Carbon colonialism

April 25, 2001


The best excuse that Western corporate polluters and their political allies have devised to justify their efforts to wreck the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions is that it does not mandate reductions in the countries of the Third World.

President George W Bush, in a recent letter to a United States senator, said, "I oppose the Kyoto Protocol because it exempts 80% of the world". The same argument has been made repeatedly by the Australian government.

To borrow a phrase from Bush, these arguments rest on "fuzzy math". Per capita emissions are 20 times higher in the advanced industrial countries than in the Third World, according to Jan Pronk, the Dutch environment minister and chair of the United Nations' Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

If and when greenhouse emissions from Third World countries (which account for about 80% of the world's population) reach half of global emissions, the per capita ratio will still be 4:1 in favour of the advanced industrial countries. That ratio would be greater still with the inclusion of historical emissions, as advanced industrial countries account for about 80% of total historical emissions.

China and India are often cited as major future greenhouse emitting nations. With 17% of the world's population, India accounts for 4.2% of global emissions. With 4% of the world's population, the US accounts for about 25% of global emissions. Australia's per capita emissions are seven times higher than China and 16 times higher than India.

The villains are not the Third World's poor but corporate polluters based in the dominant capitalist counties.

Kingpins of Carbon, a 1999 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the US Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, analysed fossil fuel production in 1997. It found that:

* nearly 80% of the fossil fuel-derived carbon that ends up as carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere came from 122 of the world's largest producers of fossil fuels;

* the combined carbon production of Exxon and Mobil (then two seperate companies but now a single one) exceeded the combined emissions of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines;

* Russian oil giant Gazprom's carbon production exceeded the emissions of the entire continent of Africa; and

* Shell's carbon production exceeded the combined carbon emissions of Mexico, Argentina, and Chile.

Third World countries bear little responsibility for climate change, yet they are most at risk of climate-related environmental destruction, social dislocation and disease because of their geography (especially low-lying islands), economies (high dependence on climate-sensitive agriculture and natural resources more generally) and poverty (a relatively limited capacity to prepare for or respond to climate change: 96% of deaths from natural disasters occur in the Third World).

According to the US-based organisation CorpWatch, "Communities that already bear the brunt of oil company activities — such as the Ogoni in the Niger Delta, the Gwich'in in the Arctic Refuge, or African Americans in Norco, Louisiana — face a 'double whammy'. First they are hit by the local environmental and human rights problems associated with the oil industry ... then they face the prospect of their communities being adversely affected or destroyed by climate change."

'Level playing field'

One of the main issues cited by Western corporate polluters and their political allies is that fossil fuel-based industries would move from Western to Third World countries as a result of the Kyoto Protocol. Environmental standards being worse in the Third World, the end result would be even greater greenhouse emissions, along with a transfer of jobs from the First World to the Third World, they argue.

However, the Kyoto Protocol would be a trivial consideration with respect to new investments, and it would be still less likely to result in the transfer of existing industries to Third World countries, because of the amount of capital sunk into those existing investments. Factors such as infrastructure and access to resources, energy and markets are far more important considerations.

Moreover, the huge subsidies currently provided to corporate polluters by First World governments would act against a shift of industry to Third World countries.

The fossil fuel-powered industrialisation of the West relied heavily on the exploitation of Third World colonies, and this exploitation persists in different forms: contemporary examples of carbon colonialism are not hard to find.

According to a 1998 report by the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network and the International Trade Information Service, the World Bank has spent 25 times more on fossil fuels than on renewable energy sources since the 1992 Earth Summit.

Ninety percent of these fossil fuel projects will benefit transnational corporations based in the world's seven richest countries, while less than 9% of World Bank lending is devoted to the energy needs of the world's poorest two billion people.

The "level playing field" is tilted heavily in favour of the advanced capitalist countries — if it is partly balanced through greenhouse abatement programs, then so much the better.

Corporate crocodile tears about jobs being lost in the West are part of a divide-and-rule strategy to pit workers in the West and the Third World against each other.

