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Posts Tagged ‘Kyoto Protocol

Climate debt and the Durban deception

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As African civil society, global South movements and international allies protested right through COP17 in Durban, South Africa. They rejected the call of many developed countries for a so-called 'Durban mandate' to launch new negotiations for a future climate framework. Photo: Orin Langelle/GJEP

COP17 is over in Durban and some positions have now become clear. From a reading of the independent accounts of the negotiations and the long-winded statements issued by governments, this is what has happened:

1) Actual action to reduce carbon emissions and greenhouse gases has been pushed back by years, probably five and maybe even 10. A new treaty will take several years to negotiate and a few more to get it ratified by enough countries so that it makes a difference. Even then, major polluters like the USA (especially the USA but also China, India, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa) may not ratify it. We don’t know – since it wasn’t spelt out in Durban – that any new agreement won’t be a weak and useless ‘pledge and review’ system.

2) Developed countries want to end the Kyoto Protocol. But they also want to retain and expand parts of the Kyoto Protocol they like. This includes the CDM (Clean Development Mechanism). The European Union (EU) is most keen on this. By doing this they want to continue to transfer their responsibilities to developing countries. Since Durban ended with no legally binding emission reductions (under the expiring Kyoto Protocol or under any sort of successor to it) there is no rationale for any carbon market. But the big carbon brokers and traders of the EU want the carbon market, the continuation of the CDM and even the creation of new ‘market mechanisms’.

3) The hold of global finance and banking over climate negotiations is strong. The World Bank and the Global Climate Fund mean that any climate fund linked to a post-Kyoto deal will be managed by an anti-democratic entity that is responsible for much of the climate disruption and poverty in the world. The World Bank together with support from the European Union will block any attempt at participatory governance of such a fund. This means the Global Climate Fund will be set up to funnel more profits – under the guise of mitigation and adaptation – to the private sector.

This much is clear to me. That is why I see one more outcome:

4) Large and influential advocacy groups such as India’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) will support the position their government’s take even what that position is going to hurt the poor in the country. In a briefing titled ‘The final outcome of the Durban Conference on Climate Change’ the CSE provided its assessment:

Developed countries are committing themselves to reduce only 13 to 17 percent by the year 2020. This will lead the world to an increase in the temperature of more than four degrees Celsius. Photo: Orin Langelle/GJEP

“The Durban Conference is a turning point in the climate change negotiations as even though developing countries have won victories, these have come after much acrimony and fight. At Durban the world has agreed to urgent action, but now it is critical that this action to reduce emissions must be based on equity. India’s proposal on equity has been included in the work plan for the next conference. It is clear from this conference that the fight to reduce emissions effectively in an unequal world will be even more difficult in the years to come. But it is a conference which has put the issue of equity back into the negotiations. It is for this reason an important move ahead.”

But – COP17 saw no turning point, although India’s government and its media supporters are saying so at home. Developing countries have won no victories and the poor in those developing countries must bear the brunt of the environmental impacts of business as usual. There was no agreement to urgent action – in fact exactly the opposite. India has no proposal on equity – it has none at home and therefore none to offer any climate negotiations. There is no move ahead except for finance, carbon markets and tech transfer brokers.

That’s that, as I see it. Here is some material worth consulting to learn more about the ideas of equity and justice under the subject of climate change.

In Triple Crisis, Martin Khor wrote: “The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban ended on Sunday morning with the launch of negotiations for a new global climate deal to be completed in 2015. The new deal aims to ensure “the highest possible mitigation efforts by all Parties”, meaning that the countries should undertake deep Greenhouse Gas emissions cuts, or lower the growth rates of their emissions. It will take the form of either “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force”. In a night of high drama, the European Union tried to pressurize India and China to agree to commit to a legally binding treaty such as a protocol, and to agree to cancel the term “legal outcome” from the list of three possible results, as they said this was too weak an option.”

In Project Syndicate, Mary Robinson, a former President of Ireland, is President of the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town and a Nobel Peace Laureate, have written about climate justice:

“The first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of 2012. So the European Union and the other Kyoto parties (the United States never ratified the agreement, and the Protocol’s terms asked little of China, India, and other emerging powers) must commit to a second commitment period, in order to ensure that this legal framework is maintained.”

