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From The Socialist newspaper, 2 December 2009

Copenhagen climate change talks

World powers reject urgent action

Weeks before the mid-December UN summit in Copenhagen was due to convene, Barack Obama killed any lingering hopes that it would deliver a new treaty on global warming to replace the one agreed at Kyoto in 1997. PETE DICKENSON looks at the sticking points that led to failure and the prospects for the 'political framework' that now appears to be the likely outcome in Copenhagen.

The main controversies in the pre-Copenhagen talks have been the nature of US participation in a new treaty, the help that would be given to 'developing' countries to reduce greenhouse gases and the level and timing of the cuts needed in carbon dioxide emissions, the main culprit in global warming. Another key question was the type and extent of so-called offsetting arrangements, ie firms in industrialised countries being allowed to pollute more in return for sponsoring green projects in poor nations.

An agreement in Copenhagen was supposed to address the obvious limitations of the Kyoto treaty (see box) and ensure continuity when that treaty expires in 2012. Hopes were high a year ago when Barack Obama was elected that he, combined with the ever more explicit and unequivocal warnings from science, would give a final boost to international efforts for a breakthrough.

All the main powers realised that the inclusion of the US in any new arrangements, even if America is not formally included in a treaty, is vital. Until recently, Obama's administration consistently talked up the possibility not only of active participation in a carbon trading system, but of refusing to countenance any fudging of the rules to create loopholes or of participating in a cosmetic exercise.

This rhetoric has now been exposed as empty, as a recent interview in New Scientist magazine with President Obama's science advisor, John Holdren revealed. Firstly, the level of emission cuts the US is proposing for itself is a reduction by 2020 to 17% below 2005 levels. This would amount to a few percent below 1990 emissions, ie less than was required under the Kyoto treaty and delivered eight years later than the Kyoto end date of 2012. The Kyoto targets themselves were extremely modest and largely cosmetic.

But secondly, and more importantly, as Holdren admits, even this minimal package had no chance of going through the US Senate, where according to his calculation, they were 12 to 15 votes short of getting the 60 needed to put the legislation through.

Developing countries

The Chinese government says that rich countries should pay $400 billion per year, or 1% of GDP, to help poor countries to cut emissions. This compares to Gordon Brown's 'offer' of $100 billion and the European Union's endorsement of a $150 billion figure. Angela Merkel the German Chancellor, says that the EU should contribute $50 billion, with most of the rest coming, by implication from the US. Within the proposed EU contribution there is deadlock though on who should pay what, which does not bode well for a wider global deal. All the EU offers anyway are conditional on broader agreement being reached, so the European governments are free to posture as green champions, since they are perfectly aware that the US Senate is likely to refuse to endorse any agreement.

The Chinese and Indian leaders say, with some justification, that the problem was largely created by the advanced capitalist countries and furthermore, that their emissions are five and ten times less respectively than, for example, the UK, on a per-head basis - so why should they pay? However, the US under Bush always made it clear that unless China in particular agreed to bear a 'fair' share of the burden, the US would not take part in any international system to reduce greenhouse gases.

When the Democrats were elected in November last year, Obama asked John Kerry, a leading senator, to represent him at UN climate talks in Poland designed to pave the way to Copenhagen. Many expected, given the green rhetoric coming from the Obama camp before its victory, that the US's position would change, but Kerry just reiterated the previous line of Bush. This dealt a huge blow to any hope of success since China and India have always been adamant that they will not commit to any target for greenhouse gas reductions. China has agreed only to cut her carbon intensity, ie emissions per unit of GDP, by an unspecified amount. Since her economy is growing rapidly this would mean that greenhouse gas output would continue to rise despite any improvements in energy efficiency.

The only way that poor countries will commit themselves to meaningful targeted cuts is if significant money is on the table from the industrialised world, and there appears to be little prospect of this. In the meantime, since China is the biggest global emitter of carbon dioxide any international agreement excluding her would have a limited impact.

