Blaming China won’t reduce emissions: Climate action now!

By Sam King

Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, points out the obvious. If China’s CO2 emissions are not curtailed, then the problem of global emissions can’t be solved. Yes, obviously. Given Chinese emissions are 27% of the world’s total, if the rest of the world reduced emissions to zero, but China didn’t, then the planet will keep heating.

This is pretty idiotic. We might remind Morrison that almost 1 in 5 people in the world live in China. So yes, if one fifth of the planet’s population is creating CO2 emissions, then atmospheric CO2 concentrations will continue to rise. The same could be said of India which has the same population as China, and more emissions than the European Union.

These are big places. But Morrison’s purpose is not to give a geography lesson. Rather to distract public discussion from his own government’s intent to sit on its hands in the lead up to the United Nations COP26 summit in Glasgow starting October 31.

In fact Morrison’s comments, while crude, underlines what is likely to be a basic dynamic of the COP26 conference: blame shifting along the lines of “we will do a bit more if you do it first”, or if you do more than us. Blame shifting will be a dynamic because the world economy is based on competition.

A different dynamic also likely to be at the Glasgow summit will reflect that large sections of the ruling elites know that change is necessary and inevitable if only to save their own skin and power. In the US, for example, many of the biggest capitalists – like Elon Musk and the tech moguls – are pro-renewables. In reality the energy and transport transition has already started. It is just happening at a glacial pace – and not the melting sort of glacier – as all the different factions squawk and squabble over its terms.

People attend a climate change demonstration in London, Britain, September 20, 2019. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

Who consumes?

Morrison and his sidekick Angus Taylor love to remind us that Australian emissions are going down. They even pretend to be somehow responsible for this while they actively sabotage the ongoing renewable electricity roll-out and do nothing to kick start electric road transport. It is true that emissions in Australia have gone down. That’s true, not only here but also in the US, European Union, Japan and every rich country in the world.

This partly because of increased renewable electricity generation which is now approaching around 20-25% of electricity in rich countries and China (28.8% in Australia). But mostly it’s because much of the world’s manufacturing production has shifted to East Asia and other low wage economies. This can be seen clearly by looking at the USA and China. It is no coincidence the US hit peak total emissions in 2000 – the year before China was finally permitted to join the World Trade Organisation, an event which accelerated the shift of basic goods production to China (as well as Vietnam, India and elsewhere). Over that same period “Chinese” emissions more than tripled.

If Morrison were to decide to get his bathroom in Kirribilli House renovated and used fully imported tiles, porcelain and metals – the emissions for producing his shiny new toilet would not be counted as Australian but Chinese, Vietnamese and so on.

Likewise, the insane quantities of coal and liquefied natural gas that Australia exports are not counted as Australian emissions. Only the emissions involved in mining and recorded methane leaks are “Australian”. But methane leakage can be and is covered up by the private corporations responsible.

And who does most of the consuming of products that cause “Chinese” emissions? Those with money of course. For the most part that is not, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexicans or Brazilians. Some people in poor countries have money, but since Morrison speaks about China as a whole, let’s compare.

As seen on the graph, rich countries like Australia, the US and Germany are MANY TIMES richer than the poor countries like China, Mexico and India. In fact, Australian average income in 2020 was almost US$52,000 compared with just $10,500 in China. FIVE TIMES more money. So where do most of these made in China items, pushing up “Chinese” emissions get consumed? It’s hardly a secret.

Morrison’s position amounts to saying: make our stuff for us, well consume it and pay you little. Oh and by the way, while you’re at it, find a way to do it more cleanly – at your own expense. Maybe he should ask the Chinese to clean his toilet too.

How can emissions actually be reduced?

Clearly Morrison’s blame shifting to China is not aimed at reducing emissions but disguising his own acquiescence to the fossil fuel interests that the Liberal Party is beholden too. At the same time, while perhaps a little less crudely, Biden and the Europeans are likely to support a version of the same basic outlook. Such an approach can not rapidly reduce emissions. Telling China, India and the other poorer and weaker economies to do the heavy lifting can’t work.

It can’t work economically because these societies do not have the social and economic resources to carry the burden of the whole world on their back. It can’t work politically because there is no prospect that the Chinese Communist Party leadership under Xi Xinping is going to agree to some onerous neo-colonial pact.

Morrison’s view amounts to this: we got rich by exploiting you, stealing your resources, flooding your markets when you were in infancy, hoarding the world’s scientific developments and sometimes invading when you disobeyed. Now we don’t wish to give up even a part of the enormous advantage and riches that we have amassed. We will fight hard to spread the burden of this new situation of our creation onto you as much as possible. That is not how Morrison sees it, but the Chinese do – and they are right.

What can Xinping’s response possibly be? The ruling elites in Washington and Canberra might wish Beijing was more compliant, but it is not. Washington has failed to bring a pliant regime to power in China. There is no sign that is going to change in the near term. It’s highly doubtful the Chinese public would even accept a bent knee leadership. If that is the case, then good.

China has already agreed to net Zero by 2060. This is a far more difficult and ambitious target than the various zero-by-2050 targets coming from the US, EU, UK and Japan where emissions are already slowly dropping. All of these targets are completely inadequate. So how is a far more rapid emissions reductions possible?

