Capitalists fail to tackle climate change at Copenhagen

But an attempt to push the burden of climate change onto developing countries has been thwarted by China.

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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The 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December left few feeling that there had been any progress in tackling the issue of climate change.

Despite over two years of preparation, the outcome of the summit was not a treaty to succeed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, but merely a non-binding accord pushed through at the last minute following a behind-the-scenes meeting that included just 25 of the 193 countries in attendance.

Following the announcement of the Copenhagen Accord, the limitations of the document were clear for all to see. However, as the accord was originally a document drafted behind closed doors by a select group of developed countries, with an agenda favouring the status quo, ie, ‘tackling’ climate change while maintaining the economic domination of a few countries, its limitations are not surprising.

It stipulated no target emission reductions for developed countries, instead setting the deadline of 31 January 2010 for individual countries to submit their own timetabled reduction targets. This date has subsequently been dropped by the UN, which called it a ‘soft deadline’, further reducing confidence in the chances of anything useful coming out of the accord.

The accord set the requirement for developed countries to provide financial aid to developing countries to assist in low-carbon growth. However, it specifies just $30bn for the years 2010-2012, with the aim of increasing this to $100bn per year by 2020. This is a long way off the recommendation in the Stern Report of 21 September 2009, which stated that $100bn per year would be needed for mitigation and $100bn per year for adaptation by 2020.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, speaking at a press conference on 16 December 2009, pointed out that “the budget of the United States is $687bn for defence. And for climate change, to save life, to save humanity, they only put up $10bn. This is shameful.” (Reproduced on Democracy Now)

The accord has done little more than get the biggest emitters to agree, for the first time within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, that the rise in global temperature must be held to no more than 2 degrees Celsius if we are to avoid untold disaster across the globe.

Distinction between developed and developing countries

Throughout the talks, it was clear that the developed countries were pushing for any agreement to remove the distinction the Kyoto Protocol drew between the responsibilities of industrialised and developing countries in addressing climate change.

The Kyoto Protocol requires the 38 industrialised countries that have ratified the agreement (the US was not one of these) to reduce their carbon emissions by 5 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2012. It did not set a target requirement for developing nations to reduce their emissions, but instead asked them to curb carbon emissions, thus allowing for economic growth.

Using the fact that China is now the largest emitter of CO2 and India is rising in the ranks, industrialised countries are attempting to justify a change in this approach, on the basis that following the Kyoto Protocol some of the largest emitters have no target for cutting emissions. They have therefore been calling for emission reduction targets for developing as well as developed countries, which in effect passes some of the burden of paying for previous carbon emissions from the industrialised countries to those still developing.

What is deliberately left out of the picture is that, while China may be the biggest emitter of CO2, its emissions per capita are significantly lower than any of the old industrialised countries. While China’s 1.3 billion people consume only 6m barrels of oil a day between them, the United States, with a population of just 300 million people, consumes more than 20m barrels a day; that’s more than three times as much for less than a quarter the number of people – 14.5 times as much per person.

With the G77 group of developing countries and China rightly opposing any attempt to blur the distinction between the responsibilities of developed and developing countries for the damage done to date by carbon emissions, as the talks neared the end of the scheduled two weeks, an agreement on a successor to Kyoto was looking extremely unlikely. It was at this point, and in opposition to the relative openness and transparency of the talks, that the private meeting of just 25 countries was convened to discuss a new draft accord.

Instigated by the US, and facilitated by the Danish prime minister, the closed meeting invited predominantly developed countries to discuss the draft, as well as the BASIC countries (the largest developing countries – Brazil, South Africa, China and India), sidelining the rest of the developing countries at the talks.

The so-called Danish text, drafted by a group of individuals known as the ‘circle of commitment’ (!), who are understood to include representatives from Britain, the US and Denmark, was a clear attempt to foist an agreement on the talks that abandoned the Kyoto protocol. In its draft form, it also handed effective control of climate-change finance to the World Bank and wanted to make any money given to developing countries to help them adapt to climate change dependent on various conditions. (‘Copenhagen climate summit in disarray after “Danish text” leak’, The Guardian, 8 December 2009)

However, given that for any credible agreement to be reached, the BASIC countries had to be involved, the attempt at pushing through this unsatisfactory draft was unsuccessful. The 13-page ‘Danish text’ was eventually reduced to a three-page accord, with the provision for funding structures to be governed by the World Bank and the attempt to dismiss the Kyoto Protocol removed. While over 170 countries were not privy to the discussion, the BASIC countries in effect represented the developing countries behind the scenes, and at the very least prevented onerous reductions targets being put on them.

It is no surprise that, as only 25 countries were part of the discussions on the Copenhagen Accord, those not invited to the discussions did not ratify the agreement.

