Taking Action

The Issues at Stake

Nederlandse infotekst

This is intended as a brief introduction to what's at stake in Den Haag and why resistance is necessary. Any account such as this incorporates the biasses and politics of the authors and of course, what follows constitutes one perspective only. Like the rest of this site we want to emphasise that we are not trying to set the tone for action that might happen in Den Haag, but merely to provide information and provoke debate. Several alternative viewpoints are given in the links which follow each section.

Climate Change
Global Equity and Climate Justice
Corporate Power and Influence on the talks
The Den Haag Summit
Flexibility Mechanisms - what do they mean?
Nuclear Power

Climate Change

If and when climate change occurs, its effects could range from the severe to the catastrophic. Possible effects include sea level rises drowning low lying land, increased frequency of adverse weather events such as droughts, storms and forest fires, huge loss of biodiversity as conditions change faster than species can adapt and the rapid loss of agricultural land.

At its worst, it is entirely possible for climate change to mean the end to life on earth, and that is something which shouldn't be forgotten. How might this happen? Well, there are a whole range of highly unpredictable 'positive feedback mechanisms' built into the Earth's atmospheric and biospheric systems. These are processes where the effects of climate change themselves cause greenhouse gases to be emitted, or reduce the ability of the earth to store greenhouse gases. So for example, if forests die off on a large scale, then much of the carbon that was stored in them could end up being returned to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. Similarly, if permafrost areas (land that remains frozen all year round) were to melt due to a warmer climate, then the vast reservoirs of methane gas which are stored beneath them may be released (methane is a very potent greenhouse gas).

So there remains the possibility that the greenhouse effect may go spiraling out of control. However, it is almost impossible to come up with any satisfactory scientific model of the effect these feedback mechanisms may have and so it is uncertain how important they are - only time will tell.

There is virtual consensus amongst the scientific community that climate change is a threat. The debate has moved on to whether or not we are already dealing with its effects. And as weather records continue to be broken, as storms and droughts increase in frequency and as huge areas of Antarctic sea ice drift away into the ocean, the certainty that climate change is with us now is rapidly developing.

With a general acknowledgement that climate change is a massive problem, the UN instigated the negotiations of which Den Haag is a part. The first important thing to bear in mind about the climate talks is that the agreements reached so far are woefully inadequate for meeting their declared aim, preventing climate change. At the Kyoto summit in 1997, industrialised countries undertook to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases by an average of 5.2%, compared to their levels in 1990. However, by the time the summit took place, emissions were already 4.8% lower, due to the economic collapse of Eastern Europe in the transition from communism.

The levels of reduction that are needed are much higher. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC - scientific advisers to the UN) say that a reduction of 60% at the very least, is needed. To really be safe, reductions would need to be even higher - around 80 or 90%

Many who realise the inadequacy of the commitments taken on are still optimistic about the process. It is not intended that the Kyoto agreement is the whole of the solution - it is only supposed to be a starting point, from which a global commitment can be reached at a later date. However, there is growing scepticism that the talks can ever have any real value at all. This is partly because of the seeming inability to meet even the most basic commitments, and partly because the process has been turned into a set of trade talks (see below), more an opportunity for rpivate profit than a genuine attempt to prioritise action on climate change.

[...more on climate change]

Global Equity and climate justice.

Climate change will undoubtedly have a greater impact on poorer communities than richer ones. As an example, consider the effects if sea levels were to rise. The Netherlands may well be able to afford adequate sea defences to protect its populations, but Bangladesh will not, and the millions of people who inhabit the delta lands there would be forced to give up their livelihoods. This is just one example. More generally, those with capital can avoid the adverse effects of climate change, for example by taking out insurance to protect themselves against the risks of climate change, relocating to areas less affected, or buying expensive technology which enables them to adapt to the effects.

The injustice of this is highlighted when it is remembered that the majority of the problem is caused by the overconsumption of the rich. It is certainly not fair that those responsible for causing climate change can subsequantly buy their way out when it becomes a problem.

