Will COP21 Lead to Carbon Markets and an Unenforceable Agreement?

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Chris Williams and Amy Miller discuss the shortcomings that could find their way into the final text at Paris

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

The United Nations’ two-week-long climate conference known as COP 21 is underway in Paris with its stated goal of producing a binding global climate agreement that would limit the rise in global average temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius. But how much will market-based mechanisms play in the global agreement to cut greenhouse gas, and how effective have they been? That’s our next topic. And for that I’m joined by Amy Miller in Montreal and Chris Williams in New York City.

Amy Miller is an award-winning mediamaker and social justice organizer. Her documentaries include The Carbon Rush, No Land No Food No Life, and Myths for Profit. And Chris Williams is a professor at Pace University and a longtime environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crises. I thank you both for joining us.

CHRIS WILLIAMS: Thank you.

AMY MILLER: Thank you.

PERIES: Amy, I’m going to start with you and your new film, The Carbon Rush. Let’s have a look at the trailer.

[Trailer for The Carbon Rush]

PERIES: Amy, I thank you for setting up our debate and discussion today with that fabulous trailer. Thank you, and I look forward to seeing that film.

MILLER: Thank you.

PERIES: So Amy, let me begin with you. Now, as you say in the film, since Kyoto the carbon offset projects and cap and trade programs have already been in place, and they’re not working. Why aren’t they working?

MILLER: Well, a lot of people argue that it’s only a few bad apples, that we only see a few projects that are problematic. But essentially, you know, I could have pulled from hundreds if not thousands of projects that exist that all have the same reoccurring problems, where they’re displacing people from their territory, they’re taking the resources from the indigenous people on that territory, all in the guise of so-called solving the problem. And that’s the problem with the offset projects, is that there is no accountability mechanism. There is very little due process. The host countries themselves dictate whether or not they’re acceptable, and then they just become part of the carbon offset emission trading scheme.

So we see the reoccurring problems, where we’re having projects that I think most people would agree do little to actually reduce carbon emissions being passed as being a carbon offset project, where people are getting money for these projects but we’re not actually seeing any carbon reductions, and in fact we’re seeing a lot of problems falling onto the people who have actually the smallest footprint, carbon footprint, in the world. That being the indigenous people and people throughout the global South.

PERIES: Now, Amy, some would argue that regenerating and growing trees is actually a good thing, even if they’re doing these horrible things that we need to do in order to function in society and–you know, we need energy, after all. What do you say to them?

MILLER: Well, I would say, well, where are the trees being planted? If they’re being planted on a small-scale agricultural farmer’s land that are actually, you know, protecting the earth, where it’s, you know, the best form of agriculture we can have on the planet, then we don’t actually need the trees to be planted there. And more importantly, what kind of trees are being planted? Most often we’re seeing projects that are palm oil, palm trees being planted, and that actually is sucking up water. There’s tons of chemicals and toxins being used, pesticides to grow these trees.

And so it’s not looking at it with a very holistic analysis and understanding. It’s a very simple, simplistic understanding of saying oh, well, planting trees is fine, without looking at any of the externalities. And again, as I mentioned, these externalities are actually impacting the people that had the lowest carbon footprint in the world rather than where the actual pollution is happening. We’re not seeing the big polluters actually cut down. We’re seeing them allowed to continue to pollute in the guise of buying carbon credits that are going to reduce the carbon emissions, which actually in the end don’t.

One analogy I like to bring forward that helps people understand is the idea of a diet. Everyone loves to lose weight, but you can’t pay someone else to go on your diet. And that’s essentially the base argument of the carbon market, is saying I can continue to pollute, and somewhere someone else is going to do the cutting down, and I’ll get to lose the pollution. But that’s not actually how it plays out.

PERIES: That’s a great analogy, Amy. So Chris, let me go to you. The IPCC came up with different scenarios in their reports to cut emissions going forward. How much did market-based mechanisms such as cap and trade figure in them?