Carbon 'casino capitalism'

Tackling climate change necessarily involves fighting Western corporate polluters and their political allies, but the raft of proposals under negotiation through the UNFCCC/Kyoto process reinforces corporate power and profits.

Polluters have sought to ensure that they can avoid domestic emission reductions through a variety of carbon emission trading schemes.

The problems with these schemes are summarised by the Climate Justice Network: "In the current global political and economic context there are extremely unequal relationships between countries — due mostly to the ... colonial devastation of many peoples through history.

"Emissions trading will not exist in a vacuum. It will operate in this system, established through hundreds of years of oppression and inequity. Emissions trading does not challenge this system, it was borne out of it ... As happens with any other market commodity in today's global economy, the rich and powerful nations of the world will be able to afford to pay the prices for pollution and poor countries won't.

"The status quo remains. Not only will this happen, but also the rich nations will have no incentive to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions at home and climate catastrophe will not be averted. Climate-related disasters will increase and it will be the poor that pay for them."

One scheme being developed through the UNFCCC/Kyoto process is the Clean Development Mechanism, whereby advanced industrial countries earn carbon credits by investing in non-polluting infrastructure in the Third World. The CDM will allow Western countries and corporations to meet their emissions targets with little or no reduction of their own emissions.

The CDM also promises further opportunities for neo-colonial exploitation. The main CDM strategy is afforestation to create carbon "sinks". This is already being practised by some corporations in anticipation of an international emissions trading scheme.

According to the World Rainforest Movement, large-scale tree plantations are commonly a direct cause of deforestation, usurp needed agricultural lands, replace valuable native ecosystems, deplete water resources, worsen inequity in land ownership, increase poverty, lead to evictions of local peoples, and undermine local stewardship practices needed for forest conservation.

Indigenous peoples declared in the First International Forum of Indigenous Peoples on Climate Change in France in September, "Sinks in the CDM would constitute a world-wide strategy for expropriating our lands and territories and violating our fundamental rights that would culminate in a new form of colonialism".

Various other CDM projects have been proposed for the benefit of multinational corporations, such as genetic engineering in agriculture or subsiding Western nuclear vendors to build nuclear power plants in the Third World.

Another likely outcome is that bilateral "aid" to Third World countries could be made conditional on that aid earning carbon credits for the Western "donor" nation or corporation.

Fighting carbon criminals

So what is the way forward for all concerned with climate change and carbon colonialism? The strategy of watering down the Kyoto Protocol to appease the US is a dead-end — corporate polluters and their political allies must be fought and defeated, not appeased.

Greenhouse Gangsters v Climate Justice, a 1999 report by the Transnational Resource and Action Centre and CorpWatch, states: "Ultimately, climate justice means holding fossil fuel corporations accountable for the central role they play in contributing to global warming.

"This signifies challenging these companies at every level: from the production and marketing of the fossil fuels themselves, to their underhanded political influence, to their PR prowess, to the unjust 'solutions' they propose, to the fossil fuel-based globalisation they are driving. Climate justice means stripping transnational corporations of the tremendous power they hold over our lives, and in its place building democracy at the local, national and international levels."

Oilwatch, an international movement against fossil fuel-mining in the tropics, has identified several of the most crucial such projects:

* Halting Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil and other companies' oil extraction in the Niger Delta would protect the human rights and environment of the Ogoni, Ijaw and other indigenous people, while keeping 770 million tons of carbon out of the atmosphere;

* Preventing Occidental Petroleum from extracting oil from indigenous U'wa territory in Colombia would protect the U'wa people while keeping 154 million tons of carbon out of the atmosphere; and

* Halting the UNOCAL-Total-Fina sponsored Yadana gas pipeline in Burma would end associated forced labor and environmental degradation there, while keeping 156 million tons of carbon out of the atmosphere.

These projects, and many others, have attracted substantial local opposition and international solidarity. The task is to build and link the various movements and campaigns around the world — hence the importance of the global anti-corporate movement, which has the potential to seriously challenge corporate polluters and corporate tyranny in all its manifestations.

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