Greenhouse market mania
The UN climate talks have been corrupted by corporate pseudo-solutions put forward by TNCs and Northern governments to enable them to escape their promised greenhouse gas reductions. Adam Ma'anit exposes and catalogues this climate fraud.
THE UN climate change conference in The Hague (COP6) last November - which intended to wrap up three years of negotiations on the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol - ended without result. At the last moment, European environment ministers rejected a compromise proposal that would have not only enabled Northern governments and their corporations to escape their promised greenhouse gas reductions, but also allowed them to significantly increase their emissions. Indeed, an unholy alliance of Northern governments and the unified corporate climate lobby was only inches away from turning the Kyoto Protocol into the most corporate-friendly environmental treaty in history, by getting a wide range of deeply fraudulent ‘solutions’ written into the Protocol’s rulebook.
Since then, in the run-up to the next conference in June/July 2001, powerful forces continue to demand the right to ‘fulfil’ their reduction commitments through various inventive but flawed instruments such as global emissions trading, as well as the application of ‘carbon sinks’ (carbon absorption via forests, wood products, soil and industrial and genetically modified agriculture) and nuclear energy in greenhouse gas reduction strategies. Many of the ‘solutions’ being touted have very serious negative social and environmental impacts.
Meanwhile, a whole new financial sector has emerged even before consensus has been reached on the Kyoto rules - the emissions brokers. With a massive presence in COP6 and armed with huge injections of corporate financing, they have been lobbying hard for ‘global free trade in greenhouse gases’. The attraction is clear - the market in carbon emission credits could grow to trillions of US dollars over the next decades.
Global social and environmental justice, and the very stability of the world’s climatic systems will lose out if these attempts to avoid making the desperately needed shift away from current unsustainable and unjust economic policies succeed. In stark contrast with the conclusion of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, Northern governments and industry aim to ensure the continuation of the massive over-consumption of fossil fuel-based energy. The key challenge after COP6 is to bring the commodification of the atmosphere to a halt and pave the way for climate policies that pursue equity and genuine emissions reductions, in order to end fossil fuel dependency and the ever-increasing growth in energy production and use.
Licence to pollute?
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was celebrated by the nations of the world as the first legally binding treaty to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The negotiations have since circled around the three market-based ‘solutions’ enshrined in the Protocol - emissions trading, Joint Implementation (JI) and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The US government first introduced market-based mechanisms into the Kyoto Protocol in order to ensure that the agreement did not threaten US corporate interests, but since then more and more Northern governments have embraced this concept.
Corporate lobby groups, previously opposed to the Protocol, were quick to embrace greenhouse gas emissions trading - a perfect tool for pre-empting government regulation to force businesses to reduce emissions. Indeed, a large-scale global offensive launched by industrial interests has been a key factor behind the adoption of dubious market-based mechanisms to solve the climate crisis. The political pressure to open the floodgates for these commercial escape mechanisms reached a new climax during COP6, further weakening an already anaemic Protocol and scuttling hopes of securing the political agreement necessary to avert the climate crisis.
Emissions trading allows the 39 Northern governments committed to collective reductions under the Protocol to trade the right to pollute amongst themselves. Under this scheme, due to start in 2008, a country might choose to buy emission credits from another country that managed to reduce its emissions below its Kyoto targets, rather than reduce its own emissions at home.
Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism grant Northern governments and corporations emission credits through special projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in another country. These projects can be carried out among industrialised countries and corporations (JI) or between one industrialised government or company and one Southern country (CDM). Although the rules and procedures have not yet been agreed upon, hundreds of projects are already planned and many are already being implemented. The logic behind the market-based mechanisms is that it is less expensive for Northern countries to invest in reduction projects abroad than it is for them to reduce emissions domestically.
