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Climate Talks: 25 Years of Hot Air

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For 25 years, establishment politicians have talked about tackling global warming – since discussions held in the run-up to the Earth summit of 1992. Most of them now agree that human action is driving potentially catastrophic climate change. But, as BEN ROBINSON reports, they have done nothing to deal with this threat, bound as they are to the profit-driven capitalist system they represent. Originally published in Socialism Today, Issue 194 (December 2015 / January 2016), the political journal of the Socialist Party (sister party of Socialist Alternative in England and Wales).

The United Nations climate change conference in Paris is the latest in a series of talks that has gone on for 23 years. They have thoroughly demonstrated how bankrupt capitalism is, in the face of the coming climate catastrophe it has created. The rate at which pollutants are spilled out has continued to grow, virtually unabated by the discussions held by diplomats around the world.

This is not because the governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have simply failed to come up with the right idea which will then force polluters to fall in line. It is instead because of the contradiction that climate change presents them with. It is an international threat, causing changes we are already seeing in oceans and currents, forests and deserts, weather patterns, soil fertility and polar caps. It is a global threat that requires global action to resolve.

But the individual countries that are represented in these negotiations also represent these countries’ ruling classes, many of whom are directly responsible for huge amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Especially the big polluters – the United States, the European Union and, latterly, China – enter into each round of negotiations seeking first and foremost to defend their wealthy elites.

Many fine statements have been passed at UN climate conferences (known as COPs – Conferences of the Parties). But these statements and pledges have, by and large, been without legally binding measures or repercussions, and have often remained toothless at the insistence of the big polluter governments.

Rio and the rise of neoliberalism

In 1992, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a UN conference recognised, in words, the need for coordinated action on climate change. It accepted the overwhelming scientific consensus that global temperatures were increasing as a result of human activity. This was primarily through the increase in concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which meant that a larger share of the sun’s heat is trapped in the atmosphere. This causes knock-on effects on the Earth’s climate, far beyond a simple temperature rise. Most significantly perhaps for people, it threatens food production on a global scale, rises in sea levels threatening coastal and low-lying populations, drought, and increased extreme weather events.

Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas, however. Methane is far more potent in capturing the sun’s heat, and is produced by agricultural practices as well as naturally occurring processes. But it is carbon dioxide that human activity produces the most of, and the volume produced is the definitive factor behind human-made global warming. Other greenhouse gases released by human activity are generally included in the measures, calculated as carbon dioxide equivalents. The Rio conference first laid down the aim of avoiding temperature increases of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Carbon dioxide is primarily produced through energy production and industrial processes. The significant increase in its concentration in the atmosphere is a by-product of the industrial revolution, and has increased in proportion with the manufacturing and energy revolutions that took place since then. The companies that had been to the fore of industry historically, almost exclusively based in the west, had reaped the rewards financially, while laying the basis for climate change in the future – to say nothing of the pollution, destruction and exploitation involved in the process in the first place.

This exploitation and destruction laid the basis for the wealth of the western ruling classes today, and their dominant position as greenhouse gas producers. In 2013, research published in the Climatic Change journal stated that just 90 companies have produced 63% of the cumulative global emissions of carbon dioxide and methane between 1751 and 2010 – and 30% of emissions come from the top 20. These included BP, Chevron, Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell, Gazprom, coal producing companies, etc. Rather than human-made global warming, it is clear that it is big-business-created climate warming.

The facts of climate change, and the need for action, were accepted at the Rio conference. But the conference took place as the world was adjusting to a new state of relations. The dissolution of the Stalinist Soviet Union had left the US as the world’s sole superpower, enjoying a wave of triumphalism at having ‘won’ the cold war. Not only was there triumphalism that capitalism had outlasted the Stalinist planned economies, but more specifically the neoliberal ideologies behind Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, and their respective successors, George Bush and John Major.

According to the pronouncements of the day, the free hand of the market was unchallengeable as the key organising force in society, and to challenge it was to risk trouble. US multinationals, and those from across the west, relished the opportunities to profiteer that were opened up by deregulation and privatisation in the wake of this new world order.

The US drops out of Kyoto

These economic and political conditions shaped the agreements that were hammered out at the first three COP conferences: in Berlin (1995), Geneva (1996) and culminating in Kyoto in 1997. The Kyoto protocol centred on reducing emissions through market incentives. The limited scope ignored bigger collective action that could have been taken, such as pooling resources to research green technologies, or an ultimatum on fossil fuel extraction. Instead, Kyoto set targets for states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2012.

These targets applied to the advanced capitalist countries, where capitalism had historically gained from carbon dioxide production. They proposed, on average, 6-8% reductions on the emissions measured in 1990. The targets in themselves were a significant step back from what the scientific projections demanded, which was around a 20% reduction to avoid temperature increases beyond 2°C.

