Climate Change: Business, As Usual

What should we have expected from such a large gathering of the world’s elites if it wasn’t this?

Authorities against protesters seeking to have their views heard. Police in force wrecking the long-made plans of people to shut down the port of Copenhagen for a day to draw attention to their agenda. Police employed by authorities to silence the voice of a mass of individuals trying to express the views of millions worldwide who recognise that their elected so-called representatives do little, if anything, to represent those views.

The voice of protesters had to be kept within certain bounds. There were no invitations to send in their chosen representatives to address any part of the summit and what did the former Danish minister and president (of the greater part) of the climate summit, Connie Hedegaard, mean when she said that the minority of protesters who were using violence were still too many and that they should have acted using their democratic channels? Surely if the ‘democratic channels’ brought forth democratic results then all those folk on the streets around the world would have stayed at home? Property owners may have been afraid of damage to buildings and vehicles but how does that compare with the fear of the tens of thousands outside the venue and the other multitudes in demonstrations around the world – the fear that those inside would continue their damage to the world and all its inhabitants through lack of appropriate action? A fear compounded by a document leaked on the second day which revealed that Denmark, US and UK proposed to transfer oversight of any future treaty from the UN to the World Bank, the very institution already loathed by the majority of protestors for its dire and damaging policies.

Costs vs Opportunities
For any who hold on to hopes of capitalism discovering a new method of delivery, a kinder, more equitable, better regulated version of itself , let’s look at a few examples of what Copenhagen and the climate change debate is all about. If you thought it might be about reducing those nasty emissions think again. It’s about markets – carbon markets, and specifically about the buying and selling of the right to pollute. Carbon trading lies at the heart of global climate policy and is projected to become one of the world’s largest commodity markets, an approach which attempts to tackle climate change via the route of business as usual (see Oscar Reyes at Carbon Trade Watch and Transnational Institute).

Early on at Copenhagen US State envoy Todd Stern said that Obama had no plans to sign up to Kyoto, except possibly for offsets and a market-based trading system, ‘We’re not going to do Kyoto, and we’re not going to do something that’s Kyoto with another name.’ (

Later there was some commentary on BBC World Radio to the effect that US would cut emissions by 17 percent, which to some sounded like a move forward. However cutting their emissions from 2005 levels (which was the proposal) by 17 percent would return them only to their 1990 levels, the year that was to be the benchmark from which we were all to reduce according to Kyoto. Further BBC commentary said that the US was “grappling with domestic difficulties and can’t offer more.”

A 19-page UK Draft Options Paper on Renewable Targets reveals much about the aims of the UK delegation. “The costs of increasing renewable technology use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is around three times higher than allowing flexibility in reduction options through emissions trading.” (Note – don’t reduce your own emissions but pay for other emissions elsewhere where it’s cheaper).

“Full flexibility to invest in renewable energy in other parts of the EU and, even more helpfully, (my underlining) in the developing world would deliver us the least cost outcome to meet the 2020 target”(e.g. invest in solar energy projects in North Africa rather than transferring to renewable energy at home.) From this and plenty more in the document, “flexible options, maximum flexibility, ‘flexibility-based’ options” etc., it is clear that the priority is about costs to business not to the environment and ‘helping developing nations’ is just a way of keeping costs down.

Carbon emissions as a commodity
Friends of the Earth, in a document, A dangerous obsession, offer detailed explanations of all aspects of the climate change debate. According to them offsetting “institutionalises the idea that cuts can be made in the developing world in place of cuts in the developed world when the science demands cuts in both.” And, “ At the current rate taking a per capita basis an 80% reduction in developed country emissions by 2050 with no offsetting would still not ensure the levelling off of per capita emissions by 2050. Offsetting only exacerbates the situation increasing inequalities in the production of carbon emissions further.” (

As to the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) which is an integral part of offsetting, it is supposed to reward new, previously unplanned projects but a number of studies have shown it to be virtually impossible to know when a project really is additional and to prove it. According to Larry Lohmann, carbon trading specialist, of, “This makes impossible any distinction between fraud and non-fraud rendering any attempt at offset regulation ultimately pointless.” He has also written about carbon being “a magnet for hedge funds, energy traders, private equity funds and large global investment banks – Barclays, Citi-Group, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, BNP Paribas and Merrill Lynch…..”

Friends of the Earth report that carbon trading had reached $126 billion by 2008 of which $92 billion was made up of transactions of allowances and derivatives under the EU ETS (emissions trading scheme), UK being one of the leading proponents of such trading. “In 2007 Gordon Brown aimed to give global carbon trading a central role in delivering emissions reductions and foresaw an opportunity for huge growth on the world market.” Larry Lohmann reports that Wall Street has projected carbon markets to be around $2 trillion or more by 2020, and that they could become the dominant ‘commodity’, displacing oil, which begins to reveal the scale of the carbon derivatives market being created. Compare these figures with those promised on the last day of the Copenhagen meetings with Obama as the mouthpiece – $10 billion by 2012 and $100 billion by 2020 from the developed to the developing nations to help them mitigate their emissions (as long as they meet the requirements of course – no free lunches here). Oscar Reyes, in an article “Taking care of business”, says that the rapid growth has already spawned more complex markets where carbon credits are bundled together, then sliced up and resold, the same structures that caused the recent financial crisis.
First there has to be a commodity, in this case the somewhat intangible carbon emissions. A security, whose value is derived from the value of an underlying commodity, is one step removed from the commodity; a derivative is one step removed from the security which makes derivatives two steps from the commodity. For most of us carbon emissions as a commodity are several steps removed from reality. These aspects of trading carbon reinforce the primacy of the market and governments’ willingness to allow the market to dictate the rules. The history of sub-prime and corporate lobbying point to the likelihood of another bubble and collapse – this time involving a pseudo-commodity.

The Unequal Struggle
On a very simplistic level the question could be asked what is it we want to achieve, do we take seriously the need to reduce emissions overall worldwide or do we choose to create another money-making business by gambling, guessing, playing with the idea of carbon as commodity? It may be guessing, gambling and playing with money – but with our habitat? Larry Lohmann again: “Carbon Trading as it exists now is damaging, ineffective and fundamentally flawed and seeking to reform it is a waste of precious time and energy in the face of the urgent threat of climate change.”

What stood in the way of an agreement at Copenhagen was not the world’s population or the demonstrators, who are to be applauded for keeping many of the rest of us focussed on the events. It was capitalism with its big business interests, lobbyists, banking and financial corporations all with revolving doors to their lackey governments standing shoulder to shoulder against the people. Perhaps the biggest tragedy of Copenhagen is the fact that, although totally dissatisfied and disillusioned, many people still cling to the hope of the ‘leaders’ coming to their senses and taking control before it’s too late. So, in this forum meant to save the world and its inhabitants from the ravages of global warming and climate change but where business as usual has been seen to be the overriding concern, we must recognize the unequal struggle for what it is – them against us; power against the people and, unless collectively we abandon hope’s triumph over experience, it will ever be thus.

Janet Surman

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