Profits take priority over planet

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Profits take priority over planet

By Norm Dixon

In early December, the rulers of the richest capitalist countries had the opportunity to set aside their self-interest and economic rivalry and agree to cuts in greenhouse gas emissions large enough to begin to avert the potentially catastrophic consequences of global warming. They blew it.

From December 1 to 11, government representatives from throughout the world met in Kyoto, Japan, to decide how to tackle the greenhouse crisis. The latest in a series of international meetings that began with the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the Kyoto gathering was supposed to be where the wealthy countries agreed on decisive action to stabilise, then reduce, the greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere.

Unless these gases are stabilised — according to the 2500 scientists who make up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the Earth's average temperature will rise between 1.5 and 4.5°C during the next century and result in rising sea levels, severe storms, increasing desertification and epidemics.

Stabilisation requires global greenhouse emissions to be rapidly cut by at least 60%. Anything less will mean increased global warming. North America, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand are responsible for more than 75% of current emissions.

Placing the profits and "competitiveness" of their powerful corporations — and the people who own them — above the welfare of the planet's entire population, negotiators for the industrialised countries filibustered, backtracked and horse-traded. The final agreement requires only token reductions that will not arrest the accumulation of greenhouse gases.

Prior to the Kyoto conference, the European Union proposed a cut of 15% from 1990 levels by 2010, Japan — the second largest greenhouse gas emitter — proposed a target of 5% below 1990 levels by 2012, and the US — the largest single emitter, contributing almost 25% of current emissions — supported a return to 1990 levels by 2012. Each position was based on what each trading bloc felt would least disadvantage its industries.

The only proposal that genuinely addressed the crisis came from the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which represents the states most vulnerable to climate-induced sea level rises. It argued that industrialised countries should make a 20% cut from 1990 levels by 2005. The AOSIS position barely rated a mention in either the negotiations or the media coverage.

The final agreement was a compromise between the European, US and Japanese delegations: the European Union would reduce emissions by 8% below 1990 levels by 2012, the US by 7% and Japan by 6%. Altogether, 38 industrialised countries would cut greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in a global average cut of 5.2% below 1990 levels. The agreement contains no penalties for countries that fail to meet their targets.

The US successfully argued for a system of tradeable "emissions quotas". Industrialised countries will be able to earn emission "credits" towards their targets by bankrolling "energy efficient" projects in Third World countries. They will also be able to buy "spare" greenhouse gas emissions from countries that exceed emission-reduction targets.

Chief US negotiator Stuart Eizenstat claimed that the agreement "contains the core elements of a strong and realistic framework to protect both the environment and the global economy ... based on flexible, market-based mechanisms".

Eizenstat's enthusiasm was not universally shared. Greenpeace declared the agreement so full of loopholes that it "will result in no real reductions from 1990 levels". Third World governments, led by China and India, pointed to the tradeable emissions quotas as one such loophole. Instead of making real cuts, the US need only transfer production to more modern, capital-intensive US-owned factories in the Third World or buy "rights to pollute" from other countries.

The US is likely to meet most of its "reductions" by simply purchasing Russia's and Ukraine's greenhouse gas "credits" — which are available because, since 1990, many of the large polluting industries of the former Soviet Union have ceased production.

WA Greens Senator Dee Margetts, who attended the Kyoto conference as an observer, identified the Australian, US, Canadian, New Zealand and Japanese delegations as the "five spoilers" whose influence resulted in an agreement that "will be disastrous".

The intransigence of the Australian government delegation, led by environment minister Robert Hill, was rewarded with an emissions increase of 8%. Hill threatened not to sign any agreement that forced emissions cuts on Australian industry.

The conference agreed to allow Australia to include reduced land clearing into its calculation of greenhouse emissions. Land clearing currently accounts for about 18% of Australia's carbon dioxide emissions.

Greenpeace estimates that factoring in the ending of land clearing — there is very little vegetation left to clear — will allow Australian fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissions to rise by up to 23%, far above the government's pre-Kyoto ambit claim of an 18% increase!

Despite the weakness of the Kyoto agreement, sections of the US ruling class are threatening to scuttle it because it does not commit Third World countries to greenhouse gas reductions.

At the Rio summit, it was agreed that the Third World would not be required to take action immediately since the First World was responsible for most past and present emissions. This was also a recognition that the First World has the resources to begin to cut emissions, immediately and massively.

The US Senate has already passed a resolution by 95-0 refusing to accept a global warming treaty that does not commit Third World countries to cutting emissions. The Democrat and Republican senators who co-sponsored the resolution have stated that Kyoto violates that resolution.

US negotiator Stuart Eizenstat described the exclusion of the Third World as "the single greatest disappointment and regret". US President Bill Clinton also expressed disappointment.

Vice-president Al Gore confirmed that the White House would not ask Congress to ratify the agreement "until there is meaningful participation by key developing nations". The Kyoto agreement is not binding on a country until its government ratifies the treaty.