And the inequalities don't stop there, because the extractive and industrial processes which produce greenhouse gas emissions in the first place often disproportionately affect the poor also. Think of the communities of the Niger delta who have to live amongst widespread pollution and gas flaring by oil companies anxious to cut costs, and when they fight back are brutally repressed by the Nigerian state in order to break their resistance. Or 'fenceline' communities in the United States, forced by poverty to live on land polluted by heavy industry. This added injustice is often associated with that of climate change, and re-emphasises the notion that climate change is a problem inextricably linked with the oppressive systems of power and privilege that characterise today's society.

The principle of equity is often mentioned in the climate negotiations, usually by third world delegates and NGOs. It is the thinking behind certain richer countries taking on commitments at Kyoto, before a completely global agreement. There is also growing support for a mechanism called 'Contraction and Convergence', pioneered by the Global Commons Institute This claims to be based on equity principles because it sets a emissions limit for each country based on its population level. But while Contraction and Convergence is certainly the best option on the negotiating table, it does not address the fundamental injustices withing countries which are so integral to the climate problem.

[..more on equity and climate justice]

Corporate Power and Influence on the talks.

Transnational corporations have been highly active players in the UN process since climate negotiations began, and their slick PR machines, mercenary attitudes and political power have meant that they have yielded enormous control over the process.

Fossil fuel transnationals have been the most active lobbyists. For much of the early 1990s the main strategy was to discredit and sabotage the process. Fossil fuel lobby groups such as the Global Climate Coalition sponsored contrarian scientists who claimed that climate change was not a threat, ran series of adverts on US television to persuade the US public that any climate agreement would be a threat to their lifestyle, and were highly active lobbyists, both of delegates to the climate talks and of US politicians.

Lobby groups taking this approach are still active, especially in the US, where their main focus is ensuring the Kyoto Protocol does not get ratified by Congress. Increasingly, however, their methods are being discredited, as politicians accept the mainstream scientific consensus that climate change is a serious risk. However, that activity prepared the ground for a new, more sophisticated approach, which has been called 'corporate environmentalism', where companies argue that by using the market, it is possible to both achieve environmental goals and increase profit.

That has been the position of oil companies such as Shell and BP, who were initially welcomed by many when they made more 'progressive' statements about climate change. But it is important to note that their support for action on climate change amounts to nothing more than declaring their support for market-based trade emission trading schemes which represent profit opportunities for them. These schemes, which will be described below, will form an important part of the global economy. They often also point to many examples of 'voluntary commitments', where industry has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by themselves, claiming they are an adequate substitute for binding reductions.

It is important for anyone involved in climate activism to understand the 'corporate environmentalist' approach. Since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, groups like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has been pushing the idea that the next phase of capitalist development is towards sustainability. They argue for globalisation and neo-liberal economic policies, on the grounds that once the economies of third world countries grow, they will be able to afford cleaner technology, and their development will be more sustainable.Also by using market mechanisms to reduce emissions rather than command-and-control style regulations, there is an incentive to invent new technologies which use less fossil fuels, or use indistrial processes which have less impact. In the global economy, advocates of such an approach claim, environmental problems must be addressed globally, and so the climate agreements become one of a raft of 'Multilateral Environmental Agreements', international regulations which fit in nicely with the rest of the raft of global institutions; the WTO, IMF, UN Security Council and so on.

Hopefully no critique of this approach is needed, but it is a viewpoint that almost seems to be taken as consensus within the negotiations. That is presumably quite satisfactory for those in business pushing it, because they tend also to be quite keen on partnerships - between governments and business, but also NGOs who are seen as the representatives of 'civil society'. Many NGOs are sympathetic to the 'corporate environmentalist' approach, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature whose climate change slogan was 'Growth with Less Energy' and the American Environmental Defense Fund.

