By: Jeferson Choma
On March 20, the IPCC published its sixth assessment report on climate change. The document from the scientific body that advises the United Nations (UN) is a synthesis of other documents that were published over more than a decade. Curiously, the disclosure did not receive its proper attention in the world press, in spite of its strong sense of urgency and given the acceleration of climate change.
Once again, the IPCC notes: between 1850 and 2020 greenhouse gas emissions have “unequivocally caused global warming,” with the global surface temperature now 1.1°C above the pre-industrial period average.
But not only that, in the last 50 years the global surface temperature has risen faster than in the last 2,000 years. Another surprising fact: 42% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions since 1850 have been released into the atmosphere in the last 30 years alone (1990-2019). In other words, despite the numerous environmental and climate conferences held in these three decades—from ECO-92, held in Rio de Janeiro, to the last COP, held in Egypt in 2022—there has been a huge acceleration of GHG emissions into the atmosphere. In 2019, atmospheric CO2 concentrations totaled 410 parts per million, the highest on record for at least the last two million years.
We will exceed the 1.5°C barrier in the 2030s
The report also concludes that the exponential and uncontrollable increase in global average temperature will exceed 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels as early as the 2030s. As is well known, that was the limit drawn by the Paris Agreement, which recommends limiting the increase in the global average temperature to 1.5°C.
Keeping the change in Earth’s average temperature at up to 1.5°C would mean managing climate change more rigorously than it is today. It is worth remembering that throughout its entire history, humanity has never faced a global average temperature increase like this one. Above 2°C could already mean a step towards triggering tipping points in the Earth’s systems and could threaten countless coastal cities. An increase of 3°C would already condemn many natural systems of the biosphere to collapse and coastal cities would disappear.
The tipping points are positive feedback systems. That is, a critical threshold beyond which a system irreversibly reorganizes itself, feeding back into global warming. The Amazon, for example, may reach a point of no return with the degradation of the rainforest, releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere and causing an increasing warming of the climate. Another point of no return is the thawing of permafrost, a permanently frozen type of soil that has the potential to release twice as much carbon as currently exists in the atmosphere.
Of all the greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O)), CO2 is the most worrisome. Approximately ten years after being released, CO2 reaches its maximum heat retention capacity and can remain for many decades and centuries in the atmosphere and oceans. This is called the CO2 inertia effect. According to the IPCC, most emissions (79%) come from the energy, industry, transport, and construction sectors, and 22% from agriculture, forestry and other land use. In the case of Brazil, the sector that emits the most is land use change, i.e. deforestation and the expansion of agriculture and livestock. Just over 46% of Brazilian emissions come from deforestation, followed by 24% of emissions from agricultural activities, clearly reflecting the country’s semi-colonial status.
The changes are rapid and widespread
The report acknowledges that rapid and widespread changes are already occurring in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere. Global mean sea level, for example, rose 0.20 cm between 1901 and 2018. Worse: the average rate of sea level rise has accelerated: it went from 1.3 mm per year (between 1901 and 1971), to 3.7 mm/year between 2006 and 2018.
Half of humanity lives in “contexts highly vulnerable to climate change,” whereby they are exposed to food, water, and housing insecurity. And between 2010 and 2020, the report estimates that human mortality from floods, droughts, and storms was 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions compared to regions with very low vulnerability.
The sixth report also highlights that weather and climate extremes are increasingly driving displacement in Africa, Asia, North America, Central America, and South America.
Obstacles to energy transition
The report does not say it in plain language, but anyone can understand that there is no future for fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas) if we want to avoid irreparably compromising civilization and the entire Earth system, triggering the points of no return.
According to the IPCC, the installation of new sources of clean energy is the only way to limit the temperature rise below 2°C. But this requires an urgent, revolutionary, and unprecedented transformation of energy supply on a global scale, in which global CO2 emissions would have to be reduced by around 7% every year until 2050. Currently, around 35 billion tons of CO2 are emitted into the atmosphere every year.
The text highlights that renewable forms of energy, such as wind and solar, are increasingly cheaper, and maintaining fossil fuels may be more costly than making the transition to low-carbon systems. It is also emphatic on the need to develop technologies capable of capturing CO2 from the atmosphere to avoid warming above 2°C. However, it acknowledges that existing means of doing so are still unreliable. Most of the time, they serve as an excuse for oil companies to explore for more oil and gas reserves.
What the IPCC does not say
The IPCC’s sixth report is perhaps one of its most convincing reports ever published. Reading it leads to an inevitable conclusion: in the capitalist world, no climate agreement has worked and it cannot work. They all flounder, despite the accumulating data. Meanwhile, science walks with eyes wide open in the face of the evolving climate catastrophe. The tragic story of Cassandra from Greek mythology is perhaps an apt allegory to describe the current situation. Cassandra was the Trojan prophetess cursed by Apollo with the gift of seeing the future and making prophecies. But no one would ever believe them, and everyone scoffed when she predicted the fall and destruction of Troy.
The problem is that, under capitalism, the energy transition is nothing more than a farce and will not stop the catastrophe that is being predicted. We know that the obstacle to this is the huge subsidies granted by governments to big oil. A 2020 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency tracked an estimated $634 billion in subsidies to the energy sector in 2020 and found that about 70% went to fossil fuels and only 20% went to renewable energy generation (1).
However, initiatives by governments in the capitalism’s core countries indicate that in recent years there has been (and will be) increased investment in research into renewable sources, such as photovoltaic and wind, improved research into green hydrogen (H2G) and the use of biofuels (which is not clean energy, although planners can take it into account).
But this process has been carried out by the central countries of capitalism. The United States, China and Germany are in a race to control this market and obtain some technological rent for the big monopolies. Even the big foreign oil companies are investing heavily in the development of new sources of clean energy. This will not result in an “energy transition” in the short or medium term, but in the creation of an “energy mix,” in which new renewable and clean sources are combined with fossil fuels, something absolutely insufficient to solve the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.
Moreover, a “green transition” under capitalism is based on an energy matrix that depends on the development of highly extractive industries that increase the environmental crisis. This is the case of electric batteries for cars, homes and other machines, which require the extraction of lithium and other rare minerals (such as cadmium, cobalt or nickel). The “green transition” promoted by a sector of the industrial apparatus of imperialism goes hand in hand with new polluting mining projects that, among other things, put at risk the contamination of aquifers and ecological systems important for human and animal life. In addition, with the development of electric vehicles, there is already a race between the United States and China to exploit lithium in South America in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia (2).
In short: the central countries of capitalism, while intensifying oil and gas exploration, are promoting the development of new energy sources and an imperialist race to guarantee the supply of raw materials for the very near future. There is no future with capitalism (3). To stop the environmental catastrophe that is knocking at the door and threatening all civilization, it is essential to overcome capitalism and build a socialist and ecologically balanced society.
- Taylor, M. Energy Subsidies: Evolution in the Global Energy Transformation to 2050 – International Renewable Energy Agency, 2020.
- See at: https://elpais.com/internacional/2023-03-21/luis-arce-denuncia-que-el-litio-de-bolivia-esta-amenazado-por-la-derecha-internacional.html
- For projections, see the IPCC’s Interactive Atlas: https://bityli.com/29InTA
Article first published at www.pstu.org.br, 3/24/2023.
Translation: John Joseph