Kyoto Protocol: Emissions Impossible?

Issue 

BY JIM GREEN

How should environmentalists progress the fight against greenhouse polluters in the wake of the compromise struck on the Kyoto Protocol at the United Nations conference in Bonn, Germany in late July? And should environmentalists demand that the Australian government ratify the Kyoto Protocol?

There is near-unanimous agreement among environmentalists that the Kyoto Protocol should be ratified despite its flaws.

In Australia, supporters of ratification of the treaty include the Australian Greens, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the World Wide Fund for Nature (Australia), Greenpeace Australia, and the Australian Democrats. Almost invariably, the case for ratification is assumed rather than argued, and almost invariably, the demand for ratification is made despite widespread agreement on the serious flaws in the Bonn agreement.

Dissenting voices are hard to find. A July 27 article in SchNEWS, a British green left publication (<http://www.schnews.org.uk>), argued: "While the cops were beating shit out of protesters in Italy this week, delegates in Bonn, attending the meeting on climate change, were busy selling the environment down the drain.

"As NGOs, the so-called defenders of the environment, were quickly celebrating the agreements reached in Bonn as a 'a major political victory', others with a better understanding of the games being played inside the conference centre took a more direct course of action. Nine activists from Rising Tide climbed a 50-metre crane outside the congress centre on Godesberger Allee and dropped a banner which read, '60% Carbon Dioxide Reductions HERE and NOW' ...

"What the activists were aware of, and something that the NGOs had completely overlooked, was that the new watered-down version of the Kyoto agreement 'with added loopholes' looks more like a concession to the interests of big corporate business and political harmony than anything concerned about preserving the environment. The deal reached behind closed doors contains no environmental integrity at all."

Similarly, Rising Tide UK describes the Bonn agreement as "a disgraceful sell out" and a "disaster" in its August 8 newsletter (<http://www.risingtide.org.uk>).

Bonn agreement

There's little to cheer about in the Bonn agreement. The primary responsibility of the advanced capitalist countries for increased greenhouse gas concentrations is reflected in the agreement, which does not mandate greenhouse gas reductions in Third World countries (for the time being at least).

The agreement also contains provisions for funds to help Third World countries invest in climate-friendly technology and to prepare for and mitigate the effects of climate change; however, the details of these funding arrangements are far from settled.

The wins — small in number and small in scale — are clearly outweighed by the problems with the Bonn agreement.

Formally, 38 developed countries have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2% between 1990 and 2008-2012, but the figure is more like 1-2% following the deals struck in Bonn. Reductions of 60-80% are necessary to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

The Bonn agreement contains generous provisions for the use of carbon sink activities — such as increased forest plantations or reduced land clearing — as alternatives to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Most of these plantations will be established in the Third World, where they are cheapest to establish. Ecosystems will be destroyed to make way for monoculture plantations. Indigenous communities will be dispossessed and, where necessary, repressed.

The Bonn agreement also signals a further step towards a global greenhouse emissions trading system — a "carbon casino".

Many environment and social justice groups signed on to a statement prior to the Bonn conference which concluded that, "If unleashed now, the multibillion-dollar global emissions markets would develop their own disastrous dynamic. Given the bias towards corporate interests by neo-liberal governments and international institutions, once these markets have been allowed to operate and expand, it will be virtually impossible to close off the lucrative trade in fraudulent emissions credits."

Compliance and penalty issues were almost completely stripped of substance at Bonn — countries failing to meet targets will face increased targets in subsequent years (1.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide for each tonne in excess of the target, all of which will have to come from domestic emission reductions), and will be suspended from selling carbon credits until emissions targets have been met.

To ratify or not?

Clearly the new-look Kyoto Protocol — described by Greenpeace Germany as Kyoto Lite — is a dismal failure. However, the broader political context of climate change negotiations also needs consideration.

Environmentalists could — and should — propose ideas and models for a serious international effort to address climate change.

But, within the current balance of political forces, advocating the junking of the Kyoto Protocol would be welcomed by corporate polluters and their political operatives, and it would clear political space for the voluntary, technology-oriented, market-friendly plan under development by the US government as an alternative to the Kyoto Protocol.