A disturbing reality lurks behind these seemingly benign mechanisms - they enable industrialised countries and their corporations to buy the right to pollute and to escape even the most meagre commitments laid down in the Kyoto Protocol. Not only will the market-based mechanisms fail to achieve the agreed reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions, they could also catalyse serious environmental and social damage on an unimaginable scale. These mechanisms effectively turn greenhouse gases into tradable commodities, lock in existing North-South inequities in the use of the atmosphere and natural resources, and open up many new and harmful profit-making opportunities for transnational corporations (TNCs) - essentially creating a new market out of thin air.
Through these schemes, TNCs and their Northern governments will be entitled to buy countless cheap emission credits from the South, through projects of an often exploitative nature, thereby imposing on the South what the India-based Centre for Science and Environment refers to as ‘carbon colonialism’. Furthermore, all of the ‘low-hanging fruit’ or cheap credits will have been harvested by the North when it comes time for Southern countries to reduce their own emissions, saddling them with only the most expensive options for any future reduction commitments they might make.
The climate fraud catalogue
The best-known form of climate corruption with candidature for inclusion in the Kyoto Protocol is the trade in ‘hot air’- excess emissions permits offered up for sale. The amount of hot air that can be bought in the global carbon market could be large enough to allow the US to meet nearly all of its Kyoto commitments by doling out money for permits, without having to spend a cent on reducing emissions at home. Major providers of hot air will be Russia, the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, the CO2 emissions of which are some 45% below 1990 levels. These cash-strapped countries are eager to offer their massive surplus emissions rights in return for hard currency. Trade in hot air alone could reach some US$30 billion per year. As the buying and selling of hot air does nothing to help address global warming, this form of climate fraud will undoubtedly lead to a net increase in emissions rather than the 5.2% reduction that is the Kyoto target.
Governments are not the only parties who can trade emissions permits and carbon credits - corporations can also get in on the act. Corporations have already begun trading emissions credits, reaching trading volumes worth US$50 billion in 1999. The emissions trading market could swell to astronomic proportions, explaining the explosive emergence of a global market for greenhouse gas emissions, despite the fact that the Kyoto rulebook is yet to be finalised.
The World Bank has established a Prototype Carbon Fund that mobilises funds from Northern governments and corporations and pumps them into projects in Southern countries. The World Bank in return pays out carbon credits, related to the emissions reductions achieved, as dividend to the investors. The World Bank also hopes to land a role in running the CDM, a rather shameless ambition considering the institution’s continued promotion of fossil fuel dependency in the South.
Meanwhile, UNCTAD, the UN agency for trade and development, has assisted in the creation of the International Emissions Trading Association. This partnership with corporate players such as the Australian Stock Exchange, the International Petroleum Exchange, Shell, BP Amoco, Statoil and Tokyo Electric Power, aims to create a global emissions market, with or without the Kyoto Protocol.
Carbon ‘casino capitalism’
The dominance of market-based mechanisms within the climate change negotiations has given rise to a new, fast-growing field - emissions brokerage. SGS Group (Societe Generale de Surveillance), Trexler and Associates, Winrock International, Evolution Markets LLS and other ‘greenhouse gas credit brokers’ identify projects that are eligible for receiving carbon credits and help buyers and sellers get together. Like other global financial markets, the emissions market will also feature transactions that are purely speculative. Trading house Mitsubishi, for instance, envisages ‘a business in which we purchase emission rights at low prices and sell them at higher prices for profit.’ Not only will emissions credits be traded, their derivatives will also constitute a multi-billion-dollar market. Hedge funds will also undoubtedly find a niche, as will speculation in ‘futures’ and ‘options’.
Sinks: Soil, agriculture and forests
The US has consistently threatened not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol unless ‘carbon sinks’ are included. The reason for this obstinacy is that the US administration expects that sinks may cover up to half of its annual reduction obligations by 2010. US agri-business corporations, with Monsanto leading the pack, see ‘carbon sequestration’ as a highly lucrative new market and have lobbied hard to get the US government to defend forests and farm land sinks as a source of carbon credits. According to one source, allowing sinks to be counted as emission reductions would enable Northern countries to emit some 12.5% more greenhouse gases than permitted under the Kyoto Protocol.