China blamed for Copenhagen failings

Then, with the talks barely over, accusations of ‘hijacking’ the process were launched, not at the US or Denmark, but primarily at China! Environment Minister Ed Miliband was one of the first to point the finger in an article in the Guardian on 20 December 2009, where he blamed China, Sudan, Bolivia and other leftwing Latin-American countries for trying to wreck the summit, stating that “we cannot again allow negotiation on real points of substance to be hijacked in this way”.

Miliband’s accusations were a disingenuous attempt to deflect attention from the real culprits: the developed countries. Rather than calling for targets for developed countries that reflect the recommendations outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Miliband used China and India’s opposition to the inclusion of an 80 percent target reduction for developed countries and a 50 percent global reduction in emissions by 2050 as the basis for the failure of the accord.

Taken together, the targets require not only reductions in emissions from the developed countries but also a reduction in emissions by the developing countries of 20 percent in absolute terms and at least 60 percent in per capita terms by 2050. (See ‘Blame Denmark, not China, for Copenhagen failure’, The Guardian, 28 December 2009)

Currently there is a massive difference between developed countries’ emissions per capita and developing countries’ emissions. For example, the US and Canada have over four times the world average. The target of 50 percent global reduction by 2050 does not level out the difference, but rather reinforces the disparity. By 2050, today’s developed countries would still be allowed at least twice the emissions per capita as today’s developing countries. Such targets would not only curb developing countries’ emissions but also their economic growth.

Opposition to these targets is not, as Miliband and others purport, because China does not want to accept targets, but because the developing countries are not stupid and rightly will not accept the same responsibility for global warming as developed countries, which have already industrialised using cheap carbon-based energy.

Developed countries’ failure to act

The UN’s IPCC 2007 report clearly recommends that industrialised countries should make emission cuts of 25-40 percent on 1990 levels by 2020, rising to 80 percent by 2050. Yet few developed countries at the talks announced pledges of cuts that approach even the lowest end of the range. The national pledges announced amounted to only an 11-19 percent overall reduction by the developed countries on their 1990 levels by 2020. (See ibid)

The United States came to the talks with a proposed target reduction of 17 percent on its 2005 emissions levels. When compared to its 1990 levels, however, this is less than 3 percent, which does not even meet the very low requirement set by the Kyoto Protocol. With commitments to climate change like that, we should all pack our bags and start finding higher ground! Such measly reductions from one of the world’s largest emitters per GDP will make little difference in holding back the global temperature.

The EU has made bolder statements of aiming at reductions of 20 percent below 1990 levels, to be increased to 30 percent should others make a stronger commitment. However, if it is looking to the US, then this is an offer that can be made without fear of ever having to meet the target.

BASIC countries are taking climate change seriously

While the developed countries have been less than forthcoming with strategies for dealing with climate change, the BASIC countries have made their commitments to addressing the problems clear. They are standing firm in defence of their right to develop and lift their people out of poverty, but are not disregarding the need to curb their carbon emissions.

China, Brazil, India and South Africa all announced commitments to reduce the carbon emission intensity per GDP, so that, as their economies develop, their carbon emissions will not rise as much as they would if it was ‘business as usual’.

China has made the strongest commitment. China has been successfully reducing its carbon intensity emissions in relation to GDP year on year. It has already reduced its CO2 per unit of GDP by over 50 percent on 1999 levels. It has now announced targets of a further 40-45 percent reduction by 2050, and, unlike other developed countries, this is not dependent on the commitment of any other countries and is legally binding within China.

As Premier Wen Jiabao said, speaking to a session on 18 December 2009: “it is with a sense of responsibility to the Chinese people and the whole of mankind that the Chinese government has set the target for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. This is a voluntary action China has taken in the light of its national circumstances. We have not attached any condition to the target, nor have we linked it to the target of any other country. We will honour our word with real action. Whatever outcome this conference may produce, we will be fully committed to achieving and even exceeding the target.” (Quoted in ‘Verdant mountains cannot stop water flowing; eastward the river keeps on going’, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 24 December 2009)

What next after Copenhagen?

In Mexico later this year, another major climate conference will take place. However, there is no expectation on any agreement being ratified, nor of the targets that may have been submitted by then being reviewed. In short, with the Copenhagen summit achieving no serious commitment by the developed countries to cut their emissions, global warming is likely to continue apace.

The responsibility for reducing greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, which are causing the global temperature to rise, falls squarely at the feet of the industrialised capitalist countries. However, one basic problem for capitalism is that its motive force is profit. And the drive for maximum profit, at the expense of all else, is totally incompatible with the long-term investments and high-level planning required to tackle climate change.

If we are to save humanity from the effects of cataclysmic climate change, we need to redouble our efforts to organise the working class to smash imperialism. Only socialism will be able to organise production and direct scientific and technological research on a society-wide basis in order that the problems facing us can be solved.

> Copenhagen Conference on climate change – Lalkar January 2010

> You ve got to be red to be green – Leaflet

> Save humanity: the ticking time bomb of climate change – April 2005