Nothing to contribute

The Durban conference on climate change is likely to be even more useless than its predecessors - James Turley argues it is time to serve notice on capital's stewardship of the environment

The first casualty of war, they say, is the truth. The first casualties of an international conference of governments on climate change, on the other hand, are invariably the paper-thin ‘commitments’ the various notables present blithely signed up to last time around.

The latest such jolly is taking place in Durban - and the actual role these events have in the real activities of bourgeois governments is neatly highlighted in the environmental impact of the November 28-December 9 Durban conference itself. The South African city is, to put it mildly, a bit of a trek for most of the visiting dignitaries; a group of boffins has calculated that a total of 15,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide will be unleashed upon a groaning atmosphere as a result.

Not to fear, though; the organisers have ‘offset’ the whole lot. Carbon offsetting is one of the bourgeois establishment’s favourite bits of pseudo-scientific greenwashing; reducing greenhouse emissions in one place, so the idea goes, will allow you to increase them a little elsewhere. In practice, of course, this simply results in companies concentrating their dirtiest industries in the least environmentally regulated economies - congruent with the dictionary definition of the word ‘offset’, I suppose, but not exactly in the spirit of responsible ecology.

The particular Durban ‘offset’ scheme is such a peculiarly naked greenwash, however, that it is worth looking at in some detail. A couple of no doubt worthy local NGOs have set up the Community Ecosystem Based Adaptation (Ceba) initiative, which will throw money at various local ‘green’ infrastructural projects; “Delegates, corporates and residents of Durban will be able to contribute towards the project by buying ‘Ceba credits’ to play their part in helping offset the environmental impact,” says local bureaucrat Debra Roberts.[1] That’s right - the organisers have written off those 15,000 tonnes on the basis of ... a voluntary scheme.

So it is with the conference as a whole: as the hours go by, it looks increasingly likely that the abortive Kyoto protocol is finally to be ditched. The agreement is due to expire in 2012 - many more naive green activists had hoped that a new, better treaty would replace it, but that now seems unlikely. Signed initially in 1997, the Kyoto agreement was on one level a victim of politics; later attempts to firm up the emissions targets cost the (in any case lukewarm) support of the United States under George W Bush.

The Guardian’s environment blog is keen to point the finger at Canada this time around,[2] for playing hardball over its own carbon promises, which have remained quite dramatically unfulfilled. Indeed, Canada’s net carbon emissions rose in the period from 1990 to 2005 (the year the Kyoto commitments officially entered into force) by over 50% (of the 36 industrialised countries to fully ratify Kyoto, almost all that have significantly reduced their carbon emissions - even by the extraordinarily vague standards of the Kyoto protocol - are in the ex-Stalinist bloc, and have not exactly been economic powerhouses in the intervening years).

In a sense it is not surprising that attitudes have since hardened even further - in 2005, Canada’s ruling Liberal Party spiralled into an intense political crisis from which it has yet to recover; since then the government has been headed by the Tory, Stephen Harper, a quite odious individual with a great fondness for Bush Jr.

But, while it is no doubt true that the fickle particularities of bourgeois politics have been unkind to Kyoto and subsequent multilateral climate efforts, it is surely not worth the effort to grumble about American (or Canadian) intransigence ‘ruining everything’. Underlying the series of agreements and international conferences since the Kyoto conference has been a common thread completely analogous to the PR-friendly ‘offsetting’ of today’s Durban jamboree - governments talk big about targets which, however, are conveniently ‘offset’ into the future, so some other poor sod can face down the big oil and other industrial lobbies; or, better still, chicken out entirely. The emergence of a Bush or a Harper is more or less written into the script.

What, then, is to replace even the pathetic fig leaf that was Kyoto? It is testament to the lack of enthusiasm for the current round of talks that the likes of David King, former government scientific adviser and still a man who finds himself in close accord with the official doctrines of the British state, is prepared to ditch the idea of a binding international treaty altogether. The logic is that offering ‘encouragement’ to governments to commit to voluntary targets is a better use of scientists’ time than haggling over treaties for years without even the hope of getting the biggest polluters on board.

Exactly what makes the supporters of this line believe that states are more likely to fulfil voluntary commitments on the issue than (formally) binding ones is unclear; the truth is, this is code for the abandonment of any expectations that anything will be done. Certainly, the apparent tacit agreement with King of the various dignitaries in Durban begs the question - what on earth is this conference even for?

In recent years, the frenzied backtracking of the dominant world powers on their climate commitment has taken a more worrying form still - ‘offsetting’ their own targets by dumping bigger commitments on countries further down the pile. Some remarkably underhand attempts to do so made headlines at the last of these gatherings, in 2010. Yet even this is more politically difficult than the ‘first world’ would like; not least because concessions to green concerns are increasingly and overwhelmingly in the nature of insubstantial PR jobs.

The nub of the matter is that capitalism as a system is remarkably badly placed to deal with ecological crisis, and (though such crises are not new to the history of humanity) peculiarly apt to cause them. Its incessant drive for the expansion of production cuts very sharply against the need to reduce emissions, which involves at the very least hard limits on many productive processes at current levels of technology and technique, as well as strictly-speaking unprofitable investments in ‘greener’ technology.

Now, of all times, such initiatives are a hard sell. It is fairly plain to everyone concerned that the economic crisis is far from over, and indeed that the worst of it is most probably still to come. The need for retrenchment is at the forefront of every ‘responsible’ government’s mind, as they all flail in the direction of stemming the effects of crisis on their own turf. International cooperation in such circumstances is immeasurably harder to achieve, even on matters of mutual interest, such as, for instance, the need to prevent climate change-induced catastrophe.

Instead of anything substantial, then, we get an ever-increasing mass of guff about ‘carbon trading’, whereby emission allowances would be traded among companies as a pseudo-commodity. The problem is obvious - for this to work, there would have to be a hard global limit on total emissions; capitalism, on the other hand, only works if capitalists get out more than they put in. The result would be either swift failure or the transformation of carbon credits into yet another dubious financial derivative, not different in principle from commodity futures, collateralised debt obligations and all the rest. They would come to represent exactly the same thing: that is, nothing.

Even if - by some miracle - something hard is agreed in Durban, and serious enough attempts are made by the world’s governments to impose stringent environmental regulations on industry, capital will, by its very nature, eat away at such barriers to its self-expansion. There are innumerable barriers to the logic of capital, but the considerable dynamism of this unstable social relation finds a way to overcome them. Its inability to sustain the natural environment is better thought of as an absolute limit - if bourgeois society exhausts this world, it cannot make another. The scientific consensus on global warming, in spite of a huge number of points of dispute, is remarkably consistent - if there is not a drastic shift in the way the human race relates to the planet, the planet will have its revenge.

The series of international climate conferences no doubt reflects an honest concern on the part of many people to confront this issue seriously. Yet behind the rhetorical flourishes, mendacious compromises and tortuous deals, capitalist politicians have nothing to contribute to any such effort. That truth was better disguised in Kyoto and elsewhere than it is now - put simply, the administrators of the capitalist world not only have no ideas: they no longer have even the most perfunctory fig leaf to cover it up.



1. www.southafrica.info/cop17/durban-151111.htm.

2. www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2011/nov/29/kyoto-protocol-julius-caesar-durban.