Atmosphere in crisis — make the rich countries pay!

By Shua Garfield

The World Energy Outlook 2008, released by the International Energy Agency (IEA) on November 12, makes an alarming prediction: Without new government policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and assuming current rates of growth in energy demand continue, global GHG emissions could rise 45% by 2030. The atmospheric GHG concentrations that would result from these emissions would be high enough to cause average global temperatures to eventually rise 6oC above pre-industrial levels. According to Australian government climate change adviser Ross Garnaut, a temperature rise of this magnitude would result in the extinction of 48-100% of all plant and animal species.

The IEA predicts that, in this “Reference Scenario”, the vast majority of the increase in industrial GHG emissions would come from the Third World — particularly China, India and the Middle East. To limit atmospheric concentrations of CO2-equivalent to 450 parts per million (ppm) and limit the temperature increase to 2oC above pre-industrial levels — widely seen as the limit beyond which climate change will endanger human civilisation — the IEA suggests that global investment in renewable energy infrastructure over the next two decades would need to be US$9.3 trillion more than what would occur based on current government policies. This represents around 0.6% of global GDP.

Even this level of emissions reduction may be insufficient to avoid major catastrophes, according to James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In a study of the association between atmospheric CO2 levels, temperature and climate over millions of years — published in June in the Open Atmospheric Science Journal — Hansen and his colleagues conclude that long-term stabilisation of GHGs at 450ppm concentration carried a serious risk of melting the Antarctic ice sheet. This would cause sea levels to rise by 60 metres.

Thus, achieving a truly safe climate may require mobilisation of even more resources than the amount suggested by the IEA. And, while reducing the high levels of emissions in the First World is obviously an immediate priority, a large proportion of these resources would also need to be aimed at preventing the projected increase in emissions from Third World countries. Both social justice and environmental sustainability demand that this not be done at the expense of industrial development in these countries, where billions continue to live in poverty and are often forced to turn to environmentally destructive practices just to survive. So where will the money come from?

Technology transfer

A recent proposal from the Chinese government provides part of what should be the answer to this question. On October 28, Gao Guangsheng, head of the climate change office of China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), called for First World nations to devote 1% of their GDP to helping poorer countries fight global warming. Announcing the release of a policy paper the following day, Xie Zhenhua, vice-chairperson of the NDRC, cited a different figure — 0.7% — but further clarified the intention of the proposal. A key aspect of the proposed aid, according to the policy paper, would be the transfer of clean energy technologies to the Third World.

At the November 7-8 Beijing High-level Conference on Climate Change, Technology Development and Technology Transfer, co-sponsored by the UN and the Chinese government, First World governments were lambasted for their failure to live up to past promises to promote sustainable technology transfer. Opening the conference, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao noted, according to the November 17 China Daily, that progress has occurred in the development of new renewable energy technologies but that: “Regrettably, no substantive progress has been made in the global sharing of climate change technologies.”

The UN under-secretary general for economic and social affairs, Sha Zukang, was blunter: “The transfer of technology is not good enough, to put it mildly. Commitments are repeated hundreds of thousands of times, but these commitments are not honoured.” Lin Erda, one of China’s leading negotiators on climate change, said that the adaptation cost for developed countries is estimated by the UN Development Program at $86-109 billion a year. But developed countries have so far offered just $5-10 billion.

Ransom note?

Given the growing trend among right-wingers to try to deflect blame for global warming onto the Third World, it is not surprising that some of them have presented China’s proposal as unreasonable. In a November 2 article, Dennis Avery, a senior fellow at the conservative Washington-based Hudson Institute think tank, described the proposal as a “ransom note”. Avery, an opponent of organic farming and supporter of the use of pesticides such as DDT, wrote: “China has now destroyed Western hopes for a new global warming agreement just weeks before global talks in Poland aimed at writing a successor for the Kyoto Protocol … China has attached a ransom note to its Polish meeting RSVP: They might go along with a new warming pact if the rich countries agree to hand over 1 percent of their GDP — about $300 billion per year — to finance the required non-fossil, higher-cost energy systems the West wants the developing countries to use.”

To present China’s proposal as a “ransom note” that destroys “hopes for a new global warming agreement” is absurd. Any genuine “hopes” that a new agreement would actually be effective in the fight against global warming would have to be based on the inclusion of a massive program of renewable technology aid to the Third World. And yet, given the absurd logic of imperialist capitalism, Avery may be right that China’s demand could damage the prospect for the actual agreement that many First World governments hope to achieve in Copenhagen — a corporate-friendly global carbon-trading scam much like those that have so far failed to reduce emissions in Europe.

