From today (December 7), some of the most powerful people on the planet will meet in the city of Copenhagen, Denmark, for the 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15), the stated aim of which is for the government’s of the world to agree to a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol which was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997.
For many, the fate of humanity rests on the outcome of the conference. Will any agreed global climate deal at Copenhagen, of which Kyoto is the template, be sufficient in curbing runaway climate change and who will bare the brunt of the costs involved?
Previous conferences have widely been regarded as having been fudged and have failed to address the underlying issues in respect to the climate change and its effects (1).
Many see Copenhagen as a turning point. But is there any justification for this optimism?
For Connie Hedegaard, Danish Minister for Climate and Energy and incoming COP 15 president (pictured below), failure is not an option: “If the world fails to deliver a political agreement at the UN climate conference … it will be the whole democratic system not being able to deliver results in one of the defining challenges of our century. And that is, and should not be a possibility. It’s not an option.” She calls Copenhagen a “window of opportunity” which should not be missed, arguing that it may take years to rebuild the momentum (2).
“I get the impression talking to business people that they still want clarity from Copenhagen. If you’re making investments now, for example in the energy sector, in power plants that are going to be around for the next 30 to 50 years, you can’t really afford to keep waiting and waiting and waiting for governments to say where they’re going to go on this issue (3).
What do the official pronouncements of Hedegaar and de Boer and the the pro-business solutions implied by the comment of the latter, tell us about the current state of play in respect to global warming?
For the answer to the question, we need to examine the issues that underpin Copenhagen.
Undoubtably, one of the main reasons why previous conferences have failed to deliver is due to any effective political pressure from mainstream society. Although grass-roots activism has been a constant feature of successive conferences, awareness of the underlying issues amongst the general public in respect to global warming appears to a large extent to be lacking, characterized in no small part by a general feeling of apathy.
Arguably, the basis for much of this apathy is the misguided belief amongst a significant minority that global warming is a myth. Many of the sceptics appear to have been taken in by either the mis-information and propaganda emenating from certain individuals, most of whom are the paid hirelings of the fossil fuel corporations or their front organizations which have a vested interest in propagating climate change denial (4).
Further, documentaries such as The Greenhouse Conspiracy and The Great Global Warming Swindle, have played a significant part in fuelling public cynicism. Indeed, the latter had a huge impact, persuading many people that manmade climate change is not taking place. Both films used misrepresentation, distortion or fabrication to sustain claims that environmental problems do not exist and are the fantasies of a self-serving group of mendacious and fanatical scientists (5).
A spokeswoman for pollster Ipsos Mori, showed that there had been a decline in the number of people who believed that global warming was a real phenomenon – primarily, she said, as a result of The Great Global Warming Swindle (6).
Another major factor adding to growing public scepticism, was the recent Climate Research Unit e-mail hacking incident, also known as Climategate, that involved the hacking of a server used by the UK’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) in which sceptics have selectively quoted words and phrases out of context in an attempt, it has been argued, to sabotage the Copenhagen summit (7).
Global warming denial has undoubtably become a growing industry against a background of consensus within the scientific, political and environmental fields, affirming that global warming is a reality. This is underlined by the authoratative Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which states that there is a 90 per cent certainty that the causes of global warming are man-made (8).
The “very high confidence” the IPCC expresses in the global warming thesis, is the strongest statement any reputable scientist would make about his area of study. The thesis that an increase in global temperature (which has been increasing over the past 50 years) is primarily human induced, is unequivocal (9).
The consensus stretches to heads of government and even heads of (some) of the very corporations most responsible for global warming.
A useful summary of this consensus came in a speech made in September 2004:
The emission of greenhouse gases [principally carbon dioxide]…is causing global warming at a rate that began as significant, has become alarming and is simply unsustainable in the long term. And by long term I do not mean centuries ahead. I mean within the lifetime of my children certainly; and possibly within my own. And by unsustainable, I do not mean a phenomenon causing problems of adjustment. I mean a challenge so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence…
Let me summarise the evidence: the ten warmest years on record have all been since 1990. Over the last century average global temperatures have risen by 0.6 degrees Celsius: the most drastic temperature rise for over 1,000 years in the northern hemisphere.
