How a ‘Carbon Cage’ Blocks Climate Mitigation

How a ‘Carbon Cage’ Blocks Climate Mitigation

Our current carbon-heavy economic system creates barriers around us that prevent effective climate change action.

The majority of humans on the planet are now feeling the effects of climate breakdown. The planet is now 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer that preindustrial levels. This means that devastating wildfires and heat waves, floods and droughts are affecting everyday life and communities around the world. Scientific Analysis indicates that climate-related disasters will increase in the years ahead, whether they are sudden like hurricanes or gradual like sea-level rise.

If we do not take immediate and drastic action to rapidly lower global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, we are likely to breach crucial limits in the planet’s climate system, with catastrophic consequences for global food security, human health and livelihoods.

Yet, though the global community negotiated ways to slow climate change at COP 27 in Egypt, these leaders did so against a backdrop of work showing decades of failure to heed science and meaningfully change course. My research reveals how the current economic system blocks meaningful climate action and shapes many of the responses we get, such as net zero commitments or carbon offsets. We live in a carbon trap, a result of industrial capitalism’s dependence on fossil fuels, and its dogma that limitless growth is possible on a planet with finite resources. If we don’t break this stranglehold we will continue to speed towards a catastrophic and rapid crisis.

One of my major research questions is why governments and policy-makers, confronted with decades of overwhelming scientific evidence, the increased frequency and visibility, and the human and financial costs of catastrophic climate disasters, have not created policies and actions that are consistent with the dangers we face. Scientists have been warning of the potential perils of a changing global climate since at least the 1950s. And while publicly denying that climate change is happening, in the 1970s and 1980s oil companies like Exxon, now Exxon Mobil, were actively studying the problem themselves.

In the 1990s scientific bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change began releasing reports on climate breakdown, with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change created to address the problem. Its first Conference of the Parties (COP) was held in 1995 in Germany, followed 25 years later by COP 21 when almost 200 countries agreed to the Paris Agreement.

But what these countries are actually doing, is not enough. The current country pledges to the Paris agreement not only fail to meet the agreement’s basic goal of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius and its aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius, but they could also lead to a warming of 2.6 degrees C by the end of the century. Governments globally have fossil fuel production plans that are double what would be in line with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C. In addition, many of the net zero commitments that companies and governments have made, with plans that include using carbon offsets, are either not believable or not transparent. At COP 27, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres remarked that fossil fuel companies are engaged in “rank deception,” using “bogus” net-zero pledges to cover up their plans to massively expand fossil fuels.

This brings us to the carbon trap: We are all trapped in a fossil-fueled economy system with its large production levels, its need for comparable levels of consumption and a powerful constituency that seeks to preserve the status quo. The fossil fuel industry is the most prominent. This has created multiple ecological crises that are planetary in scale. But class, geography, history, and race all play a role in who is most affected. Geography is crucial. The status quo favors the Global North in adisproportionate way, due to its long history of carbon-intensive development and growth that often relied on colonial dominance and exploitation of peoples and countries primarily in the Global South.

The metaphor of the carbon cage, also described in the video accompanying this commentary, allows us to think about what all of this means for our everyday lives. Individuals and communities around the globe may be more aware of the seriousness of climate change, but those who are least responsible are paying the highest price. The survival of the majority of the world’s population depends on finding a job that pays for food, shelter, and clothing.

It is hard to find decent and dignified work for many people around the world. Our jobs require us to consume, and to do so, regardless of the environmental consequences. To fund their critical services, governments rely on tax revenue from growth, while pension plans rely on market growth to ensure that their members can retire with security.

It is not always easy to challenge a system which commodifies existence. In the end, each of these factors represent a specific bar in our ability to effectively address the climate crisis.

But, the carbon cage is not permanent. The work being done globally on a just transition, aiming to replace an economy built on extraction, waste and injustice with one that regenerates communities and the planet for collective well-being, can weaken the cage. This work includes energy democracy, with community and publicly owned renewables that ensure that essential services respond to need over profit; and local agroecological food systems that build biodiversity and resilience while feeding communities.

There are many options: green jobs, accessible public transport for all, livable communities, goods made to last, and many more. These are the examples that should inspire leaders at COP 27 to finally change course.

This article was supported by the Global Reporting Centre and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Kate Ervine is an associate professor of global development studies at Saint Mary’s University and the author of Carbon. Her research focuses on the global political economy and climate breakdown. Follow Kate on Twitter @KateErvine.

This video was produced by Duy Linh Tu, Jeffery DelViscio, Tulika Bose, and Dominic Smith.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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