Beyond face-saving greenwash

It wasn’t meant to be like this: Nigel Doggett reports on failure to secure international commitments

COP26 in Glasgow was billed as the crunch point for climate action. With the ongoing Covid pandemic, the participation of small, poorer nations and NGOs is limited, carrying the risk that negotiation will be on the terms of the G7 or G20. Some environmental organisations even called for it to be postponed, but it is hard to see how this would help.

The 2015 Paris Agreement was only secured at the last moment at COP21, where feelings of relief at the declaration of aims and general principles was tempered by disappointment at the meagre specifics. This time the political price of perceived failure would again be high, so a ringing face-saving declaration of intent will no doubt emerge at the end.

From early autumn it was clear that the limited groundwork laid by the UK government would fail to secure the necessary commitments. It wasn’t supposed to be like this: 2020 was scheduled as the year that ambitious detailed plans were agreed but, even after a year’s delay, many key countries have yet to submit an up to date Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) plan for carbon reductions.

Yet global popular concern and appetite for action have never been greater. The need to stabilise the climate is overwhelmingly accepted by institutions of government at all levels, business and civil society. The key questions are how fast this can be achieved and by what means. The demand for a just transition and climate justice, offering viable choices for those on the front lines of climate impacts and employment, is now mainstream too.

Far from a zero-sum game whereby my contribution incurs a price somewhere else, these do not merely add up: they can produce a multiplier effect. So government raising regulatory standards spurs business innovation and consumer enthusiasm, while civil society campaigns galvanise local people and councils as well. Of the many exciting initiatives that have sprung up, the Rapid Transition Alliance brings together academics, campaigners and organisations seeking to make the change to share knowledge and exemplars. Most remarkably, in 15 years the Transition Towns movement has spread beyond leaders such as Totnes, Stroud and Lewes to over 300 diverse places in the UK alone, including urban Brixton in London and most recently Crowborough, East Sussex.

Meanwhile, the COP26 Coalition made a virtue out of necessity in organising local events on Saturday 6th November to assemble a diverse spectrum of civil society organisations ranging beyond the usual political and environmental groups. As well as calling on the COP to match words with actions commensurate with the climate emergency we face, this aims to provide a springboard for continuing campaigning on the ground and pressure on local and national government. Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain activists took direct action to highlight the necessity of immediate change to meet net zero by 2030 targets.

In 2014 Naomi Klein counterposed ‘Capitalism vs The Climate’, citing the primacy of the profit motive and growth imperative, a lack of accountability to employees and communities alike, focusing on the malign influence of Big Oil in the USA. But the potential of financial institutions was highlighted in 2010 by Peter Newell and Matthew Paterson’s book Climate Capitalism, which draws on neo-Gramscian political economy to identify a potential ‘climate coalition’, including business sectors such as insurance with long-term perspectives, joined by a growing number of firms with business models predicated on the green transition.

The UK government’s Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener, published on 19th October, places major reliance on business to achieve the transition on the basis of market forces. This simplistic view is often counterposed by suspicion on the left: no one ever got a standing ovation at Party Conference for praising business. Clearly, many firms do ‘greenwash’ their image – consumer products from mineral water to domestic aviation now claim to be carbon neutral. Yet for every Exxon or BP, there are many small local or family firms and corporations embedded in their communities where management, unions and employees promote good environmental practice, as those in the Quaker tradition long have, for people and the planet as a whole.

This year, the Guardian reported a risk intelligence company, Verisk Maplecroft, warning of a disorderly shift to the low-carbon economy due to G20 nations falling behind their ambitions (26th May) and asset managers calling for cuts to support for fossil fuels (10th June). On 11th October, eleven leading UK companies called for robust government action on biodiversity, stating “there is no business on a dead planet” – an echo of the green trade unionists’ slogan, “there are no jobs on a dead planet”. This doesn’t invalidate the green critiques of ‘actually existing’ capitalism; at this late hour we need to realise the scope for decarbonisation everywhere, not just through the state and civil society.

Whatever the outcome of COP26, there will be no final victory in the lifetimes of anyone on earth today. A marathon is made up of many steps.

This is an updated version of the article in Chartist 313.

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