It's a teensy bit long - there's a reason why I had to hack all this stuff out before it could be published in the New Internationalist. All the same, I hope it might be useful for those of you working on trying to get something effective out of Copenhagen.
My next blog post will be shorter, and probably sillier.
The Same Boat
Imagine 10 rabbits lost at sea, in a boat carved out of a giant carrot.
The carrot is their only source of food, so they all keep nibbling at it. The boat is shrinking rapidly – but none of them wants to be the first to stop, because then they’ll be the first to starve. There’s no point in any of them stopping unless everyone stops – if even one rabbit carries on eating, the boat will sink.
This is the international climate crisis in a (Beatrix Potter-flavoured) nutshell: action by individual nations achieves little unless we all act together. Of course, reality is a little more complex. While it’s easy to imagine the rabbits reaching a simple agreement where they all learn to dredge for seaweed instead, our situation involves massive global inequalities, differing levels of responsibility, and a history of exploitation and broken international promises.
Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t be too surprised that the international climate negotiations – which began in earnest in 1990 with the talks that created the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – have not yet got us a workable global solution. The best we’ve managed so far has been the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, under which industrialized nations (known as ‘Annex 1’ countries) pledged to cut their CO2 emissions by a completely inadequate 5.2 per cent by 2012. The US famously pulled out of the deal, and most of those who remained in are unlikely to achieve even these small cuts.
A Fair Point
Meanwhile, no definite plan has been agreed for ensuring that the poorer nations switch to a climate-friendly development path. The US says it won’t play unless, in the name of ‘fairness’, all non-Annex 1 countries also take on emissions reduction targets. Southern governments, however, point out that they’ve arrived late to the fossil fuel party: the industrialized nations got us into this mess by emitting, over the past 200 years, the vast majority of the greenhouse gases currently warming up the atmosphere. How can the Annex 1 countries demand that the South restrict its development with tough carbon targets when the North has mostly missed its own Kyoto goals?
At the same time, despite promised funds to support low-carbon development, to adapt to the impacts of climate change, and to transfer to low-carbon technology, the only real money flowing from North to South through the UNFCCC process has been via the highly flawed Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). This has allowed wealthy nations to offset their domestic emissions with such ‘clean development’ projects as urban landfill sites, giant dams that were being built anyway, and slightly more efficient steel refineries. There are now near-universal calls for the CDM to be reformed, or scrapped altogether and replaced with something fairer.
With Kyoto limping to the end of its life, governments are feverishly trying to strike a new deal on global emissions cuts between 2012 and 2020. They’ll be thrashing it out in meetings in Bonn in April and June, with the aim of signing an agreement at the next big Conference Of Parties (COP) – Copenhagen, 1-12 December 2009.
Efforts have been focused on getting the US – responsible for 30 per cent of current emissions – to sign up. But a deal that favours the interests of wealthy nations over the real needs of the world’s people would fail on two crucial counts. The expanded carbon market demanded by the US and the EU would enrich private traders at the expense of lives and livelihoods in the South; meanwhile, any deal without a strong justice element would almost certainly be rejected by many Southern governments.
Poorer nations have fought bitterly to enshrine a ‘right to development’ and an acknowledgement of countries’ ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ within Kyoto, which means that richer countries are expected to act first. Unless the Annex 1 countries start showing real commitment to these principles – through deep domestic emissions cuts, strings-free funding, technology transfer and development allowances – the chances of the South staying on board with a post-2012 deal are slim [see Boxes 1 and 2, below].
Box 1: Right You Are
Kamal Nath couldn’t believe it. The Americans were at it again.
It was the last day of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, and the outspoken Indian Environment Minister was not, by all accounts, in the best of moods. Along with members of the 171 other national delegations , he had spent all night thrashing out the wording of the Rio Declaration – the key final statement on which all parties to the Summit were meant to agree – only to learn at the last minute that the US delegation wanted to make some changes to the text.
Morning coffee in the Indian delegation’s offices was not, therefore, a peaceful affair, with Nath declaring angrily that “at 6 o'clock this morning, the United States told us they want to remove the phrase 'right to social and economic development’”. The Kenyan ministers he was addressing whistled with amazement . In fact, the US team had issued a statement containing the following words: “The US does not…change its long-standing opposition to the so-called ‘right to development’. Development is not a right…[it] is a goal we all hold” .
The phrase “right to development” did end up in the Declaration  despite American reservations, but many Southern negotiators are still reluctant to sign up to strict emissions targets that they believe would keep their populations in poverty.
