UN Climate Talks 2009: a Merger of Interest and Indifference

“Not only is civilised political discourse virtually extinguished, but the legal institutions into which it is transplanted are corrupted.  The courts become arenas for political claims and interests, each of them inordinate and resistant to compromise, and political life elsewhere becomes little more than bargaining or logrolling.”

English essayist John Gray’s words would easily have fit the script of the G77 developing nations and China, in their closing statement made at UN climate negotiations here on October 9th. As it was, their language was more emotive.

As rich countries made a number of explosive proposals to dilute their climate commitments ahead of December’s Copenhagen treaty, the G77 and China bloc Chairperson Lumumba Di-Aping responded in similarly high-octane style. At a press conference last Friday, he charged developed states of “massive leadership deficit”, and of manipulating the legal language to “confuse their own citizens” into accepting decisions that imposed developed country “interests to advance their economic superiority to support their lavish lifestyles, at the expense of the rest of the world”. This  apparent display of ethical lethargy was, he said, tantamount to “climatological totalitarianism”.

The witching hours of the 2-week event saw the EU and other wealthy nations effectively propose their retreat from the Kyoto Protocol and attempt to backpass a portion of their historical responsibility for emissions to developing countries, sparking the latter’s walk-out at one of the meeting sessions.

Martin Khor, Executive Director of the South Centre, said that this “took the [climate] process steps backwards”, and would downgrade the “nature and level of commitments…ironic at a time when the world has become much more aware of the dangers of climate change.”  It marked a shift by the EU, Australia and Japan -amongst others -towards America, and consolidated a unity of interests amongst the rich-world bloc that was prompted by US refusal to table proposals for their CO2 cuts.

The political intractability of the rich-poor world narrative was compounded by like subterfuge on the environmental front. The EU almost single-handedly reversed clauses from negotiating texts that would protect forests from logging and plantation-clearing, and might instead  subsidise those activities in developing countries.  Perversely, their proposal falls under the banner of a UNFCCC programme for reducing emissions from deforestation.

The talks did enjoy muted success in clarifying some mitigation, financing and rich-poor world technology transfer options, but the fact that options have been created does not presume either their justness or emissions-reducing benefit.  Copenhagen is not just a matter of ‘sealing the deal’ but one of what that deal is, and how and on whom the onus of binding agreements falls. At present, the capacity of the ‘deal’ to reduce risk to the poorest -and most climatically vulnerable -countries effectively asks them “to choose between no deal and a suicide pact” at Copenhagen, said Antonio Hill, Oxfam’s Senior Climate Advisor.


The priority at the outset in Bangkok was to make clear the CO2 and associated financial mitigation commitments of the (rich) Annex I countries, or A1. These would have been made in light of the $10.5 thousand billion dollars of investment over the next 20 years needed for the energy sector to mitigate to a 450ppm CO2e (parts-per-million CO2 equivalent) level, according to a report released in Bangkok by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Mitigation target figures for the US were especially needed because the Americans did not sign on to the supposedly binding commitments of the Kyoto Protocol, while the Annex I bloc did.  The idea was that the A1 should use Bangkok to define their CO2 targets under Kyoto’s second, more intensive mitigation phase that begins in 2013. Rather though, US silence on its objectives seems to have spooked the A1 into shirking that phase of Kyoto altogether and proposing not international, but national ‘pledge-and-review’ agreements.

This basically means that instead of internationally-bound targets spread over a specific set of timeframes, the A1 proposal opens up space for more broadly defining them, allowing rich countries to make a climate ‘pledge’, and potentially ‘review’, or change that pledge given future circumstance.

It is seen by the G77 and China as an attempt to infiltrate the unconditional  nature of Copenhagen and Kyoto with a get-out clause that could be invoked, presumably, in times of economic, diplomatic and political strain or gain.  In a statement made on Friday, they said the proposal would “render the Kyoto Protocol inoperable and redundant.  This approach and outcome is completely unacceptable.”

Latest developments at the Bangkok talks herald all the hallmarks of a ‘game-theoretical’ Race to the Bottom scenario: If the world’s richest country is loathe to hold the hand of climate-induced economic constraints, the other rich countries see little ‘rational’ reason to marry to them either. They would thus seek to shed Kyoto, the binding ring of enforcement, and in turn drag any effective, efficient and equitable global strategy for cooperation down with them.


