The biggest international meeting on climate change, perhaps since Kyoto itself, is coming up in early December in Copenhagen. But the closer we get to Copenhagen, the farther away an agreement seems to be. Sadly, there has been precious little coverage of the ongoing negotiations in the mainstream media, further demonstrating the increasing irrelevance of our daily papers and TV news.
Just last week the African nations broke off their participation in the negotiations at meetings in Barcelona, which were intended to nail down the text of an agreement for Copenhagen. This reflects some long-standing gripes, as Naomi Klein points out in a recent article, related to historical emissions and burdens of responsibility. That is, the countries who have done the least to cause the problem are getting hit the hardest by climate change, and are owed a massive climate debt from the countries that bear responsibility for burning up all of those fossil fuels (the US, the EU, Canada and Japan).
The African nations are frustrated that the big rich polluting nations are not willing to talk seriously about emission reductions. Ostensibly, there has been progress, with Japan pledging a 25% reduction from 1990 levels by 2020 and the EU a 30% reduction – if others sign on to an ambitious treaty – plus the US is finally pressing forward with a plan in Congress (Canada continues with an infantile desire to do nothing). But in each of these we must read the fine print: those targets may sound promising but most are predicated on large chunks being met through international offsets. This means delaying real action on the homefront in favour of making investments in developing countries that reduce their emissions.
Offsets are a huge problem beyond the obvious of pretending business-as-usual looks like actual emission reductions. Any offset project, domestic or international, must prove that it is “additional” (the project would not have happened anyway), and then needs to be verified, measured and monitored over long periods of time. For example, it may not make sense to offset one year’s industrial emissions against planting trees that will not sequester carbon until several decades in the future, and only then if the trees survive, are not burned or cut down. One widely cited study found that 40% of international offset projects did not meet the additionality test. In a domestic context there can be some space for such offsets, but they have to be very limited in quantity and time. Even then they are problematic: almost all of the time these are projects (mostly planting trees, capturing methane from landfills, and fuel switching) that governments ought to be doing anyway, but are essentially abrogating that responsibility by outsourcing to the private sector through offset programs.
Above and beyond this is the question of how many offset projects actually exist in low-emitting developing countries to suck up the emissions from the high-emitting rich countries. I’ve heard a few knowledgeable observers opine that there will be a supply gap in available offset projects by 2012, though there seems to me to be a lot of uncertainty in any such estimate. For example, China has a lot of coal-fired electricity plants that could be decommissioned through offsets. From a Canadian perspective I’d rather see us investing this capital at home in mitigation.
Inside the negotiations, it appears the rich polluter countries are pressing for more offsets in poorer countries rather than meaningful action back home. In addition to the idea of “carbon debt”, this development is repugnant in that the rich countries have already legally signed on (in Kyoto) to technology transfer provisions to help reduce emissions in the South, but without claiming offsets. But not much technology has been transferred; instead big corporations in the North are looking to intellectual property laws to better profit from the demise of human civilization.
Interestingly, the Copenhagen conference is taking place almost exactly ten years after the famous Battle in Seattle that scuttled (for a couple years, anyway) the launch of a new round of international trade negotiations at the World Trade Organization. The climate negotiations are starting to look like trade negotiations, where the rich countries will not stop pressing their already hefty advantages. It was a mix of North-South dynamics inside the negotiations and protests outside that undermined Seattle. We’ll soon see if the scene outside the Copenhagen climate negotiations resembles Seattle a decade ago.