Climate crisis: radical action needed now

Issue 

In 1997 at Kyoto, Al Gore bamboozled negotiators into adopting carbon trading as a central climate strategy in exchange for Washington's support — which never materialised.

Likewise, December's Kyoto Conference in Bali allowed the "everyone versus the US" debate to obscure much more durable problems. Even many environmentalists and well-meaning citizens think that building on Kyoto is the correct strategy for post-Bali negotiations.

These include the powerful Climate Action Network (CAN) of NGOs and corporate-funded environmental groups including the IUCN (the World Conservation Union), the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Federation and Environmental Defense.

"Fixing a market problem (pollution) with a market solution" is still a mantra to some light-greens, including some in the Australian Greens, notwithstanding a year's worth of scandalous reports from practitioners and the press.

A year ago, Citigroup's Peter Atherton confessed in a PowerPoint presentation that the European Union's Emissions Trading System (ETS) had "done nothing to curb emissions", and acted as "a highly regressive tax falling mostly on poor people".

On whether policy goals were achieved, he admitted: "Prices up, emissions up, profits up … so, not really. Who wins and loses? All generation-based utilities — winners. Coal and nuclear-based generators — biggest winners. Hedge funds and energy traders — even bigger winners. Losers … ahem … Consumers!"

The Wall Street Journal confirmed last March that emissions trading "would make money for some very large corporations, but don't believe for a minute that this charade would do much about global warming". The paper termed the carbon trade "old-fashioned rent-seeking … making money by gaming the regulatory process".

Speaking to Britain's Channel Four news last March, the European commissioner for energy offered this verdict on the ETS: "failure".

Yvo de Boer, the sanguine head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warned of "the possibility that the market could collapse altogether". In April 2006, the price of carbon in Europe's market fell by half overnight due to authorities' mismanagement of the ETS.

But not just in Europe. According to Newsweek magazine's investigation of Third World carbon trading (through the Clean Development Mechanism) last March, "It isn't working … [and represents] a grossly inefficient way of cutting emissions in the developing world".

The magazine called the trade "a shell game" that has transferred "[US]$3 billion to some of the worst carbon polluters in the developing world".

After an exhaustive series on problems associated with carbon trading and offsets, the Financial Times concluded they were merely a "carbon 'smokescreen'".

In June, the British Guardian headlined its investigation with equal scorn: "Truth about Kyoto: huge profits, little carbon saved … Abuse and incompetence in fight against global warming … The inconvenient truth about the carbon offset industry."

Meanwhile the Big Green groups' professionalism and reasonableness — or simple cronyism (since key personnel from CAN now work in the industry) — have made them utterly useless as watchdogs on the carbon trade.

So then who do we turn to?

The Bali conference featured an alternative movement-building component outside the formal proceedings: a Climate Justice Now! coalition made up of Carbon Trade Watch (the Transnational Institute); the Center for Environmental Concerns; Focus on the Global South; the Freedom from Debt Coalition, Philippines; Friends of the Earth International; Women for Climate Justice; the Global Forest Coalition; the Global Justice Ecology Project; the International Forum on Globalization; the Kalikasan-Peoples Network for the Environment; La Via Campesina; the Durban Group for Climate Justice; Oilwatch; Pacific Indigenous Peoples Environment Coalition; Sustainable Energy and Economy Network (Institute for Policy Studies); the Indigenous Environmental Network; Third World Network; Indonesia Civil Society Organisations Forum on Climate Justice; and the World Rainforest Movement.

The coalition criticised carbon trading and called for genuine solutions: "reduced consumption; huge financial transfers from North to South based on historical responsibility and ecological debt for adaptation and mitigation costs paid for by redirecting military budgets, innovative taxes and debt cancellation; leaving fossil fuels in the ground and investing in appropriate energy-efficiency and safe, clean and community-led renewable energy; rights-based resource conservation that enforces Indigenous land rights and promotes peoples' sovereignty over energy, forests, land and water; and sustainable family farming and peoples' food sovereignty."

In October 2004, the Durban Group was founded to tackle the problems in carbon trade, warning of all the dangers above, especially Vandana Shiva's point that the transfer of the right to pollute is a multi-trillion-dollar giveaway to the people who caused the bulk of the climate problems.

But establishment figures will continue confusing matters. At the Bali meeting, a key Third World leader was South African environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk — successor to Frederik Willem de Klerk as leader of the South African National Party (NP) after serving the apartheid police as a spy against fellow students (he later folded the NP into the ruling African National Congress and was rewarded with a do-little ministry). His strategy for bringing the US into the fold came at the price of evacuating any emissions target and accountability mechanism in the official declaration and reinforcing the carbon trade.

Van Schalkwyk's leadership is a travesty, for he has said nothing about South Africa's own $20 billion in new investments — partly privatised through the US energy multinational AES — in cheap coal-fired electricity generation for large corporations. And he endorses nuclear energy expansion.