Extreme events are becoming more frequent. Glaciers are melting. Sea ice and snow cover is declining. Animals and plants are responding to an earlier spring. Sea levels are rising and are forecast to rise another 88cm by 2100 threatening 100 million people globally who currently live below this level.
The number of people affected by floods worldwide has already risen from 7 million in the 1960s to 150 million today… By the middle of this century, temperatures could have risen enough to trigger irreversible melting of the Greenland icecap – eventually increasing sea levels by around 7 metres.
The man delivering the speech was Britain’s former New Labour prime minister Tony Blair (10).
News headlines about severe storms, cold snaps, heatwaves, floods or hurricanes certainly focus debate and attention on climate change. It is impossible to link individual short term weather events with global warming. The earth’s climate system is far too complicated for such a simple mode of causation and prediction. But when such events coalesce into a general pattern, as seems to be happening today, the causal link with global warming is much clearer.
Global warming is caused by the growing concentration in the atmosphere of a series of gases which act as a blanket, trapping the sun’s heat. By far the most important of these greenhouse gases is carbon dioxide, and the main source of the extra carbon dioxide is the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas in power stations and in internal combustion engines.
The concentration of greenhouse gas in the earth’s atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide, has increased at an unprecedented rate as measured by air samples taken year on year in Hawaii over recent decades, and further back from ice core samples taken in polar regions. This growing concentration of carbon dioxide is directly correlated with a systematic rise in global mean surface temperatures over the last century, and especially over the last few decades. Beyond question the general effect of heating up a system like the earth’s climate will be an increase in extreme weather events across the globe (11).
The consequences of global warming are already evident. The science informs us that even if all greenhouse gas emissions were halted immedietly, global temperatures are likely to rise by another half a degree Celcius and sea levels could be two or three times as great as the IPPC has predicted by the end of the century. This equates to between approximately 20-30 centimetres (12).
As Gerald Meeh, a lead scientist on the definitive Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, argues:
“Many people don’t realise that we are committed right now to a significant amount of global warming and sea level rise because of the greenhouse gases we have already put into the atmosphere” (13).
A recent paper shows that “climate change … is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop” (14).
Floods and water quality problems are likely to be amplified by climate change in most regions of the US. Declines in mountain snowpack are important in the West and Alaska where snowpack provides vital natural water storage (15).
The threat posed by global warming is not restricted to the US but is global, and many of the unusual weather patterns which have marked the last decade may be linked to the rise in global temperatures.The result will be a major increase in storms, heatwaves, droughts, floods and hurricanes across the planet, with all the human and social consequences that brings. Dealing with this will be among the major challenges facing humanity in the coming decades (16).
But far from halting all carbon dioxide emissions, the world’s major states and corporations are pumping out ever-increasing amounts with little sign of any meaningful cuts. The potential consequences are that extra heat in the earth’s atmosphere will melt glaciers and polar ice caps at some point (possibly rapidly, on a timescale of years and decades). Significantly raised sea levels could submerge whole areas that are now land, wiping out whole states from Bangladesh to the Netherlands, and destroying major world cities, including New York and London (17).
Continued global warming will at some point have large-scale, relatively sudden and unpredictable impacts on global rainfall, wind and temperature patterns and on the related ocean water and heat circulation patterns. The details of these shifts are inherently unpredictable, but that they will occur with dramatic impact on global and local climate, agriculture and much else is beyond doubt.
Changing climate will also see shifts in the global distribution of disease-carrying insects, with potentially huge impacts on human health. The consequences of all of these effects would be catastrophic causing untold misery and immense social upheaval if the growth of emissions of greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide, due to human activity, is not halted and reversed. Arguably, such a scenario represents a threat to the future viability of civilization on the planet (18).
The Blair quote that I cited above – although specific to the UK, is supported by the science and gives an indication of what is required on a global scale – the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent by 2050 (19).