Typically at UN climate conferences, there are many hundreds of business delegates, from both lobby groups and individual companies. They have easy access to diplomats, of course, and also host a range of side events, conferences, and entertainments. Key representatives of industry are also sometimes invited to join in official UN meetings, a privilege which is not extended to environmental NGOs.

[...more on corporate dominance]

The Den Haag Summit.

Climate Summits happen every year, but the Den Haag summit is one of the more important. The Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 established that industrialised countries would reduce their emissions, and the levels of reduction they would need to achieve. However, many aspects of the agreement were not finalised, and a year later, at Buenos Aires, a period of further negotiations was set up. The deadline for most of those negotiations to be brought to an agreement was set for the Den Haag meeting.

Flexibility Mechanisms - what do they mean?

The key items for agreement are the rules for the so called 'flexibility mechanisms' (someties known as Kyoto Mechanisms), three schemes which allow countries to pay other countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, rather than reducing in their own countries. Emissions trading, firstly, will allow one country to sell a portion of their emissions allowance to another country. It is likely that many countries will take this one stage further, allocating individual companies with permits , so that trade can take place between companies rather than countries. Individual trades would then be facilitated by a commodities exchange, just the same as the exchanges found in the world's financial centres which are used to sell coffee or fuel. The idea is that in this way market forces will ensure that emmissions reductions are made at the lowest possible economic cost. Also, it is claimed that the financial gains to be made by trading will actually act as an incentive to reducing emissions.

Joint implementation is a scheme whereby a country (or a company) can subsidise a project in another country (in this case both countries must have signed up to an national emissions reduction target at Kyoto) in return for claiming credit for the reduction in emissions caused by that scheme. These projects are likely to take place mainly in Eastern European countries, and Western countries will be the ones financing most of the schemes and so claiming the credits. The 'Clean Development Mechanism' is similar, with the important difference that the country hosting the project did not take on a national emission reduction target at Kyoto. This means they will predominantly take place in third world countries.

Beyond these general concepts, very little of how these schemes will work has been decided formally - that's what's going to happen at Den Haag. Of course, they will also evolve over time, and it is likely that the distinctions which exist now between the three mechanisms will be blurred as more companies participate in the carbon market. So since the details are vague, the criticisms we offer can only be based on a guess of what the implications could be. It would, after all, be possible to design the schemes to yield social and environmental benefits. But we can fairly safely assume that the vested interests of capitalist enterprises will ensure that the Den Haag agreement will be no more socially beneficial than most other pieces of international legislation! With those provisos in mind, here's a brief analysis of what it all could mean.

Emissions Trading

Since it was first suggested in the UN, the concept of emissions trading has attracted criticism from environmental groups as a loophole by which rich countries can avoid reducing domestic emissions and buy their way out of the problem instead. Much of the trade is likely to be with Russia and the Ukraine, who took on very moderate national reduction targets. Both countries undertook only to return emissions to 1990 levels when by 1997 their emissions were already 30% lower than in the baseline year of 1990 due to the economic collapse that took place in those countries following the fall of communism. So the US, for example, could simply buy up cheap Russian quota rather than addressing the problem of its own overconsumption. This is known as the 'hot air' problem.

Because of the depoliticised nature of NGOs, their criticisms of emissions trading often stop at the hot air problem and a number of other implementation matters. The dubious logic of using capitalist market mechanisms to solve ecological problems is rarely brought into the equation. It is difficult to deny that capitalism, with its fundamental need for the continuing consumption of commodities, must take a large share of the blame for causing the climate change problem in the first place. But the claim by those pioneering the introduction of emission trading is that it could also be a solution.

Essentially, emissions trading is creating a new commodity - an item that can be given a money value - and that commodity is the tradable emissions permit. In this way the Den Haag summit will represent another extention to the scope of capitalism. Albeit in a slightly abstract way, it can be thought of as the privatisation of the atmosphere. It is an act of enclosure similar to the way non-owned land has been turned into private property around the world, or more recently, the way biotech firms have begun to privatise food by creating new varieties of crops and patenting them so that anyone wishing to use them must purchase them off that particular company. An essential feature of enclosure is decisions about the commodity are no longer made for the common good - they are made according to what is most financially prudent.

