The issue of global warming is back in the media again as the US position on the Kyoto Protocol, which sought to set a time-scale and targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, hardens under President Bush, and US ratification of the treaty seems unlikely. The majority of scientists warn that global warming will continue to result in ‘natural’ disasters of catastrophic proportions unless drastic steps are taken to change industrial practices that rely on fossil fuels for energy and release dangerous chemicals into the atmosphere. As news of ‘natural’ disasters makes headlines with increasing frequency it is clear that action is urgently needed, and yet those responsible for the mass of pollution, those same nations who control most of the world’s wealth and resources, continue to argue and vacillate while nothing gets done, paralysed by their commitment to the goal of capitalism – to continue to amass greater wealth.
THE HISTORY OF KYOTO
In 1990 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was commissioned to undertake extensive research and to report back on the evidence of climate change and its likely future impact, and suggest policies and technologies to remedy its destructive effects. The IPCC comprised hundreds of scientists from all over the world who undertook the project on a voluntary basis. Whilst not perfect, the conclusions reached are probably as close to objective as is possible for an issue so intimately linked with the concerns of capital. The IPCC concluded that “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the [global] warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities” – a strong and clear call to action.
Following IPCC recommendations, 154 nations gathered in Rio in 1992 for the Earth Summit which culminated in the signing of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and other environmental agreements. 181 countries became parties to the Convention and have since met regularly at Conference of the Parties (COP) to discuss implementation of the Convention. The next such meeting (COP6) is scheduled for July and stands to be a very important one, as the success or failure of the Kyoto Protocol – the most solid framework for action suggested by the COP so far – hangs in the balance.
The Kyoto Protocol was adopted at COP3 in December 1997. The remit of the Kyoto conference was to make concrete plans for reduction of GHGs. The IPCC reported that GHGs needed to be reduced by 60-80% to prevent the destructive potential of global warming becoming a reality. The final agreement reached was that industrialised nations, those mainly responsible for GHG emissions, should commit to reduce their GHG emissions by 5% below 1990 levels by 2010. Four years later the Kyoto Protocol still has not come into force. GHG levels continue to rise; floods, droughts, earthquakes and forest fires continue to devastate masses of communities, and yet the polluting nations refuse to give up their dependence on fossil fuel generated wealth for the sake of humanity and the planet.
The most recent Conference of the Parties (COP5), in November last year, failed as the EU refused to accept the many concessions insisted upon by the US. As it stands, the Kyoto Protocol does not come close to providing an adequate answer to the threat of increased global warming. Environmental lobby, Friends of the Earth, predicted that the level of GHGs in the atmosphere would only be 4% lower by 2010 if the Kyoto targets were met. However, it seems that the polluting nations are unable to overcome their short-sighted, profit-driven standpoints to take even this small step.
CONCESSIONS ENTRENCH IMPERIALIST POSITION
The concessions being sought most vigorously by the US are welcomed to varying degrees by most parties to the Convention. There is no doubt that Kyoto, if it can be agreed at all, will include options a) b) c) and d) below to some extent. The concessions would allow countries to meet their targets by means other than the actual reduction of emissions. The US is also insisting that any agreement must bind developing countries as it binds the industrialised nations. A study of these concessions reveals an intention on the part of the industrialised nations to maintain their economic and political stranglehold over the world.
a) Investment in environmentally friendly development in other countries
An example of this could be the US investing in a wind powered electricity generation project off the coastline of an African country. While such a project could be seen as beneficial to that nation, there is no way, under capitalism, that such assistance would be given on an unconditional basis. It is most likely that any such investment would be facilitated through vehicles such as the IMF or World Bank, with heavy strings attached. In the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) report, produced by representatives of monopoly capital to influence the Rio 1992 debates, the terms of this investment were made perfectly clear: “The main elements of an attractive investment climate are known and proven: macro-economic stability; free, open markets; clear property rights; and political stability. Unless these four conditions are largely satisfied, sustainable development is not possible” (quoted in
23 March 2001). Investment in environmentally sustainable development in underdeveloped countries would enable the imperialist nations to continue their plunder of the resources of the poor nations under the guise of contributing to GHG reductions.
