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Socialism Today 145 - February 2011

Saving the planet or saving face?

THE WORLD climate talks in Cancún, Mexico, were on the brink of collapse at the end of last year before a deal was announced dramatically. Cheers and applause erupted from the participating politicians. Even many aid and environmental campaigners expressed their relief. To anyone unaccustomed to the shoddy deals characteristic of these summits it may have appeared that the two weeks which 15,000 representatives from over 190 countries had spent at the luxury Moon Palace hotel complex had not been in vain.

Tim Gore of Oxfam said: "The UN climate talks are off the life-support machine. The agreement falls short of the emissions cuts that are needed, but it lays out a path to move towards them". More realistically, the Global Wind Energy Council said Cancún was only considered a success because of the extremely low expectations going into the talks: "None of the fundamental political, legal and architectural issues that still must be resolved in order to establish an effective global climate regime have been solved". (Guardian, 13 December 2010)

There was a lot at stake – aside, that is, from tackling global warming, which threatens the livelihoods of millions of people, most immediately in some of the world’s poorest countries. Indeed, that seemed to be the last thing many participants were worried about. For them, saving face is far more important than saving the planet.

One of the main tasks of the UN framework convention on climate change in Cancún (known in the jargon as COP-16), which ended on 11 December, was to rescue the process from the fiasco of Copenhagen in 2009 (COP-15). There, the talks had broken up amid bitter recriminations.

It had looked as though Cancún would continue in that vein. On the opening day, Japanese representatives announced that they would not renew the Kyoto protocol under any circumstances. Russia and Canada followed suit. They were countered by the Alba group of Latin American and Caribbean states – the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, which includes Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Dominica, St Vincent and the Grenadines, along with Antigua and Barbuda.

This represents a fundamental division between the industrialised nations and the developing world. Most of the excess carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere, causing it to warm, was put there by the industrialised nations from the beginning of the industrial revolution in Britain and 1990, when the first UN climate convention was being drawn up. By that time, the US was emitting 25% of the world’s CO2, with less than 5% of its population. The main economies of Europe put out 20%. The total for all the industrialised countries was between two thirds and three quarters of all emissions.

Since the Kyoto protocol (signed in December 1997), however, the emissions from the developing world have shot up. China’s carbon emissions doubled from three to six billion tonnes from 1996 to 2006. In 2007, it overtook the US. By 2010, emissions from the industrialised world and developing countries were almost equal. The trend is projected to continue and it will not be long before emissions from the developing world take the lead. The battle is over who pays.

The Kyoto protocol, though weak and ineffectual, was supposed to commit industrialised nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Developing countries were exempt. George W Bush withdrew the US from the protocol in 2001. Although Kyoto did not commit China to emission cuts, it never signed up in the first place, largely to avoid any possible monitoring of its industrial and mining processes, and infrastructure development. The Alba states, and many others, such as the Polynesian islands on the brink of submersion, contend that the industrialised nations should pick up the tab for getting the world into this mess in the first place. The rich countries, with the US to the fore, are keen to spread the cost. The shift in global carbon emissions has strengthened their hand.

Among the mass of information released by WikiLeaks were cables revealing the extent of the global diplomatic offensive by the US administration to thwart opposition to the Copenhagen accord. They show how financial and other aid is used by countries to gain political backing. For instance, the US state department, under the guidance of the CIA, sent a secret cable on 31 July 2009 seeking intelligence on countries’ negotiating positions for Copenhagen. US diplomats were asked to provide evidence of UN environmental ‘treaty circumvention’ and deals between nations.

Although the Copenhagen accord is extremely weak, it begins to draw China and other rapidly developing countries into the issues and negotiations. Getting as many countries as possible to associate themselves with the accord served US interests by boosting the likelihood it would be officially adopted.

The world warmed by about 0.7% in the 20th century. Carbon dioxide levels are now almost 390 parts per million, 40% more than before the industrial revolution. Even if they were suddenly stabilised – which they won’t be – the world would still be on course to warm by a further half a degree or so as the oceans, slow to change temperature, caught up. But CO2 levels continue to rise. The International Energy Association said that all the signatories to the Copenhagen accord would have to hit the top of their commitments in order to meet the 2°C target: "That would provide a worldwide rate of decarbonisation (reduction in carbon emitted per unit of GDP) twice as large in the decade to come as in the one just past: 2.8% a year, not 1.4%. Mr [Fatih] Birol [IEA chief economist] notes that the highest annual rate on record is 2.5%, in the wake of the first oil shock. But for the two-degree scenario 2.8% is just the beginning; from 2020 to 2035 the rate of decarbonisation needs to double again, to 5.5%". (The Economist, 25 November 2010)

Clearly, a much greater effort is needed, a dynamism out of the scope of the capitalist system. The fact that capitalism is based on the profit-driven, private ownership of the means of production breeds fierce competition between corporations which, in turn, fuels bitter rivalry between nation states. It is not conducive to international cooperation or binding agreements, to say the least.

