Copenhagen Accord Makes Sham of Global Environmental Justice

By Michelle Pressend · 15 Jan 2010

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Picture: KK+
Picture: KK+

After the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle, the Copenhagen Climate Summit will probably go down as the next biggest multilateral meeting failure of the 21st century, but I wouldn’t say for the right reasons. 

In biting cold Copenhagen, there was little recognition that 400 years of capitalism is the underlying cause of global warming and simply not enough understanding that the market-driven solutions espoused by the Kyoto Protocol will only exacerbate the climate crisis and global inequality.

The controversial Copenhagen Accord, secretly drafted by countries of the Global North with the approval of a few handpicked emerging economies, including South Africa, is green washed capitalism with thinly veiled energy security at its heart.

South Africa will join India, China and Brazil in New Delhi at a ministerial level meeting on 24 January 2010 to discuss issues before signing the Accord. In this new round of deal making, they comprise an exclusive group openly courted by the Global North because of their strategic importance in the new geopolitics of the world. 

The way forward is a complete travesty for global environmental justice.

The emerging post-Kyoto Accord is not focused on real solutions to restore hundreds of years of natural resource destruction nor is it about the creation of socially and ecologically sound production and consumption systems.

System change is not on the agenda.

Instead, there is an obsession with carbon. The entire focus seems to be on financing an energy agreement and mechanism to create a transition through carbon markets. And what is emerging is that the Global North wants to spearhead and profit from the carbon transition through the control of technology and finance for the Global South.

Essentially, what is being crafted is a win-win situation for big companies that will be allowed to continue polluting through the purchase of carbon credits. Those that invest in becoming more energy efficient will simply pass the cost on to the consumer and receive incentives from their governments.

For example, the Accord supports the privatisation of communal forests by promoting the contentious 'Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries' (REDD) programme, a collaborative initiative of the United Nations (UN). In short, it rewards developing country governments for reducing deforestation, but in a manner that is beneficial to industry. For example, industries can purchase pockets of forests through long term contracts (essentially they are buying carbon sinks) to receive carbon credits. 

This is hugely problematic. Apart from the fact that forests have become another commodity for polluting industries to avoid actual reduction, purchasing forests will also have an impact on the livelihoods of communities dependent on forest resources.

At the same time, imported goods from developing countries, produced with high carbon energy, will be penalised at the borders of developed countries investing in their carbon markets. 

These climate protection measures are evident in the United States' (US) Climate Bill. One aspect of the Bill is the US International Reserve Allowance Program. This program intends to address competitiveness that affects US manufacturers. This will be implemented via a border adjustment tax for products from other countries, especially developing countries. So, for a country like South Africa where energy consumption is largely based on coal, exports will be negatively affected, as goods produced here will be regarded as having a competitive advantage on the basis of "cheaper" and dirtier energy generation. 

Moreover, writing in the South Centre Bulletin, Vincente Paolo Yu argues that through the Bill, the US is also establishing an Emissions Allowance Rebate Programme that gives a rebate to energy-intensive industries, such as iron or steel factories, which meet certain energy reduction thresholds. Yu explains, "In short, the US government would compensate, i.e. subsidise, the cost incurred by these industries for complying with stringent US green house gas (GHG) emission targets," in particular energy-intensive companies that are deemed to be "trade-vulnerable."

The US, renowned for its unilateral approaches, was at the forefront of spearheading the Accord and promoting an arrangement through which Parties that associate with it will have access to funds. According to Martin Khor, writing in the Malaysian Star, "The US wanted an arrangement through which Parties can associate with the Accord. It said there are funds in the Accord, and 'it is open to any Party that is interested'. This implies that Parties that do not register their endorsement of the Accord would not be eligible for funding."

This development completely undermines the UN's Special Climate Change Fund, which needs replenishing. 

North-South hegemony and polarisation didn't only play itself out amongst governments, but was evident, too, in the parallel NGO/civil society event, "Klimaforum" (The People’s Climate Summit 09), which I attended.

The legitimacy of and role played by civil society organisations from the North was hugely debatable. Their behaviour towards their Southern counterparts can best be described as paternalistic. When the usual UN-following NGOs and other mainstream environmental organisations were not in the Bella Centre, they dominated the podiums and spaces at the people's summit, many speaking on behalf of the global South, defending indigenous rights, raising the issue of climate impact -- and bringing token people from the South to explain how they are affected.  

There was a predominance of "awareness-raising" through song, dance and little skits to what I thought was already a very informed audience. Much of what was presented was a rehashing of the implications of environmental degradation/destruction on poor farmers and indigenous people that was probably spoken about in the Rio Earth Summit nearly two decades ago and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. Perhaps the only difference this time is that the condition of poor and marginalized people is getting worse. 

Past and current socio-economic challenges faced by many people around the world were simply lumped with climate change.

Similar to those NGOs focusing on how trade liberalisation can benefit the poor, leading NGOs in Copenhagen presented the corporate agenda in a manner that it would benefit the poor and the environment. It was a total paradox. 

NGOs seemed trapped in the "mitigation and adaptation" strategy speak, where the rich have to mitigate and the poor need to adapt -- as if climate change is not going to affect the countries of the North.

What was even more patronising was ignoring the right of the people of the Global South to develop and increase their consumption, clearly not on a capitalist accumulative basis, but through self-sustaining and self-reliant approaches where social production is in the hands of workers, where people have access to decent work, where food production is on the basis of agro-ecological production, and where people's access to and ownership of productive resources and social needs are fulfilled. 

What was needed and ignored at Copenhagen was a discussion about serious alternatives to what is presently the norm.

Eco-socialist John Bellamy, argues, "…the long-term strategy for ecological revolution throughout the globe involves the building of a society of substantive equality…"

Unfortunately, the Copenhagen Climate Summit did not provide the impetus for this even amongst civil society organisations. Many social justice activists deem it a failure.

Perhaps the "Peoples' World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth’s Rights," which identifies capitalism as the systemic cause of the climate crisis, will provide a better platform for a more inclusive and equitable response.

The conference to be hosted by Bolivia from the 20th to the 22nd of April 2010, promises "to analyse structural and systemic causes that drive climate change and propose radical measures…"

For social justice movements around the world – A luta continua!

Pressend coordinates the Trade Strategy Group (TSG) at the Economic Justice Network and Global Network Africa at the Labour Research Services in Cape Town. She is also an independent socio-political analyst on global issues related to trade, environment and climate change.

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Peter Benjamin
31 Jan

No....Industrialisation Not Capitalism is the Problem

Take a look at Eastern Europe! State socialism was much worse for the environment than capitalism. The problem is industrialisation not capitalism. Capitalism is just one form of industrialisation - socialism is another.

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Devan Pillay
13 Sep

Capitalism IS Industrialisation

To make a separation between capitalism and industrialisation is misleading. What happened in the east European countries is as far from "socialism" (which is about substantive democracy) as Nazism is from christianity. Wallerstein, Milliband and others more acccurately describes the east European models as "state capitalist" - whereby the same processes of exploitation of labour and the environment, under the rule of a bureaucratic bourgeioisie, occurred as they did in the 'west'. The concept of "socialism" was much abused and emptied of much of its content by those regimes - just as "democracy" is under free market capitalism.

Look to Bolivia and the state of Kerala in India for more real experiements in substantive democracy or eco-socialism

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