“At the same time, all countries must acknowledge that extending the lifespan of the Kyoto Protocol will not solve the problem of climate change, and that a new or additional legal framework that covers all countries is needed. The Durban meeting must agree to initiate negotiations towards this end – with a view to concluding a new legal instrument by 2015 at the latest. All of this is not only possible, but also necessary, because the transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy makes economic, social, and environmental sense. The problem is that making it happen requires political will, which, unfortunately, seems in short supply. Climate change is a matter of justice. The richest countries caused the problem, but it is the world’s poorest who are already suffering from its effects. In Durban, the international community must commit to righting that wrong.”

Protesters block the halls at the Durban International Conference Centre, December 9, 2011. Photo: Earth Negotiations Bulletin

In Real Climate Economics, Frank Ackerman said about the USA: “While others are not blameless, the United States is the leader of the do-nothings, the country whose inaction ensures a global climate stalemate. As long as the world’s largest economy, with the largest cumulative emissions and the greatest resources to tackle the climate crisis, refuses to act, others are not likely to move forward on their own. Yet there is not a snowball’s chance in Texas that any significant climate policy will survive the current U.S. Congress. Thus the global failure to protect the earth’s climate can be traced back to the dysfunctional state of American politics. With the Republicans increasingly committed to science denial and the Democrats unable or unwilling to challenge them, climate policy is going nowhere.”

Several more points on subjects that have much to do with climate change.

On technology – “The technology discussions have been hijacked by industrialised countries speaking on behalf of their transnational corporations”, said Silvia Ribeiro from the international organisation ETC Group. Critique of monopoly patents on technologies and the environmental, social and cultural evaluation of technologies have been taken out of the Durban outcome. Without addressing these fundamental concerns, the new technology mechanism will merely be a global marketing arm to increase the profit of transnational corporations by selling dangerous technologies to countries of the South, such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology or geoengineering technologies.

On agriculture – “The only way forward for agriculture is to support agro-ecological solutions, and to keep agriculture out of the carbon market”, said Alberto Gomez, North American Coordinator for La Via Campesina, the world’s largest movement of peasant farmers. “Corporate agribusiness, through its social, economic and cultural model of production, is one of the principal causes of climate change and increased hunger. We therefore reject free trade agreements, association agreements and all forms of the application of intellectual property rights to life, current technological packages (agrochemicals, genetic modification) and those that offer false solutions (biofuels, nanotechnology and climate smart agriculture) that only exacerbate the current crisis.”

According to Pablo Solón, Bolivia’s former ambassador to the UN and Bolivia’s former chief negotiator on climate change, "The USA blackmails developing countries. They cut aid when a developing country raises its hands and does discourse against their proposals. This happened to Bolivia two years ago: after Copenhagen, they cut aid of $3 million." Photo: Petermann/GJEP-GFC

On REDD + and forest carbon projects – “REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation)+ threatens the survival of Indigenous peoples and forest-dependent communities. Mounting evidence shows that Indigenous peoples are being subjected to violations of their rights as a result of the implementation of REDD+-type programs and policies”, declared the Global Alliance of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities against REDD and for Life. Their statement, released during the first week of COP17, declares that “REDD+ and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) promote the privatisation and commodification of forests, trees and air through carbon markets and offsets from forests, soils, agriculture and could even include the oceans. We denounce carbon markets as a hypocrisy that will not stop global warming.”

On the green economy – “We need a climate fund that provides finance for peoples of developing countries that is fully independent from undemocratic institutions like the World Bank. The bank has a long track record of financing projects that exacerbate climate disruption and poverty”, said Lidy Nacpil of Jubilee South. “The fund is being hijacked by the rich countries, setting up the World Bank as interim trustee and providing direct access to money meant for developing countries to the private sector. It should be called the Greedy Corporate Fund!” Climate policy is making a radical shift towards the so-called “green economy”, dangerously reducing ethical commitments and historical responsibility to an economic calculation on cost-effectiveness, trade and investment opportunities. Mitigation and adaption should not be treated as a business nor have its financing conditioned by private sector and profit-oriented logic. Life is not for sale.

