SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 135 - February 2010

Fiddling while the world burns

AFTER THE SCALE of the disaster became clear, there was no need for socialists who were always sceptical about the outcome of the Copenhagen summit to indulge in hyperbole. This was more than adequately accomplished by one of the chief mouthpieces of finance capital. The headline in the leading article in the Financial Times pronounced: ‘Dismal Outcome at Copenhagen Fiasco’. It stated: "One wonders how a conference to conclude two years of detailed negotiations, building on more than a decade of previous talks, could have collapsed into such a shambles". "Governments need to understand", it went on, "that Copenhagen was worse than useless". (21 December 2009)

Judging by that reaction, the more far-sighted representatives of the bourgeoisie were rightly alarmed by the Copenhagen impasse. So why did the talks collapse and what are the implications of this watershed event, both for the fight to reverse global warming and for the environmental movement?

The main protagonists involved in the UN-sponsored talks had long abandoned any hope that a new treaty would emerge at Copenhagen to replace the failed Kyoto agreement. The decisive blow was dealt a year before, as predicted in Socialism Today, at the UN meeting in Poznan, Poland, intended to pave the way to Copenhagen. Barrack Obama had just been elected US president, amid much talk of a green jobs revolution, and had sent Senator John Kerry to represent him. Hopes were high that there would be a change from the previous regime’s reactionary position. But on a key sticking point, the role of China, Kerry just repeated George Bush’s line that the US would make no significant concessions unless China reciprocated.

China was adamant that it would not set any target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the only possible way it might have been persuaded to move was if significant amounts of money were provided by the imperialist powers to finance a switch to green technology. The Chinese leadership suggested that a figure of $400 billion per year would be sufficient to help poor countries to adapt. The US, however, was never going to even contemplate giving a significant proportion of such a sum to the country it sees as its main strategic rival, even before the economic crisis hit. Consequently, any hopes of a new treaty to replace Kyoto – in particular one which would address one of Kyoto’s glaring inadequacies, namely its boycott by the two main greenhouse gas emitters, the US and China – were dashed at the Poznan meeting.

As a result, in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit, expectations were scaled down, at least in private, to include only agreement on a ‘political framework’ that would permit significant progress in 2010. The UN hoped that a declaration would be made at the summit by world leaders, covering the key issue of controlling emissions, which would be made legally binding at a reconvened conference within six months. Even this face-saver proved to be impossible, though, since the bitter rivalry between the main economic powers prevented them from making any statement that may have tied their hands in the future. In scenes of chaos and recrimination there was deadlock. Many delegates privately accused the Chinese of sabotaging the talks behind the scenes.

Obama turned up and started what were effectively bilateral negotiations with China. This resulted in an ‘accord’ endorsed only by the US, China and three ‘developing’ countries. In addition, it was non-binding. In it, the US agreed to cut its emissions by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020, which represents a cut of only 2-3% from the 1990 emission levels that were used to draw up targets for Kyoto. That target itself had been totally inadequate and cosmetic, adopted (unsuccessfully) to try to encourage the US to take part. The other countries merely agreed to try to increase their environmental efficiency without target or timescale. In China’s case, this would mean continuing to increase its emissions rapidly, since its economic growth may far outstrip any notional improvements in the efficiency of energy use. To make matters worse, the accord was conditional on ratification in the US Congress, the chances of which are slim.

Before the summit, John Holdren, Obama’s science advisor, was quoted as saying that the US administration was 15 Senate votes short of passing a proposal along the same lines as the one eventually agreed in Copenhagen. As the Chinese made no substantive concessions at the summit, this impasse will not have been broken. In fact, the day after the accord was announced, the chief Chinese negotiator, Su Wei, hinted strongly that China may pull out of the deal, even though it included no significant commitments. He said that "this is not an agreed accord, it is not an agreed document, it is not formally endorsed or adopted", and that the signatories may resign from it at any time – hardly a ringing endorsement of an agreement that could be built on in the future, as some deluded optimists hope. It is true that the accord included a figure of $100 billion a year to fund environmental projects in ‘developing’ countries, but no indication was given of who would give this money and when. Previous announcements at summits pledging large sums to help poor countries have come to virtually nothing.

During the talks, the EU countries were piously wringing their hands at the debacle and, at the same time, pointing to the ‘generous’ offer that they had put on the table – a cut of 20% in emissions by 2020. Far from being generous, however, 20% is itself inadequate as most scientists think that a 40% cut is needed to give even a reasonable chance of avoiding a greater than 2C rise in global temperature, above which warming could escalate out of control. The EU was hypocritically grandstanding at Copenhagen, since it knew that the chances of the US and China agreeing were slim and so it could afford to appear generous. It remains to be seen whether the European states now unilaterally or collectively implement their offer, which was conditional on a successful outcome in Denmark. Even if they do, they will insist on the inclusion of numerous loopholes that will make any action largely useless.

The chances of anything being rescued from the rubble of Copenhagen seem to be slight. There will be a follow up meeting in Mexico in December this year, originally scheduled to sort out any loose ends from a Copenhagen treaty, but its prospects are bleak. Kerry, chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and as such a very influential figure in any future negotiations, has poured cold water on the prospects for agreement in 2010. Vested interests in American capitalism opposed to a deal are just too strong for the Democratic administration to overcome, and the rising class of capitalists in China will also try to make sure that nothing undermines its interests. Some representatives of the bourgeoisie are now despairing of the ability of the UN to broker a deal, and are raising the possibility of using alternative vehicles, such as the G20. However, this is unlikely to overcome the problems that sank the UN-sponsored talks, because the underlying issues have not been resolved, such as the involvement of the US and China, the level of aid to the ex-colonial world, the scope of emission cuts needed, and the extent and nature of the loopholes that would be built into a future treaty.

Underlying the impasse is the fact that none of the main capitalist powers wants to pay a price today, even a relatively small one, that could undermine corporate profitability, despite most now realising that the long-term cost of doing nothing on climate change will be far higher. It is true that international agreements have been reached in the past, such as the Montreal protocol to prevent the break-up of the ozone layer, but this involved limited sacrifices to implement. Climate change will require action on a far bigger scale, although in global terms still not huge – 3% of economic output for ten years. Also, Montreal was agreed at a time of rapidly rising profits in the late 1980s, partly due to the neo-liberal offensive against the working class. The context today is far less favourable for sacrifices to be made.

On the other hand, it could be agued that a new treaty could be as full of loopholes as necessary to permit a limited agreement without entailing big costs, just as Kyoto was. This is still theoretically possible, and partly depends on the extent of economic recovery. But the outcome of Copenhagen indicates that even a fudge like this could now be off the agenda, due to the sharpened antagonisms linked to the new epoch we have entered. The imperialist python managed to swallow the Montreal dormouse, but choked on an even small-to-medium-sized mammal at Copenhagen. Consequently, it is likely that the main powers will continue to do little to combat climate change, not even implementing to any degree the false and dangerous alternative of nuclear power because of the cost involved.

Pete Dickenson


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