Carbon trading: a corporate scam

Friday, January 12, 2007

With climate change posing as one of the gravest threats to capital accumulation - not to mention humankind and our environment - in coming decades, it is little wonder that economists such as Sir Nick Stern, establishment politicians like Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown and US Democrat Al Gore, and financiers at the World Bank and in the City of London have begun warning the public and, in the process, birthing a market for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

The idea is to sell the right to continue polluting in the North, in the hope that more efficient energy systems can be incentivised through "Clean Development Mechanism" (CDM) offset projects in the Third World.

This was the key theory motivating capitalist states' support for the Kyoto Protocol and, since February 2005, when the protocol was ratified by Russia and formally came into effect, a great deal more money and propaganda have been invested in the carbon market, including at a major Nairobi climate conference last November.

Rather than forcing countries, or firms, to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions, Kyoto Protocol designers created - from thin air - a carbon market and gave countries a minimal reduction target (5% from 1990 emissions levels, to be achieved by 2012). They can either meet that target through their own reductions or by purchasing emissions credits from countries or firms that reduce their own greenhouse gases beyond their target level.

But as Larry Lohmann from the British NGO Cornerhouse and the Durban Group for Climate Justice remarked: "The distribution of carbon allowances [the prerequisite for trading] constitutes one of the largest, if not the largest, projects for creation and regressive distribution of property rights in human history."

Big oil companies, particularly, win property rights to pollute at the level they always have, instead of facing up to their historic debt to the Third World for using its atmosphere as a "sink", a function that the UN estimated was worth US$75 billion annually in 2000.

South Africa is a good case study of abuses, for in mid-2005, Sasol, one of the country's largest companies, admitted its gas pipeline project proposal to the CDM bureaucracy lacked the key requirement of "additionality" - i.e., the firm doing something (thanks to a lucrative incentive) that it would not have done anyway - thus unveiling the CDM as vulnerable to blatant scamming.

At Durban's vast Bisasar Road rubbish dump, Africa's largest landfill, community protests against ongoing carcinogenic emissions have derailed the World Bank and municipal state's plans to market a methane-capture project as a CDM.

According to Sajida Khan, a cancer victim leading the fight: "The poor countries are so poor they will accept crumbs. The World Bank knows this and it is taking advantage of it."

Similar protests across the Third World have targeted destructive CDMs such as tree planting at Brazil's Plantar industrial timber plantation, and in Indian communities where mass demonstrations are raising the profile of the dangerous market.

Carbon trading may also suffer classic contradictions of capitalist markets, such as volatility, overproduction and manipulation. In April 2006, Brown made a strong pitch at the United Nations "for a global carbon trading market as the best way to protect the endangered environment while spurring economic growth".

But 10 days later, the European Union's emissions trading market crashed thanks to the over-allocation of pollution rights, and the carbon spot market price lost more than half its value in a single day, destroying many CDM projects earlier considered viable investments.

Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently explained why schemes like tree-planting are so dubious: "While they have a pretty good idea of how much carbon our factories and planes and cars are releasing, scientists are much less certain about the amount of carbon tree planting will absorb. When you drain or clear the soil to plant trees, for example, you are likely to release some carbon, but it is hard to tell how much. Planting trees in one place might stunt trees elsewhere, as they could dry up a river which was feeding a forest downstream. Or by protecting your forest against loggers, you might be driving them into another forest. In other words, you cannot reasonably claim to have swapped the carbon stored in oil or coal for carbon absorbed by trees. Mineral carbon, while it remains in the ground, is stable and quantifiable. Biological carbon is labile and uncertain."

The main force for a genuine alternative to capitalism's fake market mitigation strategy will be public pressure. With Third World communities and progressive environmentalists - especially the Durban Group for Climate Justice - seeking and finding allies serious about the climate crisis, there will be fewer opportunities for Nick Stern and Gordon Brown to sell bogus market solutions to capital's pollution problems.

[The authors are editors of a new book Climate Change, Carbon Trading and Civil Society, available from Rozenberg Press, Amsterdam.]