Climate Change CO2lonialism

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By Tim Forsyth and Zoe Young

From Mute magazine – Culture and politics after the net

According to Tony Blair, the climate change debate is ‘finally over.’ Who can dismiss the economic arguments of the Stern Report on Climate Change? Only a Channel 4 controversialist or two, perhaps, and a few (mainly oil-funded) scientists. The bigger policy debate, about who should carry the burden of tackling the problem, should now begin. Instead, however, there seems to be consensus among global elites about where to start (be afraid, be very afraid … but always trust the government), how to address the challenge (change development patterns in the South to ‘offset’ carbon emissions produced by business as usual in the North), and who is responsible (mainly you and me). Real doubts and arguments are suppressed while market-friendly ‘solutions’ are served up on a nice, glossy plate. Last time western Greens had the ear of their governments it lead to the creation of the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility (GEF). Today, this ‘new green order’ is still evolving before our fearful, blinkered eyes.

This ‘order’ limits space for collective rethinking of energy, production or consumption policies. There is no room to challenge the political assumptions that inform them nor the pattern of investment in public energy infrastructure. Mainstream ‘climate’ discourse focuses instead on marginal interventions such as switching to more efficient light bulbs and expanding pine plantations. For as long as the ‘logic’ of capitalist economic expansion remains unchallenged, it seems hardly possible for high energy-consuming societies to adapt in time to escape a grim Malthusian fate. But Malthus wanted to be proved wrong, and if brave, we still could be.

According to the first assessment in 1990 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific body responsible for assessing recent research into climate change, Green House Gas (GHG) emissions had to be reduced by 60 percent below then current levels in order to prevent dangerous climate change. In 1999, Greenpeace said that only about 25 percent of declared fossil fuel reserves can safely be burnt; the New Economics Foundation noted in 2006 that the demand reduction required in the oil sector is now five or six times that resulting from the OPEC oil price hike of the 1970s. Even the Stern Report, with its ‘old economy’ rationale, noted this year that

the stocks of hydrocarbons that are profitable to extract [under current policies] are more than enough to take the world to levels of greenhouse gas concentrations well beyond 750 parts per million of carbon dioxide [a ‘safe’ level has been set as 450ppm].

If governments were to follow the advice of these experts they might work less from the premise of what big business wants today than from a calculation of how much oil, coal and gas can still safely be burnt, and then allocate the remaining energy across our species’ basic needs: food, shelter, warmth, fresh water, health care, sanitation, security and a minimum of entertainment and travel for all.

Instead, the Kyoto Protocol is the main international agreement to address the threat of anthropogenic climate change. If you read the BBC News website or The Independent newspaper, you would think that supporting Kyoto is an acid test of green credentials. But what would Kyoto achieve, were it fully implemented? Signed in 1997, it came into force in 2005, and committed the world’s industrialised countries to reducing greenhouse gas emissions just 5.2 percent by 2012. Now the USA and Australia have pulled out, and only a few European countries are likely to achieve their target.

Debate about how to achieve even these minimal reductions is barely off the starting blocks. We now know it is up to us to use alternative light bulbs, green energy companies etc., or even to offset our emissions on the carbon market. Meanwhile, tax and subsidy incentives for big companies to shunt ever more goods around the world in pursuit of comparative commercial advantage remain in place, and publicly funded international financial institutions such as the World Bank still invest billions of dollars in oil and gas development – many times more than they devote to energy efficiency measures or renewable energy technologies.

Radicals have no effective space other than the streets in which to challenge the elite’s preference for economic growth at all costs. Interim mechanisms designed to ‘do something’ and yet still maintain the political status quo are constantly renewed and re-advertised. Each is shown to be as empty as the last (for example, the GEF, inaugurated at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, is underfunded and now almost forgotten – despite its claims to the contrary) while ever more glossy ‘solutions’ emerge.

The latest of these is the market in emissions ‘indulgences’ for the energetically sinful. The ‘flexible mechanisms’ of the Kyoto Protocol include so called ‘Emissions Trading’ between industrialised countries that have agreed to set targets for reduction. In this system, Russia and the Ukraine were allowed 0 percent growth on their 1990 levels. At present, these countries now emit about 25 percent less CO2 than in 1990 because of deindustrialisation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under ‘Emissions Trading’, Russia and Ukraine can ‘sell’ this 25 percent reduction to governments who continue to pollute, as if it reflected genuine energy saving and reduced emissions. Critics call this the ‘hot air’ problem, the exchange of certificates for reductions that would have happened anyway. Overall energy use – and hence GHG emission – is not reduced thanks to this highly flexible mechanism.

