Is 'Contraction and Convergence' the Answer to Climate Change?

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C&C promises to deliver the alchemists’ dream of saving the environment without disturbing capitalism too much. Not only do the rich get to stay rich, but world poverty is eliminated into the bargain.

by Roy Wilkes
From Socialist Resistance, March-April 2007

When Tony Blair said recently that he won’t be cutting back on his own long haul holiday flights, and that others shouldn’t either, his excuse was that there’s no point in us cutting our greenhouse gas emissions unless other countries cut theirs too. Britain is only responsible for 2% of global emissions, according to Blair (although even that is a gross underestimate, particularly if the overseas emissions of British corporations are taken into account), so without a binding treaty any unilateral action would be a meaningless gesture. “Even if we shut down all of Britain’s emissions tomorrow,” said Blair, “the growth in China will make up the difference within two years.”

Of course, emissions do need to be massively reduced on a world scale, and reduced quickly, but can a treaty between capitalist governments deliver the level of cuts we need? Kyoto certainly hasn’t, and not only because of the US failure to ratify. But can a better treaty be negotiated? There is a growing trend within the environmental movement to promote Contraction and Convergence (C&C) as the only viable successor to Kyoto.

The C&C model was first developed about ten years ago by Aubrey Meyer of the British Green Party. Its main advocates in Britain are the Global Commons Institute (CGI), which was co-founded by Meyer in 1990, the Green Party and Climate Justice, a student based campaign emanating from Oxford University.

The detail of the model is quite complex, with calculations based on quartics and fifth order simultaneous equations. But the basic idea is simple enough. The first step, ‘contraction’, would mean adopting a ‘safe’ target CO2 concentration level and then setting global annual emission levels which should take the atmosphere progressively towards that target.

The second step is ‘convergence’. Each country is assigned annual allowances which decline linearly, starting from actual emission levels as they stood in 2000, and converging to a common level of per-capita emissions in the target year (which has yet to be decided, although 2045 is favoured by the Green Party because of its symbolic significance as the UN centenary year).

The C&C package is based on an emissions-trading mechanism, whereby high emitters (i.e. the advanced capitalist countries) can buy emission rights from low emitting countries, thus transferring wealth from the rich to the poor, while at the same time allowing the high emitters sufficient time to painlessly alter their behaviour. It therefore promises a ‘smooth and equitable transition to a safe level of global CO2 emissions.’ Monitoring and enforcement would be in the hands of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

So there we have it. C&C promises to deliver the alchemists’ dream of saving the environment without disturbing capitalism too much. Indeed, the market comes to the planet’s rescue under this scheme, like a belated knight in shining armour, by providing the incentives we all need to deliver clean production. Not only do the rich get to stay rich, but world poverty is eliminated into the bargain.

At first sight this model seems like a simple and elegant means of reducing carbon emissions in an equitable way. But unfortunately it fails to recognise the realities not only of market capitalism but also of international diplomacy. Establishing a framework for emission cuts is not simply a mathematical or even a technical exercise; it is profoundly political.The first objection to C&C is that there simply isn’t enough time to put it in place. Diplomats are expert at stalling and delaying anything which is perceived to run counter to their own country’s ‘national interest’, as we’ve seen with the negotiations leading up to Kyoto. The more powerful the nation, the more its diplomats will delay. But nature doesn’t recognise the rules of international diplomacy. James Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and widely considered to be the world’s foremost climatologist, reckons we’ve got at most 10 years to deliver serious cuts in emissions, otherwise we face catastrophe.Not only will the rich countries delay any agreement, they will also water down its target, or even sabotage it completely. We’ve seen this already with Kyoto, which ended up aiming for a pathetic 5.2% reduction by 2012. And even then the Bush government refused to ratify the protocol on the grounds that by excluding the developing economies it was unfair to the USA. The advocates of C&C suggest that their scheme would undermine this argument, since all countries are included. But do they really believe that the US won’t find some other excuse to avoid signing a treaty that would demand emission cuts far greater than those required under Kyoto? The real reason for Bush’s refusal to ratify had nothing to do with ‘fairness.’ It was purely and simply about defending the giants of American capitalism.However fair and equitable an emission cutting scheme may appear to be, it will undoubtedly run foul of the big corporations, and especially the giant automobile, fossil fuel, armaments and aerospace industries, all of whom have literally hundreds of billions of dollars sunk into existing capital stock. Any wholesale switch to renewables and away from automobiles and aviation will seriously damage those investments, and the corporations won’t take that lying down. They will resist, and they will use their extensive lobbying powers to ensure that no capitalist government signs any treaty that will damage their vested interests (which will of course be presented as ‘national’ interests.) We have to be prepared to confront those vested interests, not pander to them.But the most serious flaw of C&C is that it is based on carbon trading, which turns carbon emissions into a commodity and effectively privatises the carbon cycle. We’ve already seen an example of this with the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Under corporate pressure, governments massively over-allocated emissions permits to the heaviest polluting industries. This caused the price of carbon to drop by more than 60%, creating even more disincentives for industries to lower their emissions at source. Market analyst Franck Schuttellar estimated that in the scheme’s first year, the UK’s most polluting industries earned collectively £940m in windfall profits from generous ETS allocations. The reality is that capitalists will only cut greenhouse gas emissions if it is profitable for them to do so, and if there is a choice between cutting emissions or raising profits they will choose profits every time. And that is simply unacceptable.