b) Investment in “Carbon Sinks”
A carbon sink is designed to soak up carbon dioxide, the main GHG component, from the atmosphere. For example, large forests could be planted to react naturally with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This proposal has been rejected by environmental groups for various reasons. Firstly, “the best carbon sinks are not the best habitats for wildlife”. If naturally occurring forests were replaced by more efficient carbon sink forests, valuable biodiversity would be lost. Also, the actual value (how much of GHGs could be stored and how permanently) of carbon sinks is presently unknown, and in the meantime, dependence on fossil fuels is not diminished, “every dollar invested in such projects will mean more emissions from fossil fuels in Annex 1 [polluting] countries” (above remarks quoted in FOE Climate Change Briefing “The Politics of Climate Change”). Global warming cannot be overcome unless harmful emissions are sharply decreased. IPCC predicts the earth to heat up by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius in the next century on the current trend of emissions. This would have disastrous consequences, particularly for small island states. Jamaica’s environmental minister reports: “For a half of every year we are threatened in the Caribbean with hurricanes. With continued global warming, these storms will get more frequent and stronger…In Jamaica, for example, we have also been informed that if global warming continues at the current rate, our two international airports will be underwater by 2020. This is frightening” (quoted in Financial Times 30.11.00).
c) Trading in unused emission units
Countries like Russia, “whose carbon dioxide emissions fell by a third over the last decade, could make big money selling unused pollution quotas if such a market is established.” (S. Kovalyova BBC News 6 April 2001). Such units would be very much in demand by countries such as the US who wish to avoid drastically altering industrial practices. Again, it means that, to the extent units are purchased from other countries, no actual reduction of GHG emissions occurs in the nations most responsible for the current crisis. Furthermore, the overall effect would be an increase in emissions, as, for example, the US could emit gases which would not be present in the atmosphere if Russia was unable to use the units, and unable to sell them on.
It also means that another inequitable global market is established. A rich industrialised nation could afford to buy itself a monopoly position over GHG emissions; while a poor nation, already heavily exploited by foreign investment, would be locked into a position of limited industrial growth, unable to use industrial practices which cause pollution, and unable to afford expensive environmentally friendly technology, heavily protected by intellectual property rights.
d) Developing nations should be subject to the same requirements
The US is insisting that developing nations are bound by the Treaty. It is the world’s poorest nations, those who contribute least to GHG levels, who stand to be the most affected by global warming. Anwarul Chowdhury, Bangladesh’s UN Ambassador, reported “One third of the world’s most densely populated country would be flooded even with a small rise in the sea-level” (Financial Times 30.11.00). The rich nations, those responsible for global warming, are best able to afford the technology and industry alterations that are demanded in a serious effort to stem global warming. Unable to acknowledge its responsibility for the dangerously high levels of poisonous gases in the atmosphere and act accordingly as morality dictates, the US is attempting to divert responsibility for reversing global warming away from itself. Unable to afford the new technologies, the exploited nations would be forced into a position of having development terms further dictated to them. The expense of environmentally friendly technology, the only remaining option, would subject their nation to ‘aid’ through the notorious Structural Adjustment Programs – programs designed to trap ‘developing’ nations in eternal servitude.
CORPORATE INTEREST CLEAR
Corporations have a long history of influencing the environmental debate. Their role has been to detract attention away from themselves, the real polluters, and onto third world nations, whose ‘rocketing populations the earth is unable to support’, and individuals, whose ‘attitude needs to change if we are to begin to live in harmony with nature’. As preparation for the 1992 Rio Summit, representatives of monopoly capital came together as the Business Council for Sustainable Development (BCSD) and collaborated on a report entitled “Changing Course, a Global Business Perspective on Development and Environment” which insisted that environmental conservation must not be at the expense of trade and investment and which aimed to secure their role in controlling development of the third world ‘along sustainable lines’. ExxonMobil, one of the most vocal sceptics about climate change, is a main proponent of carbon sinks and similar technology, environmental alternatives which will allow its business practices to continue (Financial Times 18 April 2001).
TACTICAL DIVISIONS BETWEEN IMPERIALISTS
It is clear from the standpoints taken by the industrialised nations on global warming that imperialist governments do the bidding of big business on this issue, as always. The profit motivator is the obvious rationale behind President Bush’s strong anti-co-operation stance. Bush states that he will not do “anything that will harm our economy or hurt our American workers” (Financial Times 5.4.01). The US refusal to commit to the Kyoto Protocol as it stands is justified on the basis that Kyoto is unfair to the US. Bush outlined his views in a letter to senators in March: “As you know I oppose the Kyoto Protocol because it exempts 80 per cent of the world, including major population centres such as China and India, from compliance and would cause serious harm to the US economy” (quoted in Financial Times 30.3.01). Never mind that the US, with 4.5% of the world’s population is responsible for 22% of GHG emissions, as opposed to India, who, with 17% of the world’s population, is responsible for just 4.2% of the GHGs.