John Maynard Keynes, speaking at the final plenary of the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement, said: “We, the delegates of this Conference… have been trying to accomplish something very difficult to accomplish.[…] It has been our task to find a common measure, a common standard, a common rule acceptable to each and not irksome to any.”  It is in scale, legacy and the intrusion of interests not original to intentions at Bretton Woods, that parallels with Copenhagen can be drawn, and warnings sounded.

Bretton Woods and its institutional offspring (the World Bank, IMF and US dollar ‘reserve currency’ regime) were instigated during the depths of WWII by a sense amongst powerful leaders that the root causes of conflict amongst them in the 20th Century lay in the ‘deadly jealousy’ of economic nationalism. This phenomenon, cashed out in ‘high tariffs, trade barriers, and unfair economic competition’, was what inexorably brought about the ‘economic dissatisfaction that breeds war’, wrote Cordell Hull, then US Secretary of State.

The solution, according to the Agreement’s US Negotiator, Harry Dexter White, was “a high degree of economic collaboration among the leading nations” that would collectively regulate their monetary dealings.  Keynes proposed a solution that took this goal one step further.  Instead of economic collaboration amongst the ‘leading nations’, he suggested an independent trading currency and a system of balancing the trade surplus and deficit of all countries in the world, such that none would ever incur a balance-of-payments debt crisis.

This would be done by charging an effective interest rate on both debtors and creditors that would create constant incentives to either import or export goods, depending on how much of the trading currency they did, or did not, hold.

At least in theory, such a method would have institutionalised a global step-by-step levelling of trade disparities, creating a world in which too much export-oriented prosperity was made unattractive in the short-run, while too much foreign exchange debt (as has occurred with particularly acuity in Latin America and Africa) would be systematically unfeasible. It would have been eminently more equitable than the current reality of the US proposal, and by lowering the ‘deadly jealousy’ between countries, brought peace.

65 years on, that world remains a long time away.  ‘Economic cooperation’ has a broad definition, and instead of carrying that principle onto a global scale, Bretton Woods rules and institutions would more or less club the cooperation and interests of the powerful, and would do so increasingly as time went on.

A classic of historical revisionism has seen many in the press claim that Keynes was the principle architect of Bretton Woods.  Rather, the creation of the IMF, World Bank, and US Dollar ‘reserve currency’ regime was, given their structure and substance, a rather ‘rational’ showpiece of contemporary economic Americana. Although it was the official negotiating position of Britain, Keynes’ proposals were summarily rejected by Harry Dexter White as follows: “We have taken the position of absolutely no.”

The reason for this was clear. The US was then the world’s biggest creditor, producer, and its most powerful political and military force. However superior it may have appeared for safeguarding long-term peace, Keynes’ proposal would in the medium term threaten that triumverate. The European Old World was in literal and economic ruins, and America recognised that it would need to rejuvenate both if it was to maintain the kind of production and export prosperity that it had enjoyed during the war years.

Britain, in the knowledge that it was effectively signing off an abdication of its tariff-protected economic empire, refused to ratify the treaty until it had been granted $4 billion dollars in aid.  It thus appears that the institutions and regulations that directly arose from Bretton Woods reflect a re-prioritisation of American, followed by European, national interests over the global ones that ostensibly instigated negotiations.

It also recycled the tired citation that the interests of power-holders are very much the same as those over whom that power is held. This ‘bite the hand that feeds you’ mentality is now being invoked in more subtle fashion at climate negotiations, in the form of ‘green growth’ or ‘technology’ to be produced by the rich and, in their good work of salvation, sold to the poor.

Geoffrey Crowther, Editor of The Economist magazine during Bretton Woods, wrote of the outcome: “Keynes was right.. the world will bitterly regret the fact that his arguments were rejected.”  In hindsight, this holds true in principle, if not practice.  ‘Reserve currency’ status has given the US an immense advantage in global trading:  it doesn’t have to export in order to acquire ‘foreign exchange’ for imports, and because it’s massive debt is dollar-denominated, it can continue a level of consumption echelons above its means.