On climate debt – “Industrialised Northern countries are morally and legally obligated to repay their climate debt”, said Janet Redman, co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies. “Developed countries grew rich at the expense of the planet and the future all people by exploiting cheap coal and oil. They must pay for the resulting loss and damages, dramatically reduce emissions now, and financially support developing countries to shift to clean energy pathways.” Developed countries, in assuming their historical responsibility, must honour their climate debt in all its dimensions as the basis for a just, effective and scientific solution. The focus must not be only on financial compensation, but also on restorative justice, understood as the restitution of integrity to our Mother Earth and all its beings. We call on developed countries to commit themselves to action. Only this could perhaps rebuild the trust that has been broken and enable the process to move forward.


How business-as-usual is shutting climate out of the Durban negotiations

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The IPCC released an early report on managing the risks of extreme events and disasters in time for Durban. Pity they haven't paid attention. Photo: IPCC

The Durban climate negotiations will plod noisily towards 9 December and end with nothing to show for it all, at this rate. A handful of wealthy countries – including notably the United States – are now seeking to move the goalposts. They want to dismantle the rules for developed countries’ emissions reductions, shift the burden to developing countries, and renege on the Bali Roadmap. In the process, they are trying to end the Kyoto Protocol, and even the Convention, and replace it with a weak, ineffective “pledge and review” system that may take years to negotiate. The Durban climate change negotiations are a clash between those who believe that the world deserves and needs a science- and rules-based multilateral climate system to tackle perhaps the greatest challenge to face humanity, and those who are seeking to dismantle the existing one.

The replacement of George W Bush by Barack Obama as US president in 2008 has seen a change in rhetoric on climate change coming from the White House, but no major policy shift regarding the Kyoto Protocol and the development of a successor agreement. The priority has remained to ensure that nothing is agreed that either impinges on the interests of US corporations or harms the economic and geo-strategic position of US imperialism against its rivals.

Climate models project more frequent hot days throughout the 21st century. In many regions, the time between '20-year' (unusually) warm days will decrease. From the IPCC Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation

According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), “the United Nations Climate Change Conference, Durban 2011, brings together representatives of the world’s governments, international organizations and civil society”. The UNFCCC says the “discussions will seek to advance, in a balanced fashion, the implementation of the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, as well as the Bali Action Plan, agreed at COP 13 in 2007, and the Cancun Agreements, reached at COP 16 last December”. The UNFCCC is either misguidedly optimistic, or uses the words “advance” and “balanced” differently from the way we do.

In 2009, CO2 emissions in developing countries grew at 3.3%, primarily due to continued economic growth and increased coal demand, while in developed countries emissions fell sharply by 6.5%, mostly attributable to the decreased use of coal, oil and natural gas as a consequence of the global economic recession and financial crises. Emissions in developed countries in 2009 therewith fell 6.4% below their 1990 level. 1990 is often used as a reference year for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, for example in the 1992 UNFCCC and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. This makes sense, as 1990 was the year when UN-steered climate change negotiations started, and when the issue first received prominence on the international political agenda.

All that talk, in the interests of the 99% we hope.

A closer look at the IEA data reveals interesting trends. The five largest CO2 emitters – China, the United States, India, the Russian Federation, and Japan, in the order of emissions – account for about half of the world’s population, emissions, and gross domestic product (GDP); however, the CO2 emissions per unit of GDP as well as per capita are not at all equal across the five. The two largest emitters, China and the United States, together contributed 41% of the world’s emissions in 2009, and both almost have the same share compared to one another. On a per capita level, though, the average American emitted more than three times as much CO2 as the average Chinese citizen.

"Before examining the main trends and implications of the 450 Scenario, it is important to highlight briefly why the scenario is needed. It is because neither the New Policies Scenario, our central scenario, nor the Current Policies Scenario puts us on a future trajectory for greenhouse-gas emissions that is consistent with limiting the increase in global temperature to no more than 2°C, the level climate scientists say is likely to avoid catastrophic climate change. The 450 Scenario illustrates one plausible path to that objective." From International Energy Agency (IEA), World Energy Outlook 2011, Chapter 6, Climate change and the 450 Scenario

The Obama administration now insists that there is no pressing need for a post-Kyoto treaty restricting carbon emissions. Jonathan Pershing, US deputy envoy for climate change, declared earlier this week in South Africa: “I’m not sure that the issue of legal form will be resolved here, or needs to be resolved here.” He hailed the voluntary pledges to reduce emissions that were announced at last year’s UN climate change summit in Cancún, Mexico. “To my way of thinking, that’s an enormous way forward in solving the problem,” he said. These remarks underscore Washington’s key role in sabotaging any progress toward a new climate treaty.