Other ‘climate-friendly’ investments are available under schemes called Joint Implementation (JI) and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). These allow industrialised countries to achieve some emission targets by investing in renewable energy or plantation forestry abroad. (JI is investment between industrialised countries; CDM involves investment from North to South).

The idea is that policy should encourage emission-reducing investments wherever they are cheapest. This logic is valid on some levels, but can be criticised for picking the ‘low hanging fruit’. Unfortunately, many such projects are also not properly monitored, and who knows what happens to the ‘benefits’ once the initial, publicly advertised phase is over. Fixing carbon into soil and forest plantations is not straightforward and requires fast-growing trees with little disturbance; usually monocultures, requiring high water, fertiliser and pesticide inputs to survive, with all the social and environmental consequences implied.

Some critics suggest that offset forestry’s ability to absorb carbon can be exaggerated because protecting, or planting, forests in one region may displace deforestation to other regions. It is also not always clear that the companies involved have full rights to the land – in Brazil for example, ownership of much of the land used for plantations is contested since the time of the dictatorships, if not the original conquistadors. Executed cheaply by companies who make a business out of pulp or charcoal, such plantations tie up land into a forest monoculture that would otherwise be wild nature with all its joys and benefits, or used for vital agricultural development.

These topics have provoked intense emotions, and popular resistance. One climate change negotiator from an African country angrily told participants at a London meeting, ‘Our countries are not toilets for your emissions!’. Farmers, ecologists and trade unionists in South America have formed the ‘Alert Against the Green Desert’ network and take action to counter conversion of large areas of land to plantations.

Some political intentions underlying carbon-offset forestry are fairly clear. The environmental writer, Larry Lohmann, reported a US Department of Energy official as saying ‘tree planting will allow US energy policy to go on with business as usual out to 2015.’ Rightly or wrongly, these statements create fear that more industrialised countries are not interested in addressing climate change, or in encouraging ‘development-friendly’ investment in the South. Various critics say carbon forestry is ‘CO2lonialism’. Some southern governments, notably Costa Rica, have welcomed forestry-based projects; their potential for creating rural livelihoods, or playing a part in a climate policy portfolio, should not be dismissed. But forestry in itself is not going to bring about real change.

At the end of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth he lists ten simple action points. These include using less hot water, recycling more, driving less, and planting a tree, with the advice that ‘a single tree will absorb a ton of CO2 over its lifetime.’ But some wise elders in Britain may remember the phrase, ‘Plant a tree in ‘73’ – and if it didn’t stop climate change back then, why should it do so now?

Lester Brown of the Worldwatch institute said in 2005:

If [China] consumes paper at the same rate we [in the US] do, it will consume twice as much paper as the world is now producing. There go the world’s forests. If the Chinese then have three cars for every four people – as the US does today – they would have a fleet of 1.1 billion cars, compared to the current world fleet of 800 million.

Clearly, policies adopted in China will be crucial. But portraying this country as the problem seems to give credibility to the belief that industrialisation is a club only for the richer world.

Western governments’ climate change policy should probably stop evaluating success in terms of reducing the level of GHG in the atmosphere. Seeking to reduce hypothetical concentrations without understanding the local impacts of these projects will simply undermine the political accord necessary to move forward together.

The same problem occurs with the Stern Report which, like many economic projections, uses a ‘discount rate’ to calculate the cost of future damage from climate change today. This assumes a conformity in the effect of climate change on different populations, and overlooks the way that palliative projects may create problems of their own. Powerful figures such as Nicholas Stern might be advised to stop treating climate change as a universal risk, addressed by general reductions in energy use or emissions generation, and instead seek more equitable solutions that reduce real people’s risk of living a degraded existence.

The Executive Board of the CDM has often argued that investments in industrial technology are preferable to simply sequestering CO2. For example, many companies have sought financial support under the CDM for flaring methane gas from landfills (methane has a global warming potential 23 times the value of CO2, and so flaring may mitigate climate change by effectively converting methane to CO2). But critics suggest that flaring misses the opportunity to use this gas for local heat or electricity generation. Under the Kyoto Protocol, there are no obvious incentives for such moves. Rather, all CDM projects have to pay 2 percent of profits towards an ‘Adaptation Fund’, money for long-term developments such as reducing vulnerability to sea-level rise. Some critics consider this fund too small; others see it not as an incentive to make CDM projects more development-friendly but as a tax on CDM investment.

