To Fight Climate Change, Fight Capitalism

Commentators hail the Paris Agreement and UN Sustainable Development Goals as solutions to climate change – but as long as they shy away from challenging capitalism, they will never succeed.

Vivid Economics and the Finance for Biodiversity Initiative have just released their Greenness of Stimulus Index (GSI) report, which assesses how much of the stimulus packages passed by the world’s major economies is being invested in a green recovery from Covid. Perhaps unsurprisingly, its findings show that major economies around the world have failed to invest enough, reinforcing negative environmental trends as a result.

The US, for example, has spent $900 billion on a stimulus package, and Joe Biden recently signed his Executive Order for Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. Biden has also re-joined the Paris Agreement after Trump’s withdrawal. Despite that, the US’s GSI score remains negative. The Covid recovery measures are doing more harm than good to the environment – and the Paris Agreement is not preventing the damage.

In light of this, the GSI report has highlighted the importance of discussing whether grand programmes like the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals—which we are told are the best pathway to alleviate the incoming climate catastrophe—are as progressive as they are made out to be.

The Paris Climate Agreement

The adoption of the landmark Paris Climate Agreement (PCA) at the COP 2015 summit by nearly every nation indicated a truly global response to climate change and its associated negative effects. Signatories committed to aiming to significantly lower global greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C.

But the PCA is riddled with problems. The first of these is the fact that it does not have clear, legally binding emission targets for developed countries. Instead, it allows countries to voluntarily set their own emission pledges, with no enforcement – thereby giving the most polluting countries the ability to skip real climate action and scrutiny.

Developed capitalist countries can offer piecemeal climate pledges while greenwashing their pollution to the general public: this tendency is evident in the PCA’s long-term zero-emissions target, which, shrouded in legalese, ambiguously suggests that signed-up countries should reach net-zero global emissions by sometime between 2060 and 2080.

The PCA fails to include any changes in basic policy for de-carbonising the economy. More specifically, it does not address the elephant in the room – capitalism. It’s clear that the pursuit and continuation of an economic system built upon exploitation of the environment and endless unsustainable economic growth has been the biggest contributor to climate change, and with nothing in the PCA to address the environmental consequences of capitalist and neoliberal policies, countries attempt the impossible of trying to reach emissions targets and sustainability while pursuing their damaging economic objectives.

The Sustainable Development Goals

This failure to address the inherent contradictions of capitalism and the environment runs deeper in capitalist states’ attempt to provide multilateral climate mitigation policies. The UN’s Sustainable Deveopment Goals (SDGs) are one the most famous of these global policy platforms.

Goal 8 of the UN’s SDGs is ‘Decent work and economic growth’; more specifically, the promotion of ‘sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.’ The argument of capitalists is that increasing the levels of economic activity leads to better wages and prosperity for workers. We know that this is untrue. A growing capitalist economy only works to keep money and prosperity in the pockets of the wealthiest few and, as mentioned, has resulted in the depletion of the climate.

As such, the SDGs epitomise the attempts made by capitalist states afraid of transformative change to present half-baked progressivism. The goals settle on suggesting mild reform, failing to push for the necessary radical policies like a four-day week or the democratic ownership of business. Climate change, in this model, is a problem which can be solved through the development of technology and the belief that improving that technology will allow unsustainable economic growth to continue.

The SDG index ranks countries on their ability to achieve and commitment to achieving the SDGs. Research conducted by the University of Leeds has shown that the countries which are ranked highest on the SDG index have the highest levels of consumption, significantly overshooting Raworth’s planetary boundaries model, which means that a continuing assessment of a state’s environmental sustainability by the SDG index will only lead to the worsening of climate change.

One reason for this is the weighting of the goals: only four relate to environmental sustainability, while the rest focus on social development. Rich nations who have already built decent social infrastructure can therefore use this to outweigh their poor environmental record; poorer nations pick up the blame for bad environmental records while their wealthier counterparts get away with the bare minimum. This point is particularly relevant when you consider that many rich nations offshore their most polluting industries to the Global South.

Moving Forward

Climate change is indeed a global challenge which requires a global response, and we should not completely disregard the Biden Administration rejoining the PCA. The GSI report has shown that Biden’s new $1.9 trillion stimulus package to support the country’s economic recovery does have the potential to push the US to a positive GSI score if a high proportion of this money is spent on a green economy. The Left should look to ensure that tentative approval is coupled with the building of a strong global movement – one that challenges the contradictions of the climate agreements and goals which are sold to us as the gospel by governments and the media.

And alternative indices exist which address the social and environmental challenges in a way that the SDGs do not. One example is Kate Raworth’s ‘Safe and Just Space for Humanity‘ doughnut model: using models like this, economies can work towards reshaping themselves into progressive societies which ensure a strong social foundation built upon fighting inequality in all areas, while at the same time providing high quality green jobs to keep below the environmental ceiling – past which we incur devastating consequences.

There are green shoots for a change like this visible, with movements like the Green New Deal gaining traction and Greta Thunberg’s School Strike for Climate highlighting the desire of young people to revolutionise the system under which we operate. Legalese and market-based shortcuts to skim around real responsibility is not what these young people want to see – instead, they want to see the systemic change necessary to save the world.