Growing trees to remove CO2 from the atmosphere by allowing it to be absorbed in the wood may sound like a novel idea; however, this approach is very problematic. There is serious scientific uncertainty about the capacity of forests to act as stable carbon sinks, and it is moreover virtually impossible to adequately measure the sequestered carbon.
Beyond this, the promoters of carbon sinks deliberately ignore the very destructive impacts of large-scale industrial tree plantations around the world. While allowing Northern corporations to ‘offset’ their greenhouse gas emissions at very low costs, these plantations cause significant social and environmental upheaval. Side-effects of this kind of carbon laundering include displaced communities, aggravated inequalities in land ownership, accelerated deforestation, harm to animal and plant diversity and depletion of water resources.
Climate change: A comeback for nuclear energy?
The allure of nuclear energy has faded now that more and more countries intend to shut down nuclear power plants and some have opted for complete nuclear energy phase-outs. The Clean Development Mechanism might, however, breathe new life into one of the world’s most toxic industries.
The nuclear industry, supported by the US, Japan and other Northern governments, was also strongly represented at COP6, armed with glossy brochures with messages such as an ad by the International Nuclear Forum pronouncing, ‘nuclear energy: part of the solution.’ The industry is lobbying for the inclusion of nuclear technology as one of the possible options for the CDM projects, which would give a massive boost to the proliferation of nuclear power plants around the world. Some influential Southern governments, like China and Brazil, are also in favour of including nuclear energy projects within the CDM. In short, this would turn the Clean Development Mechanism into a new subsidy for the nuclear industry.
The corporate strategy: From opposition to co-optation
The prime business goal for the climate negotiations is to ensure unrestricted emissions trading, including the full use of carbon sinks. The corporate lobby - involving not only fossil fuel companies but virtually all sectors of industry - is inspired by the desire to pre-empt what they consider to be the worst-case scenario - binding government regulation of business. Moreover, most companies have discovered that huge profits can be reaped if they succeed in shaping the Kyoto mechanisms to their interests.
This lobbying strategy is a far cry from the corporate approach to climate change in the early 1990s. Business has gradually moved away from its initially aggressive defensive strategy of denying the existence of climate change and disputing its causes. Later, the focus was on attempts to delay decision-making, including emphasising the high costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and stressing the responsibility of developing countries. Today, industry has overwhelmingly adopted what it refers to as a ‘constructive’ approach - promoting voluntary action by companies in combination with market-based ‘solutions’.
The shift was clearly visible in 1997, when industry first pushed for voluntary action as the most effective solution in the run-up to the Kyoto Summit. After Kyoto, industry quickly embraced the Protocol’s market-based mechanisms and clamoured for their expansion.
This transformation in corporate strategy is a calculated response to the gathering momentum of the political process around climate change, especially in Europe. Faced with the risk of being marginalised, which could have resulted in governments adopting climate policies in conflict with the corporate agenda, industry realised that engaging in negotiations about solutions was a more effective way of delaying or avoiding regulatory action and at the same time helping them to create new profit opportunities.
The reality of ‘voluntary action’
Corporate lobby groups routinely claim that government intervention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is counter-productive and that they themselves can handle the situation through investments in new technologies. Typically, these claims are ‘backed’ by glossy publications full of heart-warming case studies from TNC-run factories where emissions per production unit have been reduced. Missing from these evasive reports are overall figures on the status of global greenhouse gas emissions by these same corporations, to say nothing of ‘side-effects’ like emissions from the highly unsustainable transport systems they inevitably promote.
The UN’s Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) recently published a report on voluntary environmental initiatives by industry which concludes that these initiatives ‘often result in non-compliance, double standards, inadequate targets or standards, or ‘greenwashing’.’ Elaborating on the strategic use of ‘greenwash’ by olluting companies, the report states that ‘the illusion of more profound change stems partly from the fact that the TNCs and business or industry associations involved are big players on the international stage and are actively publicising their new approach through the media, corporate advertising, publications, conferences and international institutions.’
