COP28 has been a retreat from nativity into pantomime. For the real world, it drifted closer to tragedy. As the deadline approached, climate activists held their breath but fossil lobbyists held the pursestrings.
A host of good people worked their socks off in Dubai, all urging world leaders to grasp the existential emergency we face. But the 2,456 accredited fossil-fuel lobbyists at COP28 had other plans.
They were determined that no Wise Men or Women would arrive on camels. No precious gifts would be offered as tributes to the wonders of creation. Instead, the Great Unwise, descended from private planes, only offering trinkets and small change; all as a distraction from the greatest threat to life as we know it.
No school nativity could have created such a parody. An apology of world Leaders struggled to move the agenda from the superficial to the substantial. The establishment of a Loss and Damage fund, to compensate developing nations hit hardest by the ravages of climate disruption, highlighted the shortcomings of gesture politics. Some $700 million of initial pledges was put into the Loss and Damage pot. The amount needed is 1,000 times more. The only way of assembling such a fund would be through different institutional arrangements, not from individual nation contributions. But the problem gets worse.
The devil’s dilemma
Saudi Arabia was always going to be a stumbling block. If a nation’s power and influence flows directly from its vast oil deposits that nation isn’t going to lead any charge into post-fossil-fuel economics. The Saudis want to avoid any commitment to cut fossil fuel production and use. They like adding words such as ‘unabated’ to carbon reduction references. It means they can plant a tree somewhere and pretend it offsets the carbon emissions from gas and oil they pump. Financial traders also love such fantasy offsets because they open up a world of speculative trading that makes shed loads of money without saving the planet at all.
What trips up COP28, however, isn’t Big Oil and Gas countries or companies. It comes from countries that are cash-poor but oil-rich. These are the nations that would love to be part of a Green Revolution but who can only finance it from the oil and gas assets they have.
Uganda has been rocked by wild weather events that climate change has been throwing up. It wants to shift into a renewable energy economy, but its only asset able to finance this is their estimated $47 billion of oil and gas reserves. Iraq is in a similar position. In the droughts of the past year, up to 7 million Iraqis struggled to find water. Where rivers ran dry, people were paying up to $80 a month to access clean water. With Iraq set to become the world’s third largest oil and gas supplier, who is to tell them they can’t use it to stay alive?
All of the developing nations that oppose a commitment to leave fossil fuels in the ground are in the same position. They could be paid to leave it there, but there is no chance of richer nations stumping up the cash to do so. What’s needed is a new global framework given to the World Bank and the IMF.
This wouldn’t be far from the role J. M. Keynes wanted the World Bank/IMF to play when both were set up post-1945. Then it was about solidarity and development, today it is about survival and decarbonisation. The starting point, however, is to recognise that such a shift can not/will not come from any appeal to the generosity of richer nations. We need to adapt Keynes’ model to chase the globalisation and financialisation of wealth.
First, give the World Bank a remit to levy an international Tobin Tax. The original idea (from professor James Tobin) has been around for decades. It involves putting a 0.5% levy on all speculative financial transactions. This would have no impact on long term investment planning but would tax the casino gambling that today’s financial system revolves around.
Little progress has ever been made on levying such a tax. The debate always got stuck on which countries would participate and which wouldn’t. We need to move the goalposts. Give the remit to the World Bank. Tell its staff their wages will only come from its successful implementation. My bet is that they would have a scheme up and running within a week. Then, and only then, would we move beyond the begging bowl approach of appeals to national benevolence.
A variation could also see the World Bank given the power to levy a 10% charge on all fossil fuel production, a 10% levy on all flights and a 20% ground-rent premium on public and private airports. The fuel levy would go straight to the World Bank (with exemptions for Green Transition Plans in developing nations). Progressive fuel tax policies should be urged upon advanced economies and nations themselves should retain the airports’ levy.
A third option would be a global tax on internet trading and services. This would avoid countries having to chase tax avoidance schemes from one tax haven to another. Onshore traders and producers would not then be left to shoulder all the costs of infrastructure services that domestic economies depend on.
Underpinning all such options lies an important issue in today’s politics and economics. The Thatcher/Regan era saw capitalism transform itself, from land and production capitalism to finance capitalism. Money – rather than land or goods – became the new deity.
Globalised and deregulated, finance capitalism has wrought havoc ever since. When the casino crashes it demands the State bails it out. At all other times it evades paying the taxes that stabilise and civilise economies. So when the Right say a country cannot afford to restore services until productivity and growth has been restored, this is merely the Lords of Finance declaring that the poor must suffer while their dominions go unchallenged.
The productivity delusion
Until 1979, pay and productivity rose in line with each other. Since then the rich have creamed off all the productivity gains, leaving workers on stranded pay or replaced by untaxed automated systems.
Productivity gains no longer provide governments with the cash to restore wages and services. To do so we need a fundamental rethink of how we tax corporate wealth and the super-rich. Labour has yet to grasp this.
What we need is ‘a 1945-moment’; a moment when world leaders recognised that old institutions were no longer fit for post-war reconstruction.
Institutionally, a new world order was called for. So it is today. But if we are to resurrect him, let us at least bring Keynes back as an ecologist as much as an economist.
The bland leading the bland
The trouble is that today’s international Leaders are neither. Most are pantomime characters not visionaries; none more so than Britain’s Rishi Sunak.
Sunak’s biggest contribution to COP28 was its brevity. He spent more time on his private plane than at the conference. The entire UK delegation avoided giving press briefings or interviews. Ministers may not have been wearing wearing burkas but they were definitely in purdah.
We also know that conference organisers were given advance notice of Sunak’s intention to row back on existing UK climate programmes. Even before he withdrew Britain’s Climate Minister from the conference, Sunak had established his reputation as the ‘politicus interruptus’ of climate politics; prematurely pulling Britain out of everything that might make a difference.
Sunak will not make Britain a leader of any Green Revolution. Instead, he grasps at the pretence of making new nuclear the centrepiece of transformation, when neither the budget nor the timescale make this credible. His commitment will go the same way as HS2 and his failures probably blamed on Rwanda. But what will fill the climate gap?
Listen to Leonard
If Labour is to be the answer, it too must rapidly change. To avoid climate breakdown Britain must embrace the radical and transformative. There is no viable alternative. Conventional economics races towards a climate precipice. And as Leonard Cohen warned –
Things are going to slide
Slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing
Nothing you can measure any more.
Is there an alternative? For sure. Just step past the fossil-fuel lobbyists at COP28, past the national delegations of ministerial ineptitude, and mingle with the Green New Dealers outside. They have ideas aplenty, alternatives in their thousands, and hope (and inclusion) enough for all.
And if you listen really carefully, you might find the answers sound a lot like the last Labour manifesto. Now there’s a heresy worth savouring.