Climate change CO2onialism: What impacts for the South?

In its current form, cap-and-trade amounts to a system that interferes with development patterns in the South to offset carbon emissions resulting from “business as usual” in the North. Politics should be seeking alternatives to the trading model, argue Tim Forsyth and Zoe Young.

In today’s media-fuelled debate about climate change, the current worries seem to be: What can we do? And will it be enough? To these questions, we also add: Who should carry the burden of tackling the problem? And which non-market mechanisms offer more effective scope for action?

With the United States coming on board with international negotiations, most global environmental discourse now proceeds on the assumption that anthropogenic climate change is a “fact”. But the debate about how to deal with these problems – and who should participate – remains. There seems to be consensus among some global elites about where to start: “cap-and-trade” policies set targets for countries or companies to limit their pollution to agreed levels. If they overachieve targets, they can sell their allotted share of the “right to pollute” to participants who have underachieved. But within these policies are some hidden assumptions: that trading, rather than intelligent regulation, is the only way forward; and that development patterns in the South must be changed in order to “offset” carbon emissions produced by continued business as usual in the North. Real scientific doubts and political arguments are suppressed while market-friendly “solutions” are served up to the paying public on a glossy plate. Last time western Greens had the ear of their governments it led to the creation of the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility (GEF). Today, this problematic “new green order” is still evolving before our fearful, blinkered eyes.

This “order” limits space for collective rethinking of energy, production or consumption policies. There is no room within the mindset that leads to cap-and-trade policies to challenge the political assumptions that inform them, nor to substantially alter the pattern of regulation and investment in public energy infrastructure on the basis of engineering and scientific advice. Mainstream “climate” discourse focuses instead on marginal interventions such as switching to more efficient light bulbs and expanding fast-growing tree plantations in places where land is economically cheap. For as long as the “logic” of capitalist economic expansion remains unchallenged, it seems hardly possible for high energy-consuming societies to adapt in time to escape a grim Malthusian fate. But Malthus wanted to be proved wrong, and if we are brave and open-minded, our worst predictions still could be proved wrong too.

According to the first assessment in 1990 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific body responsible for assessing recent research into climate change, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions had to be reduced by 60 per cent below then current levels in order to prevent dangerous climate change. In 1999, Greenpeace said that only about 25 per cent of declared fossil fuel reserves could safely be burnt; the New Economics Foundation noted in 2006 that the demand reduction required in the oil sector is now five to six times that resulting from the OPEC oil price hike of the 1970s. Even the Stern Report, with its “old economy” rationale, noted that, “the stocks of hydrocarbons that are profitable to extract [under current policies] are more than enough to take the world to levels of greenhouse gas concentrations well beyond 750 parts per million of carbon dioxide [a “safe” level has been set as 450ppm].”

If governments were to follow the advice of these experts, they might work less from the premise of what big business wants today than from a calculation of how much oil, coal and gas can still safely be burnt. Instead, the Kyoto Protocol has been the main international agreement to address the threat of anthropogenic climate change. If you only read the BBC News website or certain newspapers, you might have concluded that supporting Kyoto was an acid test of green credentials. But what would Kyoto achieve, even were it fully implemented? Signed in 1997, it came into force in 2005, and committed the world’s industrialised countries to reducing GHG emissions just 5.2 percent by 2012. Only a few European countries are likely to achieve their target. Since 1990, the IPCC estimates worldwide emissions have increased 38 percent by 2007. What are the prospects for a new climate treaty at Copenhagen that can do any better?

Debate about how to achieve even these minimal reductions is barely off the starting block. Tax and subsidy incentives for big companies to shunt ever more goods around the world in pursuit of comparative commercial advantage remain in place. Publicly funded international financial institutions such as the World Bank still invest billions of dollars in oil and gas development – many times more than they devote to energy efficiency measures or renewable energy technologies – even as they are given charge of more and more streams of finance intended to support multilateral environmental agreements.

Radicals have few effective spaces other than the streets in which to challenge financial and political elites’ preference for economic growth at all costs. Interim funds and mechanisms designed to “do something” while maintaining the political status quo are constantly renewed, reviewed and re-advertised. Each is shown to be as empty as the last (the GEF, for example, inaugurated at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, is underfunded and now almost forgotten – despite its claims to the contrary), while ever more “solutions” emerge – for example, the World Bank’s Carbon Investment Funds, initiated 15 years after the GEF.