Level and timing of CO₂ cuts

Most industrialised states have agreed to a cut of 80% in emissions by 2050, the level generally agreed necessary to eventually stabilise greenhouse gas output. But since the implementation date is sufficiently far away to be ignored by capitalist politicians, no concrete measures have been put in place to address this target.

However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the main scientific body advising on global warming, is also saying that to have even a 50% chance of avoiding a temperature rise of two degrees there has to be a 25-40% reduction in emissions by 2020 in industrialised countries and a 15-30% reduction in 'developing' countries. If temperatures go above this level there will be a bigger danger of 'tipping effects' occurring that can lead to runaway warming.

Two years ago at the Bali summit, it was agreed that the IPCC figure for 2020 should be a guide for industrialised countries. Since then most big developed nations (except those in the EU) have, at meeting after meeting, refused to turn this into concrete emissions targets at either an aggregate or individual country level.

As a result the offers on the table amount to a reduction of only 10-17% below 1990 levels. The EU has made a 'generous' offer to cut 20%, but strictly on condition that agreement is reached in Copenhagen. Its position is part of a cynical game, since it knows the chance of the US government agreeing to significant cuts is minimal, which will allow the European leaders then to take their offer off the table. In fact, as mentioned above, America is proposing to cut to only a few percentage points below 1990 levels, and the US Senate does not want to agree to even this tiny cut.

Offsetting arrangements

Offsetting is a system where rich countries can avoid meeting their emissions targets by agreeing to fund green projects in poor countries. It has been one of the main reasons the Kyoto treaty was totally ineffective, since there was enormous scope for fudging, mis-reporting and corruption. According to Friends of the Earth, the treaty even permits, within the offsetting rules, money to be provided to build coal fired power stations in poor countries, even though they are the worst culprits for C0₂ emissions. They would only have to be slightly more energy efficient than the ones they replace. However, even if, unlike this example, the projects were genuine, the approach would still be flawed since the IPCC has clearly said that greenhouse gasses must be cut massively both in industrialised and in poor countries, an aim that offsetting undermines.

Rather than accepting this, the EU is planning to offset half of its emissions target proposed for Copenhagen. If the Copenhagen summit was successful, with its target implemented, the EU would have to reduce its carbon dioxide production by only 10% after allowing for offsetting, which puts the apparently generous European offer into perspective. Also, if offsetting is implemented, it will reduce the pressure in the EU to convert to sustainable energy production methods, the only effective way to tackle global warming.

There is one area though where there has been speculation that an agreement may be reached in Copenhagen. That is in aid to countries such as Brazil to preserve the rainforests. This would be implemented by allowing rich nations to buy forest carbon credits, ie including the forests in a 'cap and trade' scheme where the industrialised countries would buy large areas of rainforest, and prevent further clearances by adopting a 'responsible' attitude. Apart from producing gales of cynical laughter, this rationale, being pushed in particular by the UK, has all the general drawbacks of offsetting plus some extra pernicious elements.

For example, the system includes agricultural plantations in the definition of 'rainforest', meaning that funding from rainforest offsetting could be used to continue to clear the forests to replace them with agricultural land.

However, plantations only have the ability to absorb 20% of the CO₂ of forests, so making a mockery of the whole process. (Rainforests are important in fighting climate change because 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions are a result of deforestation, since trees absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide). The forest offsetting proposal would also have terrible effects on the indigenous peoples of these regions, with land grabs and violent evictions occurring as the forests continue to be cleared to be replaced with 'agricultural plantations'.

Post-Copenhagen prospects

The UN said that the Copenhagen summit is the last chance to avoid catastrophic global warming. So, since it will fail to produce a new treaty to replace Kyoto, where does that leave the battle to combat climate change? US diplomats are now talking up the possibility that a 'political framework' agreed at the summit will be able to remove the sticking points, which will then permit agreement, 'perhaps next year or as soon as possible'. A target date for the next UN climate meeting is in twelve months time in Mexico. However, Senator John Kerry, who will have a pivotal role in future developments, has poured cold water on this scenario, because he thinks it is unlikely the US Senate will agree to the cost of any fresh proposal.