Likewise, in failings and ‘capture’ that are well documented, the World Bank and IMF have since their inauguration -and particularly from the 1970s  -overseen the gradual insinuation of financial and geopolitical ends into the original mandate of their institutional means.  The evental reasons for this are manifold -the ‘Volcker Shock’, the end of the Cold War, the decline of American industry and so on -but it can be argued that the potential for these events to shape the institutional mandate were themselves written into both rule and structure of the interest-affected agreement that mothered them.

The implications of a modern parallel at Copenhagen would be grim. Thus the process currently underway by the A1 -of diluting the meaning and intention of commitments -gives the world little reason for joy.

Why the apparently petty textual re-wording of international agreements just ‘leaves open’ a space for exploitation is summed by Sarah Bracking, Senior Lecturer in Politics and Development at the University of Manchester.  She argues that whatever space has and will be given to those with -or with interests in -capital ownership, will be effectively attacked and expanded by that group in unison.

“Throughout the history of capitalism different critical masses of capital owners and the state structures of power into which they are embedded, have fought for power and territory against each other.”  More often than not, she writes, the outcome of this conflict is a kind of collective merger, an agreement to “share power and influence, and opportunities for capital export”.  ‘Development, imperialism’s successor’, is no exception. This merger is “underpinned in the modern age by the WB, the IMF and by the rules and regulations agreed at the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD.”

Given that the carbon market is, says the New York Times, “likely to become the largest commodity market in the world”, it is not hypochondria to say that Climate, perhaps Development’s institutional successor, is neither invulnerable to the meddling of these merged interests. Acting as an unwitting oracle for this possibility, the Former Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Michael Zammit Cutajar, likened “establishing a robust global regime for addressing climate change… [as] comparable to the creation of the international trading regime under the World Trade Organisation”.

In refusing to table its binding commitments, America has played its hand in seeding a collective movement that on the one hand, draws us into a ‘race to the bottom’, and on the other, is a continuation of this historical ‘rational game’, whose players cooperate to consolidate their position.

And what a game it is.


Decision-makers are well aware of the scale and severity of impending dangers. The collisions of natural disaster, water and food collapse, a critical slump in ocean life and global biodiversity, as well as disease, toxicity and pollution, will be multiplied by continuing population growth. These will create a “perfect storm” that will seriously affect all life on the planet by 2030, according to the UK government’s Chief Scientist.

The issue of population reduction, estimated by the London School of Economics to be at least 3 times cheaper than wind and 7 times cheaper than solar for abating CO2, is another climate sticking point that is little discussed at the Copenhagen negotiations. The nexus of family planning with human and religious rights makes it a moral grey area for government.

However, the likes of Lester Brown at the Earth Policy Institute argue that continued population growth is itself morally problematic.  He says that “nearly all of the 80 million people being added to world population each year are born in countries where natural support systems are already deteriorating..[and where] the risk of state failure is growing”.

At the same time, projections used in policymaking are often highly conservative and over-optimistic. For example, while the IEA’s investment-requirements projections operate under a 450 ppm scenario, this emissions level no longer carries with it the currency of scientific consensus.  The figure for avoiding catastrophe has now slouched to 350 ppm. This number has been echoed by the likes of Rajenda Pachauri, the UN’s top climate scientist, the UK’s Nicholas Stern, and Jim Hansen of NASA, who has said that “[at 450 ppm] evidence indicates we’ve aimed too high.”

Above 350 ppm, recent studies suggest that many small islands and coastally-dependent countries will for all purposes, cease to exist.   The Alliance of Small Island States, as well as Panama, Costa Rica and Guatemala, vociferously called for the representation of this target in the Bangkok negotiating texts. But as political and economic minnows, their calls are likely to go unheeded.

Predicating global preparedness for climate change on a single figure to be smoothly reached is, nevertheless, grossly unwise. The IEA’s projections, whose paths proceed as if the Earth responds to greenhouse gases in the same manner as the cost-benefit functions under which they are produced, are misleading.   Assuming that massive aggregate changes in the planet’s climate systems occur along a consistent, gradual curve has been largely refuted by precedent of their geological history.  Rather, climatic ‘tipping points’ appear to quickly and irreversibly shove the system one way or another.

In a 2009 publication, the UN recognised that “we may be within a few years of crossing tipping points with potential to disrupt seasonal weather patterns that support the agricultural acitivities of half the human population, diminish carbon sinks in the oceans and on land, and… could introduce unanticipated rates of sea level rise.”

