“A true social climate revolution” is needed to save the planet

Marc Botenga of the Workers’ Party of Belgium spoke to Peoples Dispatch about the official discussions at the COP26 and the need for a social element in the green transition

November 08, 2021 by Muhammed Shabeer
From the demonstration in Glasgow demanding effective climate policies from the COP26. Photo: COMAC

As the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) is underway in Glasgow, progressive sections across the world are demanding radical and concrete proposals to deal with the disastrous impact of this global phenomenon. A huge number of climate activists and progressive youth have already marched on the streets of Glasgow demanding urgent measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Amid the summit, Peoples Dispatch spoke to Marc Botenga from the Workers Party of Belgium (PTB/PVDA), who is a Member of European Parliament (MEP) on a host of issues regarding climate change.

Peoples Dispatch:  What are PTBs thoughts about the COP26 conference? How important is this conference to ensure policies to address the climate emergencies? Is there a likelihood of a consensus between global powers, setting aside their exceptionalism?

Marc Botenga: This summit should be important, but I agree with Greta Thunberg that the risk of much “blah blah blah” is huge. First, let us notice the predominance of Western wealthier delegations, also because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. We know, as established since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, that these industrialized countries are responsible for the biggest part of the emissions. So it’s up to them to take their responsibilities. Not the people of these countries, let’s be clear, but the big corporations.

Secondly, one of the central proposals pushed by, among others, the European Union are the so-called carbon markets. These allow companies to receive, sell and buy the right to emit, a trading system for the right to pollute. This market-based approach, the so-called Emissions Trading System (ETS), is one of the cornerstones of EU climate policy. The reasoning behind it is that the price of carbon will gradually increase, which in turn will motivate companies to shift towards more sustainable energy. The problem is that over the last 15 years, this system has utterly failed to reduce emissions adequately in the European Union. Countries have been handing out free permits, the price has generally been nowhere near the estimated necessary levels, and the decrease of available permits has been insufficient. Exporting this market-based logic to a global level is not going to save the planet.

We need radical change, a true social climate revolution. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that recent climate change is widespread, rapid, intense, and unprecedented in the last thousand years. The report is very clear: only “immediate, rapid, sustained and large-scale mitigation” can still limit the disaster. That requires massive public investment and binding reduction targets for multinational corporations, of course, but also a change of logic. Let me give an example. In a market-based approach, on energy policy for example, the objective is to create markets for renewable energy and make investments in renewable energy profitable. This should then convince or seduce private players to invest in renewables. But, obviously, as long as investments in fossil energy are profitable as well, corporations will continue to do both. Hence, the investments in green energy will serve as greenwashing for big fossil energy corporations while they continue to invest massively in fossil fuels.

Rather than leaving fundamental choices to the market, the public should gain control and be able to put the climate over profit. With both scientific and public pressure, the COP26 in Glasgow should endorse ambitious decisions, and stopping the financing of fossil fuels would be the bare minimum, but the summit could in any case constitute a basis on which the social and climate justice movement will build on further demands. Social movements, from the North and from the Global South, need to put as much pressure as possible so it impulses the change we need. COMAC, the student movement of the PTB, is in Glasgow with more than 200 young climate activists. They will get the message across: Change the system, not the climate. As the IPCC report says: “the future climate will depend on the choices we make now.” And the activists are there to remind the world leaders.

PD: What’s your take on the EU’s energy transition project and how well it is advancing? How do you evaluate such a program in the backdrop of the worsening climatic conditions in Europe marked by frequent floods, raging wildfires etc? Also, what do you think of the prospects of massive investment in nuclear energy in order to compensate for the divestments from the hydrocarbon industry?

MB: One can look at the European Green Deal from two angles. On the one hand, it is the most ambitious and coherent vision created so far at the European level from a market-based angle. On the other hand, it relies on the good will and willingness of private capital to invest, and the objectives are not ambitious enough to deliver on the promise of global warming below 1.5°C. The Green Deal is supposed to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030 and achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Yet, a 55% reduction by 2030 is far from sufficient. Science tells us that we need a reduction of at least 65% in order to align with the Paris Agreement. The concrete measures of the plan are detailed in the “FitFor55” package. And these seem insufficient to even reach this 55% reduction.