The Chinese government’s demand for technological aid is fully justified. The climate change already occurring is caused mainly by First World countries’ GHG emissions which have accumulated in the atmosphere over the last 200 years. According to a November 13 report by the UN Environment Program, global average temperature has already increased 0.75oC above pre-industrial levels. According to the World Health Organization, the extreme weather caused by this warming is already killing 150,000 people each year. If all industrial emissions were stopped now, further warming caused by these accumulated emissions would continue for at least a century.

Furthermore, such a global industrial shutdown would increase the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface by allowing the dissipation of “brown clouds” of smog and soot. Together these factors would add between 0.7oC and 3.6oC to world temperatures (or 1.4oC to 4.3oC above pre-industrial levels), according to an article published in the September 23 issue of PNAS, weekly journal of the National Academy of Sciences of the US, by V. Ramanathan and Y. Feng of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California. Temperature changes within this range threaten the existence of the Arctic ice cap, the Greenland ice sheet, the Himalayan glaciers, and the Amazon rainforest. Meanwhile, First World countries still emit more than twice as much GHGs per capita as the Third World.

But First World governments’ main purpose is to defend the ability of their big corporations to make profits, including through exploiting resources and labour of the Third World. Such exploitation is aided by the fact that centuries of colonial rule and imperialism have left the First World with a monopoly over the most advanced technologies. Providing trillions of dollars in technological aid to the Third World would therefore be a double-whammy against the interests of these corporations. Not only would it probably require increased taxes on First World corporations — eating into their profit margins — it would also undermine their technological monopoly.

This situation was put succinctly by Joerg Moczaldo, program director of the German Technical Cooperation in Beijing, in comments quoted by China Daily: “Currently, more than 90 percent of advanced technology related to climate change is in the hands of developed countries. But they are reluctant to provide it to developing countries out of concern for losing their competitiveness.” Moczaldo cited the technology required to produce 5 Megawatt wind turbines as an example of something that First World companies “just would not give” to Third World countries, “not even for money”.

Intellectual property

This is not to say that the Chinese government’s proposal is above criticism. While China’s “communist” leaders may still claim to be building socialism, their thoroughly capitalist orientation is belied by aspects of the proposal. Speaking to the Beijing conference, Xie suggested that any technology transfer plan should protect intellectual property rights. According to the China Daily, participants in the conference agreed that further protection of intellectual property would be necessary to encourage further technological development.

In reality, however, intellectual property is an impediment to technology transfer, unnecessary for promoting technological development, and, from the standpoint of social justice, is an indefensible institution that maintains global inequalities. The myth that intellectual property rights encourage corporations to innovate, because they guarantee that useful inventions will deliver profits, is belied by the fact that much technological development in the First World is generated through government-funded research and development programs. Corporations receiving taxpayer funded subsidies to encourage their participation in these programs are often allowed to patent the inventions and pocket the benefits.

The myth that intellectual property rights are necessary to encourage innovation is also belied by the example of Cuba, which does not allow patents or recognise the legitimacy of intellectual property. This has not stopped Cuba, despite being a relatively poor country, from pioneering hundreds of medical products and techniques such as the meningitis B vaccine, neuron transplants, and agricultural biotechnology products that have aided its transition to sustainable agriculture.

Meanwhile, recognition of intellectual property rights in much richer capitalist countries actually holds back some such developments. An example cited in a May 19 article in Biofuels News by Steve Suppan, a senior policy analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, is the effect of patents on research into synthetic biofuels. According to Suppan, patent claims on synthetic biology products and processes are so broad that scientists are worried that research in the area will grind to a halt for fear of litigation.

To overcome the contradiction between intellectual property and technology transfer, some Chinese officials have suggested that First World governments provide financial incentives to companies that export environmentally friendly technologies and engage in public-private partnerships to develop new technologies. These proposals boil down to handing out public money to insure corporate profits against potential “violation” of intellectual property rights. Such absurdities are an inevitable result of attempts to incorporate profit-making into saving the global climate.

A much more straightforward approach to technology transfer is exemplified by Cuba and Venezuela, where socialist revolutions have led to governments that prioritise human need rather than private profit. The governments of these two countries have directly funded the installation of solar panels in 8400 Bolivian communities that had previously been without electricity. But two small, Third World countries, even with revolutionary governments, cannot save the world on their own. This requires revolutions that liberate the immense technical and productive resources concentrated in the First World from capitalist control. As long as most of the world is divided into rich and poor countries dominated by capitalist governments that look after their own ruling classes, these resources will continue to be squandered on corporate profiteering, the extravagant lifestyles of a tiny rich minority, the promotion of irrational consumption patterns and the funding of massive military budgets.