In the policy context, because projections do not account for the possibility of these sudden and drastic changes, neither can they project the substantive retarding effect that such a tipping point’s economic, social and infrastructural disruption would have on mitigation, adaptation and their financing.  The upshot is that in these relatively stable climatic [and therefore economic] times, the rationale for immediately mastering economic and infrastructural capacity for mitigation and adaptation measures, is fairly impenetrable.

Sadly then, the intentions laid out by wealthy nations at Bangkok suggest their conception of rationality is of an autistic, monetary bent.

Fields of REDD, green roses too, we see them bloom, for me, us and eu.

Certainly the political bargaining being used to maintain an economic status quo hampers climate efforts.  However, other fundamental incentives such as food, biofuels, corporate power and economic idealism further threaten them.

There are aspects of the Copenhagen treaty that, if wrested by these from the UNFCCC mandate, could potentially introduce policies that produce white elephants for people and climate, and a bull-run for a financially-embedded minority. If one adds to the selfish mix both competing and clubby cries for singular national interests, the treaty might succeed in writing the institutionalised increase of emissions into global legislation.

A stunning example of this was on offer from the European Union, who blocked safeguards that would prevent the conversion of natural forests to plantations, and, in another amendment to the negotiating text, opened the door for the industrial logging of prime forest. These would come under the umbrella of Copenhagen’s ‘Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation’ (REDD) mitigation programme.

The second move, according to activist groups, appears to be a rather cynical re-ordering of the treaty’s manifold acronyms that (much like the Kyoto-diluting proposals) gives a broader leeway to the definition of good forest management by leaving open the possibility of doing so through profit-driven incentives, in the form of ‘sustainable logging’ or ‘carbon offsets’.

In a collective letter to the EU, socio-environmental NGOs present at Bangkok wrote that the switch in wording from ‘sustainable management of forests’ (SMF) to ‘sustainable forest management’ (SFM) was an attempt to “lend a green image to some of the most destructive logging practices in the tropics, and the lack of a clear definition of what constitutes “SFM” makes it impossible to disprove such claims.”

While the original term (SMF) did include beneficial activities like forest conservation and its small-scale use by communities, what the second (SFM) actually is has “literally no precise or established translation in most European languages, but the difference in the nuances could literally threaten the future of a forest,” said Laura Furones of the Ecosystems Climate Alliance.  This introduction to the REDD text has been motivated, say activists, by explicit national interests in European countries that have significant international timber operations, and who are also deeply submerged in a carbon market whose loopholes incentivise the passing off of emissions onto other countries.

On the other hand the implicit inclusion of plantation-clearing into REDD is not, for once, just a rich-world foible, despite being a product of EU text-mongering.  Although the EU and US have plans to aggressively increase their use of biofuels -which on an industrial scale requires huge tracts of cleared monoculture -countries like China, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, who have high population densities or little fertile land, have a more basic interest in plantations at heart: food.

In Madagascar, South Korean firm Daewoo has attempted to lease nearly half of the country’s arable land for food production, before public outrage collapsed the deal. China has already leased out great swathes in Africa and the Philippines, partly in return for China’s cheap and uninterfering provision of ‘hard’ infrastructure -bridges and roads. This relationship between land lease and infrastructure building is likely to keep increasing.  Indeed, from 2003-08, of 70 countries receiving contracts from the African Development Bank, the largest by-value recipient was China.

Safeguarding forests against plantation conversion might thus limit the future capacity of these countries to buy out land on which they can outsource feeding of their populations.  It is  telling that while a clutch of G77 countries including Brazil and India protested the safeguard’s removal, China’s usually compatriotic voice was not amongst these.

Unfortunately, concern over forests is no effete aestheticism. Deforestation and peatland destruction account for 25% of global emissions.  The Amazon, according to the Hadley Centre, is close to a climate and deforestation-induced ‘tipping point’ that will kill large areas of forest and reduce the growth rate of remaining plants by over 50%.  The UN says that  this “would raise temperatures from an anticipated 3.3 to 8.0° Celsius”. “Rains would not return beause there would be no forest to process them through evapotranspiration”.  In so many words, the Amazon would become a desert.

That situation is compounded by knowledge that the Amazon River carries a fifth of the world’s fresh water into the sea, bringing with it a proportionate amount of the nutrients needed to feed plankton, which act as the principle maritime absorbers of carbon.  The nutrients however, depend on the continued existence of life in the forest.

