The Looming Debacle in Copenhagen

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The major capitalist powers are blocking the road to a global climate treaty … and preparing to blame China for the failure

by Phil Ward
Socialist Resistance

Any hopes that the December Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen will produce a treaty on greenhouse gas emission reductions are fading rapidly. Janos Pasztor, director of the UN Climate Change Support Team, admitted on 27 October that there was no agreement on targets for industrialized countries, or on funding to help developing countries limit their emissions. Neither was there any indication that the US Congress would agree President Obama’s proposals for emissions abatement.

Even if targets are agreed, they will be wholly inadequate. Obama’s target for the US is to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The US target from Kyoto in 1997 (but never ratified) was a 7% reduction on 1990 levels by 2010. Between 1990 and 2007 US emissions increased by 16.8%, from 6.1 to 7.1 billion tonnes CO2eq. So even if there is an agreement, for the US it is weaker than Kyoto and does not take account of the “extra” greenhouse gasses emitted as a result of the failure to ratify and meet the earlier target.

The EU has not met its Kyoto target either. Its current plans are for a 20% reduction on 1990 levels by 2020, but up to half of these reductions can be offset by the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), whereby the financing of “low carbon” schemes in the global south can be construed as reducing emissions at home. The CDM has been shown all over the world to be utterly corrupt and tramples on the rights of local people in developing.

Emission Reductions Resisted

Behind the likely Copenhagen debacle lies the growing rivalry between the major capitalist powers, exacerbated by the global financial crisis, and the increasing economic clout of China, with its rapidly growing economy and large financial surplus. Thus, the EU’s “commitments” on emissions reductions are conditional on there being a global deal that will prevent industries relocating to countries without carbon caps, while the US Congress is considering placing import tariffs on products from nations that do not have emissions reduction targets.

Both the Chinese and Indian governments have taken the same position adopted by the previous Bush Administration in the US. They will not reduce emissions, only the “carbon intensity” of their economies – the greenhouse gas emissions per unit of economic output. Over the medium to long term such reductions happen naturally, and have done since before James Watt improved steam engine efficiency from 1% to 3% in the 1770s. Since 1978, China’s energy intensity has halved (and its consumption has tripled), so its target of another 20% intensity reduction in the next 5 years will probably be achieved. But it won’t mean a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Responsibility and Reparations

There is agreement among socialists that the imperialist countries should acknowledge their responsibility for over 70% of historic greenhouse gas emissions. They should make “reparations” to developing countries for creating non-carbon technologies, as well as real commitments to drastically cut their emissions by 2050. Issues remain about how such aid is to be given, since the donors are a mendacious ruling class whose interest lies in maintaining their imperialist power, and the recipients a mendacious ruling class whose members are mainly preoccupied with self-enrichment.

There has also been agreement that greenhouse gas emissions per capita should be equalized between all countries, while overall reductions (“Contraction and Convergence”) also occur. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of 80-95% on 1990 levels by 2050. Using 90%, that means reducing emissions from 4.3 tonnes of CO2 (equivalent) to 0.43 tonnes per person, even assuming there is no population increase in that time.

According to estimates from the World Resources Institute, only 40 out of 185 countries would be allowed to increase their greenhouse gas emissions, 30 of them in Africa and Bangladesh, the one with the largest population. The US would have to cut emissions by 98% and the UK by 95%. But most developing economies would have to cut their emissions as well: China by 90%, India by 62%, South Africa by 94%, Iran by 93% and Brazil by 73%. Cuba also emits much more than this IPCC maximum target for 2050 and would need a reduction of 80% from its current emissions of 2.19 tonnes per person.

The Fight for Carbon-Free Development

It is quite likely that the US, other imperialist countries and the media will use the failure of the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit to attack China in particular. This does not mean that the current trajectory of China’s government, or that of other developing countries, should be immune from criticism from the left. Of course, supporters of the environmental and ecosocialist movement must concentrate on demanding that their own governments act against greenhouse gas emissions. But, just as we show solidarity with Chinese workers fighting the super-exploitation in the new industrial zones (mainly producing consumer goods for the “West”), or against the current state executions of Uighur protesters, we should also support those opposing environmental degradation and fighting for a carbon-free model of development.

There are currently thousands of environmental groups in China. Some have fought high profile campaigns, such as the ones against the Three Gorges Dam or the China River Diversion project. Others fight the increasing water and air pollution resulting from China’s profit-driven economic growth. Sooner or later they will question the form of that growth and start to propose social, economic and political alternatives that are sustainable, just and egalitarian. Such alternatives will be easier to implement in a country whose infrastructure is not yet entirely built on an unsustainable basis.


  • Certainly there will be tensions between the West, China and developing countries.
    The Emissions trading set up is only partly to blame (whatever way emssion reduction is set up, there are bound to be local costs, and eyeballing of other countries to see what they are doing)
    – but iis exacerbated by the CO2 trading and offset mechanism involved.