The international framework by which countries are legally bound to cut C02 emissions is the Kyoto protocol which came into effect in February, 2005. As of November 2009, 187 states have signed and ratified the protocol. Kyoto is a complex deal, but its centrepiece is a general commitment by signatories to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 5.2 percent from their 1990 levels by 2012. Some countries went further, with Britain for example pledging a 12.5 percent cut by 2012.
A major problem is that the state responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions than any other, the US, with a quarter of all global emissions, refuses to sign the Kyoto agreement or any other international agreement on climate change.
But that is not the only thing wrong with Kyoto. All the fanfare around the deal is reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes. It is utterly worthless. The cuts in carbon dioxide emissions envisaged under Kyoto will do nothing significant to halt global warming and climate change even if fully implemented.
The European Union claims to be leading the rest of the world on climate change, yet when its governments met during the time of Kyoto’s implementation in 2005, they too refused to set any post-2012 targets for emissions cuts at all (20).
Business and many governments argue that there is nevertheless a key feature of Kyoto which will deliver real emissions cuts – ‘emissions trading’, a market where companies and countries buy and sell the right to pump out quotas of carbon dioxide. And some NGOs which have a good record of campaigning on climate change have accepted this as part of the solution. It is not.
One of the most important emissions trading schemes was formally launched by the European Union in January, 2005. The theory is that the market will set a price on the right to emit one tonne of carbon dioxide (or the equivalent amount of five other greenhouse gases). Companies will then have to buy a permit for the amount they pump out. The idea is that if the price is high enough market pressure will cause companies to find ways to cut emissions.
The idea at first glance can have an easy appeal, as is often the case with theories based on the market – but in reality is an illusion. When the scheme was piloted in January 2004 the price of the right to emit one tonne of carbon dioxide was around 12 euros. By the time the scheme came into full operation in January 2005 it had fallen to around 7 euros.
Currently there is little market pressure to change behaviour at all. Even enthusiasts for the scheme acknowledge that the price needed to rise, not fall, to force any switch. The Green Alliance think-tank, in a study of the scheme, concludes bluntly, ‘The first phase of emissions trading from 2005 to 2007 is not going to deliver emissions reduction’ (Quoted on BBC news report, 16 February 2005. (21).
The scheme only applies to a limited number of establishments. Some 12,000 are included in the scheme, accounting for less than half of the European Union’s emissions.
It is also open to crude manipulation. For example, in 2005, Britain’s government attempted to increase by 3 percent the baseline emissions for the 1,000 establishments big enough to be included in the trading scheme. It then claimed that under Kyoto targets its own quota should be set 5.2 percent below this increased baseline, in effect watering down the Kyoto cut from 5.2 percent to just 2.4 percent. Even the European Union thought this New Labour scam a little too blatant and blocked it. The British government, a supposed global champion of action on climate change, launched legal action against the European Union to win the right to fiddle its emissions figures (22).
Things get worse still when you find out that an absolutely central role in the emissions trading process will be played by an entity called the Prototype Carbon Fund – an arm of the World Bank. The Transnational Institute and Carbon Trade Watch argue in a definitive report on emissions trading:
“Trading programmes in effect privatise the problem of air-pollution. Government and communities lose control over environmental protections, placing it in the hands of the polluters. When the incentive to reduce emissions is profit and cost-effectiveness, there is incredible pressure to cheat by overestimating reductions, while underestimating emissions” (23).
In this way, “carbon markets create a muddle” and “…leave much room for unverifiable manipulation” (24).
Carbon Trade Watch argue that it places disproportionate emphasis on individual lifestyles and carbon footprints distracting attention from the wider, systemic changes and collective political action that needs to be taken to tackle climate change (25).
The report is a devastating critique of emissions trading, based on schemes that are already under way. It concludes that emissions trading schemes remove any credibility at all from the Kyoto protocol:
“A country will be able to meet 100 percent of its Kyoto reduction commitments through purchasing credits in the market rather than reducing climate change emissions at source… Unfortunately the protocol’s market-based mechanisms such as emissions trading allow countries and companies to escape their responsibilities to reduce their own emissions. With the inclusion of these ‘flexible mechanisms’ this hard-fought agreement may actually be a first step backwards.”