Talking It Up
Unfortunately, the trend has so far been in the opposite direction. As the climate talks have progressed from Toronto (1988) to Kyoto (1997) to Bali (2007), the rich countries’ targets have been weakened by around 1,900 million tonnes of CO2, and the role of carbon trading has grown steadily .
For example, a major subject at the recent Poznan talks was the REDD initiative (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), which proposes that the carbon stored in the world’s forests be added to the carbon market . In one fell swoop, forest lands where people have lived for thousands of years would be commodified and sold from beneath them, generating credits to allow wealthy Northerners to carry on driving and shopping – despite the fact that new research has revealed that recognizing indigenous forest people’s land rights would cost less and be more effective than using the carbon markets .
Box 2: With Great Power…
In their 2007 book “A Climate Of Injustice” , Timmons Roberts and Bradley Parks show – through robust statistical analysis – how the Global South has a number of claims to climate injustice. Not only are the wealthier countries responsible for most of the total greenhouse gases emitted throughout history, they also bear a share of blame for increasing the vulnerability of many poor nations to climatic disasters, thanks to past colonial practices. Countries that were once extractive colonies are more likely to have high levels of inequality, restricted land rights, large rural populations and limited press freedom, which are all crucial factors in increasing the number of deaths and lost homes when storms, floods and droughts strike their shores.
High-income nations are also more likely to achieve international agreements that work in their favour, thanks to the amount of money and staff time they can commit to the relevant meetings. This has led to climate deals that lean more heavily towards the needs of richer nations. Poorer nations have, however, succeeded in establishing the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” within the Convention, with the wealthier “Annex 1” nations expected to make the first emissions cuts, and to provide financial support to the poorer nations.
Here are some of the main proposals on the table and how they measure up when it comes to climate justice.
What's on the table?
‘Grandfathering’ of Kyoto Targets
What is it? A delightfully twee name for the way industrialized countries’ emissions targets have been allocated through the UNFCCC – everyone has to reduce their emissions a certain percentage below the amount they were emitting in 1990.
- FAIRNESS: 2/10 Countries that were big polluters in 1990 get to stay as big polluters, with a slight percentage cut. A fairer system would instead be based upon per capita emissions (such as the ‘Contraction and Convergence’ model championed by the Global Commons Institute), historical responsibility for emissions, and/or ability to pay.
- EFFECTIVENESS: 2/10 The 1990 baseline is completely arbitrary, with no relation to climate science.
- CURRENT SUPPORT: 10/10 The EU is proposing a new target of a 30% emissions cut by 2020 for Annex 1 countries. The coalition of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) has said it would prefer that to be a 45-50% cut. Both of these targets are against the 1990 baseline – it’s just being taken for granted. Alternative ideas such as ‘Contraction and Convergence’ are sometimes discussed, but not acted upon.
Global Commons Institute: www.gci.org.uk
Greenhouse Development Rights (GDRs)
What Is It? An alternative method for setting carbon targets. It assumes that everyone on the planet below a certain income threshold should first have the right to get themselves out of poverty and are therefore exempt from any emissions targets. Responsibility for climate action is then allocated to countries based on how many of their citizens are above the income threshold, how far above it they are, and how much greenhouse gas that country produces.
- FAIRNESS: 8/10 Includes an explicit ‘right to develop’ for the world’s poor (North and South), while ensuring that wealthy Southern élites are not excluded from responsibility. However, it doesn’t acknowledge historical responsibility or the ‘offshoring’ of emissions by wealthier countries, and there are many potential devils lurking in the details – such as how to set the income threshold.
- EFFECTIVENESS: 9/10 The targets within the framework are based on up-to-date climate science, and if they were met it would give us a decent shot at avoiding the worst stuff.
- CURRENT SUPPORT: 4/10 Some G77 governments have talked about it, and it’s gained the backing of Christian Aid and Oxfam, but as yet has no official position within the UNFCCC process.
Other Methods For Divvying Up Emissions and Setting Targets:
- Historical Responsibility: The idea that the total emissions emitted by a country since the industrial revolution should be used as a measure of how much that nation is to blame for global climate change. Gives a good sense of how much climate change has actually been caused by that country throughout history. Frequently cited by Global South governments but very difficult to use as a basis for future targets without using lots of estimates and complex calculations – Brazil had a go once, but it never really caught on.