This is a step beyond grossly irresponsible. Current levels of warming have already begun triggering major “tipping points” in the Earth’s system – such as Arctic methane releases, Amazon dieback, and the loss of icesheets. 2°C of warming, as proposed by some governments, threatens to tip a cascade of events that will cause warming to spin out of control. We have known since 1986 that warming “beyond 1°C may elicit rapid, unpredictable and non?linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage”, the effects of which we’re seeing already.*

But rich countries risk climate anarchy. To address this crisis many countries – particularly developing countries – seek an agreement in Durban based on science, on the existing legally binding and multilateral system reflected in the Climate Convention and its Kyoto Protocol, and on the deal agreed by all countries in the Bali Roadmap.

"Energy-related CO2 emissions in the OECD decline by 50% between 2009 and 2035 in the 450 Scenario, to reach 6 Gt, and their share of global emissions falls from 42% in 2009 to 28% in 2035. CO2 emissions in non-OECD countries fall by a much smaller 9% over the Outlook period, to reach 14.3 Gt in 2035, though this is still a substantial 10.0 Gt of CO2 abatement, relative to the NewPolicies Scenario, in 2035." From International Energy Agency (IEA), World Energy Outlook 2011, Chapter 6, Climate change and the 450 Scenario

A report released on Monday by the British-based World Development Movement detailed the testimonies of “insiders” at the Copenhagen and Cancún events. The report stated: “The US said they would deny climate finance to Bolivia and Ecuador because they had objected to the Copenhagen accord proposal. The EU’s Connie Hedegaard had also suggested that the small island-state countries could be ‘our best allies because they need finance’.” One official explained that developing country negotiators who come to be regarded by the major powers as a nuisance “are taken out of delegations for one reason or another, or booted upstairs, or suddenly are transferred, or lose their jobs, as a result of external pressures, usually in the form of some kind of bribe (not necessarily money), or exchange.”

Furthermore, a lucrative trade and speculation in carbon credits, centred in London and Frankfurt, has emerged through the European Emissions Trading Scheme. This mechanism was established and developed within the legal framework of the Kyoto Protocol. The sovereign debt crisis in Europe has already badly affected the carbon trade, with the value of credits plunging in recent weeks. A purely voluntary framework for emissions, as urged by Washington, could further undermine the carbon credit market, in which British and European banks have a significant stake. Amid the manoeuvres of the major powers and the financiers of climate gimmicks, the representatives of the world’s smaller, impoverished states-including some whose very existence is threatened by climate change-are sidelined, bullied, and manipulated at the UN summits.

Rather than honour their obligations, many developed countries have now indicated their clear intention to avoid binding obligations to reduce their climate pollution by killing the Kyoto Protocol and replacing it with a weaker ‘pledge and review’ system. At the same time, they are seeking to retain and expand their favored elements of the Kyoto Protocol (i.e. market mechanisms) into a new agreement, and shift their responsibilities onto developing countries.

A ‘pledge and review’ system would mean that the rich countries most responsible for the problem would only reduce their emissions according to political pressures at home, not according to the increasingly dire scientific realities. There would be no internationally binding commitments, no comparability of efforts among developed countries, and no assurance of adequate efforts. The system of common rules and international compliance in the Kyoto Protocol that give meaning to these commitments would be abandoned. Such an approach would effectively deregulate the climate regime, thereby ensuring business as usual and a deregulated approach that could even be written into international law.

Allegro à la Cancún

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A woman hands out names of countries to participants at the United Nations climate change conference in Cancún, Mexico

A woman hands out names of countries to participants at the United Nations climate change conference in Cancún, Mexico. Photograph: Eduardo Verdugo/AP/Guardian

The Guardian has reported that Europe and a group of small island Pacific states have jointly proposed a new international treaty at the UN climate talks in Cancún, Mexico, to commit developing and developed countries to reducing their climate emissions, according to leaked documents. “The move has outraged many developing countries, including China and India, who fear that rich countries will use the proposal to lay the foundations to ditch the Kyoto protocol and replace it with a much weaker alternative,” reports the Guardian’s environment editor, John Vidal. “The new negotiating text could provoke the most serious rift yet in the already troubled climate talks because the Kyoto protocol is the only commitment that rich countries will cut their emissions.”