An indication of how flawed the system is, relates to a scandal that erupted in April 2005 around one of the first schemes backed by the Prototype Carbon Fund. This involved the Plantar corporation setting up a massive eucalyptus plantation in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil to produce wood for making charcoal to be used in pig iron production. The corporation argues that otherwise it would have used coal, producing even more carbon dioxide, and is claiming a carbon credit under the Kyoto scheme with the backing of the World Bank.
A whole series of Brazilian and international NGOs and social movement groups have united to slam the fraudulent scheme, which involves the forcible eviction of people from land in the area to establish a huge monocultural plantation. These organisations have signed an open letter calling for the Prototype Carbon Fund to be shut down. They draw out more general arguments about emissions trading which those climate change campaigners who have accepted emissions trading as part of the solution would do well to heed:
“The Prototype Carbon Fund was born out of the World Bank’s efforts to promote neoliberalism. It is an instrument to commodify the atmosphere, promote privatisation and concentrate resources in the hands of a few, taking away the rights of the many to live with dignity. The PCF is not a mechanism for mitigating climate change.
Having followed the PCF’s activities and projects to date, we have learned by its doings that it does not avert dangerous climate change but instead increases hardship for local communities. This exposes inherent flaws not only in its own projects, but in project-based ‘carbon trading’ as a whole and the offset culture underpinning it. Any other similar fund or trading regime will systematically replicate these flaws.
The PCF extends the World Bank’s unacceptable political activities into a new sphere with its own special technical impossibilities. The PCF accordingly must be closed down as a first step in the right direction. It is neither ‘carbon’ nor pollution that is being traded, but people’s lives and paper certificates claiming to be carbon credits. Offset culture and pollution trading must be rejected as false solutions to climate change” (26).
Emissions trading is not the only scam. In recent years, many businesses and governments have latched on to what is dubbed “carbon sequestration” as the answer. Oil companies, in particular Norway’s Statoil and Britain’s BP, have been particularly keen to push this idea, and both have major projects under way. In essence the idea is to capture some of the carbon emitted by burning fossil fuels and store or “sequestrate” it in secure deep rock formations or in exhausted undersea oil reservoirs.
Ron Gueterbock, one of Greenpeace’s climate change experts, rightly argues: “This whole approach is the wrong way to tackle climate change” (27).
It diverts resources away from measures to cut emissions and is an attempt by the giant fossil fuel corporations to say we can have business as usual while they come up with a technical fix which will get us off the hook of climate change.
With the creation of a market for mandatory trading of carbon dioxide emissions within the Kyoto Protocol, the London financial marketplace has established itself as the centre of the carbon finance market, and is expected to have grown into a market valued at $60 billion in 2007 (28).
23 multinational corporations came together in the G8 Climate Change Roundtable, a business group formed at the January 2005 World Economic Forum. The group included Ford, Toyota, British Airways, BP and Unilever. On June 9, 2005 the Group published a statement stating that there was a need to act on climate change and stressing the importance of market-based solutions. It called on governments to establish “clear, transparent, and consistent price signals” through “creation of a long-term policy framework” that would include all major producers of greenhouse gases (29).
By December 2007 this had grown to encompass 150 global businesses (30).
All the major oil companies, with the exception of Exxon, may now talk of the need to take action on climate change, as do the car, tyre, power and other corporations responsible for pumping out greenhouse gases (31), and Shell and BP may have moved into renewable energy. But no one should be fooled into thinking this is a strategic shift away from fossil fuels. Behind the greenwash it is business as usual.
Whatever the views of those at the top, and however genuine their concern over climate change, they are prisoners of the remorseless logic of profit by which corporations live or die. On average all the oil companies still depend on fossil fuels for 95 percent of their revenues and profit. So renewables account for just 0.8 percent of Shell’s global investment, and for just 1 percent of the $8 billion BP spends a year on fossil fuel exploration and production. It is the same story with the car firms. Ford, for example, makes lots of green noises about climate change. But it is utterly committed to selling more and more cars, expanding into newer markets like India and China, and so contributing even more to global warming (32).
