Last year saw a world ravaged by a pandemic and economic devastation. How has the climate fared during a year when huge swaths of the population were encouraged to stay home? Daily emissions fell an average of 17% during the early months of 2020. However, the fall in emissions for the year as a whole is likely to be between 4% and 7%.

This will make no appreciable difference in the world’s ability to meet even the relatively limited goals set forth by the Paris Climate Agreement. Not enough progress has been made to stave off the global heating threshold of 2C that the Paris conference established as the minimum amount required to keep the world from diving into absolute climate chaos. Many scientists believe that a 2C rise would itself be catastrophic, and that 1C should be the minimum threshold that the world strives for.  

Of course, one somewhat encouraging aspect of the lockdowns was improved air quality. One study in Europe showed the lockdowns could help avoid 11,300 premature deaths.

What this shows us is that no matter how many individuals try to combat climate change on a personal scale, the problem cannot be tackled by personal choice alone. There is no road to a future with a sustainable climate that does not involve a drastic reshaping of most aspects of our economy—how we relate to production, and certainly how we deal with environmental racism.

The turning points of the Paris Agreement that we are missing include:

  1. Renewables outcompete fossil fuels as new electricity sources worldwide.
  2. Zero emissions transport is the preferred form of all new mobility in the world’s major cities and transport routes.
  3. Large-scale deforestation is replaced with large-scale land restoration, and agriculture shifts to earth friendly practices.
  4. Heavy industry—including iron and steel, cement, chemicals and oil & gas—commits to being Paris-compliant.
  5. Cities and states are implementing policies and regulations to fully decarbonize buildings and infrastructures by 2050.
  6. Investment in climate action is beyond USD $1 trillion per year and all financial institutions have a disclosed transition strategy.

How did the world’s economies perform on these turning points?

  1. There was some progress on renewable energy sources becoming sufficiently cheaper in the last decade, Wind and solar now can offer rates for power that are less than most fossil fuels. In the U.S., this has been achieved through heavy investment from individual states and the federal government. However, we are falling behind converting enough of our grid to renewable sources as well as the infrastructure required to power our communities
  2. Zero-emission vehicles had to be 15-20% of new car purchases; heavy vehicles needed a 20% increase in fuel efficiency standards; and we needed zero carbon solutions in major cities’ supply chains. This was in addition to doubling the amount of people taking public transportation. The progress in this area was completely unsatisfactory, with new electric vehicles being only 3% of purchases.
  3. The world is still seeing large-scale deforestation and no shift to more sustainable agriculture. Add to this the forest fires in the Amazon, Pacific Northwest, Siberia, and Australia. There is no progress being made.
  4. Heavy industry needed to develop road maps to carbon-neutral methods of production, and some of these road maps would need to start small-scale experimentation in order to ensure that these methods could be upscaled to work on heavy industry as whole. That is true specifically in cement production, which has high rates of C02 emissions. These road maps have not been developed sufficiently, and the small scale-plants to prove concepts have not been created.
  5. U.S. cities and states have seen some progress in making plans to decarbonize their buildings and infrastructure by 2050 yet these plans are not fully fleshed out, rarely have a mechanism to ensure that the work is completed or funded. ( Here in Connecticut, there are executive orders by the governor but these are non-binding and can be overturned by a new administration easily.) What we have seen is a hodgepodge of solutions and no real plan to decarbonize our large cities fast enough to meet targets.
  6. Some progress has been made in investment away from fossil-fuel production and infrastructure. One of the main goals of this turning point was that all financial institutions have plans in place for a transition away from fossil fuels. While the public sector has put in almost $300 billion annually, these institutions have not made transition plans away from fossil fuels as a major part of the commodities market and portfolios that are heavily invested in those commodities.

All together, this points to a catastrophic future in which the U.S. and the world misses the opportunity to stave off the worst aspects of climate change. The reason there is not enough action in these areas is because the global financial system is obsessed with short-term profits. The system of capitalism will not be able to change fast enough to keep this planet viable for human life. We need a rapid transition in how the world economy functions—away from private profits and toward using the surplus our labor creates to ensure a better world for all of us. We need to create a situation in which the world’s best minds are put to tackling climate change and treating it as the existential threat that it is.

This year saw a rise in Indigenous-led protests. We saw fights against the construction of a natural gas pipeline in Canada, a fight against a telescope destroying a sacred mountain in Hawaii, fights against police violence toward Indigenous people in Australia, against trophy hunting in Quebec, and against excess lobster fishing in New Brunswick. Important connections were made and solidarity was shared in these struggles as well as in the fight against racist police violence against Brown and Black people and against the attacks on Indigenous people.

Fights against the construction of fracked gas and oil pipelines continued, most notably Line 3 and the Keystone XL pipeline. Line 3 started construction and looks to be set to continue construction into early 2021. Some 4200 workers were brought from out of state to work on the pipeline despite local opposition due to the spread of COVID 19. Keystone XL ran into several issues, with demand for oil weakening and the price of a barrel being around $30, and so the push to make this pipeline has softened. A Supreme Court case that stopped the use of a specific legal loophole to bypass state regulatory bodies was promising, but the court did not shut down keystone XL. Biden has sworn to revoke a key permit that Trump granted on his first day, in a completely symbolic gesture.

Biden’s stated goals:

Biden’s climate promise of net zero emissions in the United States by 2050 falls short of the massive and rapid measures that must be taken to avoid catastrophe. Nevertheless, his goals would require a massive undertaking in themselves. Moreover, since Biden has already walked back most of his “progressive” policy, thinking he will stick to his plan for the environment is politically foolish. But let us assume the U.S. would achieve everything Biden indicated in his climate plan. A research paper from Princeton Environmental Research gave some glaring examples of what would need to happen—and incredibly quickly—just to achieve Biden’s stated goals for 2050:

  • This year, energy companies will install 42 gigawatts of new wind turbines and solar panels, smashing records. But that annual pace would need to nearly double over the next decade, and then keep soaring, transforming the landscapes in states like Florida or Missouri.
  • The capacity of the nation’s electric grid would have to expand roughly 60 percent by 2030 to handle vast amounts of wind and solar power, which would mean thousands of miles of new power lines crisscrossing the country.
  • Car dealerships would need to look radically different. Today, electric-vehicle models are just 2 percent of new sales. By 2030, at least 50 percent of new cars sold would need to be battery-powered, with that share rising thereafter.
  • Most homes today are heated by natural gas or oil. But in the next 10 years, nearly one-quarter would need to be warmed with efficient electric heat pumps, double today’s numbers.
  • Virtually all of the 200 remaining coal-burning power plants would have to shut down by 2030.
  • Today, there are no cement plants that bury their emissions underground, and there are no facilities sustainably producing hydrogen, a clean-burning fuel. By the mid-2020s, several such plants would need to be operating to prepare for wider deployment.

The real question here is whether the environmental movement is going to start to mobilize to ensure we not only achieve the weak goals of Biden’s climate plan but push much farther. We will need actions across the country with the involvement of organized labor, Indigenous activists, folks on the forefront of stopping environmental racism, scientists, and the antiwar movement to all come together around a set of principled demands that we treat climate change like the threat it is to our planet, and to our species.

Lacking a gigantic mass movement, capitalism will move too slow and put the burden on those least able to afford it. There is not much time left for us to avoid the worst parts of global climate change.

We need to disrupt the status quo. Business as usual is killing us. We must band together and fight; when millions are in the streets, no one can ignore us. Working people make this whole world run, and working people want a liveable earth. When working people come together and decide that things must change, there is nothing that can stop us.

We must fight to survive. And when we fight, we win.

Illustration by General Strike Graphics