WILLIAMS: Well, a lot, actually. The–and some of them don’t even really exist. And just to follow on from Amy’s point, we know, we have more than ten years experience now with the European trading system, which by all accounts, mainstream, left-wing, even right-wing, you can read the Financial Times, indicate that it’s been a complete failure in terms of reducing emissions in Europe. The reason that emissions have gone down in Europe is more to do with switching away from coal to natural gas, because fracking has made natural gas so cheap. Hardly a step forward in many regards. And 2008 economic crisis, which shattered the employment prospects for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

Combined with, you know, the fact that for example, how does Holland manage to cuts its emissions? Well, it’s very much tied into the palm oil industry in Indonesia. And Indonesia is the fourth or fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Why is that? Almost entirely that is the result of deforestation and forest fires caused by those palm oil plantations going up and ripping out virgin forest, where lots and lots of people formerly lived.

And why is Holland involved in that trade in particular, and getting credit for that, associated with the palm oil industry, because of its colonial associations with that country. So we’re actually talking about–when we talk about historical emissions and who’s really responsible, then we’re also talking about, again, the rich world, especially when you factor in the fact that the recent Oxfam report indicated that the richest 10 percent through their lifestyles contribute 50 percent of emissions, and the poorest 10 percent almost nothing. Sorry, the poorest 50 percent only contribute 10 percent. So three and a half billion people contribute 10 percent of the problem. Half the world’s population.

So the extension of those mechanisms, which we already know don’t work, along with biofuels production and other untried and untested technologies which don’t even exist as yet such as carbon capture and storage, none of these add up to a solution. Especially when you factor into the fact that they’re not even aiming for 2 degrees. The INDCs, or intended nationally agreed-upon contributions, only add up to at best 2.5 degrees of warming. And much more likely, because they’re based on things that don’t exist yet, 3.7 degrees of warming. And so they’re giving up, actually, before they’re even trying.

And we’re now talking about not legally binding treaties but only voluntary offerings from countries. So who is it that’s going to oversee a country that doesn’t comply with these voluntary contributions? And in any case, they’re not nearly up to the scale that we need to actually combat climate change, because we now know that 2 degrees is actually a very desperate scenario for millions of people around the world. And we really need to be aiming for, now that we’ve already gone up 1 degree C, we really need to be aiming to go up only another half. Which means radical reductions in–not so much focused on emissions, which is the real problem here. We should be focusing on changes to production. And that is where–nobody is talking about those things. Nobody is talking about the need for regulation and the swift phasing out of fossil fuels, starting with coal.

PERIES: Chris, let’s take up two of your main beefs here, which is–one is that we don’t have a binding agreement coming out of Paris, which is going to be the likely scenario. Now, why is there so much resistance to the binding agreement? And if there was one, what would it look like?

WILLIAMS: Well, there’s been so much resistance because the competition that exists between different corporations also goes on between different countries. And what one country can manage in terms of their emissions reductions and so on, or changes to production, is completely different to other countries. And they’re all fearful of how they will get undercut in terms of competition to extend markets and carry on with the whole growth of endless accumulation that goes on under capitalism. So that competition, I would argue, prevents them from coming out from it with any binding agreement.

I mean, Canada, for example, has exceeded its targets under what it pledged to do under Kyoto by 30 percent, primarily because of the tar sands industry. And what was its response? Well, it just pulled out of the treaty. And nobody ever heard anything else about what Canada was up to. So there are no real sanctions, depending on which country you’re talking about, of course, that could be applied. What would happen if the United States did not comply with its own plans for emissions reductions, which are weak to begin with? Who would police and discipline certain countries? I think only the people could do that, because it’s pretty clear that the elites are not interested in disciplining each other, even though they offer all this incredible rhetoric in Paris about doing something. And yet the only people they banned are the protesters, and not the polluters.