Finally, realism about the role of national targets for reducing emissions is important. Many green supporters of Kyoto feel the treaty is useful because it legally binds governments to reduce emissions. But some governments – notoriously the USA under George Bush – have pulled out, ostensibly because the targets are not applied to all countries. Under Bill Clinton, the US had been central to negotiating targets that were too weak anyway, and the ‘flexible mechanisms’ that undermine measures to reduce emissions at source. Most importantly, rapidly industrialising countries such as China and India may well not agree to limit and reduce emissions.

Many companies and NGOs still entertain romantic visions of a carbon offset forestry replacing lost rainforests; and treat politically – rather than scientifically – agreed national targets as the only effective means to reduce emissions. But rather than idealising these, perhaps governments should impose targets for industry and consumers to seek a safe proportion of their energy from renewable sources, and to improve energy efficiency. Such targets would encourage innovation and new investment, which reduces the costs of safer technologies in the longer term. In a context of imminent (or recently passed) ‘peak oil’ production, a member of the UN Climate Change Secretariat noted privately that ‘climate change is like god – if it did not exist, it would have to be invented’. This reflects the urgency of the shifts in energy policy and investment which the threat of climate change could, or should, be provoking.

Why should governments, supposedly working for the good of the people, perpetuate economic analysis and environmental policy that assume and play to the brutish, marketised and greedy side of our nature, and avoid the major changes needed to adapt our societies in the face of the depletion of finite resources? Where is the faith that humans can work together to adapt and seek more equitable solutions to collective problems?

Rather than devising ‘solutions’ to climate change that work only inside the very same market system that got us into this hole, a better approach may be to stop digging altogether. As a species we certainly have the ingenuity to make our governments adopt responses that do not impose new problems on poorer, less adaptable countries while maintaining big business’ record profits. Rather, assisting all citizens to live more sustainable and comfortable lives would mean accepting that the debate about collective responses to the threat of climate change is not ‘over’, but still only just beginning.

Tim Forsyth (t.j.Forsyth AT is a writer and lecturer at the London School of Economics. He is author of International Investment and Climate Change, Earthscan, London, 1999Zoe Young (zoe AT is a freelance researcher, writer and filmmaker. She is author of A New Green Order? The World Bank and the Politics of the Global Environment Facility, Pluto, London, 2002Further information



  • Are Used cars really the problem, compare them with 1000’s of factories that emit emissions totalling of up to 1000’s of cars for each factory.

  • from Jaderockgreen: [the first ‘anonymous’ comment above] Alright we know that if Imperialism was removed all would be more hopeful – but HOW we get that elephant out of the kitchen is the real problem! My point is that middle class consciences might at least make a start on this by looking at a worldwide equal fair ration, this might show: 1. It wouldn’t really be so bad to share all we have 2. Lead to a beginning of a critique of modern colonialism with its HOME: Consumerism (the ‘bread’ has become also the ‘circus’), Social Democracy and Middle classness against COLONIAL: Starvation, Puppet rulers, peasant/working class (we are very like Victorian Britain gone global plus with South – North reversed.The Victorians used colonial wealth to engender Social Democracy (Lenin) but after globalisation there are no more new colonies – very interesting…). Once an equal world ration is accepted as a starting target it can be fine tuned to a sustainable footprint. [it might be like Cuba: great: abundance of doctors, teachers, music, cyclists, even hairdressers, just less meat, airmiles and car-use. Suits me!]

  • Try you can see that you can’t even live sustainably at the levels you are talking about. If capitalism is removed we can begin to organize society and technology to meet human needs, including sustainability. Until then the profit motive will continue to eat the earth. Our ‘lifestyles’ are produced by the need to maintain profit margins, we must reorganize not only our lifestyles but also our epistimology.

  • Your comments re if Chinese used cars like Americans do the result would be lethal etc. It would be interesting to list what in fact is the fair and equal ration for each of us even at present levels of world production – maybe private car 2 days/week 150 miles max., 2 newspapers/wk, 2 hrs. flying time/year, 200 gm meat/wk, 3 apples/wk etc. This would give us a self-critical baseline (do it or shut up!), a sense of what the planet can afford us all as a world-family, a feeling that maybe it wouldn’t be that bad (the shared level would probably equal Cuba now)and such a lifestyle would make us a lot healthier!