Poznan Climate Talks: Fiddling While the Earth Burns

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The UN Climate Conference failed to achieve any breakthrough towards a global climate deal — a sign not merely of bad timing, but of a flawed system that takes no account of climate justice

By Oscar Reyes

From rabble.ca

Eleven thousand delegates (including 1,500 corporate lobbyists), 13,000 tonnes of carbon consumed, and two weeks wasted: the UN Climate Change Conference in Poznan, Poland made only glacial progress towards a new global climate treaty, due to be signed a year from now in Copenhagen.

“It’s going to take at least a riot to make any difference to the extraordinarily slow progress,” joked Henry Derwent, CEO of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) at one side event in the conference venue. If things carry on at this pace, he should be careful what he wishes for.

Hard to spin this failure

From binding global emissions targets to the limits of the carbon market, none of the main issues tabled at Poznan were resolved — and the more pressing discussion on how to leave fossil fuels in the ground went entirely untouched.

The “biggest achievement of Poznan,” according to Poland’s environment minister Maciej Nowicki, who chaired the talks, was the start of the UN´s Adaptation Fund, which is designed to help the poorest countries tackle the severe effects of climate change that they are already experiencing.

But it is hard to spin this failure as a success. With financial bailouts currently running into the trillions, the Fund’s starting figure of $80 million a year is derisory — even the UN’s own modest calculations talk of $28-67 billion per year needed for adaptation by 2030.

The most optimistic interpretation that can be put on the Poznan conference was that the timing was bad. While delegates there were talking themselves to a standstill, French President Nicolas Sarkozy (who currently holds the EU Presidency) was ratcheting up air miles in a mission to agree a watered down EU climate policy. The U.S. sent a lame duck delegation to Poznan with a mandate to agree to nothing.

Canada makes excuses

Other industrialized countries followed suit. Canada loudly made excuses — variously ‘waiting’ for the U.S., China, India and Brazil to act — but was silent on its rush to exploit the Alberta tar sands, arguably the most environmentally destructive source of energy on the planet.

Japan, meanwhile, provided a comic turn when its lead delegate explained his country’s commitment to technological innovation in terms of his own personal commitment to reduce his number of weekend showers from eight to three.

Deeper reasons than just timing explain the failure at Poznan, though. The current pattern of each country or bloc waiting for the others to show its hand will not continue indefinitely, but the tendency to treat climate talks as trade negotiations is unlikely to change. Moreover, there remain a series of fundamental problems that are extremely unlikely to be addressed at Copenhagen.

Class interests stall climate progress

One of the most basic stumbling blocks is intrinsic to the UN negotiating process itself — where the intergovernmental bias pits one country or bloc against another, with each defending a conception of ‘national interest’ that reflects elite class interests above the needs of the whole population.

In Poznan, this meant that Indigenous peoples and forest communities were shut out of discussions on deforestation — and continue to be denied any status parties to the negotiation — even as negotiators discussed how to commodify their land in the form of ‘forest carbon.’

The flip side of the same coin is that the corporate influence on the talks grows stronger by the year. The largest non-governmental organization at Poznan was IETA, while roughly half of the event space within the conference grounds was ‘privatized.’  The result is that public interest organizations are being squeezed, even as corporations are courted with their own ‘Business Day’ offering privileged access to negotiators, senior officials and ministers.

The issue is not simply one of who negotiates or has access, however, but of how those discussions are framed. Instead of seeing climate change as a cross-cutting issue, negotiations are parceled up into obscure sub-committees of sub-committees, which then further sub-divide the debate into an acronym soup of technicalities and private language games.

For those wanting to follow the process, the main negotiations are currently take place in an Ad Hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action (AWGLCA), which talks about ‘shared vision’ and ‘long-term goal’ — in other words, what targets are needed for emissions reductions globally, who will be bound by these and what structures will be put in place to ensure they are reached.

The complexity of the negotiations cannot be explained by a reliance on scientific evidence either, since not only the solutions offered but even the scenarios discussed at the UN are inadequate to the scale of the climate crisis. While there is growing scientific evidence that 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere is a safe level at which to stabilize the climate, the scenarios under discussion tend to start only at 450 ppm — and these further flatten out the unpredictability of ‘slow feedback mechanisms’ in an effort to create graphs that policymakers can digest.

Free market keeps emissions patterns ‘locked in’

Even then, optimistic graphs plotting a course to tackling climate change only bring us so far. While scenarios for emissions reductions show sweeping downward curves, the pattern of existing emissions all points in the opposite direction.

The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2008, for example, points to a growing energy demand of 1.6 per cent per year on average between 2006 and 2030 — an increase of 45 per cent. Emissions from agriculture and transport are growing even more rapidly.

These are structural problems relating to how we produce energy and food globally, and which are ‘locked in’ by — amongst other factors — a pattern of continued investment in fossil fuel based energy infrastructure, a food system based on large-scale industrialized agriculture and a free market model that increases the gap between where products are produced and consumed.

Yet instead of considering how to address these major drivers of the climate crisis, the UN climate regime accommodates itself to the continuation of this ‘business as usual,’ translating the climate crisis into a problem of market failure which it then looks to the market to resolve.

Kyoto relies on the market to solve climate crisis

The Kyoto Protocol, agreed in 1998 as the main international instrument for addressing climate change, is a case in point. At its heart lies a system of carbon trading, a multi-billion dollar scheme whose basic premise is that polluters can pay someone else to clean up their mess so that they don’t have to.