- Carbon Intensity: The amount of carbon dioxide produced per dollar of GDP. An interesting measure but useless for setting meaningful targets because it doesn’t relate directly to total emissions. Nonetheless, when the US pulled out of Kyoto in 2002, they said they were going to cut America’s carbon intensity by 18% in 10 years instead. They seem to be roughly on track to do this, but as their GDP has risen at the same time their overall emissions have continued to grow steadily. So that was a big help, then.
What Is It? It’s the main way in which wealthy industrialized countries are planning to meet their reduction targets – by trading ‘carbon credits’ (permits to pollute) with other countries. Forests are due to be added to the scheme at Copenhagen.
- FAIRNESS: 1/10 The system allows polluting industries and governments to buy their way out of their carbon commitments, using complex trading rules written by Northern economists. Private trading firms get rich by buying and selling the rights to the carbon in other people’s forests and fields, investing in dodgy quick-fixes and propping up polluting industries.
- EFFECTIVENESS: 2/10 The EU Emissions Trading Scheme has yet to produce any proven emissions reductions. Wealthy governments and companies can avoid difficult-but-vital domestic emissions cuts by buying (both real and imaginary) carbon reductions from elsewhere. Politicians get an excuse not to stump up desperately needed cash for more effective low-carbon development in the Global South.
- MAD, BAD, AND DANGEROUS EFFECTS: 8/10 Want to unleash a genetically modified carbon-munching microbe, create a famine-inducing agro-fuel plantation, privatize a forest or build a few nuclear power stations? The carbon market is the place for you!
- CURRENT SUPPORT: 9.5/10 Unless we decide to stop it.
Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD)
What Is It? A major discussion topic at Poznan. The latest proposal involves adding the carbon stored in forests into the carbon market, allowing countries to generate emissions permits by NOT chopping down their forests.
- FAIRNESS: 2/10. In one fell swoop, forest lands where people have lived for thousands of years would be commodified and sold from beneath them, generating credits to allow wealthy Northerners to carry on driving and shopping.
- EFFECTIVENESS: 4/10. Protecting the forests is vital for preventing climate disaster – deforestation is currently responsible for about 20% of global carbon emissions. However, inclusion in a trading scheme would mean these savings would be cancelled out by extra emissions elsewhere in the world. Meanwhile, new World Bank-funded research has revealed that recognising indigenous forest people’s land rights would cost less and be more effective than using the carbon markets.
- MAD, BAD, AND DANGEROUS EFFECTS: 6/10. Quantifying the carbon in forests is incredibly difficult. Whatever carbon value is placed on a patch of jungle will be scientifically dubious, but then used to justify an equal amount of emissions elsewhere.
- CURRENT SUPPORT: 5/10. This is very contentious and hotly debated within the UNFCCC process. Southern countries may eventually be forced to agree to it if other sources of forest protection funding don’t show up.
Mitigation and Adaptation Funds
What Is It? The G77 (a coalition of, confusingly, about 130 developing countries) and China are proposing that the wealthiest countries put the climate change support money they’ve been promising (for years) into a central fund for spending on low-carbon technology, emission reductions and climate change adaptation in the Global South .
- FAIRNESS: 7/10 Putting it into a central fund has pros and cons: paying it straight to governments instead could lead to corruption and squandering on unhelpful projects, but the central fund takes the decision even further away from those affected by it.
- EFFECTIVENESS: 5/10 Will the funds be spent on effective projects such as protecting the land rights of indigenous forest people, or on expensive distractions like nuclear power?
- CURRENT SUPPORT: 7/10 The wealthy nations are going to have to hand something over if they don’t want the talks to collapse completely.
It’s A Bit Like… The guy who drove a bulldozer through your house and sold off the rubble has promised to buy you a tent in compensation. As a huge storm gathers on the horizon, you post him another stiff reminder letter.
What Is It? Another hot topic at Poznan. The industrialised nations pledged to give access to low-carbon technology to the developing countries. They haven’t really done much about it yet – with international patenting rules being a major stumbling block.
- FAIRNESS: 8/10. It’s clearly fair and clearly necessary – especially the relaxing of patenting rules.
- EFFECTIVENESS: 6/10. It has to happen in some form if we’re going to avoid disaster – but providing the means to make solar heating systems would have a different impact to, say, helping to build new nuclear power stations. The type of technology transferred will be crucial.
- CURRENT SUPPORT: 7/10. Southern countries are pushing hard for this, but questions remain around when, how much, and what strings will be attached.
What Is It? A new proposal, where companies wishing to drill for oil or gas or dig up coal would have to purchase permits. These permits would be tightly restricted, and fall each year in line with the demands of climate science. The money from the permit sale would go into a global fund to protect forests, pay for adaptation measures, create a ‘revolution’ in sustainable technology and help poorer communities make the transition to a low-carbon world.