It may be argued that the measures needed to tackle climate change are not necessarily incompatible with capitalist society. And it is quite easy to imagine how the giant polluting corporations can profit by adapting to the production and sale of renewable energy. Indeed, there is no reason in abstract why capitalism has to be dependent on fossil fuels and industries linked to them. Capitalism can profit from anything it can turn into a commodity-and the history of capitalism is one of showing a remarkable facility for turning just about anything imaginable into commodities (33).
The future of civilization literally depends on the extent to which capitalism is able to break from the relationship it has with fossil fuels and the speed at which any transition to renewable sources of energy takes place. But in doing so, agreements must be meaningful and genuinely deliver.
Up until now, the figures climate talks have set bear no relationship to the science and are negated away by loopholes and false accounting. Some countries like the UK are meeting their obligations, but outsource their pollution to other countries, whilst a country like Canada, flouts them with impunity as a result, for example, of its practice of extracting tar sands that involve the biggest open cast mining operation on earth (34).
Canada hasn’t acted alone. The biggest leaseholder in the tar sands is Shell (35), a company that has spent millions persuading the public that it respects the environment.
The other great greenwasher, BP, initially decided to stay out of tar. Now it has invested in plants built to process it (36).
The British bank RBS, 70 per cent of which belongs to the government, has lent or underwritten £8bn for exploiting the tar sands (37).
A radical departure from the kinds of deceitful practices described in this article is needed if politicians are serious about saving the planet – practices which have seen opportunities squandered by denial and delay, and have led to the current situation whereby the years in which more than two degrees of global warming could have been prevented, have passed (38).
Recent work by scientists at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, suggests that even global cuts of three per cent a year, starting in 2020, could leave us with four degrees of warming by the end of the century(39).
At the moment emissions are heading in the opposite direction at roughly the same rate. If this continues, nobody knows what will be the effects in terms of temperature rises.
What all this illustrates, is that mitigating the effects of global warming (limiting greenhouse gas pollution), has failed.
Moreover, when one considers that the costs of mitigation have apparently been underestimated (40), the need for a shift away from the present orthodoxy becomes an urgent necessity.
This shift would arguably involve the governments of the world either exiting from the capitalist system altogether – a system that necessarily prioritizes the competitive logic inherent to the accumulation process which is at the root of the global warming crisis – or finding ways to restrict the worst of the projected devasting impacts of global warming, through a policy of adaption.
As the environmental activist George Monbiot points out, the costs of stopping climate breakdown – as high as they are – are far lower than the costs of living with it. Germany is spending E600 m just on a new sea wall for Hamburg. The Netherlands will spend E 2.2 bn on dykes between now and 2015; both of which are likely to be inadequate (41).
The UN suggests that the rich countries should be transferring $50-75bn a year to the poor ones now to help them cope with climate change, with a massive increase later on (42). But nothing like this is happening.
The rich nations have promised $18bn to help the poor nations adapt to climate change over the past seven years, but they have disbursed only 5 per cent of that money (43).
In real terms, this amounts to a net gain for the poor of nothing (44).
Oxfam has made a compelling case for how adaptation should be funded: nations should pay according to the amount of carbon they produce per capita, coupled with their position on the human development index (45).
On this basis, the US should supply over 40 per cent of the money and the European Union over 30 per cent, with Japan, Canada, Australia and Korea making up the balance.
But there appears to be no chance of them ever meeting these obligations.
Regardless of whether they meet there obligations or not, there is a limit to what this money could buy anyway. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that “global mean temperature changes greater than 4°C above 1990-2000 levels” would “exceed … the adaptive capacity of many systems.”(46).
At this point there’s nothing that can be done, for example, to prevent the loss of ecosystems, the melting of glaciers and the disintegration of major ice sheets. Elsewhere it spells out the consequences more starkly: global food production, it says, is “very likely to decrease above about 3°C” (47).