The choice of 1990 as the baseline for emissions reductions was perhaps the biggest loophole in the Kyoto protocol. That year was just before the dramatic collapse of industry in the former Soviet Union, where carbon emissions collapsed as a result of the chaotic return to the market and the decimation of industry and living standards, which did not halt until 1998. This meant that, globally, before Kyoto had prompted the lifting of a single finger, on paper there was already significant progress. This huge loophole was further emphasised by the mechanisms included in Kyoto to reduce emissions.

The Kyoto protocol introduced emission permits. These were permits to produce one ton of carbon dioxide, which were allocated to polluters on the basis of previous emissions. If companies produced less than their allocation, they could sell permits to other companies and profit from their reduced carbon output. These could then be gradually reduced in supply thereby increasing the cost of polluting, incentivising reductions in carbon dioxide output. However, the permits given to Russia and the participating former Stalinist states could easily be sold on, ensuring that the cost of permits never reached a level where it was cheaper for companies to reduce emissions rather than buy permits.

Clean development mechanisms (CDMs) are another major Kyoto instrument. These allow big polluters to earn carbon credits by sponsoring green projects in the developing world. For example, sponsoring a forest to prevent it being chopped down, so that it remains to absorb carbon. By giving money to maintain the status quo, these companies are able to churn out more greenhouse gasses into the environment. This is without even taking into account the possibility of corruption and lack of oversight, rampant in similar practices.

Further UN conferences hammered out the details of the Kyoto protocol, which finally came into force at COP 11 at the conference in Montreal, Canada, in 2005. Overall, the impact of Kyoto hardly troubled the operations of the huge multinationals, or their profits. Global emissions continued to increase, and new profit records continued to be set. This did not stop major polluters, Australia and the United States, withdrawing from Kyoto before it began.

The US government’s attitude is perhaps the clearest illustration of where priorities really lie. Although US capitalism was in an unparalleled position of wealth and influence, it refused to implement Kyoto. Reductions in emissions were proportional to the scale of emissions – meaning the US, responsible for around 35% of the world’s emissions, was meant to take the bigger hit. This would have put the US’s dirty capitalists at a disadvantage when competing against European capitalists. That triggered the US dropout.

If any capitalist country was going to take decisive action on climate change, the US was by far and away the best positioned in terms of wealth and technology. But the craven drive for profit trumped. After George W Bush ruled out ratifying Kyoto in 2001, he led the country to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the aim in part of shoring up US dominance of global oil supplies.

Disputing who pays the bill

It had taken 13 years between the UN agreeing that action was necessary, and the first, fatally flawed fruits. In that time, emissions had continued to grow apace, and capitalism’s climate change had continued to impact on the world. In 1998, UN refugee statistics showed 25 million climate refugees – for the first time in history, more than the numbers fleeing war. In 2007, climate research showed that the impact of changing weather patterns had contributed to drought in Sudan and the Horn of Africa, which contributed to the bloody Darfur conflict.

Even the advanced capitalist countries are not immune. Although it is impossible to directly link an instance of extreme weather to global warming, occurrences such as Hurricane Katrina – which devastated New Orleans, and especially its poor, black population – become increasingly likely as a result of climate change. The question of who should pay for these crises, and for preparing to respond to them, was raised with increasing urgency at COP meetings, especially by developing countries where such catastrophes would be exacerbated by poverty.

The developing countries, led by China and India, argued that the wealthy big polluters should subsidise these costs for poorer countries, with less developed infrastructure and means of developing green technologies. China in particular made demands for international assistance a central part of its negotiating stance in many COP conferences, arguing reasonably that it was necessary to receive the funding to be able to continue to develop, while reducing emissions.

The COP 6 gathering in Bonn, Germany (2001), agreed on the need for a fund to assist with adaptation for the impact of climate change. COP 12 in Nairobi, Kenya (2006), agreed on the procedures for the adaptation fund. COP 14 in Poznań, Poland (2008), agreed on the outline of a fund to help those countries affected by climate change. COP 16 in Cancún, Mexico (2010), agreed to a Green Climate Fund, with a targeted income of $100 billion per annum. In 2013, it was reported that the fund had reached $10 billion per annum. COP 18 in Doha, Qatar (2012), implemented the adaptation fund which all Kyoto signatories were obliged to pay into. UN estimates put the funds needed at $86 billion a year – however, actual money paid in only reached $300 million.

China gets to number one

The EU in general was able to meet its Kyoto targets. However, this was through a mixture of factors. The aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism meant that the EU had an in-built advantage emissions-wise. Industry was decimated in the former East Germany, and a major reorganisation of industrial production took place. Britain was also able to meet its targets, partially as a result of Thatcher’s vicious war on the militant National Union of Mineworkers, which led to the virtual end of Britain’s coalmining industry.

