Copenhagen shows that capitalism has no solutions

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"One accord, yet discord";[1] "Last-minute scramble to save face at climate talks";[2] "Obama's climate accord fails the test"[3]... the verdict of the media was unanimous: the ‘historic' summit had ended in fiasco.

In the weeks beforehand the media and politicians were full of grand phrases that the summit held the fate of humanity and the planet in its hands. On the first day of the summit 56 newspapers around the world, in countries such as France, Russia, China, India and Britain, carried a common editorial under the heading "Fourteen days to seal history's judgement on this generation". "We call on the representatives of the 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen not to hesitate, not to fall into dispute, not to blame each other but to seize opportunity from the greatest modern failure of politics. This should not be a fight between the rich world and the poor world, or between east and west." These pious wishes came to nothing but the editorial contained some truth: "The science is complex but the facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to 2C, an aim that will require global emissions to peak and begin falling within the next 5-10 years. A bigger rise of 3-4C - the smallest increase we can prudently expect to follow inaction - would parch continents, turning farmland into desert. Half of all species could become extinct, untold millions of people would be displaced, whole nations drowned by the sea."[4]

Capitalism is already destroying the planet

In fact, the situation is even more serious than this. 26 million people may already have been displaced as a result of climate change,[5] while a rise of 1°C, which would require CO2 to be removed from the atmosphere and is considered impossible to achieve, will lead to the melting of glaciers that provide the water for crops for 50 million people, to 300,000 people being affected each year by diseases such as malaria and diarrhoea and the death of most of the world's corals. The existence of some low-lying islands and countries will also be threatened. A rise of 2°C, which has become the accepted target, will spell disaster for millions of the planet's inhabitants: "The Amazon turns into desert and grasslands, while increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere make the world's oceans too acidic for remaining coral reefs and thousands of other marine life forms. The West Antarctic ice sheet collapses, the Greenland ice sheet melts and the world's sea level begins to rise by seven metres over the next few hundred years. A third of the world's species will become extinct".[6] During the summit the findings of research into the acidification of the oceans were released that showed that ocean acidity, which occurs when the level of CO2 absorbed by the oceans increases, has increased by 30% since the industrial revolution. This aspect of climate change, so far relatively little studied, could have profound consequences: "Ocean acidification could trigger a chain reaction of impacts through the marine food web, beginning with larval fish and shellfish, which are particularly vulnerable. This will affect the multibillion-dollar fishing industry and threaten the food security of many of the world's poorest. Most regions of the ocean will become inhospitable to coral reefs thus affecting food security, tourism, shoreline protection and biodiversity".[7] Furthermore, there is no known way to reduce ocean acidity levels other than allowing natural processes to take effect, which could take tens of thousands of years.

The laws of capitalism threaten the world

Human activity has always had an impact on the environment but from its early days capitalism showed a contempt for the natural world to match its contempt for the humans who laboured in its factories, mines and fields. In the 19th Century the industrial cities and towns in Britain poured filth and pollution into the environment undermining the health of the population as a whole and of the working class in particular. In the recent past Stalinism turned large parts of Russia into a wasteland while today in China the contamination of waterways and land is being repeated once again, but this time the contaminants are possibly even more poisonous than in the past.

This situation does not arise simply from the ill-will and ignorance of this or that member of the ruling class but from the fundamental laws of capitalism, which we summarised in a recent issue of our International Review:

-         "the division of labour and, even more, the reign of money and capital over production, which divides humanity into an infinity of competing units;

-         the fact that the goal of production is not use value, but exchange value, commodities which must at all cost be sold, whatever the consequences for humanity and the planet in order to realise a profit."[8]

Profit and competition are what drive capitalism and the consequences now threaten the world. The ruling class, in contrast, present capitalism as based on meeting human needs, arguing that it responds to ‘consumer demand' for the necessaries and luxuries of life and pointing to the improvements in income and quality of life that have been achieved for millions of people. There is some truth in this, in that capitalism has developed the means of production beyond anything that could be imagined in the past and there have been real improvements for many, especially those in the most developed countries. But this has only been done when it coincides with the real purpose of capitalism: making profits. Capitalism is an economic system that must continually expand or it will collapse: businesses must grow or they will fail and their carcass will be picked over by their competitors; nation states must defend their interests or they will be made subservient to their rivals. As this is inconceivable to the ruling class it is necessary to make any sacrifice to keep their economy, their society and their positions intact. This is why in a world of abundance millions starve; why, despite disarmament agreements and declarations of human rights, wars rage without end; why billions have recently been poured into propping up the economy while millions of human beings go without adequate healthcare and education. It is also why, despite the overwhelming evidence of climate change, the bourgeoisie is incapable of saving the planet.