The premise is that the ‘hidden hand’ of the market will then provide a guide to the cheapest emissions cuts. But this kind of economic efficiency is generally not what is the best for the climate. Such a market abstracts from the source of emissions — from mines to factories — to a commodity called ‘carbon.’ In the process, reductions from industrial sources are rendered equivalent to activities like tree planting (‘sinks,’ in the jargon) — a scientific nonsense, which as a side-effect has seen the international debate framed in predominantly financial terms.

The price of this commodity is then set by the market itself, but this is driven by speculation rather than ecological fundamentals. What we are left with is a climate regime that is built around the same failed system that led to the recent financial collapse.

The problems with carbon trading in general are then compounded by the specific ‘offset’ mechanism that lies at the heart of the UN’s largest carbon market scheme, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). This was initially billed as a means to drive sustainable investment in countries without binding emissions targets. Yet in practice, it has amounted to a zero-sum game for counting dubious ‘emission reduction’ projects in the global South as a reduction in the North.

By various extraordinary conjuring tricks, investments in large dams in China, coal plants and pig-iron factories in India and palm oil refineries in Indonesia are treated as if they were the same as emissions reductions in Europe, Canada or Japan. The assumption that such expenditure is ‘additional,’ and therefore counts as a reduction — has been shown time and again to be bogus. One recent survey by International Rivers, a non-governmental organisation, found that 76 per cent of projects were already completed by the time they were approved as eligible for the scheme.

In social terms, the CDM is also a disaster. Billed as a means of transferring cash for development, it has basically just outsourced the task of reducing emissions — with transfers going almost exclusively to large corporations, rather than affected communities.

To take just one example, the Allain Duhangan Dam in the Indian Himalayas was approved for CDM registration in May 2007, despite the fact that the the Office of the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman of the World Bank verified that the project developer had not ensured enough irrigation and drinking water for affected villages. The project was also temporarily halted and fined for blatant violations of Indian forest conservation law due to illegal felling of trees, dumping of waste and road construction. (For more cases, see www.carbontradewatch.org)

Climate justice is essential

Which brings us, finally, to the most fundamental failure in the international climate regime: its lack of justice. Climate change is not a problem caused by ‘humanity’ in general. It has been driven by the overexploitation of resources by one part of humanity for over 250 years, when Northern countries (and, at a later point in history, the former Soviet bloc) industrialized their economies on the basis of cheap energy prices.

Climate justice means that these same countries should shoulder the responsibility for fixing the problem. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) itself refers to ‘common but differentiated responsibilities,’ but unless this is taken seriously then there may be no deal in Copenhagen — or, even worse, a bad deal that exacerbates the climate divide rather than closing it.

Oscar Reyes is a researcher with Carbon Trade Watch, a project of the Transnational Institute, and environment editor of Red Pepper magazine.



  • Basically I feel our situation is hopeless and the core reality that is impelling us to destruction is that we are ruled by a tiny, psychopathic, elite. The rulers of the planet are plainly not only insane, but spiritually evil. This has always been so, but in the past their depredations have been limited to exterminating millions of indigenous, working millions of slaves to death, and immiserating millions of their own citizens, all to no other purpose but the piling up of loot. Today their actions are destroying the life support systems of the planet, with climate change merely the gravest of a plethora of disasters. So, as I see it, we have a stark choice. Waste our energy and time playing the rigged pantomime of polite resistance and impotent dissent, while everything collapses into mass death and a bitter and hopeless struggle for survival. Or remove the psychopaths from power once and for all, and build a world that will survive a little while yet. And as we all know, the second alternative will be resisted with unbounded violence.

  • The basic problem is that our society insists economic growth cannot be sacrificed just to save the planet. Until we can effect a seismic shift in the thinking and mythology around our worship of economic growth, we will advance at a snail’s pace.

    Dave Gardner
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity
    Join the cause at http://www.growthbusters.com
    See our new PSA, Population is Part of the Solution

  • Good article! It is important to be honest about what is happening with these climate talks. They’ve been going on for decades and acheived zero, nothing (except huge emissions through flights). So what is the point? On the positive side they still represent the possibility of international agreement on the most pressing challenge facing humanity (a noble ideal); in reality they are deeply marred by self-interest on the part of fossil fuel corporations and the industrial nations that serve their interests, at the expense of everyone else. So maybe a riot (or a revolution) is needed to break through this stalemate. The International Youth Delegation gave it a good go with their sign and chant “survival is not negotiable.” The indigenous community tried as well. But it will take a lot more people that a handful of activists – which is all we seem to have now – to change things. People in industrial countries are far to comfortable. They are not afraid so much as semi-comatose with creature comforts. The inaction arises from feeding addictions for oil, food, every kind of consumer good. I tend to think it will take a spiritual revolution for us to change and that will occur when we have far less and are far less addicted and forced to conserve. The folly of waste will be decried then. The future is shown well in Soylent Green (1971). All of this was forseen in the early 1970s. What shoudl be our long-term survival plans in case the climate talks continue to fail and Obama does not live up to his promise? Individual communities living off the grid and growing their own food is one solution, but that will certainly not be adequate for the great starving masses. There will be riots and dictatorships. The depression we are entering into is the beginning of the end.