Despite the green rhetoric from the new US administration and the fact that the offsetting loopholes provided by a Copenhagen treaty would result in minimal cost to comply with the agreement (rendering it totally ineffective), there seems little chance at the moment that the US Congress will agree to participate in any international carbon trading system, even if it requires only tiny reductions in emissions. The governments of poor countries will continue to refuse to set greenhouse gas reduction targets, which is a sticking point for the US. Whereas the EU appears to have a slightly better position, in reality it is hiding behind American intransigence, and if ever flushed out, its 'progressive' offer would be severely diluted.

The failure to reach even a cosmetic deal is put into yet starker perspective if the needs arising from climate science are prioritised rather than those dictated by the international political fudges. The basis of the negotiations was a 25-40% cut in greenhouse gases by 2020, but as already pointed out, the IPCC thinks that this will only provide a 50% chance of containing a global temperature rise to two degrees. Some climate scientists think the target figure should be lower, 1.5 degrees, as proposed by several countries that will be badly affected by rising sea levels in the Pacific region.

Despite the current deadlock, it cannot be excluded that at some point in the future a UN deal will be done, but it is likely to have such inadequate targets and be so full of loopholes, as to make it just as ineffective as Kyoto. It would be futile to pin any hopes on such an agreement being able to tackle climate change; rather, campaigns must be stepped up, particularly in the trade unions, to force governments to take action to switch to renewable energy and create green jobs.

At the same time though, it is clear that there are underlying reasons why international agreement has proved impossible. If the measures needed to stop global warming were introduced over ten or fifteen years, it would cost less than 3% of GNP per year, a figure that would not lead in theory to a dislocation of the world economy.

But even this small cost is totally unacceptable to the imperialist powers that dominate the world. They are focussed on maintaining the short-term profitability of the multinational companies they represent, despite most now recognising that the long-term costs of doing nothing today will be much greater.

This lemming-like attitude is embedded in the nature of modern capitalism and points to the need to fundamentally change society to one where human needs are put before profits. Such a socialist society, incorporating democratic planning, would for the first time be able to effectively tackle global warming. The longer socialism is delayed, the worse will be the effects of climate change.


The 1997 Kyoto treaty

After nearly ten years of argument, agreement was reached in Kyoto in 1997 for a system of carbon permit trading that also included legally enforceable limits on carbon dioxide emissions.

Each country had its own permitted level of emissions in the treaty, and within countries, firms had their own target that could only be exceeded if they bought a permit to pollute. The cost of the permit was supposed to be set at a sufficiently high level to deter firms from exceeding their quotas.

The outcome of Kyoto has been total failure, in that it has been unable to stop an inexorable rise in greenhouse gas emissions and a rapidly deteriorating environmental situation, in particular the melting of the polar ice caps at an unprecedented rate.

The failure was due to two underlying factors, a flawed market trading model and the lack of international agreement on a variety of issues linked to the operation of the treaty, most crucially the refusal to participate of the two main carbon-emitting countries, the US and China. Without their involvement any market in carbon permits was always going to be fundamentally undermined.

The US refused to participate even though the Kyoto targets were extremely modest, based on a small reduction in emissions compared to 1990 levels. This date was set deliberately, since it pre-dated the economic collapse of the USSR and the subsequent big fall in greenhouse gases linked to that disaster. Consequently virtually no actual reductions from the level of carbon dioxide output in 1997 were required when the treaty was signed, since there had already been a large fall compared to 1990.

In addition, numerous loopholes were built into the Kyoto treaty, such as the possibility for firms to exploit offsetting arrangement scams and the propensity of governments to issue so many pollution trading permits that they became virtually worthless and therefore no deterrent. In fact, the treaty was designed to be largely cosmetic in the hope that America would be persuaded to join, but it totally failed in this ambition as well.

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In The Socialist 2 December 2009:

Climate change 'gigantic market failure'

Copenhagen climate change talks


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National Health Service: Patient safety not private profit


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Youth march for jobs: "A fantastic experience"


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Dubai's house of sand crumbles


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