Another factor was the race to the bottom internationally. Many of the most carbon-intensive industries were exported to countries with lower labour costs, most notably China. If Britain’s imports and exports were included in the tally, emissions would then show to have risen by around 100 million tonnes since 1990. Similar examples can be given across the west, and have led to China developing as one of the world’s industrial powerhouses, and overtaking the US as the world’s number one source of carbon emissions.

This rapid industrial development came at a colossal cost to the environment in China. There has been a huge increase in desertification, due to logging and the rerouting and damming of rivers to serve industrial centres. Pollutants have been pumped into rivers, meaning that an estimated 700 million Chinese drink polluted water. Smog and dust clouds are factors of life in the big cities. Coal powered much of China’s industries, taking advantage of its natural reserves. This is without going into the super exploitation of the workforce that has driven China’s growth, and who are most susceptible to the immediate impact of environmental destruction.

The growth of developing countries as polluters further undermined the impact of existing COP agreements, structured around reducing western emissions. By 2010, emissions from the developing world were almost equal with emissions from the developed countries, and subsequently overtook them as the main source of emissions. Although both India and China ratified the Kyoto treaty, they were not included in any targets for emissions reduction. Those countries with agreed Kyoto targets now included, significantly, less than 50% of emissions, with the US and China absent.

US industry now faced a much increased array of international competition, and although still globally in poll position, the potential for undermining the US on the world stage was markedly greater. US prestige had been knocked by the disastrous military adventures in the Middle East, and it was the epicentre of the world economic crisis in 2007-08. All of this served to undermine the US position at the negotiating tables in climate change discussions, but also made US big business much less willing to make concessions on environmental questions.

The Chinese elite, dependent on huge growth economically and politically, refuse to commit to any targets in emission reduction. The heavy emphasis that Chinese negotiators put on funds to aid green development and to compensate those countries affected by climate change resulted in formal success, with the creation of the adaptation fund and the Green Climate Fund. The woeful underfunding of both of them, however, showed the level of commitment to aiding green growth in China and elsewhere.

Post-Kyoto paralysis

The targets enshrined in Kyoto expired in 2012. The absence of a follow-up agreement meant that at COP 18 in Doha, Qatar, a small number of Kyoto signatories agreed to continue with the existing reduction targets, until a new treaty was agreed. Those agreeing to continue with Kyoto targets represented just 15% of the world’s emissions – not enough for the dramatic scale of carbon dioxide cutbacks that science was by now reporting as necessary.

However, the continued growth in carbon emissions had made the demand for action increasingly pressing. At the start of the process of UN climate conferences, and repeatedly throughout, the stated target had been to keep global temperature increases below 2°C. Although the cuts enshrined in Kyoto were inadequate, they represented less ambitious targets than those predicted as necessary by scientists. Scientific evidence presented to COP 17 in Durban, South Africa (2011), showed that reductions of emissions by 40% were now necessary before 2021 in order to keep within this target.

Instead of stepping up the urgency of action, COP conferences have failed to reach the same level of agreement that Kyoto represented in 1997. The initial timescale, which promised the Kyoto successor would be ready at Paris 2015, has now been pushed back after several utterly fruitless conferences. The present working timescale before the coming COP conferences is to have a new treaty agreed and ready to be implemented by 2020 – just one year before the 40% cuts demanded by scientists are due!

The process taken as a whole is clearly farcical, or rather it would be if the consequences for humanity and the planet were not so grave. Exasperated by covering multiple climate conferences in 2006, BBC reporter Richard Black described delegates to the Nairobi conference as ‘climate tourists’, who attended “to see Africa, take snaps of the wildlife, the poor, dying African children and women”.

But beyond the individual characters of the delegates at the COP conferences is the intransigence of big business to countenance any threat to their immediate bottom line, and the slavishness of governments who defend those vested interests at all costs. Commissioned in 2006 to write a report on climate change for Britain’s last Labour government, Nicholas Stern said that climate change was “a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen”. In concrete terms, the high point of the UN process was the Kyoto agreement, which only ever committed around 60% of the world’s polluters to action – action that was both less than what was necessary and riddled with easy loopholes. Often conferences are concluded with huge official optimism from participating governments and NGOs, but this has just served to deceive, inveigle and obfuscate.

Leaving the process to big business and their politicians is to guarantee mutually assured destruction. But while the climate politicians have endlessly discussed, there has been a growing movement demanding radical action. The Copenhagen conference in 2009 saw 100,000 take part in counter-protests. In New York City in 2014, hundreds of thousands marched demanding climate action. It is this movement, armed with a socialist programme and united with workers and young people, which is the key to fighting global warming.

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