Capitalism and Climate Change: Accumulating Chaos

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As world leaders gather at the Cohenhagen summit to discuss climate change, Martin Empson argues that the market cannot save the planet - we need a mass movement.

Imagine a United Nations conference on the environment. It brings together representatives of every major economy, with NGOs and scientists. In the run up to the conference the participants have been locked in negotiations for over three months. There has been deadlock on almost every key point of the agreement. The president of the world's most powerful economy prevaricates about even attending. Afterwards proclamations from government leaders everywhere are issued claiming that the event marks a new beginning for the planet.

But despite warnings from scientists that huge reductions in greenhouse gas emissions must be made, the only agreement reached is an open-ended, non-legally binding statement of intent to cut emissions.

This could be a description of the Copenhagen climate conference that takes place this month. In fact it's based on an account of the aftermath of the world's first environmental conference, the Earth Summit that took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. That conference was hamstrung by President Bush Sr. Together with the then British environment secretary, the Tory Michael Howard, they managed to remove the target date for emissions reductions, despite it being previously agreed by over 100 countries. A secondary agreement on biodiversity, aimed at protecting animal and plant species, was similarly undermined by the US's refusal to sign.

Unfortunately, the tale of the Earth Summit gets worse. The only real winners were the multinationals who, following intensive lobbying, managed to get themselves absolved of any legal responsibility for environmental damage, in exchange for a commitment to self-regulation. Almost two decades later we can see how unsuccessful such self-regulation has been.

The Rio summit didn't lead to any change in how the most powerful nations and their corporations related to the natural world. Rather it reinforced the dominance of the most powerful states over the developing world and made sure that free market strategies for development weren't hampered by the need to worry about the environment.

Rio took place at a time of growing environmental awareness. Yet it was a tragic failure for anyone concerned about the planet. A greater tragedy is that the economic and political priorities that came out on top in 1992 have also triumphed in similar ways at every international environmental conference since.

One of the major problems with environmental meetings of this nature is that the dominant way of looking at environmental problems is through the prism of the free market. For the heads of states and their representatives the only possible solution is to impose market mechanisms. There is a long tradition of using such mechanisms as the answer to environmental problems, but they are particularly inappropriate when applied to the complex and urgent problem of climate change and global warming.

The idea of using the market to solve climate change emerged in the late 1980s. Under growing pressure to deal with global warming, and unwilling to commit to the obvious solutions - such as changes to transport, energy generation and so on - governments looked to take a short cut.

Many involved in the discussions saw the success of the Montreal Protocols, which reduced the chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) emissions that were destroying the ozone layer, as a precedent for combating climate change. CFC reduction involved dealing with relatively few factories, and from a technical viewpoint there were readily available benign alternatives to CFCs. Dealing with climate change is much more complex.

Putting the corporations in control of this process, and enabling them to make profits out of reducing emissions, was a logical step for politicians obsessed with the free market. The idea is simple. You set a limit on the amount of emissions, and distribute rights to emit carbon. These permits to pollute are themselves tradable. Those who found ways to reduce their emissions could sell their remaining rights to pollute to other polluters.

It was exactly such schemes that were at the heart of the next international agreement on reducing emissions - the treaty signed at Kyoto in 1997. These protocols committed industrialised nations to reducing their emissions by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

The first problem is the woefully low target. Britain needs to reduce its emissions by around 80 percent if we are to have any hope of dealing with climate change. Yet the treaty did at least mark a binding commitment to reducing emissions.

There are further problems. Firstly the trading of emissions rights allows countries to produce more emissions than they should. Some countries, notably Russia and former Eastern Bloc nations, had very lax targets because of the collapse of industry that took place there in the 1990s. These targets could be sold to other countries, allowing them to pollute more. A secondary problem was that industrialised nations could pay to "offset" their emissions by funding schemes such as the planting of forests in the developing world.

These schemes have often failed to match up to expectations. Corruption, lack of funds or ill thought-out projects have meant that few such offsetting schemes have resulted in emissions reductions.

