Climate Change Talks: Will Compromises Make Things Worse?

By Glenn Ashton · 17 Nov 2009

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Picture: United Nations
Picture: United Nations

All international agreements are moulded around the fine diplomatic art of compromise. The upcoming climate talks in Copenhagen are no different; compromises will have to be made by all parties in one form or another. But the real question we need to ask is whether these compromises will inadvertently trigger chain reactions that stand to damage the environment rather than protect it.

Climate change is only one threat amongst many to global ecosystems. Our oceans are being overfished by commercial interests; species extinction is reaching levels unprecedented for 350 million years; tropical and boreal forests are being destroyed in the name of development and progress; global water supplies are under threat from increased corporate control, population growth and uncertain precipitation; food security is being eroded by industrial agricultural models  that are foisted on developing nations as supposed solutions.

Who actually drives the agenda behind the climate change talks? Is it politicians representing the interests of their electorates or has the political system become so fundamentally corrupted by the political-corporate nexus that the agenda at the Copenhagen talks represents corporate interests and not that of the global majority?

As in any negotiations, those who hold power have disproportionate influence on the final decisions. By offering or withholding aid or succour to poorer nations, wealthy nations can influence outcomes. This may be less so than in the past, with the emergence of strong blocs such as the G20, Brazil/Russia/India/China (BRIC), and the increasingly united, left leaning South American Mercosur group

The reality is that positioning and wrangling inevitably undermine the influence of poorer nations whose GDP is often less than privately held transnational corporations. And of course the emerging global giant that is China is yet another wild card in the poker game of geopolitical diplomacy.

Behind these Machiavellian manoeuvrings is the reality that the outcomes of the Copenhagen climate talks will have a huge bearing on many aspects of how the global natural commons are governed. Private capital has historically privatised and exploited these commons in order to amass wealth, while expressly excluding those who have collectively and traditionally owned those resources. Copenhagen provides further mechanisms to leverage these resources from the many to new feudal overlords of capital.

One example of this is the explicit linking of timber extraction from virgin, primary forests and the consequent afforestation with man made plantations, as a means to offset carbon emissions. When tropical rainforests are cleared for their timber - traditionally absorbed into North America or European markets, but now increasingly directed toward resource hungry nations such as China, Japan or India – the land is often put to other uses like planting of palm oil or eucalyptus plantations. 

In order to 'green' the sale of the wild timber products these plantations will be able to be accredited under climate change linked sustainability programmes, that in turn attract carbon credits under extensions to the Kyoto Climate Treaty, as well as potentially to any outcomes from the Copenhagen talks, or subsequent agreements. 

These sorts of 'unintended', destructive environmental consequences, are in fact very much intended consequences for specific interests that stand to benefit from the establishment of these emerging global rule-based frameworks. For instance text which was included in the so called REDD (Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in Developing countries) agreements, which specifically stated that replacing forests with plantations was not permissible, was mysteriously removed and has since been reintroduced in unacceptably diluted terms, yet to be ratified.

In a more overt interpretation, clearcutting the entire Amazon basin and using the wood to fuel power plants would be able to be justified as a carbon emissions reduction strategy. Obviously this is patently idiotic and yet it is exactly these sorts of interpretations that cannot be allowed to prevail. Carbon capture, as promoted by companies like SASOL, and carbon offsetting are at best blunt instruments and are more likely simply greenwash.

The facts remain that the Copenhagen talks could result in accelerated forest destruction both by developing nations, as well as opening the doors to criminal cartels who are already destroying rainforests in central African nations such as the Congo, Gabon, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, as well as in Papua New Guinea, Surinam and elsewhere. 

Given that rainforest destruction contributes between 10% and 20% to global warming emissions, depending whom you believe, any agreement made in Copenhagen on these terms could in fact be counter-productive, not only in managing emissions but more relevantly in understanding and dealing with how the most vulnerable ecosystems, and the marginalised and legally unsophisticated people who depend on them stand to be further affected.

As if this is not depressing enough, there is a concerted push by various growers of primary agricultural feedstocks such as palm oil and soya, both of which are grown in cleared forests, to gain 'green' certification. The Roundtable on Sustainable Soya, which was developed by groups like Monsanto and the WWF, aims to grant green credentials to soy grown in South America. 

This predominantly genetically engineered soya - reliant on massive applications of herbicides and fertilisers – has destroyed not only vast sections of the Amazon but also the ecologically unique South American Cerrado and Pampas ecosystems. This sort of agriculture is not sustainable on any level – ecologically, socially, politically or economically. It is simply business as usual with a 'green' (wash) stamp.

Just as with sustainable soy, there is a big push to provide certified sustainable palm oil, primarily to the developed world, to be used as fuel replacement for motor vehicles, aircraft and even shipping. Both soy and palm oils are increasingly being used for so called biofuels, which should more correctly be termed agrofuels, as they are produced in intensive monoculture agricultural processes. 

It is deeply ironic that attempts to wean ourselves from our oil addiction are instead shifting us toward these greenwashed 'biofuels' that are anything but sustainable and instead further threaten sensitive habitats around the world.

The situation is just as bleak for forest protection in developed nations. There an even more nebulous concept, the LULUCF (Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry), where these greening options are proposed as carbon offsets, remains open to 'national interpretations' and consequent abuse. Clearly the compromises being made in the run-up to Copenhagen have unforeseen negative consequences.

The UN Food and Agriculture organisation also raised concerns that international fisheries also need protection under any climate control models, for fish stocks, breeding areas and also for fishers who live in threatened coastal areas, prone to sea level rise. This reinforces the point that low-lying and vulnerable nations such as the Maldives, Palau and Bangladesh should receive priority consideration in any climate control mechanism, yet are instead dismissed by misinformed 'scientists' punting the corporate line, in concert with fossil fuel funded energy lobbyists and interest groups who actively undermine any potential successes toward managing climate change.

The reality is, as morally correct as the positions of the Maldives and others are, these tiny interests are outweighed by the profit motives of industrial interests in the US and EU, as well as the emerging powers of China and India, who are all loath to have developmental constraints placed upon them.

Barack Obama's election could be seen as a groundswell of support from the majority of US citizens for action on climate change. The Nobel Peace Prize award strengthened his power on the global stage. He recently, with the complicity of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, (APEC) rolled back the potential outcomes of the Copenhagen agreement by stating that it was unrealistic to expect a binding agreement from Copenhagen.  This belies the trust that has been vested in him. 

These facts, taken together with the previous examples, suggest an underlying assumption of lawmakers that in spite of the recent economic catastrophe no fundamental change to the global economic order can be allowed to emerge from Copenhagen.

Whether the Copenhagen outcomes will challenge this assumption, or will instead simply be yet another expensive greenwashing of the supposed noble intentions of our global political leadership, remains to be seen.

The great game continues as normal, with the rich yet again denying the dispossessed majority the opportunity to decide their future. Our collective survival continues to be jeopardised by greed.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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