The heroes of the hour

Well, the COP15 fiasco is all over and done with, and a clear villain has been identified: as ever, it’s China wot dunnit. Ed Miliband certainly says so, and who are we – or the press, for that matter – to say otherwise?

Certainly, there’s some truth to this charge. China certainly appears to have stonewalled throughout the negotiations, refusing to offer anything more substantive than a cut in the “carbon intensity” of its massive, and exponentially increasing, patterns of economic growth. If you think that sounds better than nothing, it’s worth pointing out that decreasing carbon intensity has been the norm in the West and across the global economy over the past century. It may mean that each unit of economic value generated impacts more lightly on the earth than otherwise – a good thing, or we’d all be in a position even more dire than we are at present – but it takes place in the context of an economic system with an inbuilt imperative to increase the number of those units as fast as possible. Like a shark, the capitalist economy requires constant forward motion, or it begins to perish. The result has been that, while efficiency gains have been made across a whole plethora of sectors, in absolute terms we are on an exponentially increasing upward trajectory, in terms not only of our carbon emissions, but of resource consumption of all kinds. In many cases, the benefits of greater energy efficiency (or “reduced intensity”) even cancel themselves out, on account of the “rebound effect” or “Khazoom-Brookes postulate”, as it’s been variously referred to. With better insulation, you can get used to a more comfortable temperature more of the time; greater fuel efficiency in aircrafts allows more and cheaper flights to take place; and so on. China’s offer to decrease its “carbon intensity”, therefore, offers nothing in the way of real carbon cuts – and could even accelerate its economic growth still further – a major problem when that growth is being driven by fossil fuels. There’s also, it’s worth pointing out, no guarantee that its emissions will be honestly or independently accounted for.

But China’s stonewalling at Copenhagen takes place in a certain context. Firstly, the other major polluting nation the US has refused to budge from its derisory offer of a 4% cut on 1990 levels by 2020 (which it has been selling as a more palatable 17% on 2005 levels – helpfully nudging its baseline year to one that no-one else uses), and is contributing a meagre level of funding to help China and other poor countries adapt to the impacts of climate change that are already being felt, or are in the pipeline. Secondly, the weight of historical responsibility for carbon emissions falls almost entirely on the rich world. We have not been aware of the facts of manmade climate change for long, but we have been broadly aware of the risks for over half a century, and took them without a second thought. As a result, we have benefited handsomely from our industrialisation and development (certain sectors, admittedly, considerably more than others). There is a pretty basic principle in play here, as ethicists Peter Singer and James Garvey have pointed out: “you broke it, you fix it” – or, in the case of adaptation funding, “you pay for it”. Thirdly, China’s per capita levels of carbon emissions are also around a fifth of those of the US – and its larger population ought to entitle it to greater emissions rights. Fourthly, given that large numbers of people in China still suffer dire poverty – and, perversely, many of the poorest people are forced to depend on particularly carbon-intensive processes – many of these emissions are simply of a different kind to the overwhelming majority of those in US: they provide for the basics of life, rather than for some of the most extravagant luxuries. Fifthly, many of these luxuries take the form of cheap consumer goods, manufactured in China for the benefit of Western consumers – a form of “carbon outsourcing” that leaves the West with the benefits and puts the carbon on China’s balance sheet.

For all these reasons, it seems highly unlikely – and frankly, unreasonable – that China would budge without seeing anything better than piss-poor commitments, and subsequent intransigence in its negotiating position, from the US.

If, in spite of this, China has been portrayed as the main villain, by contrast Brown and Miliband appear to have returned as heroes, with newspapers and environmental NGOs alike doling out praises for their efforts. Again, the echoes of the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign – with Blair and Brown successfully emerging as heroic campaigners on poverty when the more forthright NGOs were accusing them of active complicity – are stark.

Yet what was the UK’s record at the summit? From the fragmentary and often dubiously sourced evidence available, it’s a little difficult to know, but there are some clear clues. The UK seems to have been part of the “circle of commitment”, which stitched up a secret draft climate deal in advance of the talks – the so-called “Danish text”. This document made developing countries shoulder the weight of emissions cuts; shredded the Kyoto treaty; shifted power from the UN to the (rich world-controlled) World Bank; and offered a paltry $10bn in adaptation money in return for such concessions.

Later on, Brown was implicated in the ouster of Danish climate and energy minister Connie Hedegaard from her position as president of the conference, to be replaced by the Danish PM. Hedegaard was perceived as “too radical”, and was unhappy with the “Danish Text”, sources inside the conference told the Guardian’s John Vidal; the PM’s ouster was aimed at pushing the document through. Brown was party to the discussions of the ouster – which he approved.

Brown has apparently forwarded the idea of a $100bn adaptation fund for the developing countries – the deal ultimately agreed starts at $10 billion per year, and is supposed to reach $100bn by 2020. But, as has been seen on innumerable occasions with aid and debt relief, there’s little new money on the table, no guarantee it will ever be paid, and yet again what there is comes with all manner of strings attached. According to the World Development Movement,

“For the last two weeks, rich countries have been pushing their $10 billion in short-term finance. This money is being channelled through the World Bank, and so the Bank’s paymasters in rich countries can choose which countries will receive the money. Over recent months, the UK told Bolivia its eligibility for funding could be determined by its cooperation.

Of the UK’s adaptation money commitments, according to WDM:

All of this comes from pre-existing aid commitments, so is not new money, just diverting finance from other aid areas

$430 million, over half, was first pledged by Gordon Brown in 2007, and has already been given to the World Bank

So far 75 per cent is loans which will just increase unjust debts, rather than grants

So far 80 per cent is being spent through the World Bank, compared to nothing through the United Nations

All this, remember, is from our chosen “heroes of the hour”. Clearly, when one wrenches this episode out of the frame into which much of the media has forced it and begins to examine the cracks in the surface, Copenhagen looks less like a story of heroes and villains than a bunch of leaders looking out for their own national interests, often – particularly in the rich world – at others’ expense, all the while trying hard to look good for the cameras.


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