    The whole key is to see if there are ways to lower CO2 as part of overall emission reduction that need not be seen as great national burdens

    As it happens,
    if there is to be an emission policy,
    Electricity and Transport sectors alone (80% of CO2 emissions) are
    sufficient to meet emission reduction targets,
    with measures advantageous in themselves (including energy renewability, and that emissions contain much else, whatever about CO2),
    long term funded for reduced consumer price impact,
    without efficiency regulation, industrial carbon taxes or cap and trade schemes

    As mentioned in another post comment,
    there are many reasons why Copenhagen (and Kyoto) style Cap and Trade is wrong,
    whether or not one believes that action is needed to specifically reduce CO2 emissions
    Emission Trading (Cap and Trade)
    Basic Idea — Offsets — Tree Planting –
    International Trade: Manufacture Shift — Fair Trade — Surreal Market
    – Allowances: Auctions + Hand-Outs — Allowance Trading –
    Companies: Business Stability + Cost — In Conclusion

    Energy efficiency regulation accompanies emission trading plans as “easy ways to lower CO2 emissions” but is wrong also.
    Energy or emission problems can and should be addressed directly, there is no need to ban what people want to buy
    (there is no energy shortage given renewable development, and
    emissions can as explained on the website be dealt with directly – besides, electrical products don’t give out CO2, power stations do)
    Energy efficiency is only one advantage a product can have.
    Inefficent products have advantages too – or noone would buy them.
    Whether TV sets or dishwashers or other products,
    greater energy use can mean better performance , appearance , construction, cost and indeed savings for a given product

  • The comment, “There has also been agreement that greenhouse gas emissions per capita should be equalized between all countries, while overall reductions (”Contraction and Convergence”) also occur” is beginning to be true. UK MPs have argued that we need the right principle to argue for it at the right rates.

    Much of this year taken up with an Enquiry around this issue of ‘rates of C&C’ by the UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee [EAC] Enquiry: –

    “Targets in the UK Climate Act; Where did they come from; Were the models on which they were based valid?”.

    After eight months of activity in this enquiry, the UK Government has conceded that the Climate-Act is based on Contraction and Convergence [C&C] and the Hadley Centre [UKMO] has now confirmed in writing that: –

    “Based on the two Figures, [pp 6 & 7 of the link below *] we would expect the curve with the lower cumulative CO2, as in the GCI C&C CO2 curve, to have a greater probability of staying below a 2 deg C peak warming level.”

    [* see pages 6 & 7 GCI’s of GCI’s 2nd memo to the UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee [EAC] at this link: – ]

    In February, GCI sent a memo to the EAC that expressed concern about assurances given to the EAC by Adair Turner, Chair of the Government’s
    Climate Change Committee [CCC] that, ‘all the feedbacks were in the [climate] models used [by CCC].’

    That memo led directly to EAC’s enquiry into, “Targets in the UK Climate Act: –

    Where did they come from; were the models on which they were based valid?”.

    The Government’s position became clear during this enquiry: – to keep with a nascent global consensus, the CCC prescribed a global
    emissions reduction of 50% by 2050 with convergence to equal per capita by that date and asked the Hadley Centre to ‘process’ that for two
    degrees. The odds for keeping below 2 degrees Celsius that were attached to this scenario by the CCC’, while quoted optimistically as 50:50,
    were in fact in their own report, put at only 44:56 against.

    GCI argued that no-one would accept these odds and that they were in fact much worse than that because of the positive feedbacks that were
    ommitted from the models. There was a contretemps. So GCI calculated in close detail that the CCC’s claims about future source:sink ratios and “efficiency-gain” were unrealistically optimistic: –

    Presented with this, the Hadley Centre retreated and took a vaguer position saying that these rates of efficiency gain seemed to be “physically reasonable behaviour for some plausible values of the model parameters we use in MAGICC to represent the uncertainty in scientific understanding.”

    Taking the so-called “two degrees threshold” as the reference [safe or not], GCI said that at least an 80% cut in emissions by 2050 was needed
    to keep within two degrees as had been published by some of their own operatives such as Jason Lowe and Chris Jones, and even been demonstrated by some of their own modelling – see: –

    We also said that if the rate of global emissions contraction had to be accelerated for reasons of urgency, the rate of international convergence to equal per capita had to be accelerated relative to that for reasons of urgency. Adair Turner accepted the Act was based on C&C and when giving evidence in response to questioning by Colin Challen MP accepted the ‘acceleration point’ in a parallel enquiry.

    GCI argued that as the UK Government had adopted the principle of Contraction and Convergence [C&C] in the Climate-Act, it would be make their experience at the UNFCCC easier if they proposed it to the UNFCCC as the basis of global negotiation. This point is still being resisted.

    After much evidence being led with occasionally sharp exchanges of views, at least UKMO has now [eight months on] confirmed the key point that GCI pressed from the outset saying: – “We would expect the curve with the lower cumulative CO2, as in the GCI C&C CO2 curve, to have a greater
    probability of staying below a 2 deg C peak warming level.”

    It has taken most of this year to establish just agreement on this point and we will communicate this to the EAC and they will say what they will say.

    Looking back, it seems to me that the difficulty has really been with the CCC. UKMO got their political orders and, presumably without much
    choice, did what they were told to do. To their credit, the CCC do at least have the first piece of legislation in play globally that attempts
    to be linked to the ‘science’ of climate change. However, by linking this effort to incomplete economic models, out-of-date climate-models
    and to be fair, probably operating in a hostile political culture in Whitehall, CCC ended up prescribing for what they thought the UK could afford to do as opposed to what we all really have to pay to avoid failure.

    Some of the widening C&C uptake and advocacy is here:

    Aubrey Meyer
    57 Howard Road
    LONDON E17 4SH
    Ph 0208 520 4742