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EcoEquity director Tom Athanasiou says a real split has emerged in the elite on whether to maintain an economy driven by fossil fuels or transition towards low or zero carbon through large-scale infrastructural development

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ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore. 2014 is on track to be the hottest year on record, according to the national oceanic and atmospheric administration. This news comes as the 20th session of the conference of parties, also known as the COMP 20, is scheduled to begin on December 1 in Lima, Peru. The 12-day summit is expected to produce a draft of an internationally binding agreement on greenhouse gas emissions that will succeed the Kyoto protocol, which will expire in 2020. The final agreement is expected to come out of the COMP 21 summit in Paris in 2015. Joining us from Albany, California, to discuss this is Tom. He directs the Eco-Equity and Activist Think Tank and codirects the Climate Equity Reference Project. Thanks for joining us.


So, Tom, what are the major issues that are expected to be resolved at COMP 20, and what can we expect?

Well, the major issues in the negotiations are now on the table, and the question is really whether or not we’re going to be able to architect a new global treaty that includes all countries, rich and poor, and puts together in the finance and technology mechanisms that are necessary in order to use that treaty to help phase out fossil fuels over the next 30 to 50 years. I mean, it’s an incredibly difficult problem. We can’t do it without an international treaty. That’s what’s on the table.

So a couple of weeks said before the conference is due to start, the United States and China announced a voluntary emissions reductions. You think that this will play any role in the debate said for Lima?

Well, no. The U.S.-China joint announcement is huge. We don’t really know how it’s going to play out, particularly at the level of North-South politics. And we won’t know until comp 20 is finished. But it was a huge deal. It’s been in the works for a really long time. And it is a game-changer. And the first thing to know about it is that it’s a game changer. And the second thing to know about it is that the Chinese pledge is really very impressive, much more impressive than the American pledge. But still they constantly they both constitute major moves.

Well, from what I understand, though, but the pledges are still but voluntary, and it basically an out allows China to max out as much in emissions until about 2030. Is that correct?

Well, let’s take that as two different questions. On the voluntary issue, you have to understand that that ship has sailed. When we were going into the big Copenhagen meeting in 2009, people still imagined that there would be some sort of international treaty that would function as a kind of global government that would allocate the atmospheric space, that it would be legally binding at some kind of global level. And if that’s what you mean by nonviolent Terry, that’s not happening. What has basically emerged as Plan B the last five years is an approach which was very strongly promoted by the Obama administration in which countries table what they feel that they can do just like the United States did and just like China did and just like all countries will be asked to do. And then pass domestic legislation that obligates them to do what they domestically agreed to do. So that sense it would be binding legally, but it would be a kind of nationally legally binding. I mean, what we’ve learned is international legally-binding treaties don’t have any meat. The Canadians were able to completely blow off their Kyoto target and nothing happened. So that’s a bit of a complicated issue. And it goes to the heart of what the challenges in Lima and then in Paris, which is how do you take this sort of bottom-up architecture and make it fear and make it strong, because it has to be both of those things. On the other question about whether the Chinese pledge is really as good as it looks because they haven’t specified what level there are missa going to be In 2030, well, that’s true, but we know through other channels that China is doing all sorts of things to make sure it peaks as at as low level as possible. And in particular, about three days ago they announced that their called power sector emissions are going to peak in 2020. That’s only five or six years from now. And so the Chinese announcement is a very big deal. And it’s particularly a big deal when you consider that China is in many ways a country that still is pretty underdeveloped. Its per capita income is so low compared to the United States is per capita income. For example. So this was a very ambitious move. I mean, there were Republicans of course are trying to minimize it and pretend it’s not a big deal, but anything anybody who knows anything about the power sector economics particularly in China realizes it’s a very ambitious move. So those are two examples. It’s a complicated situation. But yeah, that was a really big deal.

Okay, Tom. Well, let’s get back to the issue of COP 20. So income COMP 19, you had a lot of civil society movement groups that walked out in protest of the coal industry presence and their influence on the talks. What influence do you think that the fossil fuel industry will have this year at cop 20?

You’ve got to remember that was Poland, right, and Poland in particular has a very aggressive government that is very close to the coal sector. You also have to remember that the president of the COP, Christina Figueira race, when she went to speak to those cold foods, she read them the riot act. You also have to remember which you probably won’t have to remember it because you probably know there were only 90 people in the room. There were, 10,000 people at people look polished COP commented that coal conference there was 90 people. So Poland was kind of a special case. Now, coal, you want to talk about coal, coal is huge. We have to shut down the global coal industry. We don’t have to just stopped building new coal plants, we have to shut down existing coal plants, and we have to do it not only in the rich parts of the world; we have to do it in the developing parts of the world. We have to do it as fast as we can. And in that context, the coal industry is a real problem, because they don’t want to go quietly into that dark night. But that’s a little bit different then saying that coal, the coal industry was really influential at the COP or in the United Nations negotiations in general.

