The United Nations is preparing to throw in the towel on achieving further cuts in the emission of greenhouse gases by the world’s industralised nations. Instead, it plans to rely on already discredited carbon trading and offsetting schemes. The cat was let out of the bag by the UN official leading negotiations for a new convention to follow on from the Kyoto treaty, which ends in 2012. He believes that rich nations should be absolved from the need to cut emission if they pay developing countries to do it on their behalf. In fact they should be able to buy their way out of 100% of their responsibilities.
Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, says: "We have been reducing emissions and making energy use more efficient in industrialised countries for a long time, so it is quite expensive in these nations to reduce emissions any more.
But in developing nations, less has been done to reduce emissions and less has been done to address energy efficiency." So, de Boer observed, "it actually becomes economically quite attractive for a company, for example in the UK, that has a target to achieve this goal by reducing emissions in China".
This policy shift is a major step back from Kyoto which requires industrialised nations to reduce the majority of emissions themselves, rather than resorting to carbon trading or offsetting to reach their targets. Even the Stern Review for the New Labour government states that all developed nations will have to make emissions cuts of at least 60%-90%, with many developing world countries allowed only a modest increase or a small decrease. And Stern clearly says that these figures “do not incorporate international emissions trading”. In other words, emissions trading is viewed as an add-on to real reductions.
The De Boer approach is already built into the Climate Change Bill before parliament. This insists that emission reductions purchased overseas may be counted towards the UK’s targets. The government claims that this “ensures emission reductions can be achieved in the most cost effective way, recognising the potential for investing in low carbon technologies abroad as well as action within the UK to reduce the UK’s overall carbon footprint”.
It fell to the Commons environmental audit committee to point out that in order for a country to have surplus carbon credits to sell, it must first be overachieving its emissions targets. The committee asked: “Given the challenges that this might entail as targets become tougher, this raises questions over the extent to which the global supply of such credits will in the future be able to meet demand. The government has yet explicitly to address this uncertainty in the extent to which the UK can rely on emissions trading in order to meet its targets.” The committee added that it was concerned that this approach “might foster a false sense of complacency about the progress and policies required to decarbonise the UK”.
The truth is not as complicated as the committee makes out. Behind all the manoeuvring around the Climate Bill and the buying and selling of carbon “credits”, there is mounting evidence that globally, capitalism does not have the capacity or the will to tackle climate change. All it can offer is a façade of action, behind which governments, and now the UN, give wholehearted support to business as usual for the corporations and the richer nations. The case for offsetting capitalism itself with not-for-profit alternatives and a real democratic political system, is stronger than ever.
Penny Cole, environment editor
A World to Win