Elites Won’t Save the Planet — We Need a Mass Movement

At COP26 this week, some of the world’s biggest corporate polluters sent huge delegations to proclaim the need for climate action. They’re presenting themselves as the new climate saviors, but averting disaster won’t come from those who make a profit from killing the planet.

The COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, UK on Novemenber 2, 2021. (Jonne Roriz / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Ever since 1995, the United Nations has staged regular climate summits, purportedly to facilitate cooperation between nations to limit emissions. Data from the Climate Investigations Centre shows that, at those events, the politicians have always been accompanied by a substantial corporate presence, with some big polluters sending delegations larger than entire nations.

In some ways, the twenty-sixth UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) simply represents more of the same. It is, after all, an event officially sponsored by Scottish Power, National Grid, SSE, Hitachi, Microsoft, NatWest, GSK, Reckitt, Unilever, and Sainsbury’s.

One of the main things that distinguishes this conference from those that have preceded it, however, is that this time far more corporations have come to the view that there is profit to be made in renewable energy. It’s on that basis that the former negotiator for Australia, Richie Merzian, approvingly called COP26 a “trade show” for climate change.

Increasingly, mainstream commentators enthuse about the prospect of Big Business adopting new technologies to pull the planet back from a climate disaster. But Big Business isn’t going to save the world.

A Question of Consumption

The problem isn’t simply that corporations often lie, using environmental rhetoric to “greenwash” their images. It goes much deeper than that.

Capitalism must grow. Its blind search for profit might bring disaster, but it will still sniff out opportunities for  expansion, indifferent to experience or consequences. As a result, even measures that might alleviate the environmental crisis become immediately weaponized against the planet.

For instance, the panels that produce solar electricity have improved at a remarkable rate, offering a tantalizing glimpse of a future powered by the sun’s limitless power. The advances made in renewables and associated technologies (such as battery storage) will play a huge role in any serious response to the environmental crisis.

Yet researchers Richard York and Shannon Elizabeth Bell caution that capitalism has already undergone many  previous energy transitions: from biofuels (such as wood) to coal, from coal to oil, from oil to natural gas, and now, potentially, from fossil fuels to renewables. They warn that no established energy source has undergone a sustained decline merely because a new one became available. More typically, rather than replacing the older source, the new source is immediately used to intensify growth and thus more overall energy use.

In many cases, the addition of new sources has actually increased consumption of previous types of energy. The embrace of fossil fuels led, in relative terms, to a decline in biofuels. Yet, in absolute terms, the use of petroleum in logging trucks and mills greatly intensified deforestation and thus produced a net increase in the use of wood. Similarly, the rise of petroleum did not curtail trade in whale oil, but instead fostered a dramatic intensification of whaling — partly because whale ships became much more efficient, and partly because the industry developed new uses (such as in margarine) for its products.

It remains to be seen whether renewables will have the same effect. The available figures show a significant shift to renewable energy in terms of new capacity, with investment in renewables outpacing fossil fuels. Yet, internationally, the percentage of renewable energy as a proportion of electricity and other energy has been very slow to change. Renewable energy consumption has increased — but overall energy consumption has increased far, far more. There’s no mystery as to why.

In 1865, William Stanley Jevons published a book entitled The Coal Question. The titular query centered on Britain’s response to the rapid depletion of its coal stocks, with the book most remembered today because of Jevons’s rejection of claims that technologically driven energy efficiency would alleviate the shortage. “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose,” he said, “that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”

What he meant was that efficiency decreases price and thus encourages use, leading to a rebound that wipes out the supposed savings. The so-called Jevons Paradox has been demonstrated over and over again in the years since. A prosaic example involves refrigerators, with the improvements of new models corresponding not to a decline in the overall environmental impact of white goods, but rather fostering a huge boom in the industry, and so a massive total rise in both energy consumption and carbon dioxide output. Because capital must expand, technologies that, in the abstract, should reduce resource use become the basis for a reorganization that enables fresh accumulation.

The first generation of computer users will remember the claim that screen use would make paper redundant — something that palpably failed to occur, as computerization provided fresh markets supplying home and office printers.

Likewise, the invention of synthetic alternatives did not mean that natural fibers were no longer used — instead, their production massively expanded in parallel with the new options.

Enthusiasts for “green capitalism” insist that, as economies mature, their “material footprint” — the measure of their environmental impact — declines. In the digital era, they say, technological progress decouples capitalist growth from ecological damage, allowing the system to expand safely into infinity.

Yet while some individual economies have reduced their dependence on nonrenewable resources, they’ve generally done so by outsourcing dirty industries. As a meta-analysis of 179 studies between 1990 and 2019 put it, “no evidence for the needed kind of decoupling currently exists.” On the contrary, the materials used by the global economy passed 100 billion tonnes per year — a disturbing new record, and the exact opposite of “dematerialization.”

“Not only is there no empirical evidence supporting the existence of a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures on anywhere near the scale needed to deal with environmental breakdown,” explained a major 2019 report for the European Environmental Bureau, “but also, and perhaps more importantly, such decoupling appears unlikely to happen in the future.”

Think of electric vehicles (EVs) — a mode of transport far less destructive than internal-combustion engines. Like solar power, EVs will surely play an important role in a sustainable future. Under capitalism, however, they’ve been seized upon by the automotive industry to preserve and extend car culture. Rather than reducing waste and decoupling transportation from material inputs, the automotive companies see opportunities to renew old markets in Europe and North America, and to open fresh ones in places such as China.

Their success in selling high-tech private vehicles will, accordingly, forestall sustainable options such as bicycles and public transport, push cities to maintain the wasteful infrastructure designed around cars, and foster a new and ruinous race for lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, and other rare materials needed for batteries.

Against Corporate Environmentalism

If the tendency of capitalism to respond to a crisis with more capitalism gives the system its disastrous momentum, it also provides the capitalists themselves with insulation from the consequences of their actions. The intensified commodification resulting from each fresh calamity creates opportunities for those with disposable wealth to ensure that they and their loved ones remain more or less unaffected.

The planet might be growing unbearably hot, but if you have the money, you can still live in air-conditioned comfort in a pleasant location. In the midst of mass extinctions, luxury eco-resorts and private zoos allow the well-to-do to gaze on tigers, orangutans, and elephants. That’s why, even a looming apocalypse will not, in and of itself, motivate them to change course.

The technology to prevent climate change exists — and it’s getting better all the time. What we don’t have is a social system that allows us to use it.

The failure of world leaders to deliver meaningful political outcomes at COP26 will give “green” entrepreneurs more room to posture as a meaningful alternative. In that context, it’s crucial for activists not to fall in behind corporate environmentalism, but rather to build an independent movement, one that prioritizes human need over capitalist logic.