UN Climate Report Says Corporate Polluters Can Save Us

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by Zane Alcorn & Zoe Kenny

From Green Left Weekly, 11 May 2007

On May 5, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its final working group report, the third in a series, as a part of its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), aimed at evaluating global warming. The IPCC published its first assessment report in 1990, a supplementary report in 1992, a second assessment report in 1995, and a third in 2001.

The third AR4 report, entitled “Mitigating Climate Change. Summary for Policy Makers” was approved by government representatives from 105 countries at a conference in Bangkok, and discusses the economic costs of curbing climate change.

Instead of providing a clear, unambiguous program of action to combat global warming, the report presents a highly speculative perspective based on marked-based gradualism and techno-fixes.

Where the IPCC should be saying to governments “act now, spend whatever it takes” to counter the catastrophic effects of global warming predicted in the two earlier AR4 reports, in its “summary for policy makers” in effect says, “let the market take care of it, find the ‘least cost’ solution”.

The report presents a rosy picture of the world being able to avoid the worst effects of global warming with a little tinkering here and a little tweaking there. Not surprisingly, this message has been welcomed by the corporate media.

Yet there is little questioning of the overarching assumption in the report that supposedly makes this reassuring scenario possible — in order to get “the market” (the profit-driven corporations that produce greenhouse gases), to “gravitate” towards low-carbon technologies and practices will require a “universal emissions trading scheme” and a price on carbon emissions of up to US$100 a tonne.

But no such global emissions trading scheme exists, largely because of Washington and Canberra’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and there is now abundant evidence from the European Unions emissions trading scheme (ETS) that shows that emissions trading simply doesn’t work to reduce greenhouse gas (GHC) emission levels. During the first phase of the ETS, the biggest polluters, the electricity supply companies and the big industrial corporations made windfall profits while continuing with business-as-usual.

The ETS’s “carbon market” crash in early 2006 also illustrates the volatility of trading in CO2 emissions even on a relatively small scale (25 countries) let alone on a global scale. There is simply no evidence to suggest that “putting a market price on carbon” is a reliable or fast way to reduce GHC emissions — which is exactly what is needed to “mitigate” global warming.

By assuming that a price on CO2 emissions will create an “even playing field” for low- or non-CO2 emitting technologies, the IPCC is able to avoid recommending a clear course of action for governments.

The report plays down the massive government investment, particularly into renewables, that would be needed to rapidly turn the situation around. It recommends that at most 0.12% of GDP be invested in combatting global warming each year over the next 25 years. For a rich country like Australia with a GDP of $666 billion, this would only amount to about $660 million per year — a tiny amount compared to the $10 billion Canberra channels to fossil fuel-dependent industries each year.

Melbourne-based climate group Beyond Zero Emissions estimates that to transition Victoria alone to renewable energy would cost about $22 billion.

Rich countries should also be generously helping poorer countries cut their CO2 emissions, a task that necessitates greater government spending than 0.12% of GDP. However the IPCC only mentions the Kyoto Protocol’s clean development mechanism as a lever to encourage renewables investment in poor countries. The mechanism seeks to provide “incentives” to rich-country corporations, via GHG pollution credits, to invest in projects that claim to reduce GHG emissions in underdeveloped countries. The evidence so far is that many of these projects are of questionable benefit, may have taken place anyway or have other serious environmental impacts.

The report downplays the role of some of the best technologies (like renewables) while inserting a host of “market friendly” technologies like biofuels, carbon capture and storage (CCS), nuclear energy and “market friendly” mechanisms like carbon trading, and tax credits and financial incentives to corporate polluters.

The report notes that “resistance by vested interests may make [changing energy supply to low emissions technologies such as renewables] difficult to implement”, but accepts this as a “key constraint” on what can be achieved. Thus, it proposes that governments give big financial concessions to the fossil-fuel producing corporations (by promoting CCS as part of the solution to GHG emissions), the nuclear industry, and agribusiness (by promoting mass biofuel crop harvesting).

CCS for coal, natural gas and biomass is predicted by the IPCC to be commercialised by 2030 along with renewables like concentrated solar thermal, wave and tidal. However the EU’s January 2007 World Energy Technology Outlook report predicts that if the large-scale roll-out of renewables only occurs by 2030 this would be too late to stop catastrophic climate change.

Nuclear energy is promoted in the IPCC report as a “key mitigation technology currently commercially available”, thus ignoring the massive GHG emissions from mining and refining uranium and constructing nuclear plants. Nuclear power is recommended by the IPCC to grow globally from 16% currently to 18% of global power consumption by 2030, a paltry contribution to emissions reductions. The report correctly identifies “safety, weapons proliferation and waste” as “constraints” on the use of nuclear power.

The IPCC recommends “dedicated energy crops to replace fossil fuel use” and “use of forestry products for bioenergy to replace fossil fuel use”. While both of these practices do have some limited application (such as when using waste biomass from necessary and sustainably managed forestry and agriculture), the report does not clarify this point, leaving the impression that they can be used on a wide scale to cut GHG emissions.

Already, large tracts of farmland are being used in underdeveloped countries to grow (often genetically modified and monoculture planted) biofuel crops at the expense of food crops.

The IPCC report acknowledges that technologies already exist to tackle climate change and that there is a lack of political will by governments to massively invest in these technologies. But it is completely silent as to why there is such an overwhelming lack of political will. Could it be that the 1000 billionaires who own the few hundred big industrial and financial corporations that dominate the world’s economy make most of their money from GHG-intensive operations?

At no point does the IPCC identify the fact that halting global GHG emissions is guaranteed to sever the arterial flow of corporate profits that is the lifeblood of the wealthiest people on the planet, the people who bankroll the major political parties in the “market (pseudo)-democracies” of North America, Europe, Japan and Australia.

In failing to identify the unavoidably political nature of the task of combatting global warming, the IPCC’s final AR4 report fails to provide any effective plan to overcome the political obstacles to a future with a safely stabilised climate. Its message is, the system that is producing catastrophic climate change can be trusted to halt it, when the accumulated facts show that this is a problem whose solution requires an urgent and radical change in the global political and economic system.