Indeed, relying on the market to resolve the environmental crisis is nothing less than collective suicide. It is based on a deep cynicism, a belief that the only motivating force for developing renewable technologies and a sustainable economy is the profit motive, i.e. individual greed. It should be obvious that the drive for unlimited growth and individual enrichment that lies at the heart of capitalism is the primary cause of the environmental crisis and not its solution.

Furthermore, sewing illusions in the potential of international treaties and the capitalist market to resolve the environmental crisis demobilizes the movement. Our activities are restricted to lobbying politicians, trying to reduce our individual ‘carbon footprints’, and ultimately praying for an international treaty.

So what strategy should we be pursuing instead? First and foremost we need to build up a powerful and militant mass movement that directs its fire at our own government, while at the same time establishing close links with other environmental movements around the world. Rather than playing into the hands of Tony Blair and his ilk by allowing them to hold out for an international treaty, we should be demanding urgent unilateral action to reduce Britain’s own extraction and consumption of fossil fuels. That would of course necessitate a massive expansion of energy conservation measures, renewable energy (principally wind and solar,) and public transportation. It would also require the scrapping and subsequent reversal of all airport and road expansion plans, and the suppression of all unnecessary and harmful production, especially in the arms, automobile, fossil fuel, aerospace and advertising industries.

We also need to break the imperialist war alliance and replace it with an international alliance of working people, an alliance that rejects war, rivalry and competition between nations. The ‘war on terror’, which is in large part a scramble for oil, is both devastating to the environment and an obscene waste of resources.

And instead of relying on the market to transfer resources to the underdeveloped countries, we should demand that our government cancels all third world debt and provides massive no-strings-attached direct aid (both technical and financial) in order to help develop renewable energy sources in those countries. The funding for such aid could easily be raised by redirecting ‘defense’ expenditure and by imposing a Tobin tax on international finance capital (a tax on every currency transaction). We should also demand the suppression of ‘intellectual property rights’, so that new sustainable technologies are available for all instead of being monopolized by individual profit-hungry corporations.

The first priority of every capitalist government, Tony Blair’s included, is to maintain the competitiveness (i.e. the profitability) of the capitalist corporations within its own economy. Anything else, including cutting greenhouse gas emissions, will always take second place. Contraction and Convergence, by basing itself on a market mechanism, implicitly accepts this imperative. But there is a fundamental incompatibility between profitability and sustainability. If we must choose between capitalism and survival, we should choose survival. And in making that choice we must be prepared to fight as hard for the survival of our species as the capitalists do for the survival of their profits.


  • At 10:46 PM, April 01, 2007, Aubrey Meyer said…The challenge of human causation of climate change has raised the stakes in questions of human destiny.The issue of where we came from is now rather pointededly over-taken by the issue of where we are going to. The prognosis is not reassuring. What we would regard as ‘catastrophe’ with rapid non-linear climate change does have precendents [see e.g. Permian Extinction 251MBP – Benton].Answering questions of any kind requires judgement, and the climate-question is no exception.Doing the right things for the wrong reasons is as futile now as doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.Tougher still – doing the right thing for the right reasons is as elusive as ever.Engaging with this invites a deepening understanding of ‘self’ [collective and individual] and puts on trial questions and judgements about identity and motivation for *all* of us – i.e. who is asking: what questions: for what reasons; for whose benefit; with what expectations; and so on and so – Just like the right, leftist role-play is roll-play until the unitary structure of the dice is understood.To ask the right questions for the right reasons and then [more difficult] give the right answers for the right reasons is a challenge to us all.Here clearly it remains a challenge to which the author of this article [by Mr Roy Wilkes of the Socialist Resistance] has not yet in my judgement convincingly risen. There is no numbers-based assessment in this critique that indicates how the author thinks about organising and quantifying what needs to be done in the samll time-space left to us all [humanity], if dangerous rates of climate change [runaway] is to be avoided.It is disappointing to see that, while analysis from the left tends to be correctly focused by and critical of reactionary behaviour – i.e. behaviour focused more on effect than on cause, more on profit than capital – this article mimics the very thing of which it is so critical – the randomness and inequity of ‘markets’.Frequently – and certainly here – the policy analysis and the policy demands lack coherent rationale and are just that, *reactionary*. A look at GCI’s C&C reference material [we are the origin of this position – rather than the trivia circulated about it [CornerHouse] will reveal the source of the argumentation and in turn the source of the reasoning.When more attention is paid to this and the rates of change and the rising risks of *everything* being destryoed by climate change, it is obvious that Capitalism no less than the Socialist Resistance, will be destroyed by unless fundamental change in human structures is organised by humans.The problem is *unfettered growth*, not ideology and *capitalism* per se. The *solution* [if there is one] requires numeracy about limits and sharing under limits.C&C in this article in the author’s phrase-of-error is – ‘based on trade’. This is untrue and is not said or even suggested in the GCI references for C&C he cites at the GCI is a mooted framework-based constitutional structure rooted in the science of climate change and limits in which and subject to a market could operate if necessary.The latter depends on the former [not vice versa] – in other words the market depends on the framework and is meaningless without it [which is what Mr Wilkes has presumed in error]. Please think about this before you respond.Some evidence for whichs is at: Analysis above should work – please test – in a Quicktime Player.The file below works in an MS Web Browser [Logos touch-sensitive to advance through scenes] Wilkes and his colleagues will be more effective in their engagement, if avoiding dangerous rates of climate change is the ‘success’ he seeks, if they subject themselves to a little more discipline and a less error. This will come more from identity with rationale than with the comfort-zone of reactionary rhetoric and decoys resistance.As is, this piece simply projects powerlessness and wastes opportunity and talent.Aubrey MeyerGCI