International Co-operation

This point sounds at the same time obvious and yet utterly naive. Obviously without cooperation between the key governments – the USA, China, India, Europe and Russia – we are, well… pretty fucked. Yet the prospect of collaboration as the US dial up hostility against both China and Russia seems utterly naive. Is it?

The essence of the cooperation has to be assistance to poor countries – including China. There is no other possible form that can come close to addressing the needs of the technical and economic changes required. Again: the burden of the transition has to be carried by the societies that have the social and economic resources to bear that burden. There is no other option available. That means increased financial assistance, increased “aid” for climate programs, vastly increased technical assistance to the poor countries and technology transfers.

In short it requires acknowledging what Morrison refuses: countries with the most resources – the rich countries – are going to have to take on not an “equal” share, not a lower share, but the lion’s share.

That is the essence of the road-block that humanity faces. We need a high level of international co-operation, but this is only possible when led by the rich countries. They have both the social and economic resources and the social and historical obligation.

Is international co-operation impossible today?

Absolutely not. That would be completely the wrong conclusion. Such a conclusion today, if it is drawn by progressives and environmental activists would mean abandoning the fight for what is necessary to address the mounting climate catastrophe. There could be no worse course for the climate movement to take, than to abandon the most crucial fight without even engaging in it. We don’t know if a fight will be won or lost until we fight it. More obviously: if you don’t fight, you lose.

One argument theorises that due to the cut-throat nature of the capitalist competition, co-operation to tackle climate change is impossible. It certainly is true that a thoroughly cooperative approach has to be based on human solidarity and not private profits. Sure, global net zero emissions may not be possible under capitalism. But it is not true that an immediate and substantial policy shift is impossible.

Really the argument that nothing can be done reflects the weak state of the climate justice movement and people’s feelings of powerlessness in the face of raging climate disaster and political paralysis. That is the social basis for such arguments which are absurd based on available facts.

It is absurd to believe that nothing can be done when already various factions of the ruling elites, especially in the United States and Europe are arguing that more can be done; when, for example, large capital – such as all the large car companies – are already investing billions of dollars preparing the transition to electric vehicles; when already the transition of the electricity grid is well under way and; when (most importantly ) an overwhelming majority of humanity is appalled at the catastrophic changes to the natural environment; when tens of millions, probably hundreds of millions would fight tooth and nail to force governments to act on climate; when China is not against co-operation but in-fact favours normalisation of economic relations; when whole sections of the capitalist class look at the future with fear of what economic, social and political results the climate crisis might bring upon their heads…… in this situation it is both false and counter-productive to say “oh, capitalism will always destroy the environment, so we can’t do anything until we get socialism”. Such arguments re-enforce the current popular demoralisation and are therefore themselves part of the road-block.

Mariam Wilkinson’s book, The Carbon Club, documents how a global deal came close to kick-starting the transition twenty years ago. Just a deal, which would have put us in a better situation today, came unstuck not inevitably, but as the outcome of political factors – especially the election of George Bush to Whitehouse and the organisation of paid political bands in the service of oil companies whose tactic was climate denialism.

The capitalists are able to co-operate when they need too. They cooperate every day because this is necessary for production and organisation of the system. Obviously, if faced with a powerful mass movement that could threaten them with massive street demonstrations, building occupations, civil disobedience and other forms of resistance to our government and corporations – our rulers could suddenly find more good to cooperate (and save their own skin).

Can such a movement be built today? Absolutely yes! Millions and millions of people in this country are OUTRAGED, even desperate to take action. Millions are involved in giving donations, signing petitions, sharing articles and raging in online forums because they don’t have any better outlet for the action we all want to take.

It is up to progressives and the environmental organisations to find the ways to provide a framework that can bring together all the thousands of small-scale groups and millions of individuals – and allow us to take collective stand publicly. We need public actions in the lead up to Glasgow around the most basic demand: climate action now!

Climate action now!

If a national day of action for September or October can be called in a serious and collaborative way by one or more of the major environment groups, unions or other high profile groups or individuals, that would provide a focus for everyone who wants to take public action against Morrison.

We should remember that the global “student strike” action in September 2019 was massive in Australia – with hundreds of thousands on the streets. Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 a large and escalating global campaign of public opposition was building up. That can be rekindled now. We have the ingredients to re-build a mass climate movement:

  • Widespread popular anger about the climate catastrophe
  • seven in ten Australians want the government to take more climate action
  • Clear divisions within the ruling class internationally and in Australia
  • Widespread public disdain and anger for Morrison
  • The impetuous of the IPCC report and the COP26 summit

The missing ingredient is leadership from the environment organisations and progressives that can provide a framework to mobilise this sentiment into public action.

If some large public actions start, there is no saying where they will end. But they need to start. We need a date, a credible call. Something the whole, broader environment movement can work towards. We need to fight for our planet!

With the release of the IPCC report, it is imperative we organise public opposition in the lead up to COP26. That is a once in five years meeting. It’s past time progressive and environmental organisations organised some more co-operation of our own.

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