In the next round of United Nations greenhouse talks, in Morocco in late October and early November, the US plan is likely to be used to try to scuttle the Kyoto Protocol or at least to further weaken it.

On balance, environmentalists should demand that the Australian government ratify the Kyoto Protocol, but this must be heavily qualified and many battles will need to be fought to prevent environmentally destructive and socially exploitative projects proceeding under the guise of "climate change abatement".

There is also an ongoing need to counter public disengagement and disempowerment. Should sufficient countries ratify the Kyoto Protocol, climate change will be depoliticised.

A similar process took place in the years after the 1997 Kyoto conference, as described by Dr Phil McManus, a lecturer in the School of Geosciences at Sydney University, in an article published in Australian Geographical Studies last year.

In the year after the 1997 Kyoto Conference, McManus shows, political and corporate elites around the world successfully reframed the debate: climate change was no longer a political controversy over a global environmental crisis, but a management issue concerned with technical fixes and commodity relations, such as carbon trading schemes.

McManus argues that the climate change coverage of the establishment media has been disempowering: "It is unfortunate that climatic change has increasingly become an issue that happens 'elsewhere' and is seen as the realm of select scientists and government ministers, rather than an issue for wider environmental action."

This goes some way to explaining the 1999 Australian Bureau of Statistics survey which found that climate change ranked only ninth out of 18 on the list of environmental concerns in Australia

No doubt there is now greater public understanding of, and concern about, climate change as a result of the US pull-out of the Kyoto process in March, and the Howard government's ongoing collusion with corporate polluters.

A Newspoll survey commissioned by Greenpeace in April found that 80% of the 1200 respondents were in favour of Australia ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, with or without US ratification, with 10% opposed and 10% uncommitted.

Mobilising public concern is clearly a priority, yet some mainstream environment groups entrench public disengagement. The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and Greenpeace, to their credit, have contributed important research and to some extent they have exposed collusion between corporate polluters and the federal government.

However, the ACF is collaborating with two of Australia's worst greenhouse polluters — BP Amoco and BHP. Moreover, the green-capitalist manifesto released by the ACF in October says that the foundation seeks collaboration with business and governments; there's no role for the public.

Likewise, the Greenpeace leaflets which say "The more you give, the more we save" are nothing more than a crude grab-for-cash which further entrench the number one problem facing the environment movement: public disempowerment and disengagement.

The Australian Greens latest contribution to the climate change debate — supporting the OECD's call for a carbon tax in Australia — is no less problematic. In almost all their manifestations, eco-taxes (such as increased petrol or electricity prices) are inequitable.

"The Greens advocated a polluters-pay tax regime instead of the GST", Greens Senator Bob Brown said in an August 8 media release. But the eco-taxes proposed by the Greens are consumption taxes. So, as an alternative to the GST consumption tax, the Greens propose different consumption taxes.

The movement's challenges are numerous: fighting corporate polluters and their political operatives; countering the disempowering role of the establishment media; countering the green-capitalist nostrums coming from the right wing of the environment movement; and, above all, mobilising public concern.

One immediate priority must be to link campaigns against corporate greenhouse polluters and their political operatives with the broader anti-corporate globalisation movement. This issue is discussed in a recent paper by Tom Athanasiou and Paul Baer from EcoEquity, (<http://www.fpif.org/papers/kyoto.html>):

"The challenge is for climate change and anti-globalisation activists to see their mutual movements in a broader perspective. Both are focused on the same core problem — sustainable human well-being on an increasingly overburdened planet — and both are being led, each by their own logic, to the problems of historical and institutional justice.

"From Seattle to Genoa, the protesters have stood for labour rights and environmental protection, or more broadly for empowering those at the bottom to rewrite the rules of globalization.

"From Kyoto to Bonn, the climate campaigners have worked to constrain the engines of development, to force their adaptation to the Earth's finite ecological spaces, and, increasingly, to make the commitment to equity and democracy that this finitude requires.

"Two cutting edge movements are better than one; these two, in particular, have a lot to learn from each other. In fact, if you rub two cutting edges against each other, don't they both get sharper?"

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