The most likely proposals for Copenhagen are to continue the cap-and-trade systems. These were introduced under the Kyoto Protocol to allow the industrialized countries to collaborate with other countries in order to achieve communal reductions in greenhouse gases at the cheapest price. But these mechanisms have been criticized as weak and ineffective. “Emissions Trading” between industrialised countries was designed to set incentives for reducing gases by giving out permits on the basis of current emissions, then allowing countries that “overachieve” reduction targets to sell their remaining carbon credits to those who have underachieved. This system was flawed from the start by capping emissions for Russia and the Ukraine at their 1990 levels at a time when their economies were contracting. These countries now emit about 25 per cent less CO2 than in 1990 because of deindustrialisation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under “Emissions Trading”, Russia and Ukraine can “sell” this 25 per cent reduction to governments who continue to pollute, as if it reflected genuine energy saving and reduced emissions. For many policymakers, this generosity to Russia and Ukraine was a necessary concession to establish emissions trading and the Kyoto Protocol. Critics called this the trading of “hot air”.

Other “flexible mechanisms” introduced during the 1990s under the Kyoto Protocol included Joint Implementation (JI) and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). These mechanisms allow industrialised countries to achieve some emission targets by investing in renewable energy or plantation forestry abroad. (JI is investment between industrialised countries; CDM involves investment from North to South). These schemes remain in place – with all the attendant costs of reviews, publications, staff salaries and other overheads.

The idea is that policy should encourage emission-reducing investments wherever they are cheapest. This logic is valid on some levels, but can be criticised for picking first – and perhaps only – the “low hanging fruit”. Unfortunately, many such projects are also not properly monitored, and who knows what happens to the “benefits” once the initial, publicly advertised phase is over. One infamous problem was that investors sometimes used the CDM to earn money through abusing loopholes. For example, the greenhouse gas HFC-23 has an impact on global warming around 11,700 times greater than similar amounts of CO2. Some companies deliberately set up factories to manufacture this refrigerant, and then close the factories down in order to claim benefits from the CDM. Experts estimate HFC 23 emitters can earn almost twice as much from these credits as they can from selling the gas itself.

Other concerns involve land use and forests. Fixing carbon into soil and tree plantations is not straightforward. To appear effective it needs fast-growing trees with little disturbance; usually monocultures, requiring high water, fertiliser and pesticide inputs to survive, with all the social and environmental consequences involved in replacing complex productive landscapes.

Some critics suggest that offset forestry’s ability to absorb carbon can be exaggerated because protecting, or planting, forests in one region may simply displace deforestation to other regions. It is also not always clear that the companies involved have full rights to the land – in Brazil for example, ownership of much of the land used for plantations has been contested since the time of the dictatorships, if not the original conquistadors. Executed cheaply by companies who make a business out of pulp or charcoal, such plantations tie up land into a forest monoculture that would otherwise be wild nature with all its joys and benefits, or used for vital agricultural development.

These topics have provoked intense emotions, and popular resistance. One climate change negotiator from an African country angrily told participants at a London meeting, “Our countries are not toilets for your emissions!” Farmers, ecologists and trade unionists in South America formed the “Alert Against the Green Desert” network and take action to counter conversion of large areas of land to plantations. The Uruguay-based World Rainforest Movement has a campaign called “Plantations are not forests!” But according to Kyoto rules, plantations – with all their negative implications for biodiversity and social exclusion – are acceptable simply because they can capture carbon.

The major political intentions underlying carbon-offset forestry are fairly clear. The environmental writer Larry Lohmann reported a US Department of Energy official as saying that “tree planting will allow US energy policy to go on with business as usual out to 2015”. Rightly or wrongly, these statements created the impression that industrialised countries are not interested in addressing climate change and that carbon forestry is “CO2lonialism”.

Some Southern governments, notably Costa Rica, have welcomed forestry-based projects; their potential for creating rural livelihoods, or playing a part in a climate policy portfolio, should not be dismissed. But forestry in itself is not going to bring about real change. At the end of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth he lists ten simple action points. These include using less hot water, recycling more, driving less, and planting a tree, with the advice that “a single tree will absorb a ton of CO 2 over its lifetime.” Some wise elders in Britain may remember the phrase, “Plant a tree in ’73” – and if it didn’t stop climate change back then, why should it do so now?

