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Don’t hold your breath

As protesters prepare to give the G8 a warm Scottish welcome, Melanie Jarman predicts little chance of any agreement on climate change, save perhaps recognition, finally, that it is actually taking place

July 1, 2005
6 min read

When the G8 meets in Scotland one of the two issues at the top of the agenda is climate change. And rightly so: even Tony Blair has described it as “long-term the single most important issue we face as a global community” while the Pentagon has suggested that “the risk of abrupt climate change& should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern”.

The other top issue on the G8 agenda, poverty in Africa, is a conundrum with no hope of resolution without a relatively stable climate. The cost of environmental degradation in Ghana is estimated to be 2 per cent of national income. Africa’s dependence on ecosystems under severe pressure from unpredictable weather means that by 2080 the continent may be home to up to 80 per cent of those people who will be at risk from hunger. Despite a compelling combination of concern and need, effective G8 action on climate change is about as likely as a pre-Christmas turkey dash to the slaughterhouse. The forecast for the G8 summit is looking bleak.

One of the fundamental obstacles to G8 engagement with climate change is that all of these industrialised countries are reliant on that key driver of climate change: oil. The G8 produce around 47 per cent of all global carbon dioxide emissions and are home to most of the world’s top 20 oil companies. Russia, which has the biggest oil reserves of all the G8 countries, would struggle without its fossil fuel exports. At the World Bank, another forum dominated by members of the G8, support for fossil fuel projects amounts to around 94 per cent of the energy portfolio while support for renewables is around just 6 per cent.

Reliant on fossil fuels and so reluctant to engage in the shift in energy sources that climate change demands, the G8 countries are investing in the other end of things: capture of the greenhouse gases emitted when these fuels are used. G8 members are supportive of the idea of storing carbon dioxide both above and below ground to prevent it being released into the atmosphere and are pledging to invest in Carbon Capture and Storage technology.

Underground burial involves great stashes under land or sea, with no guarantee against leaks at a future date. Those G8 countries involved in the Kyoto process have expressed support for overground capture in the form of “carbon sinks”, through planting trees or the conservation of forests. While trees do soak up carbon dioxide, methods of accounting for just how much a tree can store are far more complex. Forests and tree plantations are subject to unpredictable influences, including fires, pests, diseases and the availability of nutrients. Temperature change from global warming is a fairly predictable factor but the changes this will bring in trees’ behaviour are not. And human behaviour, fortunately, can be equally unpredictable.

While in Scotland, one project the G8 may wish to reflect on is a carbon sink in Espirito Santo, Brazil. It is funded by BP to make up for carbon dioxide emitted in the company’s operations at Grangemouth (Scotland’s major oil refinery on the River Forth) and across the globe. However, the people of Espirito Santo are not so keen on their role as passive components in an accounting system in which over-consumption by rich countries is the bottom line. This May, indigenous people in the area reclaimed 11,000 hectares of land, including eucalyptus plantations, for restoration to native forest and construction of new villages.

The reclaimers point out that monoculture eucalyptus plantations are an environmental pest, not an environmental solution. The plantations allow for pesticide run-off and poisoning, consume vast amounts of water resources, devastate local agriculture and support little biodiversity. Heidi Bachram of Carbon Trade Watch has suggested that such carbon sink plantations act “as an occupying force in impoverished rural communities dependent on these lands for survival”.

In terms of the issues to be addressed at the G8 meeting, indigenous participants at a 2003 Forest Peoples Programme workshop in India released a declaration stating that “the carbon credit approach (to climate change) may trigger a new wave of debt mechanism and inequity on the South. The more carbon a person or company in a Northern country emits, the more land it will be entitled to grab in the South for its carbon emissions”.

The trend of richer countries taking resources from poorer countries, while keeping those countries poor through the system of international debt, is likely to be made worse by the G8’s approach to climate change. Andrew Simms, policy director of the New Economics Foundation, has described climate change itself as an issue of debt – of ecological debt, rather than cash debt. In a recent book, Ecological Debt: The Health of the Planet and the Wealth of Nations, he describes how the G8 countries are using up environmental resources and running up ecological debts. This process, Simms claims, is a bigger threat to global poverty eradication than the foreign debts of poor countries.

Alongside carbon storage, nuclear power is another technology likely to be boosted by the G8 summit. Although a draft G8 climate change communiqué leaked prior to the summit did not indicate a position on nuclear power, both Bush and Blair are known to be keen on this outdated energy source, despite the long term problems it creates.

The tragedy of all this is that tackling climate change is not impossible. Far from it. In a report for the International Climate Change Task Force this year, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) reminded readers that, according to the G8 Renewables Energy Task Force itself, the barriers to the deployment of renewable energy are financial and political, rather than technological.

The IPPR report outlined steps that could be taken to de-carbonise the global economy, reconcile climate policy with trade and competitiveness, and make climate policy contribute to poverty eradication. Aimed at a forum bringing together government, business and top scientists and co-chaired by former transport secretary Stephen Byers, the report was framed in language that G8 policy-makers could understand.

Elsewhere, commentators on both left and right have suggested that, alongside reduced energy consumption, a wholesale re-think of energy systems – such as a shift from large and remote megapower energy developments to micropower systems sited close to the point of use – is both needed and possible.

But little will happen at Gleneagles this month in terms of climate change. The US refuses to sign up to a timeline for emission cuts – a basic first step to slow climate change. Other G8 members may resist further emission cuts from fear of being out-competed by US companies with limited restraints on energy use.

Meanwhile, the G8 summit takes place at a time that may be the endgame for life on Earth. Global temperature change, species extinction and upheaval in biodiversity are taking place on a scale never seen before in human history. Despite all this, the G8 leaders are likely to congratulate themselves just on getting agreement that yes, something possibly serious really is going on out there.

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