Source : http://www.johannhari.com
Every delegate to the Copenhagen summit is being greeted by the sight of a vast fake planet dominating the city’s central square. This swirling globe is covered with corporate logos - the Coke brand is stamped over Africa, while Carlsberg appears to own Asia, and McDonald’s announces “I’m loving it!” in great red letters above. “Welcome to Hopenhagen!” it cries. It is kept in the sky by endless blasts of hot air.
This plastic planet is the perfect symbol for this summit. The world is being told that this is an emergency meeting to solve the climate crisis – but here inside the Bela Centre where our leaders are gathering, you can find only a corrupt shuffling of words, designed to allow countries to wriggle out of the bare minimum necessary to prevent the unraveling of the biosphere.
Staggering across the fringes of the summit are the people who will see their countries live or die on the basis of its deliberations. Leah Wickham, a young woman from Fiji, broke down as she told the conference she will see her homeland disappear beneath the waves if we do not act now. “All the hopes of my generation rest on Copenhagen,” she pleaded. Dazed Chinese and Indian NGOs explain how the Himalayan ice is rapidly vanishing and will be gone by 2035 – so the great rivers of Asia that are born there will shrivel and cease. They provide water for a quarter of humanity.
Mohammed Nasheed, the President of the drowning Maldives, said simply: “The last generation of humans went to the moon. This generation of humans needs to decide if it wants to stay alive on planet earth.”
We know what has to happen to give us a fighting chance of avoiding catastrophe. We need carbon emissions in rich countries to be 40 percent lower than they were in 1990 - by 2020. We can haggle with each other over how to get there but we can’t haggle with atmospheric physics over the end-goal: the earth’s atmosphere has put this limit on what it can absorb, and we can respect it, or suffer.
Yet the first week of this summit is being dominated by the representatives of the rich countries trying to lace the deal with Enron-style accounting tricks that will give the impression of cuts, without the reality. It’s essential to understand these shenanigans this week, so we can understand the reality of the deal that will be announced with great razzamataz next week.
Most of the tricks centre around a quirk in the system: a rich country can ‘cut’ its emissions without actually releasing fewer greenhouse gases. How? It can simply pay a poor country to emit less than it otherwise would have. In theory it sounds okay: we all have the same atmosphere, so who cares where the cuts come from?
But a system where emissions cuts can be sold among countries introduces extreme complexity into the system. It quickly (and deliberately) becomes so technical that nobody can follow it - no concerned citizen, no journalist, and barely even full-time environmental groups. You can see if your government is building more coal power stations, or airports, or motorways. You can’t see if the cuts they have “bought” halfway round the world are happening – especially when they are based on projections of increases that would have happened, in theory, if your government hadn’t stumped up the cash.
A study by the University of Stanford found that most of the projects that are being funded as “cuts” either don’t exist, don’t work, or would have happened anyway. Yet this isn’t a small side-dish to the deal: it’s the main course. For example, under proposals from the US, the country with by far the highest per capita emissions in the world wouldn't need to cut its own gas by a single exhaust pipe until 2026, insisting it’ll simply pay for these shadow-projects instead.
It gets worse still. A highly complex system operating in the dark is a gift to corporate lobbyists, who can pressure or bribe governments into rigging the system in their favour, rather than the atmosphere’s. It’s worth going through some of the scams that are bleeding the system of any meaning. They may sound dull or technical - but they are life or death to countries like Leah’s.
Trick One: Hot Air. The nations of the world were allocated permits to release greenhouse gases back in 1990, when the Soviet Union was still a vast industrial power - so it was given a huge allocation. But the following year, it collapsed, and its industrial base went into freefall – along with its carbon emissions. It was never going to release those gases after all. But Russia and the Eastern European countries have held onto them in all negotiations as “theirs”. Now, they are selling them to rich countries who want to purchase “cuts.” Under the current system, the US can buy them from Romania and say they have cut emissions - even though they are nothing but a legal fiction.
We aren’t talking about climatic small change. This hot air represents ten gigatonnes of CO2. By comparison, if the entire developed world cuts its emissions by 40 percent by 2020, that will only take six gigatonnes out of the atmosphere.
Johann Hari is an award-winning journalist who writes twice-weekly for the Independent.
To read more of his articles, click here.
For an archive of his writings on global warming, click here.