Climate change: Rich nations put profits before global agreement

By Shua Garfield

“If we continue at this rate, we’re not going to make it.” That was the verdict of Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), at the end of “informal consultations” held last month in the German city of Bonn to try to resolve issues complicating agreement on a new international treaty to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The Bonn talks were part of a series of negotiations being held in the lead-up to the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen (also known as “COP15”) in December. At COP15, the UN hopes that agreement will be reached on a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. De Boer told a press conference on August 14 that “a climate deal in Copenhagen this year is an unequivocal requirement to stop climate change from slipping out of control”. However, major disagreements, particularly between rich and poor nations, are likely to either derail the Copenhagen negotiations or lead to a final agreement that is too weak to stop catastrophic climate change.

The reasons for the slow pace of negotiations are alluded to in de Boer’s statement to the media at the end of the Bonn meeting: “The G8 and the major economies forum are moving forward on mitigation action, but that action is not ambitious enough and it’s only half of the solution. It’s focusing on a small number of countries and only on the reduction of emissions, not on adaptation. And Copenhagen must give all nations the benefit of green growth and protection from climate change impacts. To achieve this, the negotiations need to move forward much faster and deliver strong outcomes in areas such as adaptation, technology and building skills in developing nations and, in that sense, Copenhagen must … revolutionise international cooperation to combat climate change … [W]e cannot lose sight of the problem and recognise that serious climate change is equal to ‘game over’.”

Emissions reduction targets

Regarding the problem of mitigation action not being “ambitious enough”, de Boer called on “industrialised countries … to show a greater level of ambition in agreeing to meaningful mid-term emission reduction targets”. According to an August 13 article by Marianne Bom published on the COP15 website, “Most developed countries have promised emissions cuts between 15 and 21 percent of 1990 levels in 2020 … The US goal is to reduce emissions to 1990 levels in 2020.” The EU has pledged to reduce GHG emissions by 2020 to 20% below 1990 levels. The Australian government has pledged to reduce emissions by 2020 to 5% below 2000 levels (4% below 1990 levels). However, Bom noted that these targets are “far from the 25-40 percent range recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 to avoid global warming beyond two degrees Celsius”.

Poor countries, including China and India, have demanded that the rich countries — the US, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand — commit to emissions cuts of 40% by 2020 before these poor countries would be willing to commit to restraining their own emissions. India and China have been blamed in the corporate media of the rich countries for being “big emitters” that are holding up a global deal by making “unrealistic” demands on the developed capitalist countries. But China’s and India’s demands are actually quite reasonable, and even the cuts they demand may be insufficient. At the August 4-7 Pacific Islands Forum held in Cairns, political leaders of seven small Pacific island states called on the rich countries to cut their emissions by 45% by 2020 because cuts in the IPCC’s 25-40% range may not be enough to stop low-lying countries like Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu sinking beneath rising sea levels due to GHG-driven global warming.

‘Carbon debt’

The idea that China and India are “big emitters” ignores the fact that, in both per capita terms and historical terms, they are actually small emitters. In 2005, global annual per capita GHG emissions, excluding emissions resulting from land-use changes, were 5.6 tonnes of CO2-equivalent (CO2-e). In Australia, per-capita emissions were 26.9 tonnes. They were 23.5 tonnes in the US, 22.6 tonnes in Canada, 11.9 in Germany, 10.6 in the UK, 10.5 in Japan, 9.7 in Italy and 9.0 in France. But in the supposed big emitters of China and India, per capita emissions were 5.5 and 1.7 tonnes respectively.

When historical emissions are counted, blaming the poor nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America for global warming becomes even more absurd. According to an August 3 Malaysian Star article by Martin Kohr, to limit atmospheric GHG concentrations to 450 parts per million (ppm) CO2-e — as recommended by the IPCC to limit the global average surface temperature increase to 2oC — total cumulative emissions of CO2-e between the years 1800 and 2050 cannot exceed 2.2 trillion tonnes. Kohr, who is the director of the South Centre and former director of the Third World Network, calculates that, given their share of global population, the equitable share of that “emissions budget” would be 460 billion tonnes for the First World and 1.74 trillion for the Third World. First World countries, however, have already emitted 880 billion tonnes of CO2-e.