Environmentalists in India meanwhile are speculating about the reason for the change in the negotiating stand of the country’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh. India’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) says: “The climate talks in Cancun CoP 16 is precariously poised with India announcing its willingness to subject its domestic mitigation actions to third-party verification and committing to binding emission targets, ‘under pressure from Brazil and South Africa’ (Jairam Ramesh, Indian minister for environment and forest, quoted)”. Sunita Narain, the head of CSE, writes from Cancún, “The aim is to replace the legal regime, needed to set targets based on historical and current responsibility with a soft regime based on domestic targets for all, measured, reported and verified to make it binding”.

The fact is that this regime change promoted by the USA and pushed by all its willing partners in the coalition is disastrous for the world’s fight against climate change, Narain has said. The USA wants its right to pollute. It has provided a perfect formula – it promises us the right to pollute, because it wants to legitimise its own pollution. In this way, the USA is not asked to take on targets (called commitments or actions) based on his historical contribution. In other words, it would have to reduce 40 per cent emissions below 1990 levels. Instead it can set its own domestic targets, based on whatever little it can do. It has initially committed to reducing 3 per cent below 1990 levels, and now says even that much is too much.

Japan reiterated that it will not extend cuts under Kyoto beyond 2012, a position that has angered developing nations, according to a Reuters report. Tokyo insists that all major emitters including China, India and the United States must instead sign up for a new treaty. Akira Yamada, a senior Japanese official, added that the talks were seeking “some good wording with which we can accommodate, not only Japan, but other countries. This negotiation is rather difficult. However, we think we can reach agreement.” Developing nations say that rich nations, which have emitted most greenhouse gases by burning fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution, must extend Kyoto before the poor sign up for curbs that would damage their drive to end poverty.

The BBC reported that Bolivian President Evo Morales “confirmed his status as the darling of the conference with a rousing speech punctuated by several rounds of applause and cheers.” Morales is quoted: “We came to Cancun to save nature, forests, planet Earth. We are not here to convert nature into a commodity; we have not come here to revitalise capitalism with carbon markets. The climate crisis is one of the crises of capitalism.” Hear, hear! Morales has all my votes. But, the BBC also reported that there is a “diplomatic assault on Japan in the hope of softening its resistance to the Kyoto Protocol”. As many as 20 world leaders are in line to phone Prime Minister Naoko Kan to ask for a change of stance. Japan’s position is seen as the single biggest barrier to reaching a deal. Together with Russia and Canada, Japan is adamant it will not accept future cuts in carbon emissions under the 13-year-old Kyoto agreement.

Understanding Cancún

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The ETC group – the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration – describes itself and its work as being dedicated to the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights. Amongst the financiers, diplomats, agents, fixers, saboteurs, rogues, destructive multi-lateral banks, geoengineers, evil biotech corporations and assorted carpetbaggers, there are some NGOs who are taking the sensible route. The ETC Group is one of these.

They are at Cancún, Mexico, for the climate summit. There, they have released two hard-hitting new reports and a third, just as blunt, which was used at the Convention on Biodiversity meeting in Japan. These are:

‘The New Biomassters – Synthetic Biology and The Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods’, a groundbreaking report that lifts the lid on the emerging global grab on plants, lands, ecosystems, and traditional cultures. The New Biomassters is a critique of what OECD countries are calling ‘the new bioeconomy.’ Concerted attempts are already under way to shift industrial production feedstocks from fossil fuels to the 230 billion tons of ‘biomass’ (living stuff) that the Earth produces every year -not just for liquid fuels but also for production of power, chemicals, plastics and more. Sold as an ecological switch from a ‘black carbon’ (ie fossil) economy to a ‘green carbon’ (plant-based) economy, this emerging bioeconomy is in fact a red-hot resource grab of the lands, livelihoods, knowledge and resources of peoples in the global South, where most of that biomass is located.

In how many languages does the Cancún talkfest need to hear the word 'danger'?