In this context, the space given to interpretation and circumstance in the REDD text is startling for the display of utmost indifference towards the global impacts of deforestation. It is also worrying because, as it stands, REDD explicitly lays out a largely rich-world conception of environmental protection as an activity to be mediated through ‘market-based mechanisms’. This is an approach that the G77 and China made clear should not dominate mitigation financing, which should instead, they said, rely on funding.


It is fashionable amongst leftist commentators to decry this as ‘market fetishism’.  But such a naturalist description underemphasises the intentionality of the market-centric approaches made at negotiations, and cannot explain the unanimity of difference between the rich and poor world on the issue.  The market is the mechanism of choice not because the rich world does not know any better, but because that mechanism serves it best.  In the climate context, it espouses a similar kind of a priori argument as that made by the ‘trickle-down’ economics that has increased national and global inequality the world over.

In its ideal form, a climate market will harness the power of the rich world’s financial clout to fund the ‘clean development’, mitigation and environmental protection of the globe, and in particular, of developing countries.  This works through a system of tradable carbon credits that are allocated to emitting businesses, to incentivise them into cleaning up their emissions output.  They can also, if they so choose, not clean up their act and instead claim credits by funding ‘sustainable’ emissions-reducing operations and projects abroad.  These loopholes are known as ‘carbon offsets’, and can be earned via certification from the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

With its recent textual changes, REDD might thus function in the carbon market as follows.  To reduce its national emissions, a country’s agribusiness, energy or logging industry could send its operations into a developing country.  There, so long as they could justify some loosely defined ‘sustainability’ tag, their activities would fall under REDD’s Sustainable Forest Management, or under one of promoting ‘forest growth’ through plantations.

REDD would then either directly subsidise these activities, or indirectly fund them through the award of carbon offset credits for the ’emissions-reducing’ benefits provided by the company. The company would then be able to sell its credits in the carbon market and generate a profit.  The timber and/or plantation product would likely then return to the company’s host, or similar, economy for consumption.

Thus, both the financial and physical product of one country’s resources could come half circle back to the industry and economy of another, wealthier nation, via a sterling perversion of the ‘polluter pays’ principle.  The ‘trickle-down’ of this outcome would ostensibly be the improved sustainable management of resources in the poorer country, and associated developmental and societal gains from income and ’emissions reductions’.

However, this justification has little historical basis.  A 2007 report by the World Bank concluded that “over the past sixty years, there is little evidence that [commercial logging in Africa] has lifted rural populations out of poverty or contributed in other meaningful and sustainable ways to local and national development.”

REDD as it currently stands would concentrate climate monies in rich countries, thereby increasing their ability to pay their way out of their domestic emissions reductions, in return for subsidising activities that are simply not capable of reducing emissions. This outcome already has precedent in the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), whose cap-and-trade system has, since its 2005 inception, unambiguously failed its environmental mandate.

In its first phase, notes Oscar Reyes of the NGO Carbon Trade Watch, the ETS “consistently awarded major polluters with more free pollution permits than their actual level of carbon emissions. This means it gave them no incentive to reduce emissions.” As a result, the permit price collapsed in 2007, at €0.01. In its second phase, “the EU claims emissions reductions of 3%, or 50 million tons, in ETS sectors in 2008. The trouble is that at least 80 mt of ‘carbon offsets’ in the developing world were bought as part of the ETS in 2009 – more than the level of the cap.”

The reality that ‘the market’ is not a fetish but a strategically invoked tool, has been given a good show by a US legislative bill passed in June at the House of Representatives.  The ‘Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009’ aims to protect American industry through domestic subsidies on energy-intensive and import-competitive sectors.  It also levies import tariffs on international goods under the pretext of their environmentally inefficient production processes.

According to the South Centre’s Vicente Paulo Yu, the ‘protectionist’ move is an attempt by the US to “extra-territorially enforce developed countries’ emissions standards onto developing countries’ products” and protect “GHG-emitting industries from the alleged adverse impacts that may arise as a result of imposing domestic GHG mitigation requirements”.

