Sunday, February 5

Cop26 is doomed, and the culprit is the empty promise of ‘net zero’ | Yanis Varoufakis

“SUBWAYMake no mistake, the money is here, if the world wants to use it, ”said Mark Carney, a former Bank of England governor who today serves as the UN’s climate envoy, while representing an alliance of financiers sitting on a Pile of $ 130 billion in assets. So what does the world want? If only humanity had the power to organize a global poll based on one human, one vote, a referendum for the entire species would undoubtedly give a clear answer: “Do whatever it takes to stop emitting carbon now!” Instead, we have a decision-making process culminating in the colossal fiasco currently unfolding in Glasgow.

The failure of Cop26 reflects our failed democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. President Biden came to Glasgow when his people in Washington were pushing his infrastructure bill through Congress, an exercise that disassociates the bill from any serious investment in renewables and financed a number of carbon-emitting infrastructure, like expanded roads and airports. In the European Union, meanwhile, the rhetoric may be painted bright green, but the reality is dark brown, and even Germany expects large amounts of Russian natural gas in exchange for giving the Nord Stream 2 pipeline the green light. The EU should create a pan-European renewable energy union, but unfortunately our leaders are not even debating this idea.

There are three reasons why Cop26 is turning out to be such a spectacular debacle. The first reason is a global collective action problem on “free use.” Large companies, as well as states, extract a leaf from the prayer of St. Augustine: “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.” Everyone prefers a planet where no one emits carbon to a planet that sizzles. But everyone also prefers to delay paying the cost of the transition if they can get away with it. If the rest of the planet does the right thing, the planet is saved, even if you selfishly postpone your own conversion to environmental honesty. And if the rest of the planet isn’t doing the right thing, why be the jerk who does it?

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The second reason is a global coordination failure. In a sense, Carney is right: mountains of cash lie idle in the global financial system, its ultra-wealthy owners eager to invest it in low-carbon activities. But a private investment in, say, green hydrogen will only pay off if many other investors also invest in it, so all investors sit around and wait for everyone else to come first. Meanwhile, corporations, communities, and states are joining in this waiting game, unwilling to risk committing to green hydrogen until big finance does. Tragically, there is no global coordinator to match the money, technologies and needs available.

The third reason is simply: capitalism. It has always picked up pace through the relentless commodification of everything, starting with land, work, and technology before spreading to genetically modified organisms, and even a woman’s womb or an asteroid. As the realm of capitalism expanded, priceless goods became expensive goods. The owners of the machinery and land necessary for the commodification of goods benefited, while everyone else progressed from the squalor of the 19th century working class to the reassuring fantasies of mindless petty-bourgeois consumerism.

Everything that was good was commodified, including much of our humanity. And the bad externalities generated by the production process itself were simply released into the atmosphere. To power the capitalist giant, carbon stored for millennia in trees and below the surface was looted. For two centuries, immense wealth – and corresponding human misery – was produced by processes of exploitation that depleted “free” natural capital, carbon in particular. Workers around the world are now paying nature a cost that the capitalist market never charged.

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Free market supporters would like us to believe that companies have now yielded to science and are ready and willing to step into the vacuum of government inaction. We shouldn’t believe this for a moment. Yes, Carney is correct that the late green transition money is available and ample. Those who own it will undoubtedly invest it to supply, say, green hydrogen if we, society, pay them to do so. But at the same time, production processes that continue to release carbon into the atmosphere will not voluntarily cease.

This is why polluters love net zero targets – because they are a brilliant cover for not restricting emissions. In exchange for unverifiable offsets, they are allowed to continue looting the planet’s remaining stored carbon, until the time comes when their marginal private cost exceeds their revenue from the last unit sold. By cynically placing net zero at its center, Cop26 became nothing more than a costly cover-up for ongoing toxic emissions. Hidden behind Cop26, the great and the good lie to the young, they lie to the vulnerable and even lie to themselves by repeating the truth that “the money is there” to invest in saving the planet.

What to do? Two things at least. First, a complete closure of the coal mines and new oil and gas platforms. If governments can lock us up to save lives during a pandemic, they can shut down the fossil fuel industry to save humanity. Second, we need a global carbon tax, to increase the relative price of everything that releases the most carbon, and from which all income must be returned to the poorest members of our species.

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To have a chance to rise to the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, we must first confront both the donors and the owners of the fossil fuel industries. Although this clash will not guarantee our future, it is a necessary condition for us to have it.

Yanis Varoufakis is co-founder of DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement)

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