The Glasgow Pact agreed at COP26 requires that every major country produces new 2030 commitments by COP27 next year. It won’t be easy for any country to find ways of cutting their emissions further than they have already decided. Arguments and conflicts that they thought resolved over the last year in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) will have to be reopened. New policies and new public investment funding will be required, whether in renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, industrial emissions or research and development into green technologies. Fossil fuel interests will need to be confronted.
Many governments will surely hope that they don’t really have to do any of this and can quietly rely on others to do the hard work. Whether or not they do will depend, in every country, on the balance of forces for and against climate action. In most countries (with notable exceptions, such as Russia and the Gulf states) there are now significant forces on both sides. There are environmental NGOs, concerned citizens and vocal young protestors in most countries.
There are also increasing numbers of businesses making money out of green technologies, products and services—thousands of them filled the exhibition halls attached to COP26, selling their wares and promoting their virtue. Yet there are also politically powerful high-carbon industries incumbent in the key sectors of energy, transport, and manufacturing. They too were out in force in Glasgow: as the NGO Global Witness enterprisingly noted, the number of representatives from the fossil fuel sector registered for the conference, at over 500, was larger than any country’s delegation.
The greening of capitalism
How far the battle between these forces is won by the pro-climate-action side in different countries over the next year will determine whether or not COP27 lives up to the demand which COP26 has now made of it. For underlying the diplomatic circus of climate change negotiations is a much larger and longer-term process, and the questions associated with it. It is what we might call the greening of capitalism.
Such a concept is never mentioned in the UN negotiating rooms and is too provocative for most of the fringe meetings which take place around the official conference. But it is the question which underpins the entire process.
For the pro-environment business lobbies attending COPs, there is no question that capitalism can be greened. They are the living embodiment of the idea. For the government ministers seeking to reconcile a global agreement with their own domestic political survival, capitalist greening is an almost unquestioned requirement and hope. If it isn’t possible, they (not to mention the planet) are surely done for.
Yet for many of the young people who thronged the streets of Glasgow and other cities during the middle weekend of the conference, it is the opposite that is obvious. Since capitalism has caused the climate crisis, it is self-evident that capitalism cannot be greened. The only way the crisis can be addressed, they insist, is if the economic system is transformed: ‘system change, not climate change!’, as one prominent banner said succinctly.
This line of argument is not just the rhetoric of disaffected youth. In her 2015 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, the Canadian author Naomi Klein argues that the modern capitalist economy, run by huge corporations and financial interests and feeding on mass high-carbon consumption, cannot reverse its core dynamic of material growth and human exploitation. Only economic transformation, based on the principles of ecological sustainability and social justice, can do that.
These two positions—that capitalism can be greened, and that capitalism must be got rid of—seem poles apart. Their advocates indeed are insistent upon it. But in practice, at least over the next decade or two, they are really not, for both sides can agree on two propositions.
Green capitalists and green anti-capitalists are on the same side – for now
First, capitalism won’t be greened by itself. Almost all the progress in environmental technologies and consumption patterns over the past thirty years has come about as a result of government policies. Energy efficiency standards, pollution regulations, renewable energy mandates, conservation orders, product bans, green taxes, emissions trading schemes, research and development subsidies: it is the panoply of state interventions in markets that have driven such progress as we have had. And it is much more far-reaching interventions which will be needed if fossil fuels are to be squeezed out of the global economy and investment in green solutions increased to the levels required.
Second, this will be a continuous battle. For every policy put forward will be opposed by an incumbent interest. The fossil fuel representatives gathered in Glasgow are as nothing next to the number of their lobbyists who are being deployed in national legislatures. The banks and pension funds will carry on financing them until they are legally prevented from doing so. For every politician with green voters to satisfy there will be another—often the same one—with local high-carbon jobs at risk and consumers complaining about higher prices.
And in this field of political conflict, green capitalists and green anti-capitalists will be on the same side. Indeed, they will have to organise in that way if they are to prevail and prevent the worst ravages of global heating for which we are currently on course.
The full version of this article was published in the Political Quarterly journal.