This also means that while America can offload its emissions onto other countries through programmes like carbon offsets, it can concurrently impose levies against those same countries for high emissions processes -that are likely to be in the very sectors in which the US is gaining credits for emissions-reducing offsets!  Meanwhile, the subsidisation of highly-emitting industries mean the US Government can essentially pay for the carbon credits those industries need, to continue ‘business-as-usual’ operation.

There do exist cogent, common-sense arguments for environmental trade restrictions, but these would not fall under the banner of ‘protectionism’ because they espouse principle, not national interest. NGOs and thinktanks like the New Economics Foundation have advocated the taxation of two-way goods movements that involve effectively identical products.  Their call against ‘trade for trade’s sake’ could be invoked to prevent identical goods produced in both the UK and New Zealand from being shipped endlessly and at high fuel and emissions costs, between the two countries. Neither cause nor effect of the US bill have these environmental motivations at heart.


Although usually unstated, the crux of arguments for proponents of market-engineering programmes like REDD lies in the ‘tragedy of the commons’ scenario that is much fabled in undergraduate economics.  This derives from a particular model of society in which the poor, living on common land, are apt to destroy it because of the pressures to draw as much as possible from it, given resource competition with other actors. The result is the ensuing ‘tragedy’ in which excess planting, grazing, felling and hunting effectively disintegrates the area’s life-carrying capacity.

This has become a catchall for privatising ‘common’ properties like land, air, water and trees. The model does hold some credence through history, but, certainly in the case of REDD, it is a clear and unjustified condescension towards people actually living in forests around the world today. It cannot account for the fundamental and considerable incentive those people have in protecting their surrounding forest, with the knowledge that it is threatened.

Neither does it account for the fact that the greatest example of a ‘tragedy of the commons’ lies with the wealthy nations’ rapacious harvesting of domestic and international resources that has led to climate change in the first place.  The greater irony is that this process proceeded under the watchful eye of domestic privatisation, or was fuelled by [private] ownership of colonial or concessionary lands.

In so doing the wealthy have actually succeeded in instigating a universal ‘tragedy’ outside of their own commons, but invoke this law to continue doing so! Thus insisting on the ownership-efficiency of markets as a singular panacea for climatic protection is over-simplistic and is open to use as a mask for reaching opportunistic – instead of climatic -priorities.

The case for indigenous management of forests, which has been a proposed fund-based alternative for REDD, is strong.  Forest people’s livelihoods come from the forest.  With fixed boundaries for their activities, the incentives to manage them appropriately are there.   Without proper responsibility for forest, the trees become the free-for-all of the ‘commons’, instead of a communally-dependent system.

While practice of slash-and-burn agriculture is often attributed to indigenous people’s callous simplicity, that is often a secondary result of an area’s commercial logging, which results in the degradation of ‘ecosystem services’ and thus a loss of incentive to protect the land, as people consider it degraded anyway.  The World Bank found that in Cameroon, “while smallholder slash-and-burn” are responsible for “about 90% of the deforestation, these factors are often secondary effects of tropical timber harvesting that degrades forest cover and contributes to associate declines in biodiversity.”

In Thailand, where the talks were taking place, social and environmental activist Somsak Malee told me of similar problems here, but the pattern is familiar to many elsewhere. About twenty years ago, “80% of those living in North Thailand’s mountains were evicted under the pretext of destructive forestry practices”.  In those mountains now there are “instead concessions for large timber companies to cut down the trees and spoil water sources, to add to a massive illegal industry,” he said.

“Really big deforestation comes from companies, bad officials and what I would call a ‘logging mafia’. [Forest] people’s interests lie in growing crops for their community, followed by small scale cash crop to sell in the cities. They do not simply destroy what is around them, because almost everything in their lives depends on what the nature surrounding them can provide.”

“This means they protect large areas of the forest to prevent overhunting, deforestation, erosion; there are self-limits on crop production and livestock farming such that society here must be strong and very collaborative.  When nobody is left living up here, few people have the resources, incentive or sense of community dependency to protect the forest.  It then just depends on laws, agencies and money, which can be much less effective.”


Easily negotiated successes at the final treaty in Copenhagen will be those that reduce greenhouse gases in ways requiring relatively little compromise from all parties. An exemplar case is the likely agreement on a  phase-down of HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons), a commonly-used refrigerant whose ‘global warming potential’ is of a potency thousands of times higher than CO2.

