Issue 248 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review



Carry on polluting was the message from the Hague conference. Judith Orr examines the consequences

Just coincidence?

  • The hottest year in the hottest decade of the hottest century of the last millennium was 1998.
  • The ten warmest years since 1860 have all been since 1980.
  • The sea level has risen between 10 and 25 cm because of thermal expansion of the oceans.
  • The Hague conference had to pack up even though no deal had been made-the conference hall had been booked for an oil industry congress.
  • Reading the literature on the prospects for the world if global warming continues is rather like being told to expect a visit from the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Severe drought in already dry areas will lead to lower agriculture production which in turn will increase the likelihood of famines; a rise in sea levels will cause floods threatening infrastructure on coastlines; there will be an increased threat of forest fires; and an increase in the spread of serious infectious diseases and parasites, particularly those carried or caused by low quality water supplies. These dramatic changes in the environment are predicted to be the results of years of polluting the atmosphere which creates global warming. A certain level of global warming is natural and essential to human life. The sun's rays warm the earth and radiate heat back out to space. Gases in the atmosphere trap the heat and reflect it back to earth--the greenhouse effect--without which the earth wouldn't be warm enough to sustain life. But the extremes of global warming that are now developing happen when there is such a concentration of 'greenhouse gases' that too much heat is trapped. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one greenhouse gas which has this impact. It can hang around in the atmosphere for a century or more. Another is methane, some of which is produced in the guts of cattle. Other sources include commercial gas and oil fields and vegetation rotting in the absence of oxygen. One place this happens is also man made--in the depths of reservoirs.

    At the moment, if there are no curbs, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere could end up being more than double pre-industrial levels by the end of the 21st century. Pre-industrial levels have been calculated from air bubbles trapped in arctic ice. These levels are then looked at alongside tree rings and ice cores which give clues to past climates. Such studies show that levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have broadly matched global temperatures for the last 400,000 years.

    When the Hague conference collapsed at the end of last year with no agreement, the consequence was that the Kyoto Protocol, acclaimed in the press as being groundbreaking and signed by 150 nations in December 1997, has not been ratified. Our environment is still utterly at the mercy of the open market, and carbon emissions will continue unabated.

    The ruling classes from the west in particular have no intention of being deflected from their way of extracting profits, despite the dangers posed. George W Bush has said, 'I'm not going to let the United States carry the burden for cleaning up the world's air, like the Kyoto treaty would have done.' The US government argues that having to control pollution (it alone produces a quarter of the world's carbon emissions) would put it at an 'economic disadvantage' to those countries without such controls.

    Yet despite the fact that it is the governments of the richest nations which are kicking up the most fuss about cutting emissions, it is the poorest, still developing nations which are set to suffer the most from the impact of pollution and global warming.

    A study from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia shows that some countries will warm up twice as fast as others this century. Some of those most likely to suffer the highest increase in temperatures are those already struggling to cope with drought and famine, like parts of West Africa. Mike Hulme, the centre's director, pointed out the importance of the figures: 'For the first time it shows individual countries how much warming to expect and how the burden of climate change will be distributed across the world.'

    Big polluter: Drax power station
    Big polluter: Drax power station

    Poorest countries hit hardest

    The greatest warming is predicted to take place in Russia and Canada whose arctic regions temperatures are set to rise by more than 6C by the end of this century. But when Hulme went on to divide national wealth by predicted temperature rise, he discovered it is countries which can least afford to deal with the consequences that are going to suffer the most from the effects of global warming. The study judged the four most vulnerable to be Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Tanzania. Hulme also points out that the nations most threatened by global warming produce the smallest amounts of greenhouse gases. Each has only $100 of its GDP per inhabitant to cope with every degree of warming.

    Anwarul Chowdhury, Bangladesh's ambassador to the United Nations, pointed out that 'one third of the world's most densely populated country would be flooded even with a small rise in the sea level'. If global warming continues even just at the present rate, both Jamaica's international airports will be under water by 2020.

    As for Britain, headlines about the new arrival of flamingos and exotic butterflies could fool people into thinking that global warming might make this a more pleasant place to live. Last year's flooding alone should have put paid to this fantasy but the effect on Britain, apart from more rain, could be lower temperatures. Winter temperatures here are kept from low extremes by the gulf stream, which in turn is part of the ocean conveyor belt originating in the Arctic. No one knows what effect the melting ice caps will have on the ocean flows. But, as the New Scientist points out, without the gulf stream our winters would be more like Hudson Bay in Canada, which is at the same latitude.

