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False hope over climate change

THE CONCLUSION of the Montreal climate change summit, which ended in December, was met with an ecstatic chorus by both Margaret Beckett, British environment minister, and by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Beckett called it a "a diplomatic triumph", Greenpeace International’s political director, Steve Sawyer, claimed it was "historic" as did the vice-chair of Friends of the Earth International, Tony Juniper. Juniper went on to say: "Those who said that this level of agreement was impossible have been proved wrong".

So what provoked these euphoric outpourings? Was Juniper right to claim that there is now significant international agreement on action to tackle climate change? Under the agreement, the signatories to the Kyoto protocol on climate change agreed to begin talking about new national targets for the emissions that cause global warming after 2012, the cut off date for the current targets. Also, countries that are not part of Kyoto, in particular the USA and China, agreed to an "open and non-binding" dialogue about their future role. Another agreement reached at Montreal, linked to Kyoto, was to introduce a mechanism to allow firms to earn credits to pollute by funding green schemes in poor countries.

So is the Montreal euphoria justified? The agreement to begin talks on (presumably) more stringent targets for reducing greenhouse gasses after 2012 was not the breakthrough claimed, because the 1997 signatories to Kyoto were already committed to talking about new targets after 2012. All Montreal signifies is that they are not back-tracking on that. The second part of the ‘historic’ step forward in Canada was to get the agreement of the Kyoto rejectionists, the USA and Australia, and ‘third world’ countries (like China) not originally included in the protocol, to talk about their role in cutting greenhouse gasses after 2012. This is the outcome at Montreal that Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were really enthused by.

It is understandable that they see the involvement of the USA and China as crucial to meaningful greenhouse gas reductions. These states are the two biggest emitters. The USA alone accounts for approximately a quarter of world greenhouse gas output and, if present trends continue (which is not certain), China’s greenhouse gas output will match America’s within a few years. The Kyoto permit trading system could never hope to be effective without the participation of the USA, because the fundamental mechanism envisaged under the protocol was that high emitting American firms would trade permits to pollute with their counterparts, primarily in the former Soviet bloc, who were under target, due to the economic collapse of that region after 1990.

An agreement in Montreal by the USA to seriously come on board really would have been historic, because it would mean that the US corporations were putting the interests of the planet before their own profits, since US firms will face by far the greatest penalties under the scheme. China, the world’s fastest growing economy, also has a lot to lose, because its competitive edge would be seriously blunted if its capitalists had to pay much more for energy.

However, a study of what actually happened at Montreal shows that no meaningful international consensus is likely to emerge from the talks. Not only did the USA insist that the future dialogue should be non-binding, but it also insisted on inserting that it "will not open any negotiations leading to new commitments". In other words, it explicitly ruled out participation in Kyoto after 2012. The USA and China, for that matter, have no intention, as they would see it, of giving a free gift to their international competitors by signing up to any meaningful greenhouse gas reduction scheme.

The reaction of the environmental pressure groups to Montreal is a sign of their desperation and complete lack of an alternative to capitalist market-based ideas to tackle the threat of global warming. Even mainstream science journals, such as New Scientist, poured scorn on their position in the aftermath of the summit, with the ironic headline in their editorial, ‘Some triumph...’ The magazine commented that the reaction of the environmental pressure groups was a result of their very low expectations prior to the summit: it "was sad to see environmentalists who have been on the case longer than most of the politicians getting caught up in the euphoria".

Two other aspects of the Montreal negotiations were also hailed by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth as a breakthrough: the agreement to start the scheme where firms can avoid penalties under Kyoto by funding green programmes in poor countries; and the fixing of the levels of penalties on countries that miss their targets. What is striking about these ‘breakthroughs’ is that it took nearly nine years after the deal was originally signed in 1997 for agreement to be reached, showing how torturous international negotiations are, even over secondary matters, when national capitalist interests are involved.

It is also questionable how effective any scheme to fund green projects in poor countries in exchange for ‘permits to pollute’ will be. The corruption that dogged other UN programmes such as ‘food for oil’ in Iraq does not give much confidence that this will be much better. Also, since bribery by western firms to get what they want in third world countries is already the norm, and when this is combined with the technical difficulties of measuring accurately the effects on global warming of some small environmental projects, scepticism about the effectiveness of this measure is not unreasonable.

In order to tackle global warming, effective action needs to begin now. The urgency of this was further shown by the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. (see Socialism Today No.95, October 2005) Jim Hansen, director of NASA’s (the US space agency) Goddard Institute for Space Studies and George Bush’s top climate modeller, said last December that we have "at most ten years" to make drastic cuts in emissions. Kyoto is proving to be totally ineffective. Even its modest 2012 target for cuts in greenhouse gases, which is a fraction of what is needed, will not be met. In Britain, where Tony Blair likes to boast about his green credentials, the rate of greenhouse gas emissions is accelerating under the Kyoto regime.

It is excluded that the Bush regime will join any meaningful international system to cut greenhouse gases because this is not in the interests of the US corporations. But the Democratic Party ex-president Bill Clinton was also being completely hypocritical in Montreal when he toured the summit arguing for US participation in action on global warming, because he was president in the 1990s when Kyoto was being negotiated and would have nothing to do with it, precisely due to its impact on the profits of US multinationals. And it is very unlikely that any future US administration will cooperate for the same reason, particularly when the economy turns down and pressures on profit levels are even greater.

Pete Dickinson


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