But the biggest problem with Kyoto was the refusal of the most important economy and the world's biggest polluter to ratify the treaty. Ironically, when George W Bush decided not to sign the treaty in 2001, the principle of market-based solutions that US negotiators had insisted be part of Kyoto was left in. As Larry Lohman put it, "[Kyoto's] environmental backers...were left in the odd position of having to champion an agreement written largely by the US for US purposes on the basis of US experience and US economic thinking, but which no longer had US support."

George Bush decided that he "couldn't in all faith sign Kyoto", believing it would have "wrecked the economy". For Bush, even the modest limits of Kyoto would have hampered the ability of US capitalism to compete in the international arena.

It is for this reason that so often international meetings on environmental questions end in failure. The representatives at the discussions are not fighting for the future of the planet, but to ensure that the interests they represent don't lose out. At best, they hope to create treaties that will reduce emissions by offering profits to some of their companies. At worst, they are trying to foist the problem onto other nations.

Despite the rhetoric from Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, New Labour's record on tackling climate change is woefully inadequate. Miliband's decision to give the go-ahead to new coal-powered stations is precisely the opposite of what is needed. Brown's commitment to create 400,000 "green jobs" over the next eight years was followed by his silence as 600 jobs at the Vestas wind turbine plant on the Isle of Wight were slashed.

Despite both Tony Blair's and Gordon Brown's promises of significant cuts, carbon emissions are higher now than when Labour came into office in 1997. The Climate Change Act that was signed a year ago commits the government to reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050. This will remain an improbable target unless there is significant change in government policy.

The problem is that Labour is trying to square the circle.

As I write this, politicians are playing down expectations for success at Copenhagen. Obama is under huge pressure from Republicans worried about the costs of emissions reduction. It is likely that, despite the hopes of millions of people around the world, Copenhagen will fail to deliver the change that is needed.

But there is another side to things. As politicians negotiate in Copenhagen, thousands of people will take part in protests, campaigns and lobbying in Copenhagen, London, Glasgow and around the world.

That anger must be well directed to win real change from our government. All too often we are told that to save the planet ordinary people need to change their lifestyles. Take Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth. This has probably done more than anything else to explain the reality of climate change, the threat posed by global warming and the science behind the issues. It paints a truly stark picture.

At the end of the film viewers are offered a list of things they can do. Change your light bulbs, turn off electrical equipment and check car tyres are properly inflated. All these are laudable activities, yet they are all based on individual action. In themselves they aren't enough.

One US activist and author, David Jensen, has pointed out that if every single American did everything Al Gore suggests, carbon emissions for the US would drop by only 22 percent. The scientific consensus is that US emissions need to drop by over 75 percent to stop runaway climate change. There is no explanation in Al Gore's film as to where the remaining bulk of the emissions cuts should come from.

The biggest producers of greenhouse gases are the transport, agriculture and power generation sectors. This means that to solve the problem we need strategies that deal with these industries. These cannot be changed through individual action. They require government action. Concretely this means investment in public transport, funding and resources for renewable energy, a ban on the expansion of airports and an end to new road building programmes.

This sort of change will have to be fought for. In many cases it will mean challenging the interests of some of the largest and most powerful companies - the fossil fuel corporations. In others it will mean taking on the government's free market orthodoxy of the last two decades.

This is why the movement that is developing around Copenhagen is so important. We cannot simply call for change during the summit and then go home. We must build a mass movement that demands and forces change from our government.

In the UK the Campaign Against Climate Change has launched a "Climate Emergency" campaign. We demand a 10 percent cut in emissions by the end of 2010, the creation of a million climate jobs, an end to domestic flights, the scrapping of the roads programme and an end to agrofuel use.

These changes would go a long way towards reducing UK emissions on the scale that is required. It also forms the basis for a new way of dealing with climate change. Rather than relying on the free market, we are calling for state intervention. At a time of economic crisis, creating climate jobs for the unemployed, investing in insulation, public transport and renewable energy would be immensely popular. But more importantly it is about putting the needs of people and the planet before the priorities of big business.

Martin Empson is the author of a new pamphlet, Marxism and Ecology, available from Bookmarks, £1.50.

Campaign Against Climate Change.