Copenhagen climate summit: All targets, no action

Market priorities look set to shape the Copenhagen climate summit if we leave it to our leaders to save the planet, writes Sadie Robinson

The countdown to the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen has started. The December meeting will bring together environment ministers and world leaders to reach a new agreement to succeed the 1997 Kyoto climate change treaty.

But organisers are already laying the ground for disappointment. Helen Clark, the UN development chief, said recently, “Copenhagen has to be viewed as a very important step.

“Would it be over optimistic to say that it would be the final one? Of course. If there’s no deal as such, it won’t be a failure.”

She is wrong. The Kyoto treaty, which commits a number of countries to carbon emission cuts, expires in 2012. Meanwhile, report after report has shown that the climate is changing at a faster rate than previously expected.

We are running out of time to save the planet – and the Copenhagen summit looks set to disappoint everyone who wants to.

It is already dominated by wrangling about which countries should make the biggest emissions cuts. So the US is refusing to sign up to any deal until poorer nations such as India and China agree to cut emissions.

There is some conflict about how much investment should be made to deal with the effects of climate change – which will hit poorer countries the hardest.

Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, this week threatened to withdraw Africa’s delegations from the summit because of this issue.

There are two major problems with Copenhagen.

First, the size of the emissions cuts on the table is nowhere near what’s needed to stop climate change and the destruction of the planet.

Second, it is shaped by a market agenda. World leaders are desperate to find “solutions” that allow business to carry on polluting the planet.

Some of the main focuses of the summit will be carbon trading, carbon offsetting and the development of “clean coal”.

British Energy secretary Ed Miliband’s meeting with Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh last week shows how this neoliberal logic plays out.

Miliband says that India can make money out of developing solar energy and “clean coal” technologies, as well as profiting from the trade in carbon credits. The logical conclusion of this is that any measure that doesn’t make money shouldn’t be pursued.

An “ambitious” deal at Copenhagen is described as one that cuts carbon emissions by 80 percent and a limits global warming to a two degrees Celsius rise by 2050.

But research suggests that a rise of two degrees would destroy half the world’s rainforests – releasing billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

Cuts of at least 80 percent are required by 2030, not 2050. And the way that governments want to achieve these “cuts” – through carbon trading – is an environmental disaster.

Carbon trading is described as a way of promoting green investment. It does the opposite. Carbon trading means that the big polluters, such as oil and coal companies, can buy the rights to carry on emitting carbon.

It means that richer countries can buy up carbon credits from poorer ones to emit more carbon, pushing up the total carbon emitted by all countries.

What’s more, the idea that all the government can do is “promote” green investment – rather than actually undertake some – is a disgrace.

We need enormous social changes, not technical fixes, to have any chance of stopping catastrophic climate change.

The Kyoto treaty was the first time countries signed up to binding targets for reducing emissions. Some 37 industrialised countries made the pledge.

Yet emissions have continued to rise.

The treaty enshrined the disastrous practice of carbon trading – and the agenda for Copenhagen is no different.

Some hoped that Barack Obama’s election victory would mean that the US would play a more positive role in tackling climate change. But the change is not as big as many people want to see.

A new environment bill heading for the Senate commits the US to carbon emission cuts – but only of 13 percent on 1990 levels by 2020. It is not enough to stop a climate disaster.

Our rulers often say that they can’t make any fundamental changes because this would mean ordinary people making sacrifices.

But the changes we need to stop catastrophic climate change would not harm ordinary people. They are changes that would improve people’s quality of life and create millions of green jobs.

Our rulers are against these changes because they threaten the rule of business.

World leaders may be fiddling while Rome burns, but concern about climate change is growing among ordinary people. So is anger at those leaders for failing to commit to serious measures to tackle it.

It is among ordinary people that real solutions will be developed – and where the power to win these changes exists.

Our focus has to be on building that movement.


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