If First World countries cut emissions by 80% by 2050 — a figure widely proposed for the COP15 negotiations — then by 2050, they will have emitted 1.19 trillion tonnes of CO2-e over the 250-year period on which Kohr bases his calculations. If China, India and the other Third World countries are expected to restrain their 250-year cumulative emissions to the remaining 1.01 trillion tonnes of the “emissions budget” — which would require them to cut emissions 20% below 1990 levels by 2050 — this leaves the First World with a “CO2-e debt” to the Third World of 733 billion tonnes.

Trying to assign a monetary value to this debt is rather arbitrary, given the number of variables, uncertainties, and approximations involved. But if we take the value assigned to a tonne of CO2-e by economist Nicholas Stern in his book The Global Deal — US$40 — this amounts to roughly $29 trillion. If the aim was to stabilise atmospheric GHG concentrations below 350 ppm — as recommended by NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies director James Hansen — rather than the 450 ppm recommended by the IPCC, then the debt is obviously much higher.

Thus, a key issue that needs to be resolved to achieve a socially just and environmentally safe deal at COP15 is how the First World will provide trillions of dollars of assistance to the Third World to — in de Boer’s words — “give all nations the benefit of green growth and protection from climate change impacts”. As de Boer stated in an August 14 UNFCCC press release, “We … need a clear indication of the finance and technology industrialised countries are ready to provide to help developing countries green their economic growth and adapt to the impacts of climate change”. A problem de Boer identifies here is that, “In the context of the G8 and Major Economies Forum, I see a group of countries considering actions that would allow them to profit from the boom in clean technology … Poorer countries risk being left by the wayside without access to technology and finance.”

The problem that de Boer has identified here flows from the fact that the First World has a monopoly over the most advanced technologies — a monopoly which they gained through centuries of burning cheap fossil fuels and exploiting the Third World, and which they sustain through “intellectual property” laws and massive government subsidies to corporate research and development programs. And, of course, advanced renewable energy technologies and other “clean” production technologies will be a necessary part of reducing GHG emissions to safe levels. So if the profit motive is allowed to rule any international agreement to reduce GHG emissions, then the countries that are the most to blame for the problem stand to benefit the most while the countries that are the least to blame are forced to either pay prices they can’t afford or else forego economic development — a patently unfair situation that will most likely lead to no effective global agreement at all, and climate catastrophe.

In the lead-up to COP15 we will be bombarded with propaganda from the capitalist media telling us that if they can’t agree to limit GHG emissions to safe levels, it will be the fault of Third World countries. They will tell us that the First World countries don’t have the money to satisfy the Third World governments’ demands for more technology and adaptation aid and that it’s not possible for First World countries to cut emissions as rapidly as demanded. They will tell us that the best plan is to make GHG emissions a tradeable commodity — something that will only entrench the “right” of richer countries to pollute more than their fair share. If the environment movement is to pose a socially just alternative solution, it needs to completely reject these arguments and demand that those most responsible for the problem pay the most for fixing it.

One thing de Boer is definitely right about is that, to tackle the problem of global warming, we need to “revolutionise international cooperation”. A real revolution in international cooperation cannot be based on the profit motive of a tiny capitalist minority, most of whom are based in a couple of dozen of the most economically rich and militarily powerful nation-states. A real revolution would have to be based on international solidarity. It would pay the First World’s carbon debt, ditch the concept of “intellectual property” and freely distribute clean technology to those who need it. It would not set aside $18 trillion to prop up the capitalist banking system, as First World governments have done in the past year, while the capitalist corporations funded by these banks destroy the environment. It would not squander $1.47 trillion per year on military spending — as the world’s governments did in 2008 — because it would not be based on different gangs of capitalist elites defending their privileges from each other and from the people they exploit. Real international cooperation to combat climate change needs a revolution in political institutions and economic relations — an anti-capitalist revolution that opens the way to a socialist world order.