Uncontrollable system

Simon Wells on the 'compromise' on climate change agreed at the G8 summit

The governments of Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa might have been a bit obstructive, but this did not stop German chancellor Angela Merkel claiming she was "very satisfied" by the outcome of the G8 climate talks. Likewise Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said the result was "everything I had hoped for".

In reality this was a face-saving compromise that can be sold by both Merkel and Bush as a diplomatic victory. Merkel can say she got Bush to commit to carbon reductions, while Bush can go home saying he did not agree to any targets.

Prior to G8 the media was portraying it as Europe v Bush and there was also a resigned feeling of inevitability about the outcome. Because of fundamental differences between the US and Europe nothing would happen.

Perhaps the G8 was subtly managing the story in order to ratchet down expectations. In the lead-up Merkel, at the European summit in March, made it plain she wanted to ensure that average temperatures on the planet increase by no more than 2°C by the end of the century, with a cut in greenhouse gas emissions to 50% of the 1990 level before 2050. However, the Bush administration declared: "There is only so far we can go, given our fundamental opposition to the German position" - and then went on to announce its own climate change framework.

At the end of the G8 process there was a commitment to "seriously consider" discussions towards reducing greenhouse gases by 50% by 2050, for agreement some time around 2009. In reality the outcome was business as usual with no targets, no agreement on a baseline from when cuts should be measured (Merkel wanted 1990 and Bush wanted 2007), no ideas about sharing reductions between different countries, and nothing about the ineffectual carbon trading scheme.

Furthermore the G8 declaration was flawed from the beginning because its central tenet was to "decouple economic growth from energy use". In other words, seek out technical solutions to a problem whose cause can be located in the system all the negotiators defend - capitalism, with its insatiable drive to expand surplus value, whatever the cost to humanity or the planet.

Bush's agenda to undermine the UN mandatory target-based approach with voluntary targets driven by technology was effectively given the green light and this is likely to be the outcome when he meets up the 15 biggest polluters later this year in Sydney. Bush knows that he can count on India and China, which are both opposed to targets.

Even though he agreed at the G8 to negotiations under UN auspices, this means no more than reporting on carbon emissions. Moreover, the lack of mandatory targets shows that on the geo-political stage the US can still dictate the terms of reference - his statement that "The US will be actively involved, if not taking the lead, in a post-Kyoto framework, a post-Kyoto deal" presages the direction of future negotiations.

Any future post-Kyoto agreement will have to take into account the words of the president of China, Hu Jintao: "Considering both historical responsibility and current capability, developed countries should take the lead in reducing carbon emission and help developing countries ease and adapt to climate change." The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, referred to the historical legacy of carbon emissions as the "principle of common but differentiated responsibility" - meaning that the advanced capitalist countries should pay if catastrophic climate change is to be averted. In the next couple of years China and India will overtake the US as the biggest emitters of carbon.

Nevertheless, the leaders of global capitalism say they are happy with G8. True, like the US, the 'plus 5' group of so-called 'emerging nations' at the moment reject limits on emissions that would slow down their economies. But now at least there is general agreement that there is a problem. The greens were right. Climate science has proved it. There is global warming and human activity plays an important causal role. Only the libertarian right, the happily eccentric and those blinded by the narrowest of short-term interests deny it. While there is no agreement about what is to be done, it is clear that a post-Bush US, along with other G8 countries, will be putting in place measures designed to control climate change.

Even if science and democratic opinion does not manage to persuade them, reality will force their hand. Already this year there have been indications on a comparatively small scale of what is around the corner - droughts in the US, Italy and Australia, flooding in Bangladesh and threatening sea levels for coastal communities. Of course, even the most far-reaching measures proposed by G8 leaders fall way short of what is required. They are only willing to move at a glacial pace - but they will move.

Probably it will be the working class, especially in the so-called developed world, which will be expected to pay for it in the form of higher taxes, restrictions on travel and other curbs on consumption. That will be determined by the class struggle. And in all likelihood the chances of radically reducing popular levels of consumption is small. Important sections of the capitalist class would certainly object to such a programme. Therefore we should also expect a whole raft of technical fixes and bureaucratic measures of control.

Of course, the system of capitalism is inherently uncontrollable. Therefore it follows that attempts to limit climate change and ecological damage by introducing measures of control are likely to succeed only partially. Moreover, the very introduction of measures of control must further add to the malfunctioning of the capitalist system as a whole. We live in dangerous times.