Friday, November 20, 2009

Climate Change: Privatising The Atmosphere

Market solutions in the form of emissions trading do the opposite of the environmental principle that the polluter should pay. Through emissions, trading private polluters are getting more rights and more control over the atmosphere which rightfully belongs to all life on the planet. Indeed, emissions trading “solutions” actually pay the polluter, argues Vandana Shiva

The Unite Nations climate change conference at Copenhagen next month is meant to further the goals of a global environmental treaty — the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In 1988, a resolution of the UN General Assembly considered the climate change matter as a “common concern for mankind”, and the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change was created. On May 9, 1992, the UNFCCC was adopted in New York and opened for signing in June 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio. It came into effect on March 21, 1994.

The goal of the Convention, according to Article 2, is to “stabilise the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that prevents all dangerous anthropogenic disturbance of the climate system”. Since the historic polluters were the rich, industrialised countries, the Convention required that by 2000 they stabilise their greenhouse gas emissions at their 1990 level.

Under the Convention, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Kyoto on December 11, 1997. The Kyoto Protocol set binding targets on industrialised countries for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to an average of five per cent against the 1990 levels over a five year period, 2008 to 2012.

However, in 2007, America’s greenhouse gas levels were 16 per cent higher than their 1990 levels. The much-announced Waxman Markey “American Clean Energy and Security Act” commits the US to 17 per cent emissions reduction below 2005 levels by 2020. However, this is a mere four per cent below their 1990 levels.

Further, the emissions trading or offsets, in fact, are a mechanism to not reduce emissions at all. As the Breakthrough Institute in United States, “a small think tank with big ideas”, states “If fully utilised, the emissions ‘offset’ in the American Clean Energy and Security Act would allow continued business as usual growth in the US greenhouse gas emissions until 2030, leading one to wonder: where’s the ‘cap’ in the ‘cap and trade’.”

The Kyoto Protocol allows industrialised countries to trade their allocation of carbon emissions among themselves (Article 17). It also allows an investor in an industrialised country (industry or government) to invest in an eligible carbon mitigation project in a developing country and be credited with Certified Emission Reduction Units that can be used by investors to meet their obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is referred to as the Clean Development Mechanism under Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol gave 38 industrialised countries, that were the worst historical polluters, emissions rights. The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme rewarded 11,428 industrial installations with carbon dioxide emissions rights.

Through emissions trading, Larry Lohmann, the co-author of Carbon Trading: A Critical Conversation on Climate Change, Privatisation and Power, observes, “Rights to the earth’s carbon cycling capacity are gravitating into the hands of those who have the most power to appropriate them and the most financial interest to do so.”

That such schemes are more about privatising the atmosphere than preventing climate change is made clear by the fact that emissions rights given away in the Kyoto Protocol were several times higher than the levels needed to prevent a two-degree-Celsius rise in global temperatures.

Just as patents generate super profits for pharmaceutical and seed corporations, emissions rights generate super profits for polluters. The Emissions Trading Scheme granted allowances of 10 per cent more than 2005 emission levels; this translated to 150 million tonnes of surplus carbon credits which, with the 2005 average price of $7.23 per ton, translates to over $1 billion of free money.

The UK’s allocations for the British industry added up to 736 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over three years, which implied no reduction commitments. Since no restrictions are being put on northern industrial polluters, they will continue to pollute and there will be no reduction in CO2 emissions.

Market solutions in the form of emissions trading are thus doing the opposite of the environmental principle that the polluter should pay. Through emissions, trading private polluters are getting more rights and more control over the atmosphere which rightfully belongs to all life on the planet. Emissions trading “solutions” pay the polluter.

Carbon trading is based on inequality because it privatised the commons. It is also based on inequality because it uses the resources of poorer people and poorer regions as “offsets”. It is considered to be 50 to 200 times cheaper to plant trees in poorer countries to absorb CO2 than reducing it at source. The Stern Review states, “Emissions trading schemes can deliver least cost emissions reductions by allowing reductions to occur wherever they are cheapest.”

In other words, the burden of “clean up” falls on the poor. In a market calculus, this might appear efficient. In an ecological calculus, it would be far more effective to reduce emissions at source. And in an energy justice perspective, it is perverse to burden the poor twice — first with the externality of impacts of CO2 pollution in the form of climate disasters and then with the burden of remediating the pollution of the rich and powerful.

It is because of this failure of the rich countries to cut back on emissions that the global climate negotiations are not moving forward. When secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited India in April 2009 and tried to apply pressure on India to cut back on emissions, Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh responded: “Even with eight-nine per cent GDP annual growth for the next decade or two, our per capita emissions will be well below developed country averages. There is simply no case for the pressure we face to reduce emissions.”

When Clinton stated that the per capital argument “loses force as developing countries rapidly become the biggest emitters”, Mr Ramesh replied that India’s position on per capita emissions is “not a debating strategy” because it is enshrined in international agreements. “We look upon you suspiciously because you have not fulfilled what developed countries pledged to fulfilled”, he said candidly. The failure of the rich countries to fulfil their climate obligations has created a “crisis of credibility”.

The US is leading the dismantling of the UNFCCC. At the Bangkok negotiations, the lead negotiator of the US said: “We are not going to be part of an agreement that we cannot meet. We say a new agreement has to be signed by all countries. We cannot be stuck with an agreement that is 20 years old. We want action from all countries.”

The proposal of the US is to get out of the legally-binding UNFCC, to set targets nationally which could be noted down in a new international agreement, without it being legally binding internationally and without a people compliance mechanism.

Copenhagen is supposed to evolve new commitments for Annexure I countries for the post-Kyoto period. The science of climate change tells us the five per cent reduction commitments of Kyoto are too small, 80 to 90 per cent reduction is needed to keep air pollution at 350ppm and temperature increase within 2°C to avoid catastrophic climate change. Instead of taking on their legally-binding commitments and deepening cuts, the rich countries want to abandon UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol.

The press release of October 9, 2009, from the G-77 and China categorically stated: “This is simply unacceptable. It would betray the trust of the world public that is demanding a major step forward and not a major step backwards, in developed countries commitments and actions. We will also consider the Copenhagen COP meeting to be a disastrous failure if there is no outcome for the commitments period of the Kyoto Protocol”.

The UNFCCC is the only international agreement we have in the context of climate change. The challenge at Copenhagen is to prevent its dismantling. The global environmental movement needs to throw its weight behind the countries of the South who are trying their best to uphold the climate treaty.

Courtesy: The Asian Age

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