The Green Deal promises to spend 100 billion euros every year on the climate transition, but the European Commission itself admits that 260 billion per year is needed to meet its own targets. That is why activists are already calling the European Climate Act a capitulation. According to them, the EU law sends a signal that real and sufficient action is taken, when it is not.

The European Commission sees climate change mostly as an economic opportunity for its ‘European Champions’, the multinational corporations that will develop and sell their technology to the world markets. Competitive sustainability and sustainable competitiveness, the European Commission calls it. Looking at the proposed measures, climate change is not seen primarily as a global challenge, but as an opportunity for the European companies to increase their global market shares. Instead of facilitating the transfer of green technologies to the Global South, the Commission prefers to set up a Carbon border tax. Instead of taxing the big polluters, the free allocation of quotas under the ETS carbon market system will continue, while a ‘plastic tax’ might affect the people.

While bragging about renewables energies, fossil projects, mainly in the gas sector, still receive European funding. Total hypocrisy. We need massive public investment to implement the needed transition quickly as well as binding reduction and performance targets. Only this will enable us to reduce emissions by 65% by 2030 and become climate neutral by 2050.

Regarding nuclear energy, let us be clear, any euro spent in nuclear energy is a Euro not spent on renewable energy. Investing in nuclear plants means delaying the urgently needed transition to a massive renewable energy production, based mainly on solar and wind energy or on green hydrogen-based systems. Moreover, nuclear energy is a highly inflexible energy. In Belgium, in cases of excess energy production, it is not the nuclear power plants that are turned off, but the renewable energy production. Additionally, the nuclear waste problem is nowhere close to being solved, and there are questions on how raw materials like uranium are obtained by Western corporations, especially in African countries. In our view, therefore, nuclear energy offers no solution to the climate crisis in Belgium or Europe.

Watch: COP 26 marked by massive people’s mobilizations

PD: In the garb of switching to cutting edge green technologies, plant closures and lay-offs have become common in the automobile industry across the world. What has been your take on such anti-worker tendencies in the name of green transition and how judicious has been the policies of rehabilitation of the hundreds of thousands of workers in the hydrocarbon industry, who are likely to be affected by the green transition policies? 

MB: Clearly, fossil fuels are not the future. We need to impose binding emission reduction targets on Big Business. In Belgium, only five multinationals generate more than 20% of CO2 emissions. This is almost as much CO2 as all Belgian households combined. At a European level, similar numbers exist. Despite the climate emergency, the emissions of these multinationals have not decreased for years.

At the same time, the green transition will fail without the support and active participation from the working class. There is no doubt about it. When we speak about a climate revolution, we always need to insist that this should be a social climate revolution. Every anti-social measure weakens the support of the working class for the green transition. Even worse, the elitist approach of climate change, imposing unfair taxes on the working classes, might push these classes towards the climate scepticism and the far-right parties that endorse it.

However, industrial trade unions throughout Europe were quick to point out that the social dimension of the European Green Deal was all but nonexistent. They are right. There’s a lot of talk about how the transition should also be social, but in reality, the European Commission’s social agenda amounts to little more than rhetoric. We would need to speak not just about “phase out”, but also about “phase in” with active industrial policies, led by public investment. There is huge social potential in the green transition with the creation of quality jobs, in the energy sector itself of course, but also in other sectors.

Industrial trade unions are mentioning the importance of active workers’ participation and collective bargaining as well. I think it’s key that workers are involved actively in this transition. That matters for the social dimension of the transition, but there is also a democratic aspect and even a technological one. Workers have essential knowhow and experience to make this transition a success. Workers from the petrochemical sector in the port of Antwerp for example can talk in-depth about how excess heat produced by industry can be transformed and used, perhaps for city or district heating networks.

An active public-led approach would also allow us to deal with regional inequalities in Europe. Because here as well you can see a massive contradiction between the market and the needs of equal development. The market directs investment towards regions likely to yield most profits, while regions most hit by the transition are left behind, reinforcing regional inequalities. Equal development requires a strong public-led industrial policy. To be sure, I am not speaking about just guaranteeing a more active role for the state. As I explained before, state support for companies does not necessarily mean a turn toward the systemic change we need. The capitalist state intervenes in the economy, but acts in line with its class character as protector of big business and large shareholders. We cannot save the climate under capitalism. The climate and capitalism are incompatible and hence we need a different role for the state.