The Earth Blog is a collection of personal thoughts, ideas and solutions in search of a future for this planet.
It only contains original work. These essays provide many of the tools needed to allow people to make a better world for the future - a world worth living in. Please take some time to read them.
We only have one world - let's treat it well.
Keith Farnish, Earth.
All work on The Earth Blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
Dr. Orva: Here, smoke this. And be sure you get the smoke deep down into your lungs.
Miles Monroe: I don't smoke.
Dr. Orva: It's tobacco. It's one of the healthiest things for your body.
(Sleeper, 1973, Dir. Woody Allen)
I feel like an