Earning a profit from global warming

As evidence mounts that a warming world is hurtling toward the point of no return, the plan of the world’s governments is to make adjustments to the ability of corporations to profit from polluting. Short-term profits continue to be elevated above the long-term health of the environment.

There does seem to be a new sense of governmental urgency ahead of the Paris climate summit scheduled for December, with several governments announcing new proposed reductions in future greenhouse-gas emissions. But is it already too late? Two scientific studies issued this year suggest that so much carbon dioxide already has been thrown in the air that humanity may have already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level. A separate 2015 study, prepared by 18 scientists, found that the Earth is crossing several “planetary boundaries” that together will render the planet much less hospitable.

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park (photo by Pete Dolack)

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park (photo by Pete Dolack)

The Paris climate summit, officially known as the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP 21, has set itself the goal of “achiev[ing] a new international agreement on the climate, applicable to all countries, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C.” Representatives of the world’s governments will meet with an intention of setting goals for combatting global warming.

Thus far, however, the world’s governments have done little, relying on “cap and trade” schemes that make pollution a market commodity, setting goals for far in the future, and raising false hopes that “green capitalism” will magically save the day with shiny techno-fixes that will allow business as usual to continue. Worse yet, the same governments that claim to be taking steps toward reigning in pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions are negotiating destructive “free trade” agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that will allow corporations to eliminate laws that protection the environment.

There are no free lunches, however, and definitely no free planets.

“Free trade” is not free for the environment

Already, under the North American Free Trade Agreement, laws protecting people and the environment from toxic chemicals have been overturned. NAFTA is the starting point for The Trans-Pacific Partnership and similar secret deals, which will have still more draconian rules.

Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians notes that measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions are no less susceptible to attack:

“Lawsuits totalling hundreds of billions of dollars have challenged environmental protection measures such as solar power programs, neurotoxin and additive bans, and the rejection of proposed mines. Canada, the most-sued state under NAFTA, is facing $2.6 billion in corporate challenges against legislation that restricts or bans carcinogenic additives in gasoline, lawn pesticides and fracking. Around the world, corporations have challenged governments over 600 times. With no way around these provisions, countries have been unable or unwilling to advance climate change legislation.”

“Free trade” agreements also contribute directly to global warming because they facilitate the transfer of production to the countries with the lowest wages and weakest regulation. Products are assembled from parts produced in multiple countries then shipped across oceans, greatly adding the environmental costs of transportation. This is not some natural phenomenon like the tides of the ocean, but rather are products of the competitive dynamics of capitalism.

Not wanting to upset this dynamic, or their benefactors, political leaders instead fiddle while the Earth burns, as the G7 leaders did when declaring their intention to commit themselves to a 40 to 70 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions in 2050 and a complete phaseout in 2100. No government can bind a successor 80 years in the future, but it surely is easier to announce such a goal than to impose one scheduled to take effect when you might still be in office.

Those long-term targets mirror those of last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which set them with an eye toward holding greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million in 2100, and even there envisions a temporary rise above 450 ppm before falling late in the 21st century.

The Paris climate summit, scheduled to take place November 30 to December 11, is being billed as the last chance for the world’s governments to set interim goals that could prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, a level widely believed (perhaps optimistically so) to be the limit before runaway global warming results. Yet the Earth is already experiencing climatic changes of a speed never before seen in the geological record, with atmospheric carbon dioxide at 400 ppm.

Sure we’ll cut emissions — eventually

National global-warming commitments include these goals:

  • The United States has pledged to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent in 2025, relative to 2005 levels; instituted new national regulations on power-plant emissions; and announced a state-level cap-and-trade system whereby states, rather than enterprises, will trade pollution permits.
  • China intends to reach a peak in its greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030; will inaugurate a cap-and-trade system in 2017; and pledges to have 50 percent of its new buildings meet “green” standards by 2020.
  • The European Union’s goal is a 40 percent cut in emissions in 2030, relative to 1990. The centerpiece of E.U. efforts is a failed cap-and-trade system that will not be reformed until 2021.
  • Brazil said it would cut emissions by 37 percent in 2025, relative to 2005, and intends to achieve a 43 percent reduction by 2030. Brazil intends to generate 20 percent of its electricity from non-hydropower renewables by 2030 and pledges to restore 30 million acres (120,000 square kilometers) of forests.
  • Canada has committed to cutting output of greenhouse gases by 30 percent in 2030, relative to 2005, but this includes international “offsets” and fails to address the Alberta tar sands. On a provincial level, Ontario and Québec will participate in a cap-and-trade system.
  • Japan intends to reduce emissions by 26 percent in 2030, relative to 2013 (the equivalent to 18 percent below 1990 levels by 2030), reductions that would include international “offsets” and “credits” for forest management.
  • India has pledged to reduce the intensity of its emissions 33 to 35 percent in 2030, relative to 2005, and to produce 40 percent of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by that year. This goal, however, is a commitment to only slow the rate of emissions rather than cut them.
  • Australia has committed a 26 to 28 percent cut in emissions, relative to 2005, reductions to be achieved in part through land-use changes and forestation. But the current coalition government has repealed the Clean Energy Future Plan, seen as a step backward.

