COP21 – climate and capitalism

Joe Sabatini dissects the neoliberal mindset behind the Paris talks in December and what the COP21 Agreement means for saving the planet


Together, we’ve shown what’s possible when the world stands as one. In short, this agreement will mean less of the carbon pollution that threatens our planet and more of the jobs and economic growth driven by low-carbon investments.Barack Obama, 12 December 2015

The Paris Agreement is a turning point in the world’s fight against unmanaged climate change… It creates enormous opportunities as countries begin to accelerate… towards low-carbon economic growth.Nicolas Stern, 13 December 2015

A historic, legally binding climate deal that aims to hold global temperatures to a maximum rise of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, staving off the worst effects of catastrophic global warming, has been secured. The Guardian, 13 December 2015

Anyone reading these quotes could easily be lulled into thinking that the COP21 talks in Paris marked a game-changing moment in the fight against climate change. Unfortunately, for the mass of human beings and other species, the opposite will be the case.

Industrial capitalism has already resulted in a one degree rise in global temperature. The impact of this can be seen through glaciers melting, sea levels rising, species declining, oceans acidifying and ever increasing destruction due to storms, droughts and floods. Whatever was agreed in Paris we were already living within a more hostile climate. The Paris Agreement sets out the levels of climate change that the world’s ruling class will accept to retain the status quo. The entire Agreement is a gamble that we can limit the process of climate change without fundamental changes to neoliberal capitalism.

The Paris Agreement

The Agreement3 itself is typical of many during the neoliberal era, in that it is heavy on what Moretti and Pestre have called ‘bankspeak’. There are no sections speaking in plain terms about transforming agriculture or industries like mining and transportation. Instead it speaks of ‘governance’, ‘capacity building’, and uses other neoliberal jargon. This means that the measures agreed are often outweighed by the terms of the agreement, leaving vast scope for the very failures of climate governance that the talks aimed to solve.

The Agreement begins by ‘recognizing that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries’.

The first, and most widely misquoted, section is around what was agreed on limiting global temperature rises. The actual text appears in paragraph 17, where the parties commit to: ‘holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below two degrees above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees’. If you read the various media reports instead of the actual Agreement, it is easy to be glib about the Agreement limiting the rise to 1.5 degrees. Yet in the Agreement strong language, such as ‘holding,’ is reserved for the two degree limit and the weaker language of ‘pursuing efforts’ is used for the 1.5 degree target.

The Agreement includes a commitment to limit the amount of greenhouse gas emissions due to human activities at a level where they are balanced out by the capacity of trees, soil and oceans to act as sinks to absorb them. However, this is set for some unspecified time between 2050 and 2100. In addition, the Agreement requires every country to commit to reductions in carbon emissions, and to a five year review.

Finally, richer nations will provide developing nations with $100 billion per year until 2020 to finance changes to their economies and infrastructure. This commitment at least has a price tag attached, though one could question how deliverable this would be if other priorities, such as a banking crash or war, intrude.

So where are the problems? Firstly, while the agreement makes it legally binding for each nation to reduce emissions, it does not require them to do so at a specific rate. This is a step back from the Kyoto protocol, and allows countries to free‑ride if others are cutting emissions faster. Secondly, the US got their way by preventing developed countries from being liable for loss and damage due to their own emissions.  Thirdly, even though the financial commitment looks good at first glance, it should be remembered it is just 8 percent of declared global military expenditure.5


A critical section of the Agreement focuses on finance. As well as covering the provisions for the $100 billion transfer, it spells out the importance of private and public sources of financing. Paragraph 59 spell out the role of the financial institutions that have been set up to serve the Agreement, and in paragraph 55 the terms of a ‘payment by results’ mechanism are explained. In practice this means that developed nations will determine who gets what payments, under what conditions, and so control who the economic winners and losers of climate change will be.

This is about capital not climate change

While attention has been focused on the Paris talks, I looked at what was being posted on the Project Syndicate website. This is one of the best places to get a snapshot of bourgeois opinion syndicated from around the world. In the sustainability and environment section the top two articles were The Renewable Energy Revolution, and Unlocking Climate Finance.