PERIES: Right. I think one of the scenarios there is some sort of an international arbitrator, like The Hague, for example, who could oversee violations of the, of a binding agreement. Is that a possibility? In reality?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think again you have to look at who holds the power in The Hague and who gets brought before The Hague, or the World Court, and who doesn’t. And the expansion of international trade deals, such as the planned, the TPP, Trans-Pacific Partnership, indicates that actually the World Bank will be empowered to prosecute countries that enforce environmental regulations which are detrimental to so-called free trade. So I think that actually if you look at the rules that are being implemented and the treaties that are being negotiated on the economic and trade side, then they are radically at odds with doing anything meaningful with regard to regulating stuff in terms of changing our energy paradigm.

Because a lot of people are touting the fact that renewable energy is increasing a lot. And it is, although the percentages are still small compared to fossil fuel production. That’s encouraging on the one hand. But it’s also not limiting the production of fossil fuels. We’re just having everything. And Obama’s been explicit many times over that all of the above is the strategy. And all of the above is clearly being followed. So it’s not just about enabling renewable energies. It’s also curtailing the production of fossil fuels. We’ve got to do both things. And one side of that is radically falling down, and carbon markets are not going to help that.

PERIES: Let me take up Chris’s other point, which is that we’re preoccupied with the 2 degrees Celsius, which he argues is not adequate enough, according to many scientists. However, we are also preoccupied with the emissions side and not the production side. How can we more seriously address the production side?

MILLER: Well I mean, I think if we look at what exists right now with the clean development mechanism that’s been in place now for over a decade, where we had people throughout the global South giving warning while the Kyoto Protocol was being developed and why the emissions trading scheme was being developed, saying we need at least some sort of recourse mechanism for project-affected peoples. People who are actually living with the projects when there’s human rights violations, whether there would be environmental problems. We need some sort of mechanism.

And here we are now, a decade later, and there’s still absolutely no recourse mechanism. So the idea of going to The Hague or having some sort of arena where human rights and environmental rights could be stood up when there are problems with the projects still don’t exist. Because the way it’s set up is that each host country is responsible for approving a project or not, and saying yes, it’s fine. But we see time and time again where if there’s a coup d’etat, for example, in Honduras where the government is illegitimate, but you know, in the process of existing, they’ll do whatever they’d like and say–in, disregarding all the human right problems that might exist with projects.

And so I think that’s a real concern. So the ongoing discussion around ramping up these emission trading schemes and having larger scale cap and trade projects and programs around the world, without any sort of recourse mechanism, we’re just going to continuously see these same problems where they’re false solutions because they’re not genuine projects that actually reduce the carbon emissions, but in fact people are just lining their pockets. And often the polluters themselves are profiting greatly from the system.

PERIES: Right. And the next question is to both of you. Now, scientists are clearly arguing what’s in the ground must stay in the ground, if you are going to deal with climate change at all. Then, then what’s taking place in Paris is really moot. Why aren’t we more directly addressing that, which means that the tar sands in Canada has to stay in the ground? And then what do economies actually do? I mean, these questions are not actually even being addressed. And how could movements fighting for our climate put that on the agenda in a place like Paris? Chris, let me go to you first.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. It’s a [great] question, because for example, in the INDCs that all of these countries have submitted about what they’re going to do, there is one area that’s been exempt from that. And that area is international shipping and airlines. And if international shipping and airlines were their own, regarded as their own country, they would be equivalent to the emissions of Germany and Japan combined. And those emissions are set to increase by anything up to 350 percent over the next 10-20 years.

So if we were going to be serious about actually tackling things then we’d be looking at that shipping and airline sector, which is all based on commerce, i.e. free trade. So if you’re really serious, then you have to be talking about putting limits and regulating some of the biggest units of capital on the planet. Not just the fossil fuel corporations, but also the whole transportation network, and rearranging that.

And so the question is, in an era of neoliberalism, if you start putting limits on one sector of capital, people are naturally going to ask the question, why don’t we rearrange the economy further and put limits on other sections, and then devote those resources to more socially useful and ecologically sane areas of life? And that would open up, break open a conversation about a whole organization of the world economy. As is already happening kind of on a grassroots level with millions of millions of people around the world rejecting the idea that we have to face more austerity in order to facilitate the continued growth of the system. Capitalism.

