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Paris vs. climate change, or Paris vs. the climate?

by Gareth Bryant on December 3, 2015

In his speech at the opening of the Paris climate conference this week, US President Barack Obama declared his hope that the gathering of world leaders will be considered a “turning point…a moment we finally determined that we would save our planet.”

There is no doubt Paris represents a turning point in the history of global climate negotiations, but one that is unlikely to slow the pace of global climate change.

New climate model

Gone is the ambition to create an agreement that legally binds countries, particularly rich countries, to certain emissions reductions targets. This approach, which characterised the last major global climate agreement (albeit without the participation of the US), the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, has been replaced with a system where countries volunteer their own targets.

Analysis by the UN found that targets submitted by governments are a recipe for warming of well in excess of the conference’s stated goal of 2 degrees Celsius – an inadequate goal for achieving a safe climate in its own right.

Then there are the contentious issues of the additionality of climate finance given to poor countries to respond to climate change and compensation for communities that will inevitably suffer loss and damage for a problem they did not create.

turnbullIn Australia, the Turnbull government is failing on all of these counts. Australia’s 2030 target represents an increase of emissions from burning fossil fuels by 5 per cent from the standard 1990 baseline, the $1 billion in funds for developing countries pledged by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull comes from the existing aid budget, and the government has been unwilling to accept liability for the harms caused by historical emissions.

But rather than scrutinising effectiveness of climate policies, negotiators in Paris are focusing their attention on creating a transparent carbon accounting system to verify greenhouse emissions and efforts to reduce them. The logic, in line with the new voluntary framework, is that establishing accessible information on climate progress places pressure on governments to meet existing targets and increase future targets in response to the known actions of others.

Old market agenda

While there is some merit here, at least as important as whether emissions are being reduced is how they are being reduced. Unfortunately, market solutions remain on the agenda.

The Kyoto Protocol established a range of flexibility mechanisms – the Clean Development Mechanism, Joint Implementation and Emissions Trading – to allow countries to meet their commitments by purchasing emissions reductions from elsewhere. These policies were plagued by controversy as attempts to profit from carbon trading undermined environmental integrity, before the instruments collapsed under the weight of their own contradictions. Offset credits, representing one tonne of carbon, have been selling for only a few cents since 2013.

Nonetheless, around half of the climate targets submitted by governments intend to use or will consider using international carbon markets. This is the corollary of the ‘bottom up’ focus on emissions reporting, as carbon trading between countries with decentralised climate plans also requires a common carbon accounting system.

The draft negotiating text reflects this by including options to create new carbon units to trade as ‘internationally transferable mitigation outcomes’. Presently, many of these references are bracketed, meaning there is no consensus and the final outcome remains to be seen.

KleinThere is an obvious difficulty with relying on international carbon trading to meet climate commitments: not all countries can outsource their emissions reductions responsibilities. Carbon markets – whether the international schemes being discussed at Paris, or the regional or domestic schemes that the EU and China will use to meet their targets – attempt to resolve this issue by finding the cheapest emissions reduction options. The flaw with this market logic is that it deflects climate action away from the most profitable sources of carbon pollution that are the main drivers of climate change.

Capitalism v. the climate

Naomi Klein has recently cut through false solutions – not just carbon trading, but also green consumption, unconventional gas, carbon capture and storage and geo-engineering – with a simple proposition that instead directs attention to the core of the climate problem: capitalism vs. the climate.

Contemporary capitalism, Klein argues, has been underpinned by “the mass export of products across vast distances (relentlessly burning carbon all the way), and the import of a uniquely wasteful model of production, consumption, and agriculture to every corner of the world (also based on the profligate burning of fossil fuels).” The scientific recognition of climate change is a case of “really bad timing” because the processes of deregulation, privatisation and budgetary austerity that facilitated the resulting explosion in emissions have also blocked effective and necessary climate policies.

MalmKlein’s book and documentary are having a significant and valuable impact on public debate, although her central argument has been criticised by many advocates for climate action for stepping too far outside of the market and technology-based paradigm and thus giving ground to conservative voices. Yet, a recently published book by Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital, suggests that Klein’s proposition goes far deeper than the era of corporate globalisation and neoliberalism.

Malm traces the history of the capitalism’s dependence on fossil fuels for expanded accumulation from the introduction of the coal-fired steam engine in the industrial revolution. He argues that fossil fuels are deeply ingrained capitalist class relations and indicative of imperialist expansion due to the congruence between coal, oil and gas and the spatial and temporal logic of capital.

With a draft negotiating agreement that fails to even mention the words ‘fossil fuels’, Klein and Malm’s interventions will be essential to judge whether what unfolds over the next two weeks can be understood in terms of Paris vs. climate change, or just Paris vs. the climate.

Gareth Bryant
Gareth Bryant is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.
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