    Yet at the moment the whole official debate about global warming is dominated by looking at ways to avoid cutting pollution, such as creating and maintaining 'carbon sinks'--forests and areas of unploughed soil--and setting up markets to trade 'carbon credits' that will accrue to countries creating such sinks.

    This was the approach John Prescott was trying to push through in the small hours at the end of the Hague summit last year. It was here that governments were meant to be ratifying the proposals made at Kyoto. Prescott claimed the final agreement fell through because the French environment minister, Dominique Voynet, was 'too tired' to understand the details. In fact she was awake enough to realise that the proposals put in front of them were not acceptable. They would have meant an increase in carbon emissions in industrialised countries of up to 7 percent, when the Kyoto target was a cut of 5 percent.

    The US alone would have been able to increase emissions by 2 percent without planting a single tree, let alone cutting any emissions. But when projected growth of US economy is included in the equation, emissions are set to rise by 28 percent between 1990 and 2010, so the US should be looking at a cut of 35 percent to keep within the Kyoto propositions. Voynet said of the US plans, 'They are simply unacceptable. We don't intend to re-debate them. We want to discuss ways in which we can meet our commitments, not ways to avoid them.'

    Trade off

    Effectively it is now widely accepted by politicians that some sort of trade off of pollution between countries will be part of a solution to global warming. For instance, Europe has shared its 'quotas' so Greece and Ireland are allowed increases but Britain and Germany face cuts. Some countries currently pollute at less than the limit set by the treaty. The past ten years since the collapse of the Eastern European regimes has seen a collapse in the industrial capacity of Russia and other countries like Ukraine. Their economies are unlikely to recover enough in the short term to use up their full pollution entitlement and so wealthier countries, particularly the US, want to buy the pollution entitlement from poorer countries so they don't have to cut as much of their own pollution. What begins as an attempt to impose emission cuts globally ends up with the rich governments buying the right to raise their pollution levels.

    Also including carbon sinks in the international allocation of carbon credits assumes there is an easily quantifiable and accepted measure of how much carbon is absorbed in such sinks. But at the moment there is no such measure. There are many variables. Younger forests absorb more than older forests, for example. There are also arguments about just how much some of the symptoms of global warming can themselves magnify the effect. For example, the melting of the polar ice caps is a consequence of global warming but could in turn multiply the tendency for the world to overheat. Ice is a very efficient reflector of heat. Water and land, however, absorb more heat and so as they replace ice the warming effect could be amplified.

    This uncertainty will not stop the optimistic predictions of those buying and selling 'carbon credits'. It will be in their interests to talk up the potential of carbon sinks. It is on this basis that Russia and Japan have already struck a deal whereby Japanese companies invest in 20 Russian power plants and industries to cut greenhouse gas emissions. These reductions would then be added to the Japanese CO2 balance sheet.

    All this shows the madness of the market at its most stark. The countries which are the worst polluters will be able to take advantage of the poverty of other countries, which will be forced to sell credits to get badly needed income. This will enable the worst polluters to carry on polluting while the countries which will feel the effects of the resulting global warming the most are those same poorer countries. When the bottom line is the profit margin, no polluting company is going to voluntarily take measures to cut pollution if it costs money. There are many steps that could be taken immediately that could make a difference.

    It is possible for power stations to block carbon dioxide emissions. More subsidised public transport would mean less cars on the road. Greater investment in alternative energy production through wind, wave and solar power would mean that these would have the potential to be real alternatives to burning fossil fuel. Rather than fund such pollution-free alternatives, some governments actually want nuclear energy and large hydroelectric dams to be classified as 'alternative' or clean energies! As for the oil companies, BP has made much of its new green image, yet it spent more on the new logo last year than it did on renewable energy in 1998. The US-based Global Climate Coalition, which is funded by the big oil companies, has spent $1 million every year since 1994 downplaying the threat of global warming.

    Unless forced, big business will continue to demand the right to make money unfettered by controls regardless of the consequences. It is up to us to build a movement strong enough to challenge those priorities.

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