WHILE DRAFTING the so-called Bali Roadmap during the United Nations (UN) Conference on Climate Change last December, delegates faced a painful choice. They could specifically mention the necessity of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25–40 percent by 2020 and face the possibility of a U.S. walkout from the negotiations. Or they could drop all mention of targets to keep Washington in the negotiations—and risk the United States fatally obstructing the process of coming up with a tough regime of mandatory emissions cuts that would have to be in place by the UN’s climate meeting in Copenhagen in December 2009.
The delegates went with the latter and appeased Washington by not mentioning any targets. After the declaration on climate issued by the G8 (Group of Eight) summit a few days ago in Hokkaido, Japan, it is clear that the delegates in Bali made a strategic mistake. The G8’s endorsement of a 50-percent reduction in emissions by 2050, which they have presented as a major step forward, is actually, as the South African government put it, a “regression from what is required to make a meaningful contribution to meeting the challenges of climate change.”
In fact, “regression” is too polite. The G8 position is a giant step backward. It may have effectively undermined the prospects for an effective global climate strategy for the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol that is expected to be finalized at the crucial UN meeting in Copenhagen in December 2009.
Deconstructing the G8 position
Given the massive confusion that the G8 climate communiqué has created globally, it is worthwhile to deconstruct the position in detail.
The 25–40-percent reduction from 1990 emission levels by 2020 that could have been adopted in Bali grew out of a developing consensus. Based on the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), this consensus holds that preventing global mean temperature from rising above the critical threshold of 2 degrees centigrade in the twenty-first century will require radical cuts in greenhouse gas emissions of 80–90 percent by 2050. The 25�–40 percent reductions were an intermediate target on the path to achieving this goal. The G8 “commitment” of about half this final target is grossly inadequate.
Several other considerations highlight the dangers of the Washington-driven formula. First, the G8 proposes a global cut, not one that would be undertaken only by the industrialized or “Annex One” countries. As such, big polluters like the United States can actually free-ride on the rest of the world.
Second, the cut has no clear baseline. When making the announcement, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda initially said the cut was from 1990 levels. Then he had to take back that statement and subsequently mentioned the higher levels of 2000 as the baseline.
Third, this declaration of intent is not binding, and the G8 have given no indication that they want to bring their “pledge” fully under the UN climate negotiations framework that would bind its signatories. Indeed, the G8 announcement reinforces the G8 as a site for climate action that rivals the UN process and effectively subverts it. Not surprisingly, the G8 declaration emerged as part of a parallel process known as the “Major Economies Meeting.” The Major Economies Meeting is a U.S. initiative to wrest decision-making on climate from the UN framework and process.
Anti-climate united front
The G8 climate communiqué demonstrates that not only Washington but the other powerful economies of the world are opposed to effective climate action. And without the rich countries’ governments committing themselves to obligatory radical cuts in carbon dioxide levels, it will be impossible to convince China, India, and other rapidly industrializing economies to agree to subject themselves to a mandatory regime in the near future.
With Washington’s posture so retrograde, the policies of other developed countries’ governments appear in a more positive light. But this is an illusion. While Washington has been the most visible obstacle to achieving effective action on climate, the obstructionist role of the other advanced industrial countries has not been insignificant. Japan and Canada, for instance, have retreated from their previous support for a regime of mandatory reductions and saved Washington from total isolation in the negotiations.
The European Union (EU), while it continues to support a mandatory regime, does not appear to be willing to support the cuts of up to 80–90 percent by 2050 that are necessary to prevent irreversible large-scale climate change. In terms of its approach to reducing carbon emissions, the EU, like the United States, has increasingly given a central role to the corporate-friendly market approach of carbon trading. On the critical issue of providing the South with assistance for technology and adaptation, the EU, again like United States, prefers to channel the relatively little money it has so far been willing to commit not through institutional mechanisms set up under UN auspices, but through those established by the World Bank, such as the bank’s Climate Investment Funds. The reason is simple: the North controls the World Bank.
Most importantly, like the United States and Japan, the European governments continue to hang onto the position that economic growth can be “decoupled” from energy use. In other words, they think they can maintain current European consumption levels and only have to achieve the more efficient use of energy and replace oil with other energy sources. Thus, the EU has preferred to lull Europeans with panaceas. Brussels has championed biofuels, though its enthusiasm has been dampened somewhat by the increasingly evident negative impact of biofuels on global agricultural production. It has also increasingly come out in support of hard energy alternatives, such as mega-dams and carbon sequestration and storage technology, and has also reopened the discussion on nuclear energy.
A painless transition?
The focus on techno-fixes is not limited to the political and economic elites of the North but is shared by key members of its intellectual elite. I’m not talking about people like the Danish climate skeptic Bjorn Lomborg but influential opinion-makers like Jeffrey Sachs, who has attempted to transform himself from the author of economic shock therapy in Eastern Europe to a progressive partisan of the struggles to end poverty and to fight global warming. In his latest book Common Wealth, Sachs’ message is that technology can make the transition to a clean green world a relatively painless one, with no major lifestyle change in the North and no change in the high-growth development paradigm in the South. “Rather than focusing, as some environmentalists do, on reducing the income and consumption of the rich world,” he asserts, “we should focus much more on raising the sustainability of the world’s technologies.”
For Sachs, the key technology is carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) “which will allow the world to continue to use low cost fossil fuels such as coal in a manner that does not wreck the climate.” With what can only be described as childlike techno-enthusiasm, Sachs says, “air capture would allow humanity to reverse a previous rise of CO2 by capturing and sequestering more carbon dioxide than is being emitted in any period! Put differently, the best that can be achieved at a power plant is to stop new emissions. With air capture, we could put into reverse what we’ve done up to this point.” That this technology is at least twenty years away from being a practical technology and comes with unknown risks does not enter Sachs’ sci-fi scenario.
Capitalism and the climate crisis
Herman Daly, the renowned environmentalist, calls this attitude—that environmental action stops when it begins to impinge on the economy—“growthmania.” Growthmania, however, goes beyond being a psychological fix. It is a cultivated ideological predisposition that serves as a protective shield for global capitalism. Capitalism is an expansive mode of production, and it can only reproduce itself by continually transforming living nature into dead commodities. This is essentially what growth is all about. This is why ever-increasing consumption is so central to the engine of profitability that drives capitalism.
The G8—the directorate of global capitalism—is trying hard to avoid just such radical controls on growth, consumption, profits, and the market that a viable strategy to stave off the looming climate catastrophe will necessitate. Voluntary cuts, technofixes, and carbon trading are desperate efforts to prevent the inevitable. Just like the U.S. economy during World War II, it will take planned economies with severely regulated markets and profits, strictly controlled consumption, and equitably shared sacrifice to win the war against climate change.
This article first appeared in Foreign Policy In Focus.