Carbon emissions have to peak before 2015 to have any impact on climate change, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meeting in Bangkok this week, where it discussed mitigation measures. It would take a reduction in average annual growth rates of less than 0.12%, to achieve this target, the IPCC report claims.
This relatively modest cost compares to the 2006 Stern Report for the British government, which stated that with “business as usual”, climate change would reduce welfare by the equivalent of a reduction in consumption of between 5% and 20% per head.
But the IPCC warns that “delayed emissions’ reductions lead to investments that lock in more emissions-intensive infrastructure and development pathways”. So the question is, can the global capitalist system change course in the next seven years? The signs are not promising.
About 50% of the total mitigation required could be achieved by reducing emissions from deforestation. But in September 2007, the Philippines’ government signed an agreement with China to develop 400,000 to 500,000 hectares of “idle, alienable and disposable lands and forest lands”. In other words they plan to grub up crucial areas of biodiversity and carbon sinks for agribusiness.
And a recent UN study found that virtually all the forests in Ethiopia have gone. A hundred years ago 40% of the country was tree-covered; today less than 3%. This is an environmental disaster in a country which was once one of nature’s most crucial areas of bio-diversity.
The report sets out a range of energy options to increase end-use efficiency as the best way of reducing demand. But the supply side is still the focus of global governments. The UK government is seriously considering an expansion of coal-fired power stations and China is opening new coal-fired power stations at the rate of two a week.
And this brings us to a paragraph which is in the main body of the IPCC report, but left out of the summary for policymakers, which makes clear what governments actually need to do.
“For low and medium stabilisation levels, developed countries as a group would need to reduce their emissions below 1990 levels in 2020 (on the order of -10% to -40% below 1990 levels for most of the considered regimes) and to still lower levels by 2050 (40% to 95% below 1990 levels), even if developing countries make substantial reductions.
“Under most of the considered regime designs for low and medium stabilization levels, developing country emissions need to deviate from what we believe today would be their baseline emissions as soon as possible, even if developed countries make substantial reductions.”
In other words, the argument that China and India must be permitted to go on polluting until they reach the same level of capitalist economic development as the developed countries simply does not hold water. Of course, some argue that this a kind of “justice”. But that assumes that there is some benefit is to be gained for the mass of people in developing countries from unfettered globalised profit-driven development, when the truth is quite the opposite. Rising food prices, drought, floods and pollution affect the poorest people first.
It is increasingly clear that the best way to mitigate the impact of global capitalism is to remove its power to continue on its current path. What the developing world actually needs is an opportunity to leapfrog this stage of development and move straight to a cleaner, more sustainable and humane economic model. And there is some justice in the argument that it is a duty of us, in the developed countries, to lead a struggle to achieve that.