- FAIRNESS: 7/10 The polluters pay, and the money goes to the people and places that need it. All pretty good – so long as the poor are protected from sudden fuel price rises, and the institutions charged with distributing the funds (Oliver Tickell, who developed the proposal, suggests UN agencies and NGOs) do so in a transparent and accountable way that actively includes the affected communities.
- EFFECTIVENESS: 8/10 It looks good on paper, and is based on solid climate science. However, we all know how adept fossil fuel companies are at finding loopholes…
- CURRENT SUPPORT: 1/10 This new proposal would involve totally changing the terms of the international negotiations, shifting the responsibility from countries to corporations (including a lot of state-owned companies). Will it be seen as a distraction from the main debate, a Northern-biased proposal that doesn’t explicitly recognize historical responsibility, or a neat way out of the current deadlock?
IN VARIOUS COUNTRIES
Underpinning the climate talks are a raft of ideas for how emissions reductions can be achieved. Here are some of the forerunners.
Government-Funded Climate Programmes
What Is It? Publicly funded schemes to tackle climate change – from revamped public transport networks to mass home insulation to giant offshore wind farms.
- FAIRNESS: 5/10 Depends on how much you trust your government. Publicly owned climate solutions are more accountable to the people they affect than corporate or consumer-driven solutions (in democratic states, at least). However, there’s also plenty of scope for corruption and the siphoning of public funds into expensive ‘solutions’ that benefit wealthy élites rather than the climate.
- EFFECTIVENESS: 5/10 Utterly dependent on the details. However, there are some things, such as legislating against corporate polluters, and reforming national transport and energy networks, that people and community groups cannot do alone, and governments will need to play an active role.
- CURRENT SUPPORT: 6/10 There are positive examples out there (such as Germany’s big renewables roll-out), but they are often cancelled out by the simultaneous development of roads, runways and fossil fuel power stations.
It’s A Bit Like… Asking a big kid you don’t really like or trust to chase away some bullies for you.
What Is It? A government tax on sources of carbon pollution.
- FAIRNESS: 5/10 Could hit the poorest in society hardest through higher fuel prices, unless it were carefully designed. Taxes on companies producing or burning fossil fuels could be fairer, if those companies were prevented from passing those costs on to others. British Columbia’s new carbon tax includes a rebate for the poorest families.
- EFFECTIVENESS: 6/10 Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Italy, and a few US towns and counties have experimented with carbon taxes, with mixed results. The taxes do seem to reduce carbon emissions, but usually on a smaller scale than was hoped for – often due to loopholes and concessions demanded by industry or angry consumer groups.
- CURRENT SUPPORT: 5/10 Carbon taxes are talked about within the UNFCCC process as a potential tool, but they’re not generally very popular back home.
Nicola Liebert, ‘Why Ecotaxes May Not Be The Answer’, NI 416, October 2008
Techno-fixes and Geo-engineering
What Is It? Examples include genetically modified algal fuel, capturing CO2 for underground storage, launching mirrors into space, discovering reliable nuclear fusion, turning food crops into agro-fuels, dumping iron in the oceans and spraying sulphates in the sky.
- FAIRNESS: 1/10 Most of these schemes would place disproportionate control of the global climate in the hands of a small number of companies or governments. Imagine if the US or China had control of a giant space mirror that was the only thing preventing the world from being fried, or if Monsanto held the patent for an algal fuel that the whole world relied upon for power. What a beautiful future we’d be building.
- EFFECTIVENESS: 2/10 Most are more than a decade away from large-scale implementation, and would drain resources away from proven and sustainable solutions.
- MAD, BAD, AND DANGEROUS EFFECTS: 10/10 Poisonous algal blooms, disruption of little-understood oceanic food webs, mass appropriation of lands, seas and forests, acid rain, sudden future CO2 eruptions, and corporate control of the climate system… will that do?
- CURRENT SUPPORT: 7/10 European governments are desperate for carbon capture to materialize. There have been pro-sulphate-spraying demonstrations in Australia. An open market in carbon emissions would be a big boost to a lot of these wacky schemes.
‘Climate Techno-Fixes’ report, Corporate Watch.
What Is It? Another ridiculously broad category encompassing community-owned sustainable energy, food and transport, and the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights to land, forests and traditional farming practices.