The magnitude of the threat posed by global warming and the pressure to take action, combined with the Copenhagen hangover, meant that politicians could not afford to be seen to fail so completely again. So, they cobbled together the eleventh-hour deal. It was, in fact, bulldozed through: "But unlike last year’s UN framework convention on climate change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, when Bolivia and a handful of others brought decision-making to a standstill, this year the president of the talks said ‘consensus does not mean unanimity’ and gavelled through the agreements over Bolivia’s objection". (New York Times, 13 December 2010)

The participants reiterated the mantra that industrialised nations need to do more to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. Once again, they adopted the target of keeping warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels with a new framework in which all countries have official, UN-recognised goals. They hailed the significance of China, India, Brazil, South Korea and others agreeing to cut emissions growth. Yet, nowhere in the agreement are there any binding targets for emissions cuts by which performance could be measured.

Although a new international regime of monitoring, reporting and verification was agreed on, this was a much watered down version of what was proposed at Copenhagen, and which had been flatly rejected by China.

A ‘green fund’ will be set up, supposedly to share new technology, help conserve forests and aid climate defence in developing nations. This follows on from Copenhagen in 2009 where rich countries agreed to raise $100 billion (£63bn) a year by 2020. They did not agree how the money would be made available. US officials say that most of it must come from the private sector. The trustee of the green fund will be the World Bank, again guaranteeing that the policy will be implemented in the interests of the big capitalist powers. It aims to be up and running after the next UN climate meeting.

Developing countries are to receive aid for not burning or logging forests – deforestation produces about 15% of the world’s carbon emissions. References to market mechanisms were left out of the forest agreement, REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), at the insistence of Bolivia. Nonetheless, this is another step towards the ‘monetisation’ of the great rainforests.

Hard-wired into the logic of capitalism, ‘market solutions’ are the only ones on the agenda. Putting domestic emissions reduction commitments into a formal UN agreement will spur further action. At least that is how the argument goes. Investing in low-carbon energy will not only tackle climate change but will generate ‘green growth’ and restart the global race to produce clean technologies is another market myth. The approach of the system as a whole was summed up in the Economist on 16 December: "It would be wonderful to solve climate change with a global deal. But no such thing looks remotely achievable. Better to use the newly roadworthy process to achieve worthwhile goals – to pay for adaptation, save forests, build up renewable-energy capacity – than to crash it again into a wall".

The Cancún dilemma was how to bridge the gulf between developing and rich countries. Chris Huhne, Britain’s Lib-Dem energy minister, headed the group which drafted the final text. This was designed so that both sides could maintain their positions while putting off a decision on a future, second commitment (‘Kyoto 2’), probably to the next UN climate conference in Durban, South Africa, at the end of this year. Huhne was jubilant: "This is a significant turning point. It clearly says that there should be reductions from developing countries. It takes us forward to a legally binding overall outcome". (The Observer, 12 December 2010) That is patently untrue. As noted above, the agreements, such as they are, are riddled with loopholes.

Huhne’s spin – typical of the Lib-Dems in office and the coalition government they have bought into – tried to mask the complete cop-out. For example, the form of words allowed Japan to avoid making new pledges until some unspecified time in the future. The Economist online commented (11 December 2010): "The text on the Kyoto protocol that was agreed in Cancún talks positively about the second commitment period in principle. But careful reading makes it clear that neither Japan nor anyone else is currently obliged to sign up for it, and that its legal form remains to be determined. And the pledges on emissions cuts that developed countries made as part of the Copenhagen accord have not been slotted into the Kyoto text, where they might have been seen as commitments by any other name. They have [been] put into a separate part of the text. In short, Japan pretty much got its way".

Any mention of a deal on shipping and aircraft fuels, implacably opposed by the big oil producers and their governmental cronies worldwide, was removed from the text. Paragraphs touching on the need to regulate agriculture, which emits similar levels of greenhouse gas to deforestation, were also deleted. Researchers for the Climate Action Tracker said that, even if the pledges were met, the world would still experience 3.2°C of warming, which would have catastrophic consequences for many of the poorest countries. (The Observer, 12 December 2010)

The most significant result of Cancún was that all the tough decisions were put off. An editorial in The Independent on Sunday (The Climate Change Circus Rolls On, 12 December) cast a weary eye on the proceedings: "We are still aboard the train; the travelling circus is still in business… It has become an annual event, with an Olympics or World Cup style competition to stage the next one… At each conference, the participants agree a form of words and express the hope that the binding details can be nailed down by the time of the next one". It still tried to draw some positive conclusions out of Cancún nonetheless.

Michael Levi, from the US Council on Foreign Relations, issued a starker warning on his blog, pointing out that time is running out: "The Cancún result punts the dispute to next year’s talks. But that solution will not be available again: the current Kyoto commitments expire at the end of 2012, making the next UN conference the last practical opportunity to seal a new set of Kyoto pledges". (Guardian, 13 December)

So there we have it. Yet another summit and yet more prevarication. A mountain of communiqués and spin, no real action. People around the world, especially those in impoverished low-lying states at imminent risk from rising sea levels, are asking themselves a very stark question: What will it take for representatives from around the world to get to grips with this potentially catastrophic problem? The only long-term answer strikes at the heart of the way production is organised, and goods and services distributed, under capitalism. To ensure the necessary cooperation between peoples would require a fundamental restructuring of society. A socialist system, based on working-class control and management of the productive forces, would be able to develop economic planning democratically. This could balance people’s needs with the essential task of safeguarding a rich and inhabitable world for generations to come.

Manny Thain


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