‘Geopiracy: The Case Against Geoengineering’ examines the high stakes involved in the rapidly advancing field of geoengineering – the intentional, large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s systems by artificially changing oceans, soils and the atmosphere. More than a set of climate altering technologies, geoengineering is a political strategy aimed at letting the industrialized countries off the hook for their climate debt. This report will help civil society organizations navigate the coming global debates over the science and politics of climate-change techno-fixes.

In ‘Gene Giants Stockpile Patents on ‘Climate-Ready’ Crops in Bid to Become Biomassters’, the ETC Group says that under the guise of developing “climate-ready” crops, the world’s largest seed and agrochemical corporations are filing hundreds of sweeping, multi-genome patents in a bid to control the world’s plant biomass. ETC Group identifies over 262 patent families, subsuming 1663 patent documents published worldwide (both applications and issued patents) that make specific claims on environmental stress tolerance in plants (such as drought, heat, flood, cold, salt tolerance). DuPont, Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Syngenta and their biotech partners account for three-quarters (77%) of the patent families identified. Just three companies – DuPont, BASF, Monsanto – account for over two-thirds of the total. Public sector researchers hold only 10%.

The Group’s strength is in the research and analysis of technological information (particularly but notes exclusively plant genetic resources, biotechnologies, and [in general] biological diversity), and in the development of strategic options related to the socioeconomic ramifications of new technologies.

Another NGO-advocacy taking the sensible route is the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development, which is also at Cancún, Mexico, for the climate summit. ICTSD says that the fourth assessment report by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the Stern Review of the economics of climate change, the Bali Action Plan and multiple authoritative studies have all highlighted the critical role that economic instruments, markets, and regulatory tools will play in efforts to address climate change.

Who says 2°C more is 'safe' for us?

“Addressing climate change requires no less than a fundamental transformation in the way in which energy is sourced and used today – a redefinition of what we produce, trade and consume. In a globalized, interdependent world, such an enterprise requires bold and innovative policies and the enabling regulatory frameworks to support them.”

“Indeed, the concern for both climate and trade policy, is how to steer a global and local transition of such magnitude, without compromising development and growth prospects; and in the way, how to manage impacts on competitiveness in an equitable manner. This would require a range of deliberate policies and conducive international institutions to ensure that social primary goods are generated and that natural resource use is conducted in ways that don’t compromise their renewal and ensure the integrity of natural energy and biological functions.”

Laudable and good. The trouble is that the idea of a responsible economy – the current trade-finance-exploitation economy – is as daft as the ideas of “green growth” and “clean coal”. Such labels would be comical if they weren’t being bandied about by all those entities I described in the first paragraph. Lobbying groups, industry associations and banks are turning these – and others such as “fast-track climate financing” – into full-time consulting industries with their own revenue sources. Far away from the victims and the dishoused and the jobless, these groups are driven by the same profit motive that led to the 18th century colonial race for new territories and resources. A bicentennium later, the stage has changed and the threat of climate change has become living fact, but greed and exploitation are ever at the forefront.

Exposé of false carbon accounting for biofuels

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Cover of a brochure on a 'biorefinery' project in Sweden

Cover of a brochure on a 'biorefinery' project in Sweden

False carbon accounting for biofuels that ignores emissions in landuse change is a major driver of global natural habitat destruction, incurring carbon debts that take decades and centuries to repay; at the same time, the emissions of nitrous oxide from fertilizer use has been greatly underestimated, says a damning new briefing from the Institute of Science in Society (I-SIS), Britain.

A team of thirteen scientists led by Timothy Searchinger at Princeton University, New Jersey, in the United States, pointed to a “far-reaching” flaw in carbon emissions accounting for biofuels in the Kyoto Protocol and in climate legislation. It leaves out CO2 emission from tailpipes and smokestacks when bioenergy is used, and most seriously of all, it does not count emissions from land use change when biomass is grown and harvested, says the I-SIS briefing.

“The team maintained that bioenergy reduces greenhouse emission only if the growth and harvesting of the biomass for energy captures carbon above and beyond what would be sequestered anyway, and offsets the emissions from energy use. This additional carbon may result from land management changes that increase plant uptake or from the use of biomass that would otherwise decompose rapidly.”

Graph from World Energy Outlook 2010 titled 'Ranges of well-to-wheels emission savings relative to gasoline and diesel'.