European-based corporations and their lobby groups generally made the shift earlier than their counterparts in North America, mainly due to political realities in Europe, where climate change has been a hot political issue since the early 1990s and where the political risks of continued denial were greater. Groups like the employers’ organisation UNICE, the chemical industry federation CEFIC, and the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT), are involved in intensive lobbying efforts both in EU capitals and during UN climate negotiations.
Although the international climate negotiations are an important battlefield for European industry, their crusade for self-regulation is primarily waged at home, where they target European Union institutions and national governments. The most active and sophisticated approach in this field has come from the ERT, comprised of 45 CEOs of top European corporations, which fully exploits its exceptionally privileged political access to both the European Commission and national governments. The ERT has summarised its message to the EU in a glossy new report strategically released in mid-October, just a month prior to COP6. Featuring case studies of voluntary action by industry to reduce CO2, the ERT hopes that the EU will refrain from political moves that would conflict with the corporate agenda it serves to promote.
On the other side of the Atlantic, business groups such as the Business Roundtable (BRT), the US Council for International Business (USCIB), the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) have now also jumped on the bandwagon of political engagement in order to promote market-based mechanisms. But the domestic political reality, with environmental issues carrying less weight with the public, enables many US business groupings to follow a hypocritical twin-track path - promoting market-based ‘solutions’ in the international climate negotiations, while domestically denying human-caused climate change and opposing ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by the US Congress. This strategy secures a ‘win-win’ situation for business no matter what happens. This diversity of strategies could at first glance appear contradictory; however, it jives with the reality and subtleties of both domestic and international political processes.
As the oil industry itself has put it, the challenge for companies on both sides of the Atlantic is not to try to settle the political dispute, but ‘rather to seek responses to hemispherically distinct expressions of consumer interest that can also serve shareholders.’ However, despite this geographic strategy split over how to respond to environmental policy pressures, industry has been disturbingly united and well-organised during climate negotiations over the past year.
Cooperating in international groupings like the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the International Climate Change Partnership (ICCP), they have closed ranks in order to dominate the political process. This collective and compromised position has been fine-tuned over the last few years at major UN negotiations, revealing a crystal-clear mission Ð the unimpeded use of all of the Kyoto mechanisms, including the application of carbon sinks, so that lucrative new markets can be opened up, while side-stepping real action on climate change.
COP6: Free trade in greenhouse gases?
The ICC and the WBCSD were also the most visible industry lobby groups at COP6, with respectively over 100 and over 200 accredited lobbyists. Their messages were all too predictable: no binding government regulation, encourage voluntary action by industry and unlimited emissions trading instead. In a revealing statement, ICC Vice-President Richard McCormick warned against ‘a “quick-fix, look-good” deal that causes a dramatic and costly shift in the way industrialised countries use energy.’ Such a shift is, of course, exactly what is needed if catastrophic climate change is to be averted.
While traditional corporate lobby groups attended COP6 in record numbers, the most remarkable difference with previous meetings was the overwhelming presence of emissions brokers. Reflecting the degree to which the market-based mechanisms dominate the UN climate talks today, the conference centre was teeming with lobbyists from emissions brokerage firms, many from global consultancy giants like PricewaterhouseCoopers and banks that have discovered ‘the carbon economy’ as a new potential goldmine.
The emissions brokers are united in a number of lobby groups, the biggest of which is the Emissions Marketing Association, which brought 48 lobbyists to The Hague. Add to that specialised magazines like the Carbon Trader and the Carbon Market Analyst flooding the conference centre with expensive glossy brochures, and the overall impression one had was that the conference was more of a trade fair than an intergovernmental conference looking at ways to solve one of the world’s most pressing environmental and social problems. Oblivious to the core social and environmental issues of climate change, the emissions brokers’ rallying cry calling for global free trade in greenhouse gases rang loudly in the halls at COP6 and in the ears of the government delegations deliberating there.