- FAIRNESS: 9/10. Solutions designed and implemented by the people most directly affected by them are far more likely to be fair and accountable. However, if they don’t also lead to major emissions reductions then millions of people round the world will still suffer from disastrous climate change.
- EFFECTIVENESS: 7/10. Local solutions may lead to dramatic local carbon savings but unless they are part of a wider carbon-cutting plan there’s no way of guaranteeing that they’ll be enough.
- CURRENT SUPPORT: 3/10. Most international discussions and national programmes are focused on large-scale, market-driven solutions rather than supporting community initiatives. However, international social movements are starting to get active and vocal on this issue – the powerful small farmers’ network La Via Campesina have just issued a demand for “Food Sovereignty” because “peasant agriculture cools the planet”.
Open Letter From Maputo: V International Conference of La Via Campesina, 26th October 2008
Box 3: Carbon Rationing: The idea of issuing personal carbon emission quotas to businesses and/or the public, with a national limit that gets smaller each year. An idea embraced by some (voluntary Carbon Rationing Action Groups have sprung up around the UK), and rejected by others as an infringement of civil liberties and personal freedoms. The fact that most of the schemes proposed include some form of quota-trading means that the wealthiest would be able to prolong their high-emission lifestyles by purchasing permits from the poor – although some commentators note that this could be an effective form of wealth redistribution. Others call it a privatisation of the atmosphere on a par with international carbon markets. No such scheme exists anywhere yet, although some governments have talked about it.
The road ahead
If the talks continue in their current vein, then Copenhagen is likely to produce a similar deal to Kyoto – arbitrary (though larger) targets against a 1990 baseline, perhaps giving targets to some of the larger developing countries in return for extra mitigation funds, and with carbon trading as the main ‘delivery mechanism’. It would probably end up about as successful as Kyoto, too.
Fortunately, global dissent is growing. Large NGOs such as Friends of the Earth International, Oxfam and Christian Aid are becoming increasingly vocal on the issue of climate justice. New networks are forming amongst Northern and Southern social movements to demand community-led solutions to the climate crisis, and an end to the privatization of lands and forests through carbon trading schemes.
Down with Kyoto
We shouldn’t get too hung up on Copenhagen – we’re far more likely to create lasting change by building powerful national and international movements than by pouring all our energy into specific summit meetings. But it’s hard to deny that we need some sort of international framework for tackling this global issue. Despite its flaws, the UNFCCC is the only one we’ve got, and the urgency of the climate issue requires us to work with it.
However, the Kyoto Protocol has been a dismal failure. Should we demand that governments scrap it completely and start again from scratch? It’s tempting, but would be unlikely to gain the crucial support of Southern negotiators, who fear that a brand new deal would see them lose their hard-won ‘differentiated responsibility’.
A better approach might be to create space within the existing talks for alternative, fairer systems and ideas – such as GDRs, Kyoto2, community-led solutions, indigenous rights, strings-free clean development assistance, patent-free technology transfer – to get a hearing. Currently emissions trading, private financing and market-based mechanisms are seen as the only route to greenhouse gas reductions, and are crowding everything else out of the debate.
This suggests a simple, effective starting point for developing a successful – and just – global agreement: we need to get rid of carbon trading.
Just: do it
Many groups and movements could happily unite around a major campaign to discredit the carbon markets. However, this needs to start now. The massive protests planned for Copenhagen will be too late to have much effect on the talks (unless things have gone so badly that they need to be shut down!)
Let’s face it – whatever gets agreed at Copenhagen, governments are unlikely to stick to it unless there is an international movement powerful enough to make it happen. A global climate treaty will never be a panacea, but we can at least make sure it’s a step towards – rather than away from – climate justice.
Danny Chivers is a writer, researcher, activist and poet on all things climate-change related.
A shorter version of this article was published in the January 2009 edition of New Internationalist Magazine.
2. James Brooke, New York Times, “Delegates From 4 Nations Warm to a High-Profile Role: Global Powerbroker”. June 12th, 1992.
5. Diana Liverman, ‘Survival into the Future in the Face of Climate Change’ in E Shuckburgh (ed.), Survival: The Survival of the Human Race (2006 Darwin Lectures), Cambridge University Press, 2007
6. See: thereddsite.wordpress.com
7. The Guardian, ‘Pay indigenous people to protect rainforests, conservation groups urge’, 17 October 2008
8. T Roberts & B Parks, A Climate Of Injustice, MIT Press 2007
9. Financial Mechanism for Meeting Financial Commitments under the Convention. Proposal by the G77 and China to the Poznan meeting.