Jamie Andrews

A global cap, and financing climate justice

One of the most common chants heard on climate change protests is the need for ‘climate justice now’. This is referred to across the whole spectrum of NGOs, right through to the more grassroots campaigners who have come from across Europe to protest in Copenhagen. It refers to the need to ensure that those who have had little or nothing to do with causing climate change do not suffer its effects without compensation to help to adapt to it, and do not have further suffering caused by continued emissions they are not responsible for. How ‘climate justice’ translates into a UN policy framework is not a straightforward question, but one that has to be addressed.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, countries are split between Annex 1 and non-Annex 1. Non-Annex 1 countries are those in the ‘developing world’ (including newly-industrialised economies such as China and India) and under Kyoto do not have any binding emissions reductions targets. Because of the historical responsibility of the developed world for the vast majority of emissions, this was seen as a fair situation, and most NGOs have focused more on the lack of credible cuts for developed countries (and the absence of the US from Kyoto at all) rather than address the prickly problem of China shooting up the league table of big emitters in the twelve years since Kyoto was passed.

A huge question for Copenhagen is whether or not developing countries will be included in one global cap on emissions. Whilst this is screamingly obvious in terms of the science (without a mechanism to reduce and reverse growth of China and India’s emissions then we’ll still have catastrophic climate change even if the West goes carbon neutral), it poses a challenge for those calling for climate justice. Why should any developing economy have to limit its emissions growth given that the massive share of cumulative emissions (i.e. the total emitted since the beginning of the industrial revolution that has steadily added to the concentration of CO2 to current dangerous levels) will still be on the developed world’s side of the carbon accountant’s ledger for decades to come?

It is a tough question. I saw Naomi Klein speak last night, and she made a big point of highlighting the moral imperative of ‘reparations’ for past damage; repairing the mistakes of the past and grounding all action on climate change in an unambiguous and exhaustive ethical framework. The audience of NGOs welcomed her proclamations with open arms, enthusiastically endorsing her praise for the conference delegates from the global South for speaking with clarity and moral authority.

What Naomi didn’t address was what she saw as the practical steps forward for the conference. Or to put it another way, how to translate the need for ‘climate justice’ into a deal that not only compensates the disenfranchised victims of climate change, but also entrenches the global emissions cuts that science dictates. She and various other speakers I have seen in the last few days have lambasted developed countries for offering inadequate financial aid to the developing world, but not tackled the crucial sticking point of whether recipient countries will be mandated to follow a route of low carbon development rather than pursue carbon-intensive economic growth as the West has done so far.

In a similar vein, a lot of climate change activists I have spoken to (and am indeed friends with) are ‘anti-carbon trading’. In the UK, the media-savvy and increasingly popular Climate Camp is a vocal opponent of the concept. However, on the page of their website that discusses its short-falls, there is no mention of alternative proposals apart from ‘keeping fossil fuels in the ground’.

Fossil fuels should clearly be kept in the ground (some estimates predict that if we burn just 25% of what is left in the ground we pass the two degrees tipping point) but it would be nice to be clear on the mechanism for ensuring that will happen. One way to do it would be to auction permits to pollute (rather than allocate them for free as currently) in line with a global cap (all current carbon trading takes place under a series of regional caps with a lot of leakage). It’s not at all clear whether the ‘anti-carbon trading’ position of activist groups allows room for these kind of proposals, and it is incredibly frustrating.

One of the biggest gaps in the negotiations and in the NGOs’ approach to influencing them is in the realm of finance. Developing country governments want to secure substantial aid in the short-term in the form of trusted ODA mechanisms and we now have the all-too-predictable pledging of amounts of cash from developed country governments to try and detract from the lack of a credible framework for delivering emissions reductions.

Pledging cash from national budgets rather than creating a pot of money from auctioning permits to pollute does nothing to incentivse carbon reduction. And NGOs have willingly fallen into the trap of trying to get developed countries to commit more cash from their already stretched budget deficits instead of confronting other awkward questions such as how the governance of any central fund would work. Being ‘anti-carbon trading’ in the nebulous sense in which a lot of activist and NGO groups are does not help further this debate.

What we have is a diverse group of activists who are calling for a ‘fair and ambitious deal’. This is good for media messaging, and I applaud the solidarity in that sense. But for those inside the movement there seems to be a lot of confusion under the surface. Violent groups within a largely peaceful gathering have turned protests into a police versus protestors sideshow, and the NGOs who have the opportunity to build substance into the protestors’ demands are failing to articulate a common position on how ‘climate justice’ maps to a deal framework that is in line with the science.

It’s clear that Copenhagen will not be producing anything of substance, and we can all agree on that. But if we are to move forward in constructively building on the pressure that is currently being exerted on world leaders, we need to agree on a hell of a lot more.

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  1. Hi Jamie,

    I think you’re right about the need for a more coherent, realistic message, and the more I hear from NGO’s and high profile commentators like Naomi Klein, the more frustrated I become as I hear about Copenhagen.

    Ultimately, I think one of the problems here is that it’s much easier to make speeches that tell an audience of campaigners that they’re excused from reaching any useful conclusion because they have the moral high ground.

    It’s infuriating to hear that so many groups are campaigning against carbon trading when it’s basically the only mechanism the other side (y’know, the guys who would have to actually follow through with implementing whatever gets agreed) will accept. At this point, doing anything else just seems juvenile and self serving, scoring political points at the expense of achieving anything constructive.

    Granted, from my limited knowledge about carbon trading, every auction has been plagued by organisers giving away permits to the worst offenders for free, or underpricing carbon permits to such an extent that any market is essentially dysfunctional, but surely this leaves a decent point to negotiate from?

    i.e. “We don’t believe carbon trading is the best solution, but if it’s the only option you’re prepared to look at right now, these auctions could at least recognise that we at least need a fair basis to start from. Surely there’s some shared ground here that fits our needs for climate justice, and yours for a workable proposal?”


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