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Socialism Today 115 - February 2008


Talking the talk on climate change

That global warming is a threat to life on earth is a message that most people now seem to accept. And in December the UN organised climate change talks in Bali, as a successor to the Kyoto protocol of 1997. Although politicians congratulated themselves on an ‘historic breakthrough’, what was really achieved? MANNY THAIN reports.

ONE WORD NOT on the agenda at December’s UN climate change talks in Bali was failure. That may depend on the definition of the word. But, such was the level of pre-talk hype, and such is the concern and anger of people worldwide at the effects of global warming, that immense pressure was exerted on participating government representatives. They could not be seen to leave empty handed. So they talked late into a final, extra night and cobbled together yet another worthless deal.

At the end of exhaustive talks which saw the dramatic public breakdown of Yvo de Boer, the UN’s top climate official, the Bali agreement ‘commits’ countries to two more years of negotiation. This was not a summit of action. These were talks about what issues would be talked about at future meetings.

Bali set a 2009 deadline for an agreement to cut emissions of greenhouse gases to combat climate change. In the meantime, measurements of emissions reduction from pilot forestry projects will inform an attempt at a plan for sustaining the world’s forests. It was noted that poor countries need more money to access green technologies. Needless to say, how this might happen was not discussed. The aim is to strike a deal in Copenhagen in December 2009 (via Poznan this year), supposedly coming into force in 2013.

Someone had the idea of calling it a ‘road map’. And like George W Bush’s road map for the Middle East it will be a complete failure, and result in massive human misery. The only way of averting catastrophic climate change is by fundamentally altering the way the world economic system operates. So long as the driving force remains the search for profit, the planet’s resources will continue to be ruthlessly exploited for short-term gain.

There is an overriding need for an alternative way of doing things, one which is based on the sustainable use of our precious resources, collectively organised and managed by the majority, with the working class in the leading role by virtue of the fact that it produces and distributes the world’s goods. On that basis, a democratic, socialist economic plan could be implemented which took account of people’s needs internationally, as well as the needs of the planet, its environment and ecological systems.

Copenhagen 2009, on the other hand, is designed to be the successor to the impotent Kyoto protocol – agreed initially in 1997 and ratified under the Marrakech accords of November 2001 – which runs to 2012. Kyoto, in turn, followed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change signed in January 1992 at the second earth summit held in Rio de Janeiro. From Rio to Bali, around the world in 25 years for nothing – not so much a carbon footprint as a boot in the face of life on earth.

US under pressure

THIS TIME ROUND, 15,000 government representatives, activists and journalists attended, including a thousand carbon traders and investors. In doing so they emitted around 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide – just under the annual emissions of Malawi or Chad. The UN calculated that travel to and from the event equalled that of running 20,000 cars for a year. Angus Friday, chair of the Alliance of Small Islands, many of which may disappear as sea levels rise, said: "We are ending up with something so watered down there was no need for 12,000 people to gather here in Bali. We could have done that by email". (The Observer, 16 December) Of the 188 countries attending, only Burma did not sign up.

Throughout the negotiations, US representatives opposed any reference to quantifiable and binding measures. So, no firm targets were included in the final statement. This is as expected. In May, Bush had attempted to undermine any global deal in talks with the world’s 16 biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. This was condemned by environmental groups, commentators and governments, and international, mass anger was transmitted to world powers at the G8 summit in Rostock. Bush acquiesced.

At the meeting, the role of the US administration (Bush in particular), in consistently blocking progress on climate change, was publicly denounced. There was a battle between the US and the Group of 77, a 130-strong bloc of developing nations. In a rare public rebuke, the US delegation was roundly booed after the delegate from Papua New Guinea suggested that the US should get out of the way if it is unprepared to take a lead on climate change.

Emboldened by this shift, European Union representatives tried to put forward a target that rich countries should cut emissions by 25-40% by 2020. Canada, Russia and Japan, which had started out against the targets, eventually went along with the EU. But it was a red line the White House would not cross. And, within hours of the talks ending, the US administration began voicing ‘serious concerns’ that developing countries had been let off too lightly.