The proposals to make tree-planting part of the Copenhagen agreement now focus on what experts call REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). If countries or investors can demonstrate they have reduced emissions arising from deforestation or land-use change, then they can also qualify for carbon credits. The proposals have some promise. But research to date suggests there are huge challenges for ensuring that poorer forest dwellers can benefit as well. One study by Greenpeace in 2007 in the Democratic Republic of Congo argued that the World Bank’s strategies there increased, rather than avoided deforestation, by using logging as a form of economic development – and that logging titles have frequently been allocated without acknowledging local land rights. Indeed, the report claimed payments of just salt and beer have been made to community leaders in return for logging rights. Another study of a World Bank carbon offset project in Peru showed that the Bank’s technical advisors explicitly refused to acknowledge forest peoples as key rights holders in REDD. In some cases, villagers found themselves in debt because of the fines incurred when trees burned down because of forest fires. More work needs to be done on making REDD so that it becomes both effective in terms of climate change policy and sensitive to local development.

Meanwhile, do these trends indicate a wider problem? Are richer countries trying to address climate change by controlling development in the South, rather than adjusting their own activities too much? Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute said in 2005:

“If [China] consumes paper at the same rate we [in the US] do, it will consume twice as much paper as the world is now producing. There go the world’s forests. If the Chinese then have three cars for every four people – as the US does today – they would have a fleet of 1.1 billion cars, compared to the current world fleet of 800 million.”

Clearly, policies adopted in China will be crucial. But portraying this country as the problem seems to give credibility to the belief that industrialisation is a club only for the richer world – and it ignores the fact that a large proportion of Chinese production is of goods for western consumption. China has admitted that it must play a role in mitigating climate change. But western governments need to stop evaluating success simply in terms of reducing the level of GHGs in the atmosphere. Seeking to reduce hypothetical concentrations without understanding the local impacts of projects will simply undermine the political accord necessary to move forward together.

The same problem occurs with the Stern Report, which like many economic projections used a “discount rate” to calculate the cost of future damage from climate change today. This assumes an improbable conformity in the effects of climate change on different populations, and overlooks the way that ostensibly palliative projects may create problems of their own. Powerful figures such as Nicholas Stern might be advised to stop treating climate change as a universal risk, addressed by general reductions in energy use or emissions generation, and instead seek more equitable solutions that reduce real people’s risk of living a degraded existence.

The Executive Board of the CDM has often argued that investments in industrial technology are preferable to simply sequestering CO2. For example, many companies have sought financial support under the CDM for flaring methane gas from landfills (methane has a global warming potential 25 times the value of CO2, and so flaring may mitigate climate change by effectively converting methane to CO2). But critics suggest that flaring misses the opportunity to use this gas for local heat or electricity generation – and makes life for those living and working nearby extremely noisy, dirty and unpleasant. Under the Kyoto Protocol, there are no obvious incentives for moves to end practices like flaring. Rather, all CDM projects have to pay 2 per cent of profits towards an “Adaptation Fund”, money for long-term developments such as reducing vulnerability to sea-level rise. Some critics consider this fund too small; others see it not as an incentive to make CDM projects more development-friendly but as a tax on CDM investment.

The debate about whether climate change is happening might be over, but the debate about what to do, and who should take the burden, is ongoing. Many companies and NGOs still entertain romantic visions of a carbon offset forestry replacing lost rainforests; and treat politically – rather than scientifically – agreed national CO2 targets as the only effective means to reduce emissions. But rather than idealising these, perhaps governments could impose legally binding targets for industry and consumers to seek a proportion of their energy from renewable sources, and to improve energy efficiency. Such targets would encourage innovation and new investment, which reduces the costs of safer technologies in the longer term. In a context of imminent (or recently passed) “peak oil” production, a member of the UN Climate Change Secretariat noted privately that “climate change is like god – if it did not exist, it would have to be invented”. This reflects the urgency of the shifts in energy policy, regulation and investment that the threat of climate change could, or should, be provoking.

Why should governments, supposedly working for the good of all, perpetuate environmental policy that plays to the brutish, marketized and greedy side of our natures, and avoid the major changes needed to adapt our societies in advance of the depletion of finite resources? Where is the conviction, post financial crisis, that “we are all in the same boat” and that humans can work “together” to adapt and find equitable solutions to collective problems?

Rather than devising “solutions” to climate change that work within the same market logic that has got us into a series of major holes, a better approach may be to stop digging. As a species we certainly have the ingenuity to make our governments adopt responses other then those that impose new problems on poorer, less adaptable communities while maintaining banks and big business’ record profits. Assisting all citizens to live more sustainable and comfortable lives could mean realizing that, far from having finished framing the parameters of collective responses to the threat of climate change, we have only just started.

Published 30 October 2009
Original in English

Contributed by Mute © Tim Forsyth / Zoe Young / Mute / Eurozine


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