EU sellout blocked at last moment
The corporate groupings could rest assured that their lobbying efforts before COP6 would bear fruit. During COP6 they only had to keep up the pressure to avoid governments shifting due to the work of environmental NGO lobbyists as well as the creative actions and demonstrations that took place both inside and outside the conference centre.
Until the very last night of the negotiations, the climate summit in The Hague was remarkably uneventful. The positions of the dominant, Northern governments had been clear from the start and mainly differed only in the extent to which they advocated the sellout of the Kyoto Protocol.
On the one hand, there was the umbrella group, consisting of the United States, Japan, Australia, Canada and Norway, promoting the unlimited use of the Kyoto market mechanisms; on the other was the European Union, arguing that countries should achieve at least 50% of the reduction commitment ‘at home’. The EU also voiced doubts about the inclusion of carbon sinks under the market-based mechanisms, while the umbrella group called for an unlimited use of carbon sinks. The EU moreover proposed a ‘positive list’ for the Clean Development Mechanism that would limit the projects to sound technologies such as renewable energy, thereby excluding nuclear energy investments. The umbrella group, on the contrary, wants all technologies to be included in both the CDM and under JI. Finally, the EU is arguing for financial sanctions for countries that fail to meet their Kyoto obligations, while the umbrella group opposes binding measures (such as penalties and fines) for non-compliance.
Southern governments united in the G-77 Group took positions which were clearer and more progressive than those of the EU. Towards the end of COP6, the EU moved more and more towards the positions of the US and the umbrella group. The EU has a history of watering down its demands in the heat of negotiations and accepting compromises so as not to be left at a competitive disadvantage to the US. This had clearly been the case at the Kyoto Summit, where the EU finally committed to reductions of only 8% instead of the 15% it had announced in advance.
The last day and night went with the US and EU and a small number of other countries negotiating to find a compromise. COP6 chairman Jan Pronk (the Dutch environment minister), eager to steer the conference to a result, had submitted a compromise proposal that leaned heavily towards the US position. His proposal included allowing unlimited use of market-based mechanisms and very extensive use of ‘carbon sinks’ as well as hot-air trade to ‘fulfil’ the Kyoto reduction targets. The proposal would de facto have meant a climate treaty which permitted industrialised countries to increase their emissions, in contradiction to what was agreed in Kyoto in 1997. A ‘handshake deal’ based on the Pronk proposal had actually been reached, but was rejected at the last minute by the more progressive of the EU environment ministers (including Germany, the Nordic countries and France).
Crusade for corrupting the Kyoto Protocol continues
It did not take the proponents of this disastrous set of rules for the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol long to regroup. In an attempt to achieve a breakthrough, an informal ministers meeting involving the US, Canada and a number of European countries took place in Ottawa in early December. According to the Wall Street Journal, a number of EU governments had changed their mind about the proposal they rejected in the last hours of COP6 and were now ready to endorse it. The ‘second thoughts in the EU camp,’ the newspaper writes, ‘were prompted by major pressure from European businesses.’
The ministers meeting ended without result - clearly some European ministers remained unconvinced - but the incident shows clearly just how business-friendly the failed COP6 deal was. It must be the first time ever that business has pressured governments to hurry up and finalise an environmental treaty.
Indeed, industry, bolstered by the reception it has been given by many governments, expects the follow-up conference in June/July to deliver the kind of Kyoto Protocol it desires. One observer from a European corporate think-tank stresses that the negotiations only failed due to lack of time and that a deal on the market-based mechanisms was almost reached, making the failure of COP6 ‘a minor incident in the history of international negotiations.’
