Bali summit unlikely to meet climate change challenge

November 30, 2007

The first round of official talks to negotiate a global climate change agreement to follow on from the Kyoto Protocol in 2012 will be held in Bali, Indonesia, on December 3-14. Representatives of 130 countries will attend, ostensibly to begin a two-year negotiating process.

However, there have already been four high-level UN meetings devoted to discussing climate change, as well as the 33rd G8 summit, held in Germany in June; the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit held in Sydney in September; and US President George Bush's own Washington "big polluters" meeting, also held in September.

At each of these meetings, the US (backed up by the John Howard-led Coalition government in Australia), has stood opposed to the mandatory CO2 emission-reduction targets currently incorporated in Kyoto, Both Bush and Howard refused to ratify Kyoto using the pretext that under it, poor countries like China and India were not given mandatory reduction targets.

Bush's anti-Kyoto campaign suffered a major setback with the electoral defeat of the Howard government on November 24. The new Labor government of PM Kevin Rudd has pledged to ratify Kyoto.

On the other side, the European Union has not attacked the basic premise of Kyoto, i.e., that the rich countries that have benefited most from intense fossil-fuel usage should lead in cutting emissions, and has been attempting to push for greater emission reduction commitments.

However, while the EU's approach has been superior to that of the US, the stalemate between the pro- and anti-Kyoto camps has meant that precious little analysis has been devoted to whether Kyoto is working and what can be done to fix it.

The Kyoto Protocol was originally agreed upon in 1997, but only entered into effect in February 2005. Certainly a binding international agreement was a step forward for the battle against global warming, but Kyoto contains critical weaknesses.

Firstly, it only required a 5.2% emission reduction on 1990 levels by 2012 for the 36 countries that have historically been the biggest per capita polluters and currently remain so. However, given what we now know about the rapidity of the onset of global warming and the deep emissions cuts that are needed in the next few decades, this target is utterly inadequate.

Secondly, Kyoto's method-of-choice for achieving its targets is carbon emissions trading. Prior to the creation of the Kyoto Protocol, the concept of allowing market mechanisms to drive changes in environmental practice was relatively obscure. But during negotiations for Kyoto, this US-backed approach gained pre-eminence despite the initial hostility of many of the delegates, partly due to Washington's behind-the-scenes economic blackmail of poorer countries.

When the US pulled out of Kyoto in 2001, this left many of the Kyoto negotiators in an awkward position. The Dag Hammarskjold Foundation's 2006 book Carbon Trading: A Critical Conversation on Climate Change, Privatisation and Power, noted that emissions trading's "environmental backers, many of whom by now had spent much of their careers in the negotiations, were left in the odd position of having to champion an agreement written largely by the US for US purposes on the basis of US experience and US economic thinking, but which no longer had US support".

Thus "the approach had become internationally entrenched even though its original political rational" — keeping the US in Kyoto — "had vanished".

Today, that entrenchment of emissions trading as the official tool with which to reduce emissions, and the exploding global market in "emissions permits" (worth almost US$25 billion in 2006), represents a major obstacle to achieving serious global emissions reductions.

Existing emissions trading schemes have been plagued by "market crashes", with the EU's Emission Trading Scheme collapsing in 2006 and the NSW Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme imploding in 2007.

Meanwhile, emissions from the wealthiest countries have continued to rise. Atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations have now reached a level that most of the world's climate scientists considered likely to cause dangerous climate change.\

An international agreement that would really combat global warming would first have to shed the illusion that "market mechanisms" can be the primary driver of change. With this goal in mind, many grassroots organisations from around the world will be attending the Bali talks to demand strong action on climate change.

One of those groups is WALHI, Indonesia's largest environmental NGO. It is part of the international Friends of the Earth network.

On October 23, WALHI activists protested in Denpasar, Bali's capital city, calling on the Indonesian government to reject carbon trading and ensure that other options are explored at the UN-organised meeting. They were also protesting against what they see as the selling off of Indonesia's forests to be used as a "carbon toilet for developed countries".

A number of Indonesian environmental, human rights and trade union groups will be organising a parallel event to the UN meeting. Called "Solidarity Village for a Cool Planet", it will include workshops, conferences and cultural events and is open to anyone who "believes that global warming cannot be tackled with market solutions and neoliberalism" and "that solutions can only be found in fundamental changes in the way we produce, trade and consume".

The Solidarity Village is also being supported by environmental groups from around the world.

Augmenting the efforts of grassroots organisations to influence the talks away from relying on "market mechanisms", will be the delegations from the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, as well as socialist Cuba. All of these government reject reliance on the corporate-dominated market to solve fundamental social problems, including climate change.

Under the leadership of socialist President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela for example has begun implementing bold environmental policies. Among them is an "Energy Revolution" that has so far replaced 52 million iridescent light bulbs to energy saving bulbs. Another program, called Mission Tree, will result in the planting of more than 100 million trees by 2011. Chavez has also banned the opening of new coal mines in Venezuela.

At a preliminary UN meeting on climate change held in New York in late September, Venezuelan deputy foreign minister Jorge Valero stressed that to "mitigate the effects [of global warming] it is necessary to introduce radical changes in the irrational growth model that is currently dominant in the world" and that capitalism is pushing humanity to the brink of an "unprecedented tragedy" that will affect the poorest and most vulnerable nations that hold the least responsibility for the crisis.

Like the government of socialist Cuba, rated by the World Wildlife Fund as the only country that has sustainable development, the Venezuelan government argues that combatting climate change requires radical changes in the world's economic and political systems. Without such a perspective, the Bali summit is unlikely to met the climate change challenge.

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