This measure, openly supported by the EU, is a critical constituent of any climate deal and would be no small environmental achievement. Projected release of HFCs will otherwise effectively negate “corresponding [CO2] reductions that might otherwise be achieved” through the efforts of the Copenhagen agreement, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency.

But in an institutional sense, the victory would be a soft one for the UNFCCC.  Such measures are relatively costless, hugely beneficial (there are economically viable substitutes for HFCs) and encroach on the interests of a very few. A phasedown would also function under the pre-existing Montreal Protocol, whose own institutional framework has done the hard graft of removing most ozone-harmful atmospheric gases.  This poster child of environmental cooperation is thus unrepresentative of the real bargaining challenges faced by Copenhagen’s negotiators, and while Montreal’s extension to HFCs would be a hugely positive development, this would be little cause for triumphalism amongst UNFCCC parties.


The strategies used by countries to subvert emissions reduction commitments all follow the path of protecting mostly wealthy economies’ growth. In the end, ‘the market’ is only one card in the hand of that true fetish, ‘growth’. It is bizarre that a decade which has seen rich-world countries ‘grow’ by accumulating enormous wealth and consumption, alongside increased national and global inequality and a decline across a spectrum of their social indicators, should be seen as the reference point for the world’s future development, in the face of its darkness.

The idea that somehow always increasing, but ‘green’, consumption is the road to verdant pastures anew is an environmental Ponzi pyramid that will fall as hard and as fast as the latest Wall Street one.  The difference is that we cannot make up for those mistakes later (not to say that the financial world has). Deferring the obvious need for considerable economic self-limitation onto ‘green growth’ through a ‘carbon free society’, is a hubris that is in addition, as Venezuela made clear at the Bangkok talks, “devoid of content”.

That there exists the financial power to avert many of the worst human effects of climate change is clear.  But it is a dangerous, unproven and neoliberal assumption that financial power must be used only for the ‘hard’ mass-production of ‘green technologies’ (that will be developed in, and sold by, rich countries), rather than for the ‘soft’, fundamental improvement of social and institutional infrastructures. As Bracking notes, “investments in hard infrastructure such as dams [..] is thought [by neoliberal economists] to improve long-run efficiency and cause growth much more efficiently, [..] than aid for short-run social protection or saving today’s lives.”

Given the production dynamics of ‘green growth’, and the regularity and variety with which it has been manifest at climate talks and in the media, it can be fairly assumed that too often, the very real necessity for emissions reductions is seen by many as a convenient synonym and substitute for growth.

If we apply to global society Bracking’s charge that “in unequal societies, growth is regularly captured by the rich and used to shore up their position relative to the poor, as they build more electric fences [..] to prevent ethical wealth distribution,” the sleight of hand being played into the future of international climate legislation becomes apparent.  As the rapacious competition of growth feeds a crisis of insecurity, inferiority and identity, it has and will necessitate the endless scramble and conflict for resources.

It is thus the institutions that mediate growth that must also be seriously examined and re-evaluated at climate talks, if the imminence of the planet is not to be interminably captured by interest after interest. It took two world wars for developed country leaders to see the sense in institutionally limiting the excesses of human competition.  The world’s public must have the chance to see through the pithy acronyms, lingo and spin of this climate treaty.  They must also have the chance to react to them, lest it takes a similar or greater series of catastrophes for world leaders to, once more, see good sense.

At the end of the day, even those national leaders whose decisions merge with the ‘ease of doing business’ crowd will begin to understand that their short-term consolidation of power will in relative terms make that power and its entwined ‘national interest’, redundant in the long run.  It might just take an occurrence of extra-national scale -that is, a disaster of continental or global proportions -for the epiphany. When the economies of the poor crumble under climate change, and whole regions can no longer be seen as ‘markets’ or ‘production zones’, the stagnant production and huge consumption of the wealthy will likewise implode, doing so with a true bonanza of climate refugees.

While the UNFCCC clock ticks through flood after cyclone after famine after flood, and through the die-off of species, forests and climate systems, a report released by a Cambridge ocean physicist concludes that the Arctic Circle will soon be seen blue from space. As their hands close over Copenhagen, the rich world might bear in mind John Gray’s chilling contention, that material “Progress promises release from time -the hope that, in the spiralling ascent of the species, we can somehow preserve ourselves from oblivion.”

Simon Bowring can be reached at simon_bowring@hotmail.com.