Although those putting a positive spin on the Bali talks point to the fact that the US signed up, the only reason it felt able to do so was that the wording had been so diluted over the course of negotiations as to be innocuous. Not for the first time, the British delegation has been credited with backing US foreign/global policy all the way. An editorial in the Independent on Sunday (16 December) reported direct contact between the White House and Downing Street during the talks to maintain this support. Britain’s environment secretary, Hilary Benn, denies the charge.

Echoes of Kyoto

NONE OF THIS is astounding news, of course. In December 1997, the US delegation at Kyoto was led by Al Gore – last year’s joint winner of a Nobel prize for environmental campaigning – who ensured that no deal would impose harsh controls on big-business interests in the fossil fuel and automobile industries. As in Bali, the hardnosed stance of the US administration, then under Bill Clinton, meant that negotiations dragged on long into the final night, as long as it took to render any wording ineffectual. At that time, the EU was calling for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions of 15% below 1990 levels by 2010. Gore drove that down to 5.2% by 2012. Carbon emissions spewed across the globe by international flights and shipping were excluded on the pretext that they are not ‘owned’ by any country.

Although a signatory, the US never ratified the Kyoto protocol. It was voted down in the senate, unanimously. When the US withdrew from the protocol, that limited its scope to 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. On a world scale, therefore, the commitment to reduce emissions to 5.2% represented a meagre 2% reduction.

Annex B of the Kyoto protocol allows states to allocate carbon dioxide emission rights to its most polluting installations. The company then has to ensure that the quantity of carbon dioxide it emits falls within its quota, and can offset emissions by funding projects such as wind farms, alternative fuels, planting trees, etc. Developing countries can also back such projects to attract foreign capital. These are known as ‘certified emissions reductions’ (CERs) and actually increase the amount of carbon ‘currency’ on the global market. CERs can be used to meet Kyoto ‘commitments’ or sold on the market. These mechanisms are, in effect, licences to emit greenhouse gases.

They are also the basis for the EU’s emissions trading system. Martin Wolf in the Financial Times (4 December 2007) summed up their impact: "The vaunted European emissions trading system has been more a way of transferring quota rent to a few big emitters than an effective means of emissions control. The UK government has, for example, been honest enough to admit that large electricity generators gained £1.2 billion in quota rent for 2005 alone".

Linking honesty with the British government is pushing it, but this is a clear indictment of the kind of ‘market mechanisms’ peddled by big business, raised at international climate summits, and which all too often find their way into the environmental movement as well. They are massive subsidies to big business, negligible in terms of tackling global warming and ultimately paid out of taxation, the bulk of which comes out of the pockets of the working class.

Nonetheless, John Prescott, Britain’s environment secretary at the time, heralded Kyoto: "This is a truly historic deal which will help curb the problems of climate change. For the first time it commits developed countries to make legally binding cuts in their emissions". Depressingly little has changed. Not to be outdone, Benn called Bali "an historic breakthrough and a huge step forward. For the first time ever, all the world’s nations have agreed to negotiate on a deal to tackle dangerous climate change". (The Guardian, 17 December)

EU hypocrisy

THE EU BLOC’S political posturing at environmental summits belies the activity of the individual states when the cameras are off. Pointing the finger at the US, particularly the current administration – a legitimate but very easy target given how much it is loathed worldwide – diverts attention from its own failings. In the EU, emissions were cut by an average 2% a year from 1997-2004, instead of the 8% a year target in the Kyoto protocol. In the last recorded year, 2004-05, emissions rose. (The Observer, 16 December)

At Bali, European states took centre stage. Behind the scenes, however, they are battling to water down proposals they fear will ‘damage their economies’. In other words, their big-business cronies are squealing that profits will be hit if strict rules are applied. The French and German governments are reportedly working together against European Commission proposals on greenhouse gas emissions.

The Economist (20 December) reported a European Commission announcement that transport-related carbon dioxide emissions in the EU grew by a third between 1990 and 2005 and now constitute 27% of the EU total. Cars are responsible for about half of that.