International summits are arenas of national competition

The laws that drive capitalism affect every aspect of the society it has created, including international summits. Such meetings, whatever their declared purpose and even when apparently common interests are at stake, are always nothing but struggles for advantage between competing nations. The ceremonies, grand speeches and ringing declarations about human rights, ending poverty and saving the planet are just a mask to deceive us. The Copenhagen summit, like Rio de Janeiro and Kyoto before it, demonstrated this amply.

At Copenhagen both economic and imperialist interests clashed and since, while they overlap, they are not necessarily identical, this made the situation all the more complex with shifting alliances and changes of position.

Much was made during and after the summit of the supposed clash between developed and developing nations. There are clearly some common interests between developed economies just as there are between those reliant on supplying basic commodities, such as coffee or metal ores, but there can be no lasting unity. The EU came to the summit with a common agreement to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by 20% by 2020 and the suggestion that this might increase to 30% if the talks went well. Within this group are economies with a greater or lesser industrial sector. Britain, with a much-reduced industrial sector, has been at the forefront of pushing for more ambitious targets, in contrast to Germany with its still relatively large industrial sector, while former eastern bloc countries like Poland oppose cuts beyond 20%. According to official figures, Britain is on target not just to meet but to significantly exceed its Kyoto target of a 12.5% reduction on greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990. At the summit Gordon Brown rushed around taking the moral high-ground and trying once again to play the world leader. In fact Britain's performance is a consequence of the changes in its economy and reflects the fact that emissions are calculated on the basis of production rather than consumption: "The structural changes which have taken place in the UK economy over the last 30 years have resulted in significant deindustrialisation. As a result, the carbon intensity of the UK economy has fallen and the UK now imports large quantities of products which are relatively carbon-intensive to manufacture. UK consumption is therefore indirectly responsible for the emissions associated with these imports. Were the balance of imports and exports to be taken into account, UK reported emissions would be significantly different".[9] In fact, they would show an increase by as much as 19% since 1990.[10] In short, British capitalism has outsourced its pollution just as it has outsourced production. At the imperialist level, Brown's desperate activity at this summit, as during the ‘credit crunch', is partly an attempt to compensate for the continued decline of Britain as an imperialist power.

The US is also involved in deindustrialisation and the relocation of production to countries where the costs are cheaper but it still retains a substantial industrial sector. The intensity of competition felt by this sector has resulted in its being particularly active in opposing anything that it perceives as putting it at a disadvantage with its competitors. This is one of the reasons why the US is continually embroiled in trade disputes, why efforts to reach a new world trade agreement have so often failed and why it refused to ratify the Kyoto Treaty. In the final years of his administration Bush was forced to concede that climate change was real but the US has proposed its own targets and pushed for countries like China to also make cuts. Nothing has changed under Obama other than the rhetoric. The US remains opposed to significant cuts and any binding agreement and particularly loath to do anything that could benefit China for both economic and imperialist reasons.

One hundred and thirty-two countries defined as ‘developing' grouped together in the G77 at the summit. With relatively small economies and little industry their common aim was to push for the maximum financial assistance possible. They came to the summit with a demand for financial assistance of $400bn a year while a number also demanded that the maximum temperature increase accepted should not be more than 1.5°C. They also sought to keep the Kyoto treaty that requires signatories from developed countries to make cuts in emissions and which many of latter hoped would disappear into a single new Copenhagen agreement.

China has been the target of much ‘concern' about its emissions now that it has become the single biggest producer of greenhouse gases in the world. The rapid development of its economy has drawn vast sums of money towards it and enabled it to assume a much greater and more active role internationally. It has developed important economic links with many developing countries, often providing them with assistance to develop their production of primary commodities, which are then supplied to China to feed its industry. This growing economic strength has underpinned a low-key but determined effort to extend its imperialist influence around the world. To accept any meaningful limits on its emissions would mean limiting its economic growth and political power thus, while, it has proposed to reduce the carbon intensity of its industry (the amount of carbon per unit of production) it has strongly opposed any cuts and the demands by the US for independent verification. At the summit it associated itself with the G77 while also being part of a separate grouping with Brazil, South Africa and India known as BASIC that opposed the positions of the richer nations. Within this group, Brazil has defended its position as a major producer of biofuels despite the fact that it is taking production away from vital food production.

The manoeuvring at the summit

The summit was marked by the manoeuvrings of the participants, which included deliberate provocations and confrontations. One of the methods used was the widespread and not particularly hidden leaking of documents, as one journalist commented: "...the leaks became more regular until by the end there was a flood [...] Secret documents were deliberately left on photocopiers, others were thrust into journalists' hands or put on the web. People were photographing them and handing them around all of the time."[11]

On the third day of the conference the first crisis was provoked when the so-called ‘Danish text' emerged. This had been produced prior to the summit by a secret informal group known as "the circle of commitment" that included the US, and the host of the summit Denmark. The text, which had no formal status since it was drafted outside the UN framework, would have ended the Kyoto treaty with its legal requirement for emission cuts by signatories, imposed a 2°C increase as the accepted target and made changes to the funding arrangements. It was suggested that the intention was to impose it on the summit late in the day when the foreseen stalemate had arisen. This led to an outcry from G77 countries who accused the developed countries of trying to hijack the summit and impose their own agreement.

