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Socialism Today 149 - June 2011

Passing the carbon emissions buck

GOVERNMENTS THAT signed up to the Kyoto protocol, adopted in 1997 with the aim of reducing carbon emissions by 5% from the 1990 level, have claimed they have reduced or stabilised their greenhouse gas emissions. The UK government said it had made "good progress" on Channel 4 News (13 May).

But figures are misleading. Leave aside the fact that a genuine 5% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2012 would have had little effect on climate change, the latest research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in the USA shows that such claims are fraudulent. Britain, for example, had reduced its emissions by 28 million tonnes of CO2 by 2008, but all it did was outsource its emissions to the neo-colonial world.

Global warming continues apace. No single weather related event can be traced to climate change, but when the April heat in England put 350 years of records into the shade, and England, Scotland and Northern Ireland were still ablaze after ten days, another significant ‘X’ is marked on the climate change chart. "Fire chiefs have said it is the largest blaze in the county’s history", the BBC website announced (6 May).

Over the last 30 years the world’s weather has become more extreme – hotter, colder, wetter, dryer. Previous records have reached new highs and lows in quick succession, the result of a more energetic weather system, stirred by more heat, just like water coming to the boil in a pan.

Outsourcing production from Britain to China, where pay is pitiful and working weeks frequently top 90 hours, means big profits for the multinational corporations. Production of CO2 emissions is effectively exported to China, and the manufactured goods are imported back to the UK. Relatively well-paid manufacturing jobs in Britain are replaced with relatively low-paid service sector jobs.

The result is that China’s CO2 emissions have overtaken the USA, and it has become the world’s largest emitter. Yet if imports and exports are taken into account, Britain’s emissions have risen by 100 million tonnes since 1990 – and China’s carbon footprint drops by a fifth, below the output of the USA.

"Despite the emergence of regional climate policies, growth in global CO2 emissions has remained strong", the PNAS report comments. In other words, governments talk a good fight, while their policies pump up carbon emissions. The US government and others have passed the blame onto the BRICs: Brazil, Russia, India and, primarily, China. The PNAS report concedes: "From 1990 to 2008, CO2 emissions in developed countries [included in the Kyoto protocol] have stabilised, but emissions in developing countries [excluded from the protocol] have doubled".

The growth of China is astonishing, forming its own hockey-stick shaped graph of rocketing CO2 emissions between 2002 and 2008, from less than four to seven gigatonnes, overtaking the USA by the conventional Kyoto measure. China alone now consumes 53% of the world’s cement, 48% of its iron ore, 47% of its coal, 45% of its steel and lead, and 41% of its zinc. Oil consumption in the countries outside the Kyoto protocol has doubled since 1990. By 2009, it exceeded that of Europe, the US, Japan and Australia combined. By comparison, the oil consumption of Europe, the US, Japan and Australia rose roughly 15% in the same period, then erased half that increase after the credit crunch.

Europe is close to abiding by its Kyoto commitments, claiming a reduction of 6% in emissions. Yet, as the PNAS report points out, this is due largely to the industrial collapse in Russia and Ukraine since the fall of Stalinism and the reintroduction of capitalism there, which caused a 16% reduction in emissions. In western Europe emissions have continued to grow, if imports and exports are taken into account.

The US did not sign up to the Kyoto treaty, but pledged to reduce emissions by 7%. Emissions increased by 17%, however, and an additional 8% of emissions are hidden in the export of production to China and the import of cheap manufactured goods from China as a result. This takes the rise in US capitalism’s total emissions to a massive 25%.

The severe recession following the 2008 credit crunch cut production and therefore slowed the growth in CO2 emissions in the last three years in the US and elsewhere. Yet the volumes of greenhouse gasses are now so great that the global indications of ‘dangerous’ anthropogenic climate change, as the PNAS terms it, continue unabated. The North Pole ice cap continues to trace out record lows of various kinds. Arctic sea ice extent for the month of March 2011 was the second lowest in the satellite record.

No one is claiming, quite correctly, that the record 305 tornados which killed more than 340 people in the US in April – followed by 116 deaths when a tornado swept through Joplin, Missouri, on 23 May (with more on the way) – are a definite, direct result of climate change. Nonetheless, it is once again another marker on a long list of extreme events which are consistent with climate change – in this case, of extremes of warm and cold air combining to form tornados. Tornados kill people in the US every year. But the average Tornado-related death rate for April is six. Only once has there been a worse death toll, in 1925. The poor suffer disproportionately, as usual, as those most vulnerable live in trailers, unable to afford proper homes.

On 28 April, as the last tornados swept through Alabama, oil company ExxonMobil reported quarterly profits of $10.7 billion, 69% higher than a year ago. On 10 May, Democratic senators introduced a bill to repeal the $21 billion in tax breaks to the five giant oil companies, safe in the knowledge that they no longer have a majority to get it through.

ExxonMobil is connected to nine of the top ten authors of climate change papers which support scepticism towards the fact that global warming is caused by human activity (aka capitalism), according to the Carbon Brief website which ‘fact-checks’ the sceptics’ claims. The other tenth have co-authored papers with Exxon-linked contributors. (Carbon Brief examined the 900 plus papers cited by Lord Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation website, which denies climate change.)

Meanwhile, 2010 tied with 2005 as the warmest year on record, despite some exceptionally cold weather. New records are set so often now it is a commonplace event, suggesting an accelerating pace of climate change. The PNAS report criticises the ‘accounting rules’ of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These remove carbon emissions produced by outsourced production from a country’s carbon account. But the report will do little to stop capitalist governments from protecting their national competitive edge against the rapidly growing BRIC countries and other competitors.

In order to really do something about climate change, much more would be needed than retrieving the $21 billion oil company tax breaks. ExxonMobil’s profits, for example, which hit a $40 billion annual record in 2008, would come in handy. Nationalising ExxonMobile, the other major oil companies and 100 or so of the world’s biggest polluters – filthy-rich multinationals which grind on in pursuit of profit at the expense of the planet – would provide adequate resources to fully convert the planet to a carbon-neutral world with plenty to spare.

These companies, which dominate world production, could be run as a democratically planned part (a majority part) of a socialist global economy. The massive scale of the urgent works required to stop global warming would end unemployment. And having these dominant sectors of the economy under democratic workers’ control and management would ensure those jobs were well paid and secure.

Pete Mason

Please click on the link to access the PNAS report, Growth in Emission Transfers via International Trade from 1990 to 2008

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