A warning for Africa: Carbon trading is a Ponzi scheme

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The north’s climate debt to Africa should be paid not through such gambling but in genuine income transfers that reach ordinary people, who are taking the brunt of worsening climate chaos

by Michael Dorsey and Patrick Bond
Business Day (South Africa) January 24, 2012 

Last winter, when carbon prices fell 15% in one week, industry analysts called it ‘carnage’. Then, in the fortnight before last month’s Durban climate summit, carbon prices fell more than 30%, with front-year European Union (EU) Allowance permits dropping below €8,50 a ton. And they have crashed even further since.

As Deutsche Bank said during the Durban talks: “We do not expect the pricing outlook to improve materially in the foreseeable future.” A UBS analyst predicted a price of less than €3 a ton in coming months because the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme “isn’t working” and carbon prices are “already too low to have any significant environmental impact.”

French bank Société Générale projects that “European carbon permits may fall close to zero should regulators fail to set tight enough limits in the market after 2020” — and without much prospect of that, the bank lowered its 2012 forecasts by 28%. A 54% crash for December 2012 carbon futures sent the price to a record low, just more than €6 a ton. An additional oversupply of 879-million tons was anticipated up to 2020, partly as a result of a huge inflow of United Nations (UN) offsets: about 1,75-billion tons.

Those UN carbon credits include Clean Development Mechanism projects, which are notoriously bogus, including SA’s pilot in Durban, the Bisasar Road “waste to energy” site.

Every analyst concedes that carbon prices will be far too low to catalyse the transformative innovations — most costing more than €50 a ton (the EU peak was just more than €30 a ton five years ago) — necessary in energy, transport, production, agriculture and disposal to achieve a solid post-carbon foothold. By all scientific accounts, by 2020 it is vital to wean the industrialised world economy from dependence upon more than half the currently consumed fossil fuels to avert catastrophic climate change.

Yet Africa hasn’t received this bad news — the press doesn’t report the carbon markets with critical vigour.

The lack of awareness of the carbon market’s crash is a travesty — far too often the continent has been looted by faraway financiers selling snake oil.

This week at the Sandton Sun, a conference aims to “make Africa a major focus for climate finance into the post-Kyoto era,” with keynote speakers from Morgan Stanley, Standard Bank , Nedbank , Carbon Check, CDM Africa Climate Solutions, South South North, similar emissions traders, the Johannesburg and Cape Town municipalities and the Department of Energy.

Beware you carbon buyers, sellers and speculators, because climate gamblers have been led astray since 1997, when the Kyoto Protocol was amended to let corporations buy the right to pollute in exchange for endorsing the treaty. Washington has refused to honour this ever since, even though it represents a broken promise, followed logically by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2009 pledge to raise $100bn a year for the Green Climate Fund.

Clutching at straws, that fund’s design co-chairman, Trevor Manuel , has suggested getting half the revenues from carbon markets. It might have been feasible if the emissions trade reached the anticipated $3-trillion mark by 2020 but, within a decade, the market has peaked at $140bn in annual carbon trades. These are mostly in the EU, where the Emissions Trading Scheme was meant to generate a cap on emissions and a steady 1,74% annual reduction. Unfortunately, the speculative character of carbon markets encouraged rampant fraud, value-added tax scams and computer hacking, which shut the scheme for two weeks last year.

The EU’s carbon trading also included perverse incentives to stockpile credits when large corporations as well as Eastern European states gambled that the price would increase.

With the market now collapsing, the current perverse incentive is to flood supply to at least achieve some return rather than none at all when eventually the markets are decommissioned, as happened in 2010 to the Chicago Climate Exchange.

Africa can do better than invest faith and state resources in yet another Ponzi scheme — the privatisation of the air. And the north’s climate debt to Africa should be paid not through such gambling but in genuine income transfers that reach ordinary people, who are taking the brunt of worsening climate chaos.

Patrick Bond and Michael Dorsey are development and environment professors at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Dartmouth College respectively.


  • Ian. An update to my comment above. In an article in MR, Patrick Bond quoted from the program of the Climate Justice group which makes the statement I objected to much clearer. The following I certainly support.

    “reduced consumption; huge financial transfers from North to South based on historical responsibility and ecological debt for adaptation and mitigation costs paid for by redirecting military budgets, innovative taxes and debt cancellation; leaving fossil fuels in the ground and investing in appropriate energy-efficiency and safe, clean and community-led renewable energy; rights-based resource conservation that enforces Indigenous land rights and promotes peoples’ sovereignty over energy, forests, land and water; and sustainable family farming and peoples’ food sovereignty.”

  • Ian
    You need to read what I said. I do not support an ETS. I agree with the need for funds to flow from the rich to the poor countries to help them combat climate change.

    But as socialists we need to provide concrete alternatives to show climate change activists that there are other options than an ETS.

    You highlighted what you thought was the key message from the article “income transfers that reach ordinary people”.

    My point is – that is compensation, not a program to combat climate change.

  • Mike, preventing climate change is obviously vital, but ecosocialists recognize an equal responsibility to heal the damage that cannot be avoided, experienced in the south but caused by the north.

    From the Climate Debt working group at the Cochamaba conference, 2010:

    Climate debt is an obligation of compensation that is generated because of the damage done to Mother Earth by the irrational emissions of greenhouse gases. The primary responsible for these irrational emissions are the so-called “developed countries.” inhabited by only 20% of the world population, and which emitted 75% of historical emissions of greenhouse gases.

    These states, which stimulated the capitalist development model, are responsible for climate debt, but we shouldn’t forget that within these states, there live poor and indigenous peoples which are also affected by this debt.

    The most affected are the poorest developing countries, future generations and our Mother Earth.The colonization of atmospheric space has produced climate change, which poses a serious threat to the islands, coastal areas, glaciers in the Himalayas, the Andes and the mountains of the world, the poles of the earth, hot regions like Africa, water sources, growing natural disaster—affected populations, plants and animals, and ecosystems in general, generating climate debt.

    Entire statement here.

    As for supporting ETS “because that is all that is on the table” … That might make sense if ETS worked … but experience and analysis shows that emission trading not only doesn’t work, it makes solving the problem harder.

    See, among many other articles:

    Carbon markets: No threat to fossil fuel

    Europe’s third try at emissions trading: another failure

    Putting a price on nature: a destructive delusion

  • As I see it what we need is a concrete commitment evidenced in actual shifts to renewable energies. Carbon trading has always seemed to me to be an attempt to use a very sick mindset to fix the very problems that the mindset creates, a thoroughly crazy idea.

  • “The north’s climate debt to Africa should be paid not through such gambling but in genuine income transfers that reach ordinary people, who are taking the brunt of worsening climate chaos”

    Sorry, but that is ridiculous.

    Surely the ecosocialist position is not about compensating people for climate change but preventing climate change!

    That is going to require large scale investment in renewables. And yes the capitalist crooks are already hovering for a cut. So – we demand no large scale public works for renewables because they could be rorted?

    Some of the arguments in this article like “privatisation of air” are emotional nonsense and could have been lifted from Andrew Bolt’s blog.

    Many climate change activists support an ETS because that is all that is on the table. What is needed are alternatives. While many the criticisms of the European ETS in this article are justified, the alternative offered is just plain silly.