There will be plenty of winners in this new marketplace: transnational companies, commodities speculators, lawyers, brokers, bankers, small entrepreneurial enterprises, environmental consultants and so on. But there will also be losers, as there are in all cases where the needs of people conflict with the needs of the market.

One example of this is already seen in the United States, where pollution trading in other gases, such as sulphur dioxide, is already well established. If companies can find a cheaper way to create the necessary pollution reduction then they do not have to implement pollution controls at every factory. By leaving responsibility to market forces, overall levels of pollution may be reduced, but the reductions take place where it is cheapest to do so. In practice, this often leads to 'pollution hotspots' in poorer communities. This will also occur with greenhouse gas trading, for although carbon dioxide is not toxic, it is often emitted in conjunction with other pollutants that are. Other examples of injustices can be seen below.

Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism.

Examining the nature of projects that may qualify for credit under Joint Implementantion (JI) and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) gives some idea of the injustices that may occur. For example, large dams are often highly socially and ecologically destructive, displacing people and destroying ecosystems. However, they also result in reductions in greenhouse gases (compared to generating electricity from fossil fuels) and would therefore qualify for credit. The central problem is that credit is given for schemes which reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but they may not be at all beneficial in other areas of their social and environmental impact.

The nature of the two mechanisms means that many of the projects will involve western companies investing in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and the Third World. This inevitably means the consolidation of Western-style consumer capitalism in these parts of the world, and gives increased power to these giant corporate entities.

Certain institutions have already identified themselves as potential major players in future Joint Implementation projects. The World Bank, with its history of irresponsible lending to ecologically and socially destructive projects, has already set up a trial scheme, its 'Prototype Carbon Fund'. Other Multilateral Development Banks such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development also expect to take a major part in projects.

Of course, supporters of these mechanisms will argue that they are a way of encouraging development and reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the same time. However, the sort of development that is brought about by stimulating Western investment is rarely in the interest of the communities and ecosystems that have to put up with it - it is ultimately serving the needs of capital and not people.

It would be possible for the diplomats at Den Haag to agree on other social and environmental criteria that projects would have to meet before they were accepted as JI or CDM projects, as certain African states are pushing for. This would not address all criticisms of the scheme by a long way, but would make them slightly more palatable.

[...more on flexibility mechanisms]

Nuclear Power.

The generation of power using nuclear energy emits less greenhouse gases, but is highly destructive, from uranium mining to nuclear waste and the links with weapons proliferation. The Nuclear industry has been pushing for nuclear power projects around the world to be eligible for subsidies under the Clean Development Mechanism. If nuclear power was seen as a legitimate part of the solution to climate change, then it would represent a major success for the nuclear industry. Currently there is little support for nuclear power across Europe, and the only part of the world where it is on the increase is East Asia.

Nuclear power is more expensive than that from fossil fuels and that's the main reason why so few governemnts opt for it nowadays, rather than any sort of ethical considerations. But if effective subsidies could be given to nuclear power projects through Joint Implementation, coupled with an increase in the costs of fossil fuel generation (because emissions permits would have to be bought), then nuclear power might become a financially viable option again.

The Den Haag meeting is the industry's big chance at regaining credibility as a source of power around the globe. It is vital that when the criteria for JI and CDM proects are decided, nuclear power is specifically excluded.

[...more on nuclear power]


In the logic of the climate negotiations, since trees absorb carbon dioxide and remove it from the atmosphere, it is acceptable to plant trees abroad rather than reduce emissions in your home country. It might sound sensible when put like that, but in reality the provisions for forestry (referred to as 'sink enhancement' or 'carbon sequestration') are possibly the most frightening part of the whole Kyoto agreement.

