a guest article for The Commune by Patrick Bond
In the run-up to the Copenhagen Summit from 7-18 December, the October-November Bangkok and Barcelona negotiations of Kyoto Protocol Conference of Parties functionaries confirmed that Northern states and their corporations won’t get their act together. Nor will Southern elites in high-emitting countries.
The top-down effort to get to 350 CO2 parts per million has conclusively failed. On the right, Barack Obama’s negotiators argue that the 1997 Kyoto Protocol is excessively binding to the North, and leaves out several major polluters of the South, including China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Hence Obama’s early November promise that he would come to Copenhagen to ‘clinch a deal’ is as hollow as the White House’s support for democracy in Honduras.
Even the low levels of emissions cuts agreed in Kyoto 12 years ago – 5% below 1990 levels by 2012 – are impossible now. Obama’s people hope the world will accept 2005 as a new starting date; a 20% reduction by 2020 then only brings the target back to around 5% below 1990 levels. Such pathetically low ambitions, surely Obama knows, guarantee a runaway climate catastrophe – he should shoot for 45% cuts, say the small island nations.
The other reason Kyoto is ridiculed by serious environmentalists is its provision for carbon trading rackets which allow fake claims of net emissions cuts. Since the advent of the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, the Chicago exchange, Clean Development Mechanism projects and offsets, vast evidence has accumulated of systemic market failure, scamming and inability to regulate carbon trading.
The following are the main reasons critics slam emissions trade:
- the idea of inventing a property right to pollute is effectively the privatization of the air;
- the corporations most responsible for pollution and the World Bank – which is most responsible for fossil fuel financing – are behind the market, and engage in systemic corruption to attract money into the market even if this prevents genuine emissions reductions;
- many of the offsetting projects – such as monocultural timber plantations, forest ‘protection’ and landfill methane-electricity projects – have devastating impacts on local communities and ecologies;
- the price is haywire, having crashed by half in a short period in April 2006 and by two-thirds in 2008;
- there is a serious potential for carbon markets to become an out-of-control, multi-trillion dollar speculative bubble, similar to exotic financial instruments associated with Enron’s 2002 collapse (indeed, many Enron employees populate the carbon markets);
- as a ‘false solution’ to climate change, carbon trading encourages merely small, incremental shifts, and thus distracts us from a wide range of radical changes we need to make in materials extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal; and
- the idea of market solutions to market failure is an ideology that rarely makes sense, and especially not following the world’s worst-ever financial market failure.
A final reason we need to rapidly transcend Kyoto’s weak, market-oriented approach is that devastation caused by climate change will hit the world’s poorest, most vulnerable people far harder than those in the North. Reparations for the North’s climate debt to the South are in order. The European Union offered a pittance in September, while African leaders are stiffening their spines for a fight in Copenhagen reminiscent of Seattle a decade ago.
Obama’s people are hoping non-binding national-level plans will be acceptable at Copenhagen. But their case is weaker because at home, the two main proposed bills – Waxman-Markey which passed in the US House of Representatives and Kerry-Boxer which is under Senate consideration – will do far more harm than good.
Confirmation of US political corruption came from Congressman Rick Boucher, from a coal-dominated Southwestern Virginia district. Boucher supported Waxman-Markey, he told a reporter in August, precisely because it would not adversely affect his corporate constituencies. The two billion tons of offset allowances in the legislation mean that ‘an electric utility burning coal will not have to reduce the emissions at the plant site,’ chortled Boucher. ‘It can just keep burning coal.’ Indeed the price of coal shares on the NY Stock Exchange rose after the bill passed the House.
Boucher was one of the congressional rednecks who wrecked Obama’s promise to sell – not give away – the carbon credits, and then bragged to his district’s main newspaper, the Times News, that ‘this helps to keep electricity prices affordable and strengthens the case for utilities to continue to use coal.’
Boucher and co are also working hard to disempower the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating CO2. This was accomplished in Waxman-Markey, and upon introducing his legislation in late September, Senator John Kerry gave the game away by noting EPA regulatory authority is not gutted in his bill now, only so that it can be gutted later, so as to provide ‘some negotiating room as we proceed forward.’
The Senate bill has all manner of other objectionable components, which hard-working activists from Climate SOS, Rising Tide North America, Friends of the Earth, the Center for Biological Diversity, Biofuelwatch and Greenwash Guerrillas have been hammering at.
