Copenhagen: the burning issues

Issue section: 
(342)

Patrick Bond examines the forces battling it out at the climate summit in Copenhagen - and the resistance from below.

The negotiations in the run-up to the 7-18 December Copenhagen Summit confirmed that northern states and their corporations won't get their act together. Nor will southern elites in high-emission countries, especially South Africa.

The top-down effort to get the atmospheric pollution of CO2 back down to 350 parts per million has conclusively failed. On the right, US president Barack Obama's negotiators argue that the 1997 Kyoto Protocol is excessively binding on the north and leaves out several major polluters of the south, including China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Hence Obama's early November promise that he would come to Copenhagen to "clinch a deal" is as hollow as the White House's sham support for democracy in Honduras.

Even the low levels of emission cuts agreed in Kyoto 12 years ago - 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012 - are impossible to achieve now, thanks mainly to US backtracking during the regime of George W Bush. Obama's people hope the world will accept 2005 as a new starting date; a 20 percent reduction by 2020 then only brings the target back to around 5 percent below 1990 levels. Such pathetically low ambitions, as Obama surely knows, guarantee a runaway climate catastrophe.

The other reason Kyoto is ridiculed by serious environmentalists is its provision for carbon trading rackets which allow fake claims of net emissions cuts. Since the advent of the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, the Chicago Climate Exchange, Clean Development Mechanism projects and offsets (including several fiascos in South Africa), vast evidence has accumulated of systemic market failure, scamming and inability to regulate carbon trading.

The idea of inventing a property right to pollute is effectively the privatisation of the air. Additionally, the corporations most responsible for pollution and the World Bank - which is most responsible for fossil fuel financing - engage in systemic corruption to attract money into the market even if this prevents genuine emissions reductions.

As a result there is a serious potential for carbon markets to become an out of control, multi-trillion dollar speculative bubble, similar to the exotic financial instruments associated with Enron's 2001 collapse (indeed, many former Enron employees populate the carbon markets). As a "false solution" to climate change, carbon trading encourages merely small, incremental shifts, and thus distracts us from a wide range of radical changes we need to make in material extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal. Finally, the idea of market solutions to market failure is an ideology that rarely makes sense, and especially not following the world's worst ever financial market failure.

A final reason we need to rapidly transcend Kyoto's weak, market-oriented approach is that devastation caused by climate change will hit the world's poorest, most vulnerable people far harder than those in the north. Reparations for the north's climate debt to the south are in order. The EU offered a pittance in September, while African leaders are stiffening their spines for a fight in Copenhagen reminiscent of Seattle a decade ago.

Obama's people are hoping non-binding national-level plans will be acceptable at Copenhagen. But their case is weaker because at home the two main proposed bills - Waxman-Markey, which passed in the US House of Representatives, and Kerry-Boxer, which is under Senate consideration but not expected to come out before Copenhagen - will actually do far more harm than good.

Confirmation of US political corruption came from Congressman Rick Boucher, from a coal-dominated south western Virginia district. Boucher supported Waxman-Markey, he told a reporter in August, precisely because it would not adversely affect his corporate constituencies.

The two billion tons of offset allowances in the legislation mean that "an electric utility burning coal will not have to reduce the emissions at the plant site", chortled Boucher. "It can just keep burning coal." Indeed, the price of coal shares on the New York Stock Exchange rose after the House passed the bill.

Boucher was one of the congressional rednecks who wrecked Obama's promise to sell - not give away - the carbon credits, and then bragged to his district's main newspaper, the Times News, "This helps to keep electricity prices affordable and strengthens the case for utilities to continue to use coal."

Hence in the US the balance of forces is fluid. On the far right the fossil fuel industries are intent on making Obama's climate legislation farcical - and have so far succeeded. In the centre the main establishment "green" agencies - such as the Environmental Defence Fund and Natural Resources Defence Council - are ploughing ahead with carbon trading strategies, hoping to salvage some legitimacy for Obama, because these bills are a "first step" to more serious emissions reduction, they claim.

Yet US negotiators will go to Copenhagen (as they did in preparatory committees in Bangkok and Barcelona) with the aim of smashing any residual benefit from the Kyoto Protocol - such as potentially binding cuts with accountability mechanisms - and then allow these US dynamics to play out in a manner that locks in climate disaster.

So just as in 1997, when Al Gore introduced carbon trading into the initial deal - and subsequently broke an implicit promise by failing to get the US (under both Bill Clinton and Bush) to ratify the protocol - there is every likelihood that if an agreement in Copenhagen were reached, it would be as worthless as Kyoto.

What about the so-called Third World and the rise of high-emission countries which have large populations, and hence low CO2 per person rates, but risk potential future damage if they aspire to Western consumption norms?

Most elites from the south are utterly insensitive to the destructive potential because they bought the arguments of neoliberal advisers that export-oriented growth based on exploitation of non-renewable resources or cash crops, powered by fossil fuels, creates the GDP increases that judge a country "successful" in the capitalist derby.

But the decade since the Seattle World Trade Organisation (WTO) fiasco taught activists a powerful lesson - in the very act of disrupting global malgovernance, major concessions can be won.

The spectacular 30 November 1999 street protest against the WTO summit's opening ceremony is what most of us recall about Seattle: activists "locking down" to prevent entrance to the conference centre, a barrage of tear gas and pepper spray, a sea of broken windows and a municipal police force later prosecuted for violating US citizens' most basic civil liberties.

Given the cul-de-sac represented by self-interested global elites, there is no chance for a deal that makes any sense in Copenhagen. This puts an added onus on genuine climate activists to resume their direct actions at sites ranging from the Niger Delta - where militants have kept 80 percent of the oil in the soil - to power plants in Washington DC, digs in Wales, and export platforms like Newcastle, Australia, where the demand "Leave the coal in the hole" is having a powerful impact, to Canada's western forests where "Keep the tar sand in the land" is the call of indigenous people.

Critics of the carbon trade have engaged in disruptions of business and conferences in London, Amsterdam and New York, with more to follow, at the time of writing, in Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston.

The need to leapfrog climate negotiators and sold-out NGOs has never been more obvious, leaving open the question of how to best argue the case - as the Climate Justice Now! network puts it - for a full "system change" instead of climate change.


Patrick Bond is director of the Centre for Civil Society in Durban, co-editor of the UKZN Press book Climate Change, Carbon Trading and Civil Society: Negative Returns on South African Investments.