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Cooking the Books 1: Devastating competition

When Russia ratified the Kyoto Protocol on the emission of greenhouse gases in October there was some rejoicing in environmentalist circles as this meant that the treaty now became binding on all the governments that had signed up to it. The environmentalists were well aware that the agreement was quite inadequate to achieve its stated purpose, but took the view that something was better than nothing.

In a socialist world, once a problem like this had been identified, the necessary remedial action could be taken rapidly. If scientists advised that greenhouse gas emissions had to be cut to avoid global overwarming and its consequences, then they would be, with the methods of energy production being changed to achieve this. It would essentially be a question of organisation, or rather of reorganisation. Everybody would have an interest in this being done, and it would be done.

But, under capitalism, while in the abstract everybody including those in charge of capitalist corporations has an interest in tackling the problem, the vested interests of capitalist corporations and governments get in the way.

Most of the excessive emissions of greenhouse gases come from burning oil and coal, but some countries depend more on this than others. They stood to be penalised vis-à-vis their competitors using other sources of energy in that their costs would rise more. So, supported by their governments, they fought against the treaty. This was the reason America refused to sign. Its government was not prepared to see its corporations rendered less competitive on the world market. And still isn’t.

But even in countries which have signed, the arguments about competitiveness still go on. At the end of October, the British government announced that it was raising the amount of carbon dioxide that factories, oil refineries and power stations in Britain could emit by 6.6 million tonnes a year for the next three years. Hardly a contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Referring to “the need to protect the competitive position of UK industry”, Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett explained: “projections suggested that if we stuck with the original formula, it would have had a devastating effect on our industry” (Guardian, Times, 28 October). In other words, capitalist firms in other countries would be able to outcompete British ones through being able to keep their costs lower as a result of not having to spent so much on equipment to cut emissions.

Competition is said by supporters of capitalism to bring all sorts of benefits. Socialists can’t see any. The sad story of attempts to limit greenhouse gases shows that having production organised by separate enterprises all competing to make a profit has “devastating effects” both on the environment and on those working for them.