This was followed by a proposal from a number of developing countries for the increase in global temperatures to be kept below 1.5°C since any increase above that could spell disaster for small island states like Tuvalu. The proposal called for legally binding cuts to be agreed. It was immediately opposed by other countries, including China, Saudi Arabia and India, and divided the G77 group. The dispute that followed led to the suspension of part of the talks for several hours.

In the following days a revised UN text was introduced and disputes continued firstly over whether the Kyoto agreement should continue as a separate track or be incorporated into a new agreement and secondly over the funding to assist developing countries. Various proposals for fast track funding and long term funding surfaced and a number of countries, including Britain, repeated their call for the introduction of a tax on financial transactions (the Tobin tax) to fund climate change measures. The UN text seemed to be an attempt to reach a compromise with developed countries cutting emissions by 25-45% to keep the increase in temperature below 2°C. Developing countries would also be required to cut their emissions by 15-30% while the Kyoto agreement would remain in force. In reality the cuts proposed by the developed countries did not even reach the lower percentage proposed, while loopholes in the agreement would allow emissions to increase by 10%.

As the talks entered their second week, with heads of government due to arrive to sign the non-existent agreement, the confrontations sharpened, with the heads of some African countries threatening not to attend unless the agreement was changed. The dispute over the future of the Kyoto treaty led to a further suspension of part of the talks until it was finally agreed that it would continue. The dispute over monitoring also increased with India and China opposing US led demands for external verification. By the middle of the week the chaos could not be hidden: the chair of the summit resigned to be replaced by the Danish Prime Minister, proposals and counter proposals about emissions cuts, funding and verification flowed back and forth with more and more amendments being proposed to the UN draft agreement effectively creating a stalemate. It was rumoured that a revised version of the ‘Danish text' was about to be released while the G77 prepared a counter text. Further splits in the G77 emerged when Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia and head of the African group of countries at the summit, proposed that they accept a deal under which $100bn would be given in financial assistance to poorer countries by 2020, rather than the $400bn they originally demanded. He was attacked by others for selling out the lives and hopes of Africans. This ‘compromise' came after intense negotiations involving Zenawi and a number of the more developed countries and led to accusations that he had succumbed to pressure and that countries reliant on ‘aid' for much of their economies are in no position to argue with the purse holders. Finally, a leaked UN document showed that the emissions cuts proposed at the talks would result in an increase of 3°C.

Much was made on the penultimate day of America's acceptance of the target of $100bn financial assistance as a breakthrough paving the way for Obama to come and save the day. In fact the agreement was conditional on China accepting the verification it had already rejected while the money would have to come from non-government sources. On his arrival Obama repeated the demand for China to accept US verification demands leading to an angry response from China and the refusal of President Hu Jintao to attend a meeting of heads of state with Obama. The summit ended with a desperate attempt to cobble an agreement together with numerous texts circulating, private meetings between Obama and the Chinese Prime Minister and negotiators working into the early hours and again on the final day. In the last hours a group led by the US, Britain and Australia forced the Danish President out of the chair and pushed through a compromise amongst a small group of the most powerful nations. The final text appeared just before midnight and was immediately attacked by those excluded as a deal done in the dark and a coup against the UN.

The summit began with a two hundred-page draft agreement covering a wide range of areas. It ended with a few pages of vague statements and promises for tomorrow cobbled together on the final night by a few of the main players outside the international framework of the UN they all claim to uphold. The final act of the summit was merely to note the existence of the agreement.

In the end the Copenhagen summit achieved one thing: it showed that the bourgeoisie is not fit to hold the fate of the world in its hands and that until this class and the economic system that supports it is swept away neither humanity nor the Earth itself has a future.

North 03/01/10.


[1]. Financial Times 22/12/09.

[2]. Guardian 19/12/09

[3]. Independent 19/12/09

[4]. Guardian 07/12/09

[5]. Suffering the Science, Oxfam Briefing Paper, July 2009.

[6]. Guardian 19/12/09

[7]. Ocean Acidification: The Facts. European Association on Ocean Acidification (EPOCA) Outreach/RUG/

[8]. International Review 139. "The world on the eve of an environmental catastrophe II: Who is responsible?"

[9]. UK greenhouse gas emissions: measurement and reporting. National Audit Office, March 2008.

[10]. Too good to be true? The UK's climate change record. Helm, Smale, Phillips. December 2007.

[11]. Guardian On-line 20/12/09

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