So I think that in the last decades of neoliberalism that doing something through government regulation and acting against large units of capital is an insurmountable problem for the ruling elites. And that’s why we’ve had 21 years of fruitless negotiations, which are supposedly terminating here in Paris with a deal that is far less ambitious than the requirements of the crisis dictate.

PERIES: And Amy, one of the contentions in this whole conference in Paris was that a lot of the people in the movement were saying that corporations that have created this problem should not even be at the table, but others argue that they’re a central part of the solution. Your thoughts on that?

MILLER: Well, I argue in The Carbon Rush through the different examples we see, it becomes quite evident that the problem cannot be the solution. And so until we’re willing to confront that, you know, very true reality that what’s created this mess cannot be what pulls us out of this mess, a market-based mechanism will not be the solution. And that until we’re willing to start looking at genuine solutions that don’t frame itself within a market-based mechanism, then we’re going to constantly be running into the same problems where we’re going to see the displacement of people, we’re going to see the theft of the resources from peoples always under the guise of the solution, which it’s not.

So I agree wholeheartedly what Chris said, in that until we’re ready to confront that very dire reality, we’re going to continuously be facing this ineptitude of genuinely finding solutions.

PERIES: And one of the recent studies has shown that one of the biggest emitters worldwide is actually the United States military, that as we speak are blowing up oil tankers in Syria. Now–and that’s in addition to what they actually consume. And this is because of the Kyoto Protocol did not allow for the emissions of the military to be counted as a part of the nation-state emissions. Now, I suppose it is the same rule in Paris, currently. I don’t know. But I was very interested in what both of you have uncovered. If you could, Chris, first.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. Well, I think there’s actually a very worrying situation developing with the militarization of climate change. And Barack Obama and various–obviously the French president and others are, the Pentagon, have an interest in having a military response to climate change. As if everything can come under the rubric of homeland security and defense. And yet, it is the defense industry which is a major contributor to the problem itself. And again, as Amy was saying, the cause of the problem cannot be also the solution. We can’t have environmentally friendly missiles.

So this is what I wrote about in my most recent article, about the ways in which, actually, capitalism or capitalists ignoring the problem is bad. But when they start taking the problem seriously that could actually be worse, without pressure from grassroots organizations and mass pressure on the streets. Because their response is actually going to be the militarization and the banning of free speech and protest activities, to actually do something meaningful about climate change, and involve the military in the refugee crisis. In patrolling and controlling the sources of fossil fuels in the Middle East. I mean, how else can you explain the U.S.’s activities in Iraq over the last decade and a half?

And so we need to actually address linking not just, you know, the social justice anti-racist movements that exist with climate justice organizations and movements around the world, but also the question of the anti-war movement, and how should we be welcoming refugees displaced by climate change, and dealing with the reality of droughts and floods and so on. Not through the military, but through social responses.

And so this is going to be a growing question that the movement and trade unions and so on need to address and push back against, because otherwise we’re going to see more and more of the government taking over through the military and addressing these problems that way.

PERIES: And Amy, your thoughts on the militarization of this whole issue of climate change, as well as the kind of emissions that the military sector is emitting into our air and ways to curtail that.

MILLER: Well, I think we’re experiencing a great moment of opportunity for grassroots and social justice movements across the world, where we can finally start to really bring forward analysis of linking climate justice and fighting imperialism. And so I see it just as there is, you know, tremendous pain that’s ongoing, there’s tremendous opportunity. And so that’s what we need to combat, and we need to bring forward that analysis and actions that are tackling the refugee crisis, as well as the, fighting the wars, and stopping the bombs that links it with climate justice.

I think we’re starting to really see the emergence of this analysis, and it’s absolutely necessary for us to see a genuine transformation.

PERIES: All right. Amy Miller, Chris Williams, I thank you both for joining us on the Real News Network today.

MILLER: Thank you so much.

WILLIAMS: Thanks very much.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us.

End

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