Phil Ward writes that the major capitalist powers are blocking the road to a global climate treaty … and preparing to blame China for the failure.

Any hopes that the December Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen will produce a treaty on greenhouse gas emission reductions are fading rapidly. Janos Pasztor, director of the UN Climate Change Support Team, admitted on 27 October that there was no agreement on targets for industrialized countries, or on funding to help developing countries limit their emissions. Neither was there any indication that the US Congress would agree President Obama’s proposals for emissions abatement.

Even if targets are agreed, they will be wholly inadequate. Obama’s target for the US is to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The US target from Kyoto in 1997 (but never ratified) was a 7% reduction on 1990 levels by 2010. Between 1990 and 2007 US emissions increased by 16.8%, from 6.1 to 7.1 billion tonnes CO2eq. So even if there is an agreement, for the US it is weaker than Kyoto and does not take account of the “extra” greenhouse gasses emitted as a result of the failure to ratify and meet the earlier target.

The EU has not met its Kyoto target either. Its current plans are for a 20% reduction on 1990 levels by 2020, but up to half of these reductions can be offset by the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), whereby the financing of “low carbon” schemes in the global south can be construed as reducing emissions at home. The CDM has been shown all over the world to be utterly corrupt and tramples on the rights of local people in developing.


Behind the likely Copenhagen debacle lies the growing rivalry between the major capitalist powers, exacerbated by the global financial crisis, and the increasing economic clout of China, with its rapidly growing economy and large financial surplus. Thus, the EU’s “commitments” on emissions reductions are conditional on there being a global deal that will prevent industries relocating to countries without carbon caps, while the US Congress is considering placing import tariffs on products from nations that do not have emissions reduction targets.

Both the Chinese and Indian governments have taken the same position adopted by the previous Bush Administration in the US. They will not reduce emissions, only the “carbon intensity” of their economies – the greenhouse gas emissions per unit of economic output. Over the medium to long term such reductions happen naturally, and have done since before James Watt improved steam engine efficiency from 1% to 3% in the 1770s. Since 1978, China’s energy intensity has halved (and its consumption has tripled), so its target of another 20% intensity reduction in the next 5 years will probably be achieved. But it won’t mean a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.


There is agreement among socialists that the imperialist countries should acknowledge their responsibility for over 70% of historic greenhouse gas emissions. They should make “reparations” to developing countries for creating non-carbon technologies, as well as real commitments to drastically cut their emissions by 2050. Issues remain about how such aid is to be given, since the donors are a mendacious ruling class whose interest lies in maintaining their imperialist power, and the recipients a mendacious ruling class whose members are mainly preoccupied with self-enrichment.

There has also been agreement that greenhouse gas emissions per capita should be equalized between all countries, while overall reductions (”Contraction and Convergence”) also occur. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls for a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of 80-95% on 1990 levels by 2050. Using 90%, that means reducing emissions from 4.3 tonnes of CO2 (equivalent) to 0.43 tonnes per person, even assuming there is no population increase in that time.

According to estimates from the World Resources Institute, only 40 out of 185 countries would be allowed to increase their greenhouse gas emissions, 30 of them in Africa and Bangladesh, the one with the largest population. The US would have to cut emissions by 98% and the UK by 95%. But most developing economies would have to cut their emissions as well: China by 90%, India by 62%, South Africa by 94%, Iran by 93% and Brazil by 73%. Cuba also emits much more than this IPCC maximum target for 2050 and would need a reduction of 80% from its current emissions of 2.19 tonnes per person.


It is quite likely that the US, other imperialist countries and the media will use the failure of the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit to attack China in particular. This does not mean that the current trajectory of China’s government, or that of other developing countries, should be immune from criticism from the left. Of course, supporters of the environmental and ecosocialist movement must concentrate on demanding that their own governments act against greenhouse gas emissions. But, just as we show solidarity with Chinese workers fighting the super-exploitation in the new industrial zones (mainly producing consumer goods for the “West”), or against the current state executions of Uighur protesters, we should also support those opposing environmental degradation and fighting for a carbon-free model of development.

There are currently thousands of environmental groups in China. Some have fought high profile campaigns, such as the ones against the Three Gorges Dam or the China River Diversion project. Others fight the increasing water and air pollution resulting from China’s profit-driven economic growth. Sooner or later they will question the form of that growth and start to propose social, economic and political alternatives that are sustainable, just and egalitarian. Such alternatives will be easier to implement in a country whose infrastructure is not yet entirely built on an unsustainable basis.

This article is taken from Climate and Capitalism. Phil Ward is a member of Socialist Resistance.


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