels. In Europe, gas prices hit a record €335 per megawatt hours, and at that level, it is now cheaper for some power stations to burn coal rather than gas even when the cost of carbon permits is taken into consideration. Europe wants to follow NATO’s bidding and cut back on Russian energy imports. The irony is that some countries, like Italy, say that will need to burn more coal, in order to burn less Russian gas. The International Energy Agency (IEA) posed the dilemma in relation to global warming and energy needs, given the Ukraine war and the sanctions against Russia. “The faster EU policy makers seek to move away from Russian gas supplies, the greater the potential implication, in terms of economic costs and near-term emissions,” the IEA said, in a report.
Can the circle be squared: ie getting more energy supply to reduce prices, while still trying to reduce fossil fuel production to lower greenhouse gas emissions? “We are determined to limit [Vladimir] Putin’s capacity to finance his atrocious war,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, wrote on Twitter. And then went on to say: “The EU must get rid of its dependency on fossil fuels”. At first sight, these two aims might be compatible. Cutting back on fossil fuel energy from Russia will reduce energy use and lower carbon emissions, no? After all, clean energy, says Christian Lindner, finance minister of Germany, should be considered the “energy of freedom”. So the German government plans to cut its dependence on Russian energy imports by accelerating renewables and reaching 100% ‘clean power’ by 2035. But in the same breath German Chancellor Olaf Scholz accepted that, in the short term, it has little choice but to continue buying gas and oil from Russia!
COP26 in Glasgow contained an agreement to draw down fossil fuel production, even though there was a fierce argument that broke out over whether coal should be “phased down” or “phased out”. COP26 president Alok Sharma. “Countries are turning their back on coal,” he said. “The end of coal is in sight.” And yet, even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine , far from declining, coal use globally surged to record levels this last winter, causing emissions to rise, while clean energy installations fell below the levels needed to reach climate targets. In the US, coal-fired power generation was higher in 2021 under President Joe Biden than it was in 2019 under then president Donald Trump, who had positioned himself as the would-be saviour of America’s coal industry. In Europe, coal power rose 18 per cent in 2021, its first increase in almost a decade. Economist Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at Oxford university, says the shift away from fossil fuels has rarely looked more complicated. “The energy transition was already in trouble — 80 per cent of the world’s energy is still from fossil fuels,” he said. “I expect that in the short term, the US will increase oil and gas output and EU coal consumption could increase”.
This conflict of aims by ‘the West’ comes at a time when global warming and climate change are reaching a ‘now or never’ tipping point, where the Paris target to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5C cannot be met. In presenting the latest IPCC report on climate change (which supposedly outlines ‘solutions’ to mitigate global warming and meet targets), UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres commented: “The facts are undeniable. This abdication of leadership (by governments) is criminal.” By this he meant that the 198 countries which had gathered in Glasgow for the COP26 Climate Change Conference last November were failing to hit any of their (already inadequate) targets for emission reductions. So global temperatures look set to barrel past 1.5ºC degrees limit above 1850 industrial levels. Instead, the world faces a 2.7C temperature rise on current climate plans, the UN warned. Current pledges would reduce carbon emissions by only about 7.5% by 2030, far less than the 45% cut that scientists say is needed to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C.
And it’s not just reducing current emissions that is necessary, but also cutting back on the already accrued levels of carbon in the atmosphere. It’s a stock problem because many gases are long-lived. Nitrous oxide can stay in the atmosphere for 121 years, methane for 12 years. Carbon dioxide’s lifetime cannot be represented with a single value because the gas is not destroyed over time, but cycles through the ocean–atmosphere–land system. Some carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years and the melting of the glaciers could release into the atmosphere previously trapped carbon.
Hoesung Lee, chair of the IPCC, bluntly explained that: “human-induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people, beyond natural climate variability.” While “some development and adaptation efforts have reduced vulnerability,” he continued, “the rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt.” Co-chair of the IPCC working group, Hans-Otto Portner, spelt it out: “The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human well being and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future.”
Lee made it clear what he thought should be done immediately. “The time to stop the exploration of fossil fuels, which are destroying our planet, is now. Half measures are no longer an option,” But just stopping fossil fuel exploration is precisely that – a half measure. That’s because to meet the Paris agreement, the world would have to eliminate 53.5 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide each year for the next 30 years.
The problem is that it is ‘the West’: the mature capitalist economies, that have built up the stock of dangerous carbon and other gases in the atmosphere over the last 100 years which are doing the least to solve the climate crisis. About one-third of the current stock of greenhouse gases has been created by Europe and one-quarter by the US. Yes, China and India are the first- and third-largest emitters today. But measured in terms of emissions per head of population, they are around 40th and 140th, and measured in terms of their stock per capita, they are one-tenth of the level of Europe. And ironically, the main contributors to carbon emissions stock benefit from global warming as these mature capitalist (imperialist) economies are mainly in cold climates.
