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Socialism Today 125 - February 2009

Global crisis hits global warming action

AS THE LAST issue of Socialism Today warned (A Green New Deal? December/January 2008/09), the developing economic crisis is increasingly hitting the chances of effective action on global warming. UN and EU conferences in December 2008, that were supposed to pave the way for agreement to a successor of the Kyoto treaty in Copenhagen in December this year, failed to deliver any progress and in some respects marked a step back.

This happened despite alarming new evidence from scientists attending the UN conference in Poland about further rapid increases in greenhouse gas emissions linked to the release of methane in the Arctic. Methane is a much more dangerous cause of global warming than the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, but its level in the atmosphere remained stable for the past decade. Then in 2007 there was a sudden surge in methane concentrations that has been traced to the Arctic, released by the melting of the permafrost in the region, according to Philippe Ciais of the Global Carbon Project, a scientific network. The melting of the permafrost is in the first place caused by global warming, due largely to CO2 emissions. Therefore, this new development could create a self-reinforcing cycle that may lead to a tipping point, beyond which global warming effects will become unstoppable.

A key issue at both sets of talks was removing the loopholes in the Kyoto and EU permit trading systems that has made them completely ineffective, but the economic crisis had clearly put the negotiators in no mood to compromise. The EU talks in Poznan were marked by bad tempered bickering between the capitalist powers that descended into farce at times. For instance, one proposal was to allow industrialised countries to buy chunks of rainforest that they could then offset against their own emissions. The hope behind this scheme is that logging companies would then be prevented from clearing the rainforests, thus preserving a valuable sink that absorbs CO2. If this went ahead, however, there would be no way of stopping western countries from selling land to loggers in the future if it was worth more to them than keeping their offsetting permits. Agents of foreign governments on the ground could also turn a blind-eye to logging in return for a pay-off. In addition, allowing offsetting in general removes any incentive for the industrialised countries that account for the majority of pollution to reduce their domestic emissions.

This highly dubious offsetting scam – a continuation of the loopholes that undermined Kyoto, another concession to business interests – was still unacceptable to the USA and the Labour-led government of Australia among others. They insisted on the removal of text referring to measures to protect the rights of the indigenous peoples whose land was to be bought out by the industrialised powers. Even after this had been done, the negotiators could still not agree on what was by then a highly watered-down and largely ineffective, not to mention unjust, measure. So, it was shelved – hardly a good omen for the international cooperation that will be needed for effective action on climate change in Copenhagen.

Another central issue in the Poznan talks was how to involve in a meaningful way recently industrialising countries such as China and India. They had refused to join the Kyoto process arguing reasonably that the build up of greenhouse gasses historically was largely due to the main imperialist powers. They were not prepared to pay for the actions of their former colonial masters. However, involving China in measures to reduce global warming is now crucial since it has recently overtaken the USA as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses.

Recognising the difficulty in persuading poor countries to join in, the UN set up an Adaptation Fund after the Bali climate meeting in 2007 to pay for measures for ‘developing’ countries to adapt to climate change. The UN calculated that this would require about $86 billion per year. As only $300 million had been paid in – even though all Kyoto signatories in theory were obliged by treaty to donate – a key task of the Poznan meeting was to find ways to step up the funding. A modest proposal was put forward to tax emissions trading and to put the proceeds into the Adaptation Fund. This would have yielded $7 billion, a fraction of what the UN calculated is needed. Even this was voted down, to the outrage of India and others.

The only possible chance that India and China, in particular, would have agreed to take part meaningfully in a successor to Kyoto was if large amounts of money were available to them to convert to renewable energy. This now looks highly unlikely, and will fundamentally undermine a successor to Kyoto years before it is due to start.

The negotiations to make the EU emissions trading scheme, which mirrors the Kyoto process, more effective, were equally unsuccessful. The delegates at the conference in Brussels agreed only on the need for a 20% cut in emissions by 2020, when the consensus of climate scientists is for a cut of 40%. More significantly, EU governments agreed to keep the huge loopholes that have made the emissions trading scheme environmentally worthless. On the insistence of the ‘green’ German government, firms will continue to be able to obtain pollution permits for free – undermining the entire logic of the make-the-polluter-pay system – if they can show that they face competition from outside the EU. This concession means that nearly all industrial companies will qualify. As George Monbiot has pointed out, these firms will be able to pass on the notional cost of the free permits to their customers, as at present. So, the polluter is not only not paying, but is actually being paid to pollute the planet. Brussels’ commitment to reduce emissions by 30% instead of 20%, if agreement is reached at the forthcoming climate summit in Copenhagen, has also been fudged.

Hopes are still high among some environmental activists that the Obama administration will introduce effective measures to tackle global warming. His pick of prominent climate science champions for key jobs in the government has been called a ‘dream team’ by New Scientist magazine (3 January). For example, his chief science advisor will be John Holdern of Harvard University, well known as an advocate of decisive measures to reduce emissions.

However, Obama sent Senator John Kerry to represent him at the Poznan conference. Apart from giving no commitments at all, Kerry made a point of saying that the US would be no pushover in climate talks and would not ratify any agreement if "big emerging economies failed to make commitments of their own". Clearly with China in mind, this is essentially the same point the Bush regime had always made about climate agreements, reflecting the fact that the US ruling class will not give any serious concessions, particularly in a downturn, to the state it sees as its chief global rival.

The brutal logic of the economic crisis is asserting itself with every day that passes. This is shown by the collapse in investment in green technology after nearly all sources of finance have disappeared. The big oil companies who all ran some largely cosmetic alternative energy schemes are axing them with unceremonious haste, prompting the Financial Times to comment that they "have an entirely understandable impulse to save their own balance sheets before saving the world". (3 December 2008) This applies equally to other firms. Inevitably, this logic will shape the actions of the Obama administration which will also be forced to put the balance sheets of US corporations before the desire of any of its individual members to save the planet.

Pete Dickenson


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