Huge brown clouds

Another urgent reason for clean technology development in the Third World is the appearance of massive “brown clouds” over large parts of the world, especially in Asia. On November 13, an alarming report was released by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) describing a 3-kilometre thick band of soot, fine particles, ozone and other smog-producing chemicals which regularly stretches from Egypt, through the construction hubs of the Persian Gulf, across Iran, South and South-East Asia, China, Japan, and thousands of kilometres into the Pacific Ocean. The brown cloud, first identified in 1990, is caused by cars, coal-fired power plants, and the burning of wood and other fuels in inefficient stoves.

Other brown clouds have been identified extending over Southern Africa and the Amazon basin. Eastern North America and Europe also produce similar concentrations of such pollution as some other brown cloud “hotspots” but winter precipitation tends to remove them and reduce their impact. While many of the the same industrial activities produce both brown clouds and GHGs, the interaction between brown clouds and climate change is complex.

In the upper atmosphere, absorption of heat by ozone and particles of black carbon and soot aggravate the impact of climate change, accelerating the melting of Himalayan, Hindu Kush, and Tibetan glaciers. These glaciers provide the headwaters of Asia’s nine largest rivers which are essential to the production of the food which feeds half of humanity. The Chinese Academy of Sciences estimates that these glaciers have shrunk 5% since the 1950s. These rates of melting are faster than what would be predicted simply on the basis of climate change. At their present rate of melting, glaciers could disappear from the central and eastern Himalayas by 2035, according to professor Syed Hasnian of the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Energy and Resources Institute, as quoted in India’s Tribune on November 11.

On the other hand, the brown clouds have a cooling effect at lower elevations where they reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface and, overall, may be masking the warming impacts of GHGs. In India, the amount of sunlight reaching the surface has declined at a rate of 2% per decade between 1960 and 2000, while in China, the rate was 3-4% per decade. In several cities, including Karachi, Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi, and Guangzhou, this dimming effect has reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the earth by 10-25%! If the brown clouds disappeared — which would only take a few weeks if all cars and polluting industries were shut down — average world temperatures could increase by up to 2oC.

The combination of the warming effect at high elevations, cooling at low elevations and increased concentration of fine particles is already altering weather patterns in dangerous ways. New surface sea temperature patterns are created as the northern Indian Ocean is dimmed by brown clouds while the southern Indian Ocean continues to enjoy clean air. This alters evaporation rates over millions of square kilometres. According to the UNEP report, this is a probable cause of the decreased duration of the Indian monsoon and 5-7% decrease in monsoon precipitation over South and South-East Asia since the 1950s. This may also be drying northern China, increasing flooding in Southern China, and increasing incidences of extreme rainfall in both India and China.

Adding to the threat to food production are ozone pollution, acid rain, and toxic particles. Ground levels of ozone, which can damage crops at concentrations of 40 parts per billion (ppb), now regularly reach 50 ppb in parts of Asia. This could cause annual production losses of $5 billion worth of wheat, rice, corn and soya beans in China, Korea and Japan alone. Furthermore, the UNEP report estimates that 340,000 people are being killed every year in China and India alone due to inhalation of fine particles, carcinogens and other toxins. Economic losses due to the impact of brown clouds on health are estimated at 3.6% of GDP in China and 2.2% of GDP in India.

But those demanding decisive and immediate action from the governments of the wealthy countries to stop the killer pollution are told to wait until the supposedly more pressing problem of saving capitalism from its own contradictions is dealt with. Pop-philosopher Slavoj Zizek accurately sums up the irony of this in the November 14 London Review of Books: “The financial meltdown has made it impossible to ignore the blatant irrationality of global capitalism. In the fight against AIDS, hunger, lack of water or global warming, we may recognise the urgency of the problem, but there is always time to reflect, to postpone decisions. The main conclusion of the meeting of world leaders in Bali to talk about climate change, hailed as a success, was that they would meet again in two years to continue the talks. But with the financial meltdown, the urgency was unconditional; a sum beyond imagination was immediately found. Saving endangered species, saving the planet from global warming, finding a cure for AIDS, saving the starving children ... All that can wait a bit, but ‘Save the banks!’ is an unconditional imperative which demands and gets immediate action.”