The IPCC also finds that, above three degrees of warming, the world’s vegetation will become “a net source of carbon” (48).
This is just one of the climate feedbacks triggered by a high level of warming. Four degrees might take us inexorably to five or six: the end – for humans – of just about everything.
So the situation facing humanity is critical. But who is going to pay for the global warming crisis?
A relatively new framing set by Copenhagen, is the growing demand for the repayment of climate debt which is coming predominantly from the developing world, led by the government of Bolivia and other Latin American governments, and it has been joined by the coalition of least developed countries which are primarily in Africa.
What they are saying is that the climate crisis as we know was created in the industrialized world.
There is a direct correlation between industrialization (what the Western world calls development) and carbon emissions. In fact, 75 per cent of the historical carbon emissions have been produced by only 20 per cent of the world’s population.
There is a geographical irony to this, which is that the effects of climate change are felt overwhelmingly in the developing world, and the parts of the world that are least responsible for creating the crisis (49).
According to the World Bank, 75-80 per cent of the effects of climate change are being felt in the developing world (50).
So, there is an inverse relationship between cause and effect.
It is in this context that we see a growing movement from the developing countries that really are on the front lines of climate change, saying those who created the crisis (the rich world), owes them a debt – tangible reparations for the creation of this crisis. And those reparations should be paid in three forms.
Firstly, through deep emissions cuts in the developed world – at least 40 per cent below 1990 levels.
Secondly, they are saying the rich world, the G-8 industrialized countries, should pay for the huge costs that poor countries face in adapting to climate change.
Thirdly, they are arguing that they would like to leapfrog over the dirty energies, the fossil fuels that are fueling the climate crisis.
But they point out that this is expensive, and more expensive to shift to cleaner green technology than it is to develop with cheap, dirty fuels, which is the way we did in the rich world.
So, the developing countries are committed to positive changes, but they don’t think they should have to pay this additional cost because the problem, they argue, is not of their creation.
Essentially the climate debt arguments is the “polluter pays” argument, which is a familiar argument to people in the United States, its a basic principle of jurisprudence. Another way of putting this is “you broke it, you bought it” (51).
But judging by the previous conferences, it is unlikely these demands of the poor will be heard by the rich.
What for activists, will be regarded as the measure of success for the conference?
For writer and activist Naomi Klein, the definition of success has been lowered and lowered. She states:
“A few months ago the definition of success in Copenhagen was countries agreeing to lower emissions, to levels that climate scientists were demanding. And the science is very clear that we really do need cuts of 40 per cent below 1990 levels.
The other definition of success was rich countries coming to the table with levels of funding for the developing world that once again meet the actual need. And we know what those types of figures are. The World Bank for instance, has estimated the cost faced by developing countries to simply adapt to a changing climate dealing with droughts, dealing with increased flooding, is $100 billion a year. The cost of leapfrogging over those dirty energies is $500 billion-$600 billion a year. That’s a figure from independent UN researchers. But now what we hearing from the UN is there hope for Copenhagen is that they can get developed countries, rich countries, to agree to $10 billion a year” (52).
At Copenhagen, will the decision-makers continue on the path of hoodwinking the public into believing that something meaningful is being achieved, or will they commit to the required C02 emission cuts of 40 per cent below 1990 levels as argued by Klein? Further will they insist that the rich world pays for the costs of the pollution that they are fostering onto the poor?
What is certain, is that the consequences for the planet are catastrophic if we continue on the path that we appear to be committed to at present.
Copyright: Daniel Margrain, 2009.
(6) Dr Lucy Arnot, October 18, 2007.
(20) The Guardian, 10 February 2005
(22) The Guardian, 12 March 2005
(27) The Guardian, 5 September, 2003
(31) The Observer, February 20, 2005
(37) The Financial Times, November 16, 2009
(40) Dieter Helm, Tanner lecture, Oxford, February 21, 2009
(42) John Vidal, The Guardian, February 20, 2009
(44) (Oxfam, May 29, 2007
(47) ibid, Table 19.1
(48) IPCC, 2007b, ibid