Reading these I was struck by the way sections of the capitalist class are exploring the use of neoliberal mechanisms to engage with the climate agenda.  Unlocking Climate Finance looks at one of the impacts of a one degree temperature rise – the pests threatening coffee harvests in Latin America:

In order to help Central American farmers… the Inter‑Departmental Development Bank has partnered with two global corporations – Starbucks and ECOM… Our $100 billion programme is designed to provide an example of how financing to combat the effects of climate change can be delivered to those who need it the most.6

The author goes on to explain that the programme offers ‘long-term loans for replacement of coffee trees to small-scale farmers who traditionally have little or no access to financing of any kind’. Although only one project, it provides insight into the underlying reality that the only ‘solutions’ on offer are extensions of market mechanisms. This is perhaps the real reason why the Agreement falls short of the Kyoto Agreement of 1997. If the parties at Paris had to set targets for emissions reduction this would require Keynesian economic measures, particularly fiscal-based solutions such as carbon taxes. However, when specific emissions targets are replaced by a global floating average it sets the stage for the market to be the arbiter. Another article on Project Syndicate provides an insight into how investors are weighing up the Agreement in terms of these market mechanisms:

The renewable energy revolution is not being driven by a tax on carbon emissions or subsidies for clean energy; it is the result of reductions in the cost of manufacturing that will soon make it more cost‑effective to generate power from water, wind, and the sun than from burning coal.7

This captures the agenda of the capitalist class: We could have firm targets with dates and fiscal policies to ensure countries meet them but they want to leave it to the market to determine the pace of change. In Britain we have seen how the market, without state intervention, impacts on green energy. The Tories’ withdrawal of subsidies has dented the demand for renewables and denied industry the capital to continue reducing the cost of producing renewable energy.

If this is the Keynesian critique, a Marxist analysis can go further. Capital is not just invested in the production of commodities but in commodities that take a specific form. This means that once money has been invested in coal or oil these have to sell to recoup the investment and make a profit. The COP21 Agreement completely ignores this crucial issue and Keynesianism has no answer to a fundamental problem – How could capitalism deal with wiping out past investment in fossil fuels when kick-starting a green economy?

If we were to transition from fossil to renewables, it would require the mothballing of trillions of dollars of investment.8 The cost to the capitalist class would be colossal and any attempt to fulfil the terms set out in the Agreement would likely lead to a bailout of the industrial giants on a scale that dwarfs the bailing out of the banks after the 2008 crash. If this circumstance were to transpire on our rulers’ terms we will end up living in a decarbonised world where the mass of the population are more indebted than in any time in history. Greece provides a scene of what such a world would be like.9 Here we have seen how the powers behind this Agreement have shrunk an economy by 30 percent, reduced its per capita consumption and loaded debt onto its state institutions. What has been achieved within the frame work of the Eurozone, will be exported wholesale by the Paris COP21 Agreement as states seek to shift the financial burden of dealing with climate change on to the working class and less powerful states.

For revolutionaries, the response to the Agreement should be to hold our rulers’ feet to the fire on their promises, while rejecting the neoliberal path to reducing emissions. Short of revolution, we must call for Keynesian measures but without any bailout for the energy corporations. This would bring to a head the fundamental class and economic tensions buried beneath the ‘bankspeak.’


1 Matthew Taylor, ‘Climate deal provides ‘best chance we have’ of saving the planet’, The Guardian, 13 December 2015,

2 Quoted in The Guardian, 13 December 2015

3 A copy of the text of the Agreement can be found on

4 This article is essential reading for anyone trying to come to terms with the way official reports are worded in the neoliberal era. Moretti and Pestre, ‘Bankspeak’, New Left Review, 92, 2015.

5 This is from a quote from Dr. Ilan Kelman of UCL, London,

6 Luis Alberto Moreno, ‘Unlocking Climate Finance’,

7 John Matthews, ‘The Renewable Energy Revolution’,–mathews-2015-12

8 A perusal of corporate websites provides ample evidence on ongoing projects and new outlays of capital. Shell’s website includes a decision to move ahead with more deep sea exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, despite the history of explosions and oil spills:

9 Alyssia Battistoni makes a number of similar points in relation to Greece, in ‘How to change everything.’


This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of the rs21 magazine

There are 2 comments

  1. The meaning of COP 21 |

    […] Joe Sabatini explains the neoliberal mindset behind the UN climate talks in Paris last year–officially called the 21st Congress of the Parties for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP 21–and what the resulting agreement really means for saving the planet, in an article originally written for the January 2016 issue of the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century magazine and published at the rs21 website. […]


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