At present Europe’s cars emit an average of about 160 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre (g/km). A few years ago, the industry agreed a voluntary target of 140g/km by 2008, requiring an annual reduction of 3% a year. Current ‘progress’ is crawling along at 1.5%. The commission now says it wants fleet-average emissions from new cars sold in the EU to be no higher than 130g/km by 2012, with another 10g/km reduction from other sources, such as low-resistance tyres, more efficient air-conditioning and greater use of biofuels (by no means an environmentally friendly alternative).

Intensive lobbying by BMW, Mercedes, EU industry commissioner, Günter Verheugen, and German chancellor, Angela Merkel, however, has already resulted in the commission agreeing to a ‘weight dispensation’ which will allow makers of heavier cars to produce higher fleet-average emissions.

Real power

FOLLOWING BALI, THE European Commission announced some new measures on 22 January. It wants to make companies pay for emission permits instead of the free allocation or heavy subsidy which exist today. Once again working-class families will be made to pick up the bill as EU officials expect electricity prices to rise by 10-15% as a direct result of this measure. (Financial Times, 20 January) There are also emissions targets for individual states, biofuel standards to be introduced, as well as allowing states to subsidise renewable energy.

The stated aim is to reduce EU greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from their 1990 levels by 2020, and to ensure that 20% of energy comes from renewables. Even if met, this would have no real impact on global warming. (As an aside, it is conceivable that a protracted global economic slowdown would curb greenhouse gas emissions due to a fall-off in economic activity. Perhaps some targets could even be met under such a scenario! However, that would be a purely accidental by-product of capitalist crisis, a temporary effect which would be quickly negated with a future cyclical upturn.)

Yet already, fierce resistance is building from European big business in the form of the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT) which represents around 50 of Europe’s biggest industrial companies, with sales around £1,200 billion (€1,600bn, $2,300bn). That is real power. The ERT is complaining that the measures would make European industry uncompetitive on the world market. On the basis of capitalist economics, of course, it has a point. But this news forms part of the mountain of evidence of the incompatibility of big business and environmental sustainability. Measures which could reduce greenhouse gas emissions inevitably hit profits and are rejected by big business, which wields colossal economic and political power. The expensive research required to develop viable, long-term solutions is also incompatible with the drive for short-term profits.

In the meantime, working-class and poor people are made to pay, financially and through the direct effects of climate change. In the above-quoted article, Martin Wolf writes: "Poor people are far less able to cope with climatic disasters than rich ones. But this, if we are honest, is why the rich are unlikely to make the huge reductions in emissions the [Human Development] report demands. The powerful will continue to act without much consideration for the poor. This, after all, is a world that spends ten times as much on defence (much of it useless) as on aid to poor countries". (Financial Times, 4 December 2007)

Systemic failure

TACKLING CLIMATE CHANGE will require a root-and-branch shift in production and distribution methods away from the profit motive. A socialist plan, democratically organised by workers and the majority of the population, is required to implement policies which are geared to long-term sustainability.

Each new survey and analysis emphasises the scale of the problem. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its most recent report in three parts between February and June 2007 and set the backdrop for Bali. It warned that emissions have to peak in the next ten to 15 years and then be drastically reduced to avoid a 3-4.5C rise in temperature this century.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) produced its World Energy Outlook in November. It points out that if governments continue as they are, the world’s energy needs will be more than 50% higher in 2030 than today. Developing countries will account for 74% (China and India 45%) of the growth in demand. Fossil fuels are forecast to account for 84% of the increase in global energy consumption, exacerbating global warming. Carbon dioxide emissions are projected to jump by 57% between 2005 and 2030, the US, China, Russia and India contributing two-thirds of this increase. (Financial Times, 13 November 2007)

In December, the Human Development Report noted that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are rising at a rate of 1.9 parts per million a year; over the past ten years the annual growth rate of emissions has been 30% faster than the average for the past 40 years; if the rate of emissions increase continues in line with current trends, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might be double pre-industrial levels by 2035.

While recognising the severe limitations of the measures proposed at Bali and other summits, some may argue that at least something is being done. But greenhouse gas levels are rising and global warming is accelerating. This fiddling while the planet burns does not represent progress. It is not a start. It is a systemic failure. It requires systemic change.


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