Graph from World Energy Outlook 2010 titled 'Ranges of well-to-wheels emission savings relative to gasoline and diesel'.

“The worst case is when the bioenergy crops displace forest or grassland, the carbon released from soils and vegetation, plus lost future sequestration generate huge carbon debts against the carbon the crops absorb, which could take decades and hundreds of years to repay.”

The work of Searchinger, referred to by I-SIS, has been mentioned in connection with this false accounting as long as a year ago. For instance, the Industrial Biotechnology and Climate Change blog had noted in 2009 November:

The Science Insider blog last week hosted an interesting debate between Tim Searchinger, Princeton visiting scholar, and John Sheehan, of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, regarding the recent policy proposal in the pages of Science by Searchinger et al. to ‘fix’ the carbon accounting of biomass for bioenergy and biofuels in U.S. legislation and the successor to the Kyoto protocol, by giving credit only to biomass that can be managed in such a way as to sequester additional atmospheric carbon in the soil. As Searchinger puts it in the recent debate, “bioenergy only reduces greenhouse gases if it results from additional plant growth or in some other way uses carbon that would not otherwise be stored.”

Cover of the World Energy Outlook 2010 report, International Energy Agency

Cover of the World Energy Outlook 2010 report, International Energy Agency

Also pertinent is a short section on biofuels and emissions in the World Energy Outlook 2010, which has recently been released by the International Energy Agency. “Biofuels are derived from renewable biomass feedstocks, but biofuels are not emission-free on a life-cycle basis,” says WEO2010. There is keen debate about the level of emissions savings that can be attributed to the use of biofuels and, more generally, to biomass. Greenhouse-gas emissions can occur at any step of the biofuels supply chain. Besides emissions at the combustion stage, greenhouse-gas emissions arise from fossil-energy use in the construction and operation of the biofuels conversion plant. In addition, the cultivation of biomass requires fertilisers, the use of machinery and irrigation, all of which also generate emissions.”

The short section is part of Chapter 12 – titled ‘Outlook for Renewable Energy’ – of the massive tome, and the section on Biofuels emissions is found in pages 372-374. As the WEO must perforce sound upbeat about all forms and sources of energy, it ventures, “If appropriate feedstocks and process conditions are chosen, biofuels can offer significant net greenhouse-gas emissions savings over conventional fossil fuels”. That’s a big “if” there.

“This is particularly the case with sugar cane ethanol, as much less energy is required to convert the biomass to ethanol.” In a laboratory perhaps, but as there are as many ways of converting sugarcane as there are types of cane, it would be difficult to say, wouldn’t it?  “But variations are large and calculating average emissions savings is complex.” So they are, so it is.

After such kerfuffle, the WEO2010 does get down to brass tacks: “Using land for biofuels production that was previously covered with carbon-rich forest or where the soil carbon content is high can release considerable amounts of greenhouse gases, and even lead to a ‘carbon debt’. In the worst cases, this debt could take hundreds or even thousands of years to recover via the savings in emissions by substituting biofuels for fossil fuels.”

And there you have it, in black and white, from the venerable International Energy Agency itself.

Climate finance, the new fiscal frontier

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I’ve extracted two paras from a comment article published by Energy Bulletin, authored by me:

New frontiers in climate finance

"The audience comprises investment banks, corporate and oligopolistic investors, and major compliance buyers all of whom will focus on how they can profit today from an increasingly diverse range of carbon-related investment opportunities which are being designed to enter the markets from 2010"

The numbers being prepared for discussion in København are staggering by any measure, at least to those who struggle to find money for social programmes, city infrastructure needs and social sector essentials like health and education. For those accustomed to constructing enormous virtual edifices of dizzying interlinks, this is finance redux with a new set of fundamentals that are defined by the science of climate change and by the growing list of acceptable technologies used to provide adaptation and mitigation methods.


The point here, after half a decade of carbon trading and emissions and climate exchanges, is whether in fact the principles of sustainable development, social justice, equity to all – and especially – respect to and protection for the poorest and most vulnerable has been helped by the CDM and its constellation of allied activities. The short answer is ‘no’, and because that is the short answer, the future of any successor system – many will be unveiled at the København summit – is equally bleak in the terms that genuinely concern us. The evidence of failure on a global scale is in fact all around us.

There’s more to be read here