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Pathfinders: Hot Air Emissions

"It is now plain that the emission of greenhouse gases... is causing global warming at a rate that is
unsustainable", writes Tony Blair in the preface to the UK government report which concludes that "there is only a small chance of greenhouse gas emissions being kept below dangerous levels." When questioned about this report on Radio 4 Margaret Beckett, environment minister, states "we could come to a tipping point where change could be irreversible."

This is not the much-publicised Stern Report of October, but an earlier report, Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change,published by the UK government in January of this year, based on research presented by speakers at a conference held by the UK Meteorological Office in February 2005. (BBC Online,30 January).

Since then the heat and emissions released by politicians of all persuasions has increased to dangerous and unsustainable proportions. A summit in Monterrey in Mexico in October was hailed by the 20 biggest global polluters as 'very positive', then more noise over the Stern report later that month, which tended to be taken more seriously by politicians since they listen to economists with infinitely greater attention than they ever listen to scientists. But then in November the politicians were complaining that the politicians weren't doing anything, as Kofi Annan despaired at the UN climate summit in Nairobi that global warming was as "grave a threat as conflict, poverty and the spread of weapons." Sceptics, he added, with a politician's ear for the ringing soundbite, were "out of step, out of arguments and out of time".

The only politician in Britain in recent weeks to actually do anything, as opposed to making speeches and going to junkets in Mexico for Important High-Level Talks, has been dear old Red Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, who has infuriated the Kensington and Mayfair set by announcing a punishing £25 per day congestion charge for Band G motor vehicles, which is effectively the SUV-class 4x4 'Chelsea tractor', emitters of carbon roughly double that of any other car. Many of these can be seen outside school gates during the school run, and are apparently second family cars used for kids, shopping and round-town errands, themselves the most carbon-inefficient types of journey. Ken observes,correctly, that people who can afford these monsters can afford any mainstream car so their decision to buy these heavy polluters and stick two fingers up at the world is clearly deliberate.

Most people who have even the mildest concern over capitalism's damage to the planet must surely have the most searing contempt for anti-social yahoos in bull-bar Mitsubishi tankettes, so it was not surprising that this measure was greeted with ecstatic cheers, even though it won't come in until 2009.

What a pity Ken went and spoiled it all immediately by getting himself into trouble over a freebie junket (by carbon reckless air travel, of course) to Venezuela to visit his soulmate Chavez, at the council taxpayer's expense. Never mind,the thought is what counts.

And the thought, in government circles, is all about counting at the moment, carbon counting. The UK government has announced, through the annual speech made by its velvet glove puppet the Queen, that its target of reducing carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2050 will now be enshrined in law, with a Carbon Committee set up to make sure it happens (BBC Online, 15 November).

They'll check every five years or so and make a speech, or an excuse, depending on where they're up to. So, lots of noise again for now, and leisure enough not to worry for the next five years, until everybody's forgotten about the targets. And what if the targets haven't been met then? Well, they can just hold over publishing the report until a useful 'bad news day' comes along.

Everyone's showing willing, and that's nice. The Nairobi conference was held, not to do anything, but to agree a timetable to discuss globally binding emissions targets in time for the expiry of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. Nobody stuck to the Kyoto Protocol in the first place, but nevertheless it is very important to hold talks to establish agreement over the next generation of agreements that nobody will stick to either.

The European Union has set itself the pious goal, not of reducing total carbon emissions, but of containing the increase to levels which will push the average temperature up by 'only' 2 degrees. An increase of 2 degrees centigrade is enough to melt all the ice in Greenland, but this is considered acceptable considering the dire consequences if they go even higher than that.

To keep to this target, atmospheric carbon - originally 227 parts per million (ppm) at pre-industrial levels and now at 380 ppm - needs to be stabilised at around 450 ppm. Speaking on the same programme as Margaret Beckett in January, the UK government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, called this 'unlikely'. "We're going to be at 400 ppm in 10 years' time", he said. "To aim for 450 would, I am afraid, seem unfeasible." So why set such a target then? Well, they've got to say something, haven't they?

It's all a question of motivation.The ugly truth is probably that Europe is hoping to trade its problem away with the new carbon emissions trading system, whereby they get to smoke and Africa gets the cancer. Russia didn't even turn up to Monterrey, presumably because global warming doesn't seem so bad when you've got frostbite in Irkutsk, and it's a very chill wind that blows nobody any good. The Chinese, meanwhile, on being invited to join in huge emissions reductions at a time when they are the fastest industrialising nation on Earth, smile politely at this blatant imperialist attempt to clip their dragon's wings, and carry on about their filthy business, supremely confident that the greedy foreign investment will continue unabated in the free-for-all of their boomtown economy.

The people who are most worried are not the Europeans or the Americans or the Russians or the Chinese, it is the so-called developing countries who in fact are never allowed to develop and who occupy the equatorial belt which is soon likely to become an incineration zone. That they are less guilty of pollution than anyone, but are going to more punished than everyone, is yet another example of the sort of 'justice' meted out by an economic system in which nice guys finish last and rich guys fix all the races. Their coastal infrastructures are going to be flooded out, their wetlands will dry out, their crops will die, and wars and migrations will escalate. The Nairobi conference, the first climate change conference to be held in that continent, aimed to bring another dimension to the debate,that of human rights. It was, said Kofi Annan and other delegates, a human right not to be killed by the callous selfserving vandalism of other people's behaviour. Perhaps this is true in some moral sense. But capitalism is a blind process of profit accumulation. It doesn't understand morals. The administrators of capitalism serve a supremely ignorant master.

For all their hot air, they are never going to challenge the thing they most believe in. They will still be making speeches while the world burns.