Hence in the US, the balance of forces is fluid. On the far-right, the fossil fuels industries are intent on making Obama’s climate legislation farcical – and have so far succeeded. In the centre, the main establishment ‘green’ agencies – such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defence Council – are plowing ahead with carbon trading strategies, hoping to salvage some legitimacy for Obama, because these bills are a ‘first step’ to more serious emissions reducation, they claim.
Moreover some of the main ‘green’ NGOs promoting carbon trading are themselves making money on the side, including prominent leaders of Climate Action Network, which has 450 NGO members and prized lobbying access in the Copenhagen process.
Yet US negotiators will go to Copenhagen (as they did in Bangkok and will next month in Barcelona) with the aim of smashing any residual benefit of the Kyoto Protocol – such as potential binding cuts with accountability mechanisms – and then allow these US dynamics to play out in a manner that locks in climate disaster.
So just as in 1997, when Al Gore introduced carbon trading into the initial deal – and subsequently broke an implicit promise by failing to get the US (under both Clinton and Bush) to ratify the Protocol – there is every likelihood that if an agreement in Copenhagen were reached, it would be as worthless as Kyoto.
There are, of course, other ways forward even within the US context. Goddard Institute for Space Studies director James Hansen – the most celebrated US climate scientist – not only put his body on the line this year in a high-profile arrest at a West Virginia coal generator, and testified repeatedly against carbon trading, but also endorsed Climate SOS. Hansen and other US activists insist the Environmental Protection Agency do its job by regulating the 7500 or so major point sources of CO2, as it can now do following a US Supreme Court ruling.
What about the so-called Third World, and the rise of high-emissions countries which have large populations, hence low CO2/person rates, but potential future damage if they aspire to Western consumption norms?
Most elites from the South are utterly insensitive to the destructive potential because they bought the line from neoliberal advisors that export-oriented growth based on exploitation of nonrenewable resources or cash crops, powered by fossil fuels, creates the GDP increases that judge a country ‘successful’ in the capitalist derby.
Ironically, as this process threatens the future of our species, some Northern elites intend to reverse the calculus by shifting from GDP to a ‘happiness’ indicator that is a better judge of socio-economic and environmental well-being.
In addition to bringing in Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen for this prosperity-recalculation purpose, French president Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a small import tariff (the equivalent of 4 cents per litre of petrol) in September: ‘Most importantly, a carbon tax at the borders is vital for our industries and our jobs’. In the US, the energy secretary and organized labor are also making noises along these lines.
Sarkozy’s small incremental tax will not change consumption patterns. Explains Soumya Dutta from the People’s Science Movement, ‘In India, a far less affluent society, whenever gasoline or diesel prices are raised by even 6-10 %, there is an initial hue and cry. Within a month, things settle down and the consumption keeps growing – invariably.’
The half-hearted approach of French elites and their protectionist orientation must be criticized. But if world rulers did finally come up with a deal not self-sabotaged by carbon trading, might it be possible to turn such a carbon tax – with its adverse impact upon Third World exporters – into a positive funding flow for the South? Daphne Wysham of the Institute for Policy Studies suggests that carbon tax proceeds should go directly to the countries whose products are being taxed, for the purposes of explicit greenhouse gas reduction.
Indeed the ecological debt is the other major sticking point, with African Union lead negotiator Meles Zenawi authorizing a walk-out from Copenhagen on grounds that $67 billion in annual reparations to Africa for climate damage won’t be paid. The EU has suggested a pool for the entire Third World as little as 3 billion euros/year.
Given the cul de sac represented by self-interested global elites, there is no chance for a deal that makes any sense in Copenhagen. This puts added onus on genuine climate activists to resume their direct actions at sites ranging from the Niger Delta – where militants have kept 80% of the oil in the soil – to power plants in Washington DC, digs in Wales, and export sites like Newcastle, Australia where the demand ‘leave the coal in the hole’ is having a powerful impact, to the Albertan forests where ‘keep the tar sand in the land’ is the call of indigenous people.
Critics of the carbon trade have engaged in disruptions of business and conferences in London, Amsterdam and New York, with more to follow on November 30 in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston.
The need to leapfrog climate negotiators and sold-out NGOs has never been more obvious, leaving open the question of how to best argue the case – as the Climate Justice Now! network puts it – for a full ‘system change’ instead of climate change.