Bush is unequivocal in his refusal to co-operate in the reduction of GHG emissions, going so far as to question the relationship between GHGs and global warming, “we need to research more fully what the causes are so we can know what the solutions are” (Financial Times 30.3.01 “). While media attention focuses on Bush’s unrelenting attitude, many other Kyoto parties share the US position and would welcome such concessions under the Protocol. The governments of Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand all support concessions which place the least burden on actual reduction of emissions at home.
In the opinion of Margo Thorning, chief economist for the American Council for Capital Formation, this is precisely the advantage of US outspokenness “they want to take the heat off themselves because they know they can’t meet the Kyoto targets either…George W. Bush is the only one to say that the emperor is not wearing any clothes” (quoted in Financial Times 30.3.01). Since 1990, GHG emissions have increased in most industrialised countries, Australia by 13%, Canada by 8% and USA by 11%, meaning that the burden imposed by the Kyoto targets is even greater.
On the other hand, the EU seems to have accepted the inevitability of action on climate change. The EU has taken the lead in developing new sustainable technologies and plans to take advantage of the emission reduction requirements to lead the field in environmental solutions (and hence lead the field in the sale of these solutions!). The EU is, therefore, able to call for much tougher restrictions and wants emission reduction targets to be met largely through actual reduction of emissions at home. However, it seems clear that if Kyoto comes into force at all, it will be a much watered-down version. At COP5, the EU came very close to accepting John Prescott’s compromise proposal, which met most of the US demands.
NATURE OF CAPITALISM & IMPERIALISM EXPOSED
The failure of the industrialised world to agree on steps needed to stop the advance of global warming, and the ensuing inactivity as emission levels continue to rise and ‘natural’ disasters wreak havoc across the earth, is indicative of the nature of capitalism, where profit dictates when action will be taken. The standpoint of each of the industrialised nations in the climate change debate is based on what they stand to gain or lose economically from the Kyoto proposals. The dictates of capital mean that no one is able to step outside profit considerations to take on the co-operative international spirit required to ensure the earth remains habitable for future generations.
The willingness of the EU to take the lead on GHG reduction should be seen in the context of the rewards it seeks to gain through heading new markets for sustainable technologies. While this means that much environmental reform will take place, the availability of clean technologies will be on profit lines, and the inequitable position of the poorest nations maintained. Currently, the US does not see the same benefits in reform that the EU does, and its refusal to face its responsibilities to reduce GHGs is a result of this. Short-termism and the dictates of capital prevent urgently needed international co-operation and drastic changes to industry to ensure that our natural environment and all the life-forms it supports have a future.
The level of GHG emissions from the industrialised world (the EU and US combined are responsible for something like 45% of carbon dioxide emissions) reflects their inequitable share of the earth’s resources, which have been heavily exploited to the end of increased profit, with little thought to the environmental cost. The poorest nations find themselves most vulnerable to the effects of global warming as their resources are stretched beyond capacity in their struggle to meet the demands of the west. Aid and technology come at the price of increased foreign control of resources, a loss of independence and crippling debt.
INTERNATIONAL SPIRIT NEEDED TO OVERCOME ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS
The poorest nations, who contribute least to GHG levels are the most vulnerable in the face of disasters caused by an environment out of balance. The richest nations, who have benefited from the extraction and exploitation of the mass of the earth’s resources, and are responsible for its devastating consequences, will, for a while at least, escape its worst effects. Our earth will not distinguish deserved and undeserved as it reacts to the stress it has been placed under by misuse and greedy handling of its resources. This is why an international spirit of co-operation is needed to overcome the effects of global warming. The countries who stand to be most affected by global warming need assistance, immediately and unconditionally, so that they can meet the challenges that face them. Those nations responsible for the current crisis need to take the lead in reversing the pollution trend. It is a system which is guided solely by profit which is responsible for the elusive agreement and action. Contrast the attitudes of the industrialised nations with those of socialist Cuba, as stated by Castro in his speech at the 1992 Rio World Summit: “I would like to make it clear that Cuba has come to this meeting with the decided will to contribute with all its might to achieving the goals that have brought us together, with the conviction that all the efforts we make in favour of these objectives is a concrete guarantee of our future”