South Africa already has an emissions output per person per unit of GDP 20 times worse than the US, and van Schalkwyk's official carbon trading policy argues that it is primarily a "commercial opportunity".

This is true only if there is no resistance to this strategy. In Durban, Sajida Khan fought carbon trading before her death by cancer caused by an apartheid-era landfill next door — South Africa's Clean Development Mechanism pilot for methane-extraction.

In contrast to carbon trading, what is reverberating within grassroots struggles in many parts of the world is a very different strategy and demand by civil society activists: leave the oil in the soil, the resources in the ground.

This call was first made as a climate strategy in 1997 in Kyoto by the group OilWatch when it was based in Quito, Ecuador. Heroic activists from Accion Ecologia took on the struggle to halt exploitation of oil in part of the Yasuni National Park. This led President Rafael Correa to declare in mid-2007 that the North should pay Ecuador roughly US$5 billion in compensation for its commitment to permanently forego exploitation of Yasuni (albeit with concern among Indigenous people about nearby oil extraction, especially by the voracious Brazilian firm Petrobas).

A year ago at the World Social Forum in Nairobi, many other groups became aware of this movement thanks to eloquent activists from the Niger Delta, including the Port Harcourt NGO Environmental Rights Action. For example, women community activists regularly disrupted production at oil extraction sites with sit-ins in which, showing maximum disrespect for the petro multinationals, they removed their clothing.

In my own neighborhood, which includes two of Africa's largest oil refineries, the South Durban Community and Environmental Alliance has been mobilising against corporate and municipal environmental crime. This includes actions against three major explosions and fires since September and a massive fish kill over Christmas from irresponsible dumping and inadequate state surveillance of big industries in Durban's harbor, the busiest in Africa.

But the legacy of resisting fossil fuel abuse goes back much further and includes Alaskan and Californian environmentalists who halted drilling and even exploration. In Norway, the global justice group ATTAC took up the same concerns at a conference last October, and began the hard work of persuading wealthy Norwegian Oil Fund managers that they should use the vast proceeds of their North Sea inheritance to repay Ecuadorans some of the ecological debt owed.

Perhaps the most eloquent climate analyst in the North is George Monbiot, so it was revealing that last month, instead of going to Bali, he stayed home in Britain and caused some trouble, reporting back in his Guardian column:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have the answer! Incredible as it might seem, I have stumbled across the single technology which will save us from runaway climate change! From the goodness of my heart I offer it to you for free. No patents, no small print, no hidden clauses. Already this technology, a radical new kind of carbon capture and storage, is causing a stir among scientists. It is cheap, it is efficient and it can be deployed straight away. It is called … leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

"On a filthy day last week, as governments gathered in Bali to prevaricate about climate change, a group of us tried to put this policy into effect. We swarmed into the opencast coal mine being dug at Ffos-y-fran in South Wales and occupied the excavators, shutting down the works for the day. We were motivated by a fact which the wise heads in Bali have somehow missed: if fossil fuels are extracted, they will be used."

Canada is another Northern site where activists are working to leave the oil in the soil. In an Edmonton conference last November, the University of Alberta's Parkland Institute and its allies argued for no further development of tar sand deposits (which require intensive sand heating — hence vast fossil fuel inputs — so oil can be extracted, and which devastate local water, fisheries and air quality).

Institute director Gordon Laxer laid out careful arguments for exceptionally strict limits on the use of water and greenhouse gas emissions in tar sand extraction; realistic land reclamation plans and financial deposits; no further subsidies for the production of dirty energy; provisions for energy security for Canadians (since so much of the tar sand extract is exported to the US); and much higher economic rents on dirty energy to fund a clean energy industry (currently Alberta has a very low royalty rate).

There are a great many examples where courageous communities and environmentalists have lobbied successfully to keep non-renewable resources (not just fossil fuels) in the ground, for the sake of the environment, community stability, work force health and safety and discouraging political corruption.

The highest-stake cases in South Africa at present are against Anglo American and LonPlats in the vast Limpopo Province platinum fields, and against Australia's Mineral Resources Commodities, which is searching for titanium and other minerals in the Wild Coast dunes.

In these sites, tough communities are resisting the multinational corporations. But they will need vigorous solidarity, because corporate extraction of these resources is extremely costly in terms of local land use, peasant displacement, water extraction, energy consumption, profit outflows and political corruption.

Still, the awareness that local activists are generating in these campaigns makes us all more conscious of how damaging bogus strategies like carbon trading can be, in contrast with a genuine project to change the world.

[Patrick Bond directs the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban () and can be reached at . His books include Climate Change, Carbon Trading and Civil Society: Negative Returns on South African Investments. He will be a guest speaker at the Climate Change|Social Change conference in Sydney, April 11-13. For more information about the conference email .]