The countries of the ‘global North’ (Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Japan) are responsible for 92% of total emissions that are causing climate breakdown. Meanwhile, the Global South – the entire continents of Asia, Africa and Latin America – are responsible for only 8% of ‘excess emissions’. And the majority of these countries are still well within their fair shares of the emissions boundary, including India, Indonesia and Nigeria. To make matters worse, the impacts of climate breakdown fall disproportionately on the countries of the global South, which suffer the vast majority of climate change-induced damages and mortality within their borders.
The world needs to eliminate 53.5 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide each year for the next 30 years. But a recent research paper in the journal Nature found that G20 countries spent$14tn on economic stimulus measures during 2020 and 2021 — but only 6 per cent of this was allocated to areas that would cut emissions. Investment bank Morgan Stanley reckons to achieve sufficient emissions reduction would cost about $50trn. About $20 trillion of cumulative investments will be required to switch out of fossil fuels. Solar, wind,and hydro will require $14 trillion of investment to deliver 80% of global power by 2050 and electric vehicle take-up will require $11 trillion to build the factories and infrastructure and develop battery technology. Biofuels, like ethanol, could be important for future global transportation alongside hydrogen and could eventually spread to aircraft, but to develop this would require a further $2.7trillion of investment. Carbon capture and storage could play a critical part in the energy transition but a further $2.5 trillion is needed for development. Compare the $50 trillion price tag to the barely $100 billion that it has taken six years for countries to scrounge together.
Yes, greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced in some countries and there are technical solutions available. Alternative renewable energy costs have come down 85% over the last ten years. But coal production must be cut by 76% by 2030. And oil/gas infrastructure projects must be stopped. The current flow of finance is dramatically insufficient to boost renewables and manage fossil fuel reduction. Funding for all this change is miniscule compared to the task.
And a switch to ‘clean energy’ won’t be enough, especially as mining and refining alternative fuels and systems also require more fossil fuel energy. All the batteries, solar panels and windmills in the world won’t lower fossil fuel demand in the near term. Internal combustion vehicles – commercial and passenger – use plenty of steel, but electric vehicles use a wider variety of more expensive metals. For example, the average internal combustion passenger vehicle uses less than 50 pounds of copper, whereas a Tesla uses about 180 pounds of copper wound up in its electric motors. Additionally, the batteries essential to electric vehicles rely on materials like lithium and nickel, which require intense electric and chemical outlays to process. All this means more fossil fuel production to mine more metals.
I have discussed before why market solutions like carbon pricing and carbon taxes will not deliver the required reductions in emissions. Market solutions will not work because it is just not profitable for capital to invest in climate change mitigation: “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.” (IMF). To save the planet and all species who live on it cannot be achieved through market pricing mechanisms or even more clever technology. Remember clever science gave us vaccines and medicines to save lives in the COVID pandemic, but it was capitalism and pro-capitalist governments that still allowed the pandemic to happen and were unable to stop around 20m ‘excess deaths’ globally.
To stop global warming, we don’t need just clever new technology, we need to phase out old fossil fuel technology. And we need a global plan to steer investments into things society does need, like renewable energy, organic farming, public transportation, public water systems, ecological remediation, public health, quality schools and other currently unmet needs. Such a plan could also equalize development the world over by shifting resources out of useless and harmful production in the North and into developing the South, building basic infrastructure, sanitation systems, public schools, health care. At the same time, a global plan could aim to provide equivalent jobs for workers displaced by the retrenchment or closure of unnecessary or harmful industries. But such plan requires public ownership and control of fossil fuel companies and other key energy and food sectors. Without that, there can be no plan.
As the war in Ukraine rages on, we should be reminded that the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases are the military. The US military is world’s single largest consumer of oil, and as a result, one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters. The Pentagon’s greenhouse gas emissions annually total over 59 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. If it were a nation state, the US military would be the 47th largest emitter in the world., with emissions larger than Portugal, Sweden or Denmark.
And the US military is expanding all the time to protect US interests in oil and fossil fuel resources around the world. The Cost of Wars Project found the total emissions from war-related activity in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria to be estimated at more than 400 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide alone. Thus global warming and fossil fuel exploration, production and refining are inextricably linked by military spending. Wars and increased spending on arms are not just killing people and destroying lives and homes, but also adding to the climate disaster that is engulfing humanity globally. World peace would not only save lives and livelihoods, but also contribute to saving the planet and nature.
Michael Roberts worked in the City of London as an economist for over 40 years. He has closely observed the machinations of global capitalism from within the dragon’s den. At the same time, he was a political activist in the labour movement for decades. Since retiring, he has written several books. The Great Recession – a Marxist view (2009); The Long Depression (2016); Marx 200: a review of Marx’s economics (2018): and jointly with Guglielmo Carchedi as editors of World in Crisis (2018). He has published numerous papers in various academic economic journals and articles in leftist publications.