Okay. And then the IB cc fifth assessment report, which just concluded this year, said that emissions targets need to be somewhere on the order of 40 to 70 percent through 2015 in order to slow warming by two degrees Celsius. What kind of climate change policies you think needs to be decided it COP 20 and COP 21 that can achieve that goal?

Yeah, well, COP 21 has to give us confidence that are going to phase out fossil fuels by the second half of the century globally, and it has to send a signal to the markets that that’s going to happen. We can argue a lot about the 40 percent to 70 percent numbers. There’s a lot of problems with those numbers. They’re too small. The reason they’re too small is that they include only what countries have to do inside their own borders. But the rich countries in particular have to act aggressively outside their own borders as well as inside their own borders. They have to provide international financial and technical technology support for poor countries and developing countries to accelerate their transition from fossil energy to renewable energy. And what we looking for from Paris is architecture that is simultaneously bottom-up, because for better or for worse we don’t have a functioning global government. We barely have functioning national governments. And it’s got to be a bottom-up architecture. But it’s got to have what we call review and ratcheting processes that allow us to turn up the ambition. And as the climate crisis get some more manifest. I mean, what way to think about this that is I don’t think an exaggeration is that here it is 2014 increased talking about climate change 10 years from now in 2024, we’re not going to be talking about anything except climate change. And as things get worse, we need those ratcheting mechanisms. We don’t want to be in a situation after Paris where we have to renegotiate the treaty again. We want a treaty that can be made much stronger as the years go on. The only way–this is my personal specialty and what I’m going to be working on in Lima and in Paris–we need a treaty that’s fair, because the only way that this is going to happen is if the treaty is fair and seen as fair in both the rich northern regions of the planet and the developing or so-called southern regions of the planet.

Okay. Well, in terms of fairness, for example you have the United States I think is the highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. So how do kind of negotiate that in terms of what they think is fair and what other countries think is fair?

Exactly. That’s exactly the right question. And, even better than per capita emissions is thinking about per capita income. I mean, think about it this way. If the science is as bad as we think it is and we have to draw down fossil energy emissions to near zero in 50 years, that means basically that emissions have to peak everywhere right now, as soon as possible, to right now. They have to peak yesterday. And in some countries that means that emissions have to peak while per capita income is $52,000 per person per year. And in other countries it means that emissions have to peak when per capita income is still one or two or $5000 per person or year. And that’s the real core of the negotiations deadlocked. That’s what the problem is. That’s why this is so hard. The problem is that we have to phase out fossil energy, which is the hardest thing we’ve ever done, and we have to do it on a planet that is very, very starkly divided between rich countries and poor countries and rich people and poor people. That’s the situation. And how we handle that sort of diplomatic level given the limits of United Nations, and that’s the real challenge.

Well, Tom, you’re going to have to have members of international global financial is to douches that say that in order to produce these kinds of fair or just cuts that you proposing, you’re going to limit growth, the only way to really get out of the ongoing financial crisis to solve problems of unemployment is if you have growth.

Well, growth is one of those words like you probably could have six people in a room and asked them each to define growth. And I’m not sure they have the same definition. What I can tell you for sure is that rebuilding half the infrastructure on the planet so that low carbon or zero carbon infrastructure would create a tremendous amount of jobs in a tremendous amount of opportunity in economic activity comment that if that economic activity an opportunity was distributed in a fair manner among different people in different planets, everybody would be a lot better if people didn’t parts of the planet everybody would be a lot better off. I mean, there is a real split in the ruling elites on this question. I mean, some people who are closer to the fossil energy cartel can’t imagine the a functioning global economy that’s not based on coal and oil and gas. But others of us think that we can actually transition to a zero-carbon economy that will all be a lot better off in 1000 ways. And that transition would itself open all kinds of other doors that we desperately need open beyond the climate issue. So I don’t think it’s a gloom and doom situation. I think that if we really started rebuilding in a massive way, we would find that we were in pretty good shape and we were enjoying what we were doing.

Okay. Tom, coming to us from Albany, California, he’s the director of eco-equity.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Okay. Thank you so much.

Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Tom Athanasiou is a writer, critic, speaker, and organizer. He is a climate-equity specialist, and seeks an extremely rapid global climate transition -- one that is fair enough to actually succeed. He directs EcoEquity, an activist think tank, and co-directs the Climate Equity Reference Project, a long-term initiative to provide scholarship, tools, and analysis to advance equity as a practical means to achieve an ambitious global climate regime. His principle interests are class division and international discord (or rather cooperation) in the context of the global climate emergency.