None, however, are judged by environmentalists to be making adequate progress toward these goals.

Cap-and-trade a subsidy for polluters

There has been a flurry of approval over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s September 25 announcement that China would institute a cap-and-trade program. Such schemes are often promoted by North American liberals and European social democrats. But these do virtually nothing to reduce greenhouse gases while allowing corporations to profit from pollution.

The European Union cap-and-trade program, 10 years old and the world’s biggest, has been a complete failure. Europe’s emissions trading system mandates that an enterprise that emits carbon dioxide must hold certificates equal to their emissions, and can buy or sell them from other corporations. But 43 percent of these certificates are issued for free, a subsidy for carbon emitters.

The targeted carbon trading price was €30 per metric ton, but because far too many certificates were issued, they trade at between €6 and €8. The E.U. proposes to reduce the number of free certificates, but not until 2021. Moreover, although the number of industries eligible for free carbon certificates will be reduced to 50 from 177, wine makers and tomato growers will no longer be eligible for the freebies, but cement factories, aluminum plants and others in heavy industry will still get them, according to Deutsche Welle.

The watchdog group Carbon Market Watch issued this caustic summation:

“[T]he EU Emissions Trading System review proposes to increase pollution subsidies to industry to at least €160 billion after 2020. … After more than a decade, the EU’s main climate instrument still lacks the teeth to make the polluter pay and drive emission reductions. Today’s proposal serves the interests of Europe’s largest polluters at the expense of the climate and taxpayers’ money.”

Carbon Market Watch reports that industries representing about 95 percent of industrial greenhouse-gas emissions will continue to receive free pollution permits after 2020. Despite the current excessive number of tradable credits — the reason for the plunge in pricing — there will be no cancelations of any of them despite calls by environmental activists for the number of credits to be diminished. Threats by industrialists to move out of Europe helped shape the “reforms.”

Industry had already shaped the cap-and-trade plan from the beginning. Richard Smith, in his paper Green capitalism: the god that failed, recounts the experience of former German environment minister Jürgen Tritten, a Green Party official:

“Mr. Tritten recalled a five-hour ‘showdown’ with [Social Democrat] Wolfgang Clement, then economy minister, in which he lost a battle to lower the overall limit. Clement reproached the Greens saying that ‘at the end of their policy there is the de-industrialization of Germany.’ Similarly, in confrontation with the Federation of German Electricity Companies, ‘good sense triumphed in the end’ and industry won: whereas under EU commitments, German electricity companies were supposed to receive 3 percent fewer permits than they needed to cover their total emissions between 2005 and 2007, which would have obliged them to cut emissions by that amount, instead the companies got 3 percent more than they needed – a windfall worth about $374 billion at that time.”

Offsets don’t necessarily offset emissions

A French plan to go beyond cap-and-trade schemes with a tax on carbon was ultimately declared unconstitutional because, among other problems, it would have exempted more than 1,000 of France’s biggest polluters, Professor Smith said.

An additional weakness of cap-and-trade schemes is that some allow “offsets,” whereby companies can buy emission credits from outside the program to “offset” emissions above the allowable level. But the offset is not necessarily real, and often is counted twice, by the enterprise buying the credit and by the entity providing the offset. Food & Water Watch explained this slight of hand:

“Through offsets, a company can pay to theoretically prevent emissions outside of the cap, instead of reducing emissions at the source. For example, a power plant in California could pay for a section of forest to not be cut down in Oregon. This would count toward the polluter’s required reductions even though emissions are not reduced in California but are in theory prevented in Oregon. … The supposed benefits that offsets are intended to provide often fail to materialize. … [I]n reality, [offsets] allow polluters to substitute unverifiable reductions for real reductions.”

Business as usual isn’t possible: The atmospheric content of carbon dioxide continues to rise. Less reliance on fossil fuels and more reliance on renewable fuels is certainly a strong step in the right direction, but because many renewables also produce considerable greenhouse gases, they are incapable of reversing global warming by themselves.

There is no escaping that humanity must consume much less, an impossibility under a system, capitalism, that demands continual growth, whose incentives are for more consumption, and that enforces a competitive race to the bottom that includes the ongoing corporate globalization that systematically moves production to low-wage havens.

To stave off further global warming, and avoid the massive disruptions it promises, requires nothing less than an entirely new economic system, one that provides for human need under community control rather than private profit under the control of industrialists and financiers. Let us not sugar-coat this: Such wrenching changes will come with considerable costs. But the costs of business as usual will be immeasurably greater from rising sea levels, mass extinctions, droughts and chaotic weather. Our descendants are not likely to believe short-term profits for a few now will be a fair exchange for an unlivable planet for the many then.

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