The Carbon Market Analyst, one of many new publications for the ‘emerging carbon market,’ adjusted its so-called ECX index (estimated carbon value index) downwards from 1.31 before COP6 to 0.51 after the conference, reflecting the increased uncertainty reducing demand for pollution permits. At the same time, the newsletter remains highly optimistic about future market developments. ‘It appears likely,’ writes the Carbon Market Analyst, ‘that an agreement at a resumed COP6 will involve a considerable amount of sink activities with low or “no” costs.’
There is indeed little doubt that the explosive growth of international emissions trading will continue despite the breakdown of COP6. More and more Northern governments, including in Europe, include emissions trading in their domestic climate change policies and the expectation is that international markets for greenhouse gas emissions will develop with or without the Kyoto Protocol.
Economic globalisation vs. climate stability
After COP6, there is no escaping the conclusion that what were initially environmental motivations for the climate talks have now largely been usurped by commercial interests. Using the full toolbox of corporate lobbying and greenwash techniques, business has succeeded in promoting itself and global free trade in greenhouse gases as the solutions to the climate crisis. The Kyoto Protocol has been corrupted in order to give TNCs - the main culprits behind accelerating climate change - a privileged status as implementers and enablers of the market-based ‘solutions’. Carbon trading opens up new markets for corporations and enables them to fully exploit the financial opportunities arising from the climate crisis, whether from the massive markets in environmental end-of-pipe technologies or through the widening range of subsidised climate fraud.
The inclusion of market-based solutions in the Kyoto Protocol has opened up a Pandora’s Box that will bring about the complete undermining of the Kyoto reduction targets. In the process, the global warming debate has been reduced to a technical discussion, and pressing fundamental questions about efficiency, justice and equity are ignored. The price of the corruption of the Kyoto Protocol will be paid by the poorest and most vulnerable countries and communities who are also the most disproportionately hurt by climate change.
These disturbing developments are intrinsically linked to the ongoing process of economic globalisation and the ideology underlying it. Corporate-led globalisation - with its ever-increasing demand for fossil fuels - is escalating the global ecological crisis, manifested in global warming. Northern governments, however, remain blindly committed to the neo-liberal dogma that embraces deregulated markets as the solution to every imaginable problem.
With governments agreeing to the marketisation of one area of society after another, the commercialisation of the atmosphere should not come as a big surprise. The principle of ‘polluter pays’ has now been shifted to ‘polluter profits’ as corporations exempt themselves from any responsibility for the climate crisis, while at the same time asserting that they are more responsible than ever. Predictably, industry lobbyists are also profiting from the climate debate by using the opportunity to call for further deregulation of barriers to foreign investments, echoing the corporate ambitions behind the failed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI).
At the same time, it is hardly surprising that Southern governments are eager to grab opportunities to reap additional income through selling carbon credits, by providing space for industrial tree plantations, and so forth. Most of these countries are crippled by foreign debt, and following intervention by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) their economies have been restructured to depend on luring foreign investors and an unsustainable over-reliance on exports.
Calling a halt to the market mania that has colonised the UN climate talks is a prerequisite to moving towards effective and socially just solutions to the climate crisis. A first necessity is an acknowledgement by the North of its ecological debt to the South (80% of all CO2 emitted since 1850 has come from the North). A fair solution also implies the full recognition of equity between and within nations, with equal rights to the atmosphere for all human beings.
Real solutions imply a profound societal transformation - a sharp turn away from fossil fuel-dependent economies. Effective policies forcing corporations to adapt to the imperative of stabilising the climate are absolutely essential. The burden is now on grassroots movements all over the world to increase pressure on governments to adopt real solutions to the climate crisis rather than caving in to corporate ‘greenwash’.
This article is a summarised and updated version of ‘Greenhouse Market Mania - UN climate talks corrupted by corporate pseudo-solutions’, a 55-page report of which Adam Ma’anit is co-author, published by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) in November 2000. The full text, including all sources, is available at: http://www.xs4all.nl/~ceo.
CEO is a European-based research and campaign group targeting the threats to democracy, equity, social justice and the environment posed by the economic and political power of corporations and their lobby groups.
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