SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 185 February 2015

Climate change conference

The Lima loopholes

New records are being broken for global warming, with 2014 the hottest on a world scale, according to the Japanese Meteorological agency. This finding is expected to be confirmed by other Met offices very soon. The Met Office reported that it was also the UK’s hottest in figures going back to 1910. Central England similarly hit the record, in statistics that began in 1659, the longest running series of climate temperature numbers in the world. Eight of the ten warmest years in history have taken place since 2002.

That was the backdrop to the latest UN sponsored climate change conference which took place in Lima, Peru, last December. The minds of the Lima delegates should have been further concentrated by the massive climate change demo in the USA last year, the world’s biggest on this issue. So what happened in Peru?

All governments were asked to submit plans for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 31 March 2015. This is meant to prepare the way for a new international agreement in Paris in December, to replace the failed Kyoto treaty that lapsed in 2012. Lima repeated a goal for industrialised countries to contribute $100 billion towards a fund to help poor nations cut their emissions and to adapt to the effects of global warming. The talks also agreed on a document that put forward ‘elements’ of the proposed agreement in Paris.

The problem is that the document had so many opt-outs and ambiguities that it is hard to see any concrete advances taking place as a result. For instance, the request for plans to cut emissions did not include any requirement for targets or timescales. This was included in the original draft, but was watered down to make it optional.

The proposed section for the Paris conference on adaptation to climate change contained two options: ‘Establish a global goal for adaptation’; ‘No global goal for adaptation’. This impasse highlights the most contentious area of the negotiations: which countries should be responsible for paying for the effects of global warming and for adaptation. For decades, poor countries, quite understandably, refused to accept responsibility for climate change since, historically, it was caused by the industrial revolution in the west.

The reiteration in Lima of the goal to build a $100 billion adaptation fund, paid for by the rich countries, was meant to address this issue. This fund was proposed at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, and was claimed to be a step forward in an otherwise disastrous failure. The idea was that if $100 billion was available to them, ex-colonial countries would be encouraged to take part in any future climate change treaty. However, since 2009, only $10 billion has been forthcoming. The landmark of passing $10 billion was hailed at Lima, although it is a tiny fraction of what possibly could have made a difference and took five years to achieve.

At the heart of the rich/poor nation divide is the clash between the USA and China, the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters. Just before the Lima conference, they held a bilateral meeting to discuss global warming. The outcome was welcomed by many environmentalists since, for the first time, China agreed to accept some responsibility in theory for curbing emissions. The problem was that the target China agreed to try to reach was to cap its greenhouse gas output by 2030. In other words, its emissions would not peak until that date and then decline at an unspecified rate. If the present rate of pollution output growth in China is maintained, it would result in approximately 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide being emitted in 2030 in that country, about half the current world total. This outcome would be a disaster for tackling climate change.

China’s bureaucratic leaders’ position can be viewed as cynical, and the Chinese capitalists are contributing massively to the problem. Nonetheless, China does not bear primary responsibility for global warming. The major industrialised powers have been exporting their pollution for decades to China, as de-industrialisation in the USA and the European Union (EU) has proceeded. Western governments then blame China for the problem, while the EU hypocritically pats itself on the back for reaching (still inadequate) emission targets. The USA promised somewhat more ambitious goals at the bilateral meeting, but these were a significant scaling down on the commitments it made at Copenhagen – which, in any case, proved to be unable to prevent the collapse of that conference. Even these revised-down figures look certain to be rejected by the new Republican controlled Congress.

What was not discussed at Lima was what legal form any potential agreement or treaty in Paris would take. Even in the very unlikely event that the big powers agree on meaningful targets for greenhouse gas reductions and a tight timescale for their implementation, then what? The Copenhagen conference – and all the subsequent ones (Durban 2011, Cancun 2010, etc) – failed to make any progress on the question of a follow-up to the Kyoto treaty. However, in the even more unlikely event of all the big polluters, including China and the USA, coming on board for a Kyoto Mark Two, would this be the answer?

Although Kyoto had some regulatory component, albeit very limited, in practice the permit trading system it introduced proved to be completely ineffective. Polluting firms were supposed to be forced to buy ‘permits to pollute’ at such a price that they would be compelled to look for greener ways of doing business. The generally quoted figure to achieve this was $30/tonne of carbon dioxide. Since 2002, when Kyoto began operation, this figure has never been reached. Indeed, for much of the time it was in single figures. For instance, in the EU permit trading system, which is still operating, the cost of a permit is currently under $7/tonne. The low price is a result of governments issuing millions of permit exemptions after coming under pressure from big business. Also, Kyoto implemented a form of carbon tax, in which firms could pass on the costs of the permits to those least able to pay, creating another reason for objecting to a Kyoto Two.

After Lima, the prospects for any meaningful agreement in Paris look vanishingly small, but this did not prevent the mainstream politicians from talking up the prospects. Ed Davey, Lib Dem climate change minister, quoted on the Daily Telegraph website, said he was "completely relaxed" about the watered down final draft of the Lima agreement, even though he acknowledged, paradoxically, that it would not prevent dangerous levels of global warming. David ‘dump the green crap’ Cameron possibly may not have the effrontery to pose as a green champion again in the general election, but the Lib Dems will probably still try.

None of the mainstream parties, including Labour, or for that matter the Greens, will propose the radical break with the capitalist system that is needed to begin to address global warming. The huge demonstration in the US last year showed the anger that is building internationally on this issue. This anger, if it was allied to a socialist programme, could build a powerful movement to reverse global warming.

Pete Dickenson

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