Firstly, the notion of being able to define a unit of carbon sequestered by a forest is completely unrealistic. When oil or coal is burnt, it is simple to calculate the amount of carbon dioxide released. A forest, however, is a dynamic ecosystem, with carbon constantly being transferred between living material, the atmosphere and the soil. In fact it is the build up of organic material in the soil where much of the long term carbon sequestration takes place. It may be possible to scientifically model the carbon flow in a completely natural ecosystem, but human activity complicates matters enormously. Companies will be claiming credit when they plant a forest, but to make a meaningful impact on climate change prevention, carbon must be stored for a time of the order of 200 years. How could any company realistically guarantee that their plantation would not be struck by fire, disease etc. for that length of time? Also, how could they ensure that by creating this new forest they weren't causing deforestation elsewhere (eg by displacing people who needed that land for agriculture and are forced to go elsewhere). In essence, in their thirst for profit, the delegates at the UN have created a totally meaningless commodity to trade which is wide open to manipulation by vested interests, and in doing so ensured that a major loophole exists in their greenhouse gas reduction plans.

Secondly, the incentives for afforestation are purely economic and therefore will stimulate the cheapest form of forestry - monoculture plantations. Needless to say, these are usually low in biodiversity and can cause severe ecological degradation (for example,fast-growing eucalyptus plantations have a high water intake and can seriously affect the water table of the region around the plantation). What's more, several voices of the industry claim that young fast growing plantation trees absorb carbon far more quickly than old growth forests, and so it would be legitimate to replace the old growth woodlands with these species. And to ensure even greater growth rates, why not genetically modify the tree: the money to be made from carbon offset forestry is one of the biggest driving forces behind the development of genetically modified trees.

Thirdly, carbon offset forestry is the area where the new carbon market will conflict most severely with social needs of communities around the world. Basically, if new plantations are to be created, then they are likely to be on existing agricultural land, and the easiest land to obtain will be that farmed by small-holders and peasant farmers. It merely marks another stage in the ability of corporations and other wealthy interests to dispossess the rural poor.

Finally, it is a market in which only certain players can take part. Most trees are planted and forests are created by local people who live and work on the land, but these small projects will never get credit because those who enact them do not have the capital to pay for the bureaucracy of certification, etc. Therefore the bias towards large projects and against smaller, locally appropriate management by people who depend on the land, is institutionalised.

In the Kyoto Protocol, carbon sequestration was limited to forestry projects pending further scientific research into the carbon flows involved in other land use changes. It is, however, worth briefly mentioning some 'novel' methods of carbon sequestration that are being developed, with the intention that they will be eligible for credit someday. One such method is iron fertilisation of the oceans which involves the sprinkling of tons of iron filings on the ocean surface in order to stimulate algal growth. Another is deep sea storage of CO2 which has been captured from industrial plants. Another is introducing dust into the upper reaches of the atmosphere in order to reflect more sunlight. One common factor however, is the unpredictability of these schemes - it is not possible to easily model how they will fit in with the complex feedback processes refered to earlier. All have the potential to have major negative impacts on life on earth, and are in essence large scale experiments with the biosphere itself.

[...more on forests and carbon sequestration]


This has only been a brief overview - more detailed information on the various topics covered will be posted here soon, and in the meantime, feedback would be most appreciated.

We have avoided speculating on whether there is any value in the climate talks at all. Clearly climate change is one of the most severe problems we face, and you never know, it might be that over the decades to come, something comes out of the talks which makes some sort of difference. On the other hand, we do want to draw attention to them as an institution which is making a very bad job of protecting the climate, whilst making a very good job of making money for those who caused the problem in the first place.

With the inadequacy of those in power plain to see, it is clear that the fate of our climate is just one more thing that we can't leave to them. Whether in our personal lives, our communities or the acts of resistance we take, the future of the planet lies in our hands!

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