The failure of the Copenhagen Summit

John Foster writes on the failure of the Copenhagen Summit and what can be done now.

The Copenhagen Summit saw a complex clash of positions. As a summit, it failed and therefore represents a serious crisis for efforts to halt climate change. But the summit also marked a turning point and one which represents challenge for Communists and the Left in Britain.

The mass media presented the summit as a struggle for dominance between the G7 countries and the new economies of the south and east. They portrayed China, Venezuela and Sudan as those responsible for the breakdown and as playing politics with the future of the planet. There is no doubt that that the US and its allies did not get what they wanted. They failed in their bid to use the UN bureaucracy to impose their own settlement as they have done in the past. Hence a turning point.

But the dispute was not about power and status. It was about economic systems and control. In essence it was about imperialism. It represented a conflict between the big business-run economies of the West and the ability of state-led developing economies to tackle carbon emissions on their own terms. The West, especially the EU, wanted legally binding targets with legal penalties linked into a market-based carbon trading system. In theory this system forces polluters to pay steeply increasing prices for permits and hence compels them to install carbon reducing technologies. In reality this has not happened – at least in any proportionate way. Instead of rising, the price of permits has been falling as the recession cuts the level of industrial activity. And their price has fallen even further as a result of the failure of Copenhagen: by 8 per cent to just 12 euro per unit. It is estimated that it requires a price of 40 euro per unit to trigger significant private sector investment in clean technologies. So although ostensibly dealing with the issue, it does not. It evades the need for governments in EU countries to directly invest in clean technologies. At the same time the market system is productive of massive distortions (as polluting processes are moved to the Third World) and also allows big business to claim massive subsidies from the EU. The objective of EU big business at Copenhagen was to extend the system across the world – turning it into a giant new market for their technologies. Big business did not get it.

The issue for countries like Venezuela, Brazil and China is that the process of reducing emissions must be primarily state-led. Their demand was for technology transfer and finance to allow them to invest in ways that would allow them to continue with their own economic development on a low carbon basis. They also wanted real cuts in emissions, well above the ‘hold temperatures at 2C above pre-industrial’ offered and they wanted this because it will be their countries that will suffer most from climate change. They don’t want climate change to be used to refasten market-based big business dominance over their economies. The $100b over ten years offered to developing countries was derisory. In Britain alone more than ten times this sum was used to rescue the banks in one year. In return for this paltry sum developing countries would be tied into a market system dominated by the big Western monopolies.

This was the issue: an exercise in soft imperialism.

This is also the challenge. We as Communists have to explain. The outcome was a failure. Neither the EU nor the US was willing to move beyond the market system. The eventual accord was merely noted. There is a further meeting in Bonn this month - and a conference to draft a legally binding agreement in Mexico by December.

It is therefore urgent that the Left counterattacks against the dominant big business interpretation – esp. in and through the TU Movement. In practice market-led approaches have not worked anywhere. The European countries that have done most to reduce carbon emissions (Germany, Scandinavia) have done so through state expenditure. Cuba is a prime example of a country where state and popular intervention have transformed the economy into a low carbon one. Britain today will not get anywhere near its own targets unless the government spends on housing, transport and renewable energy – as noted last week by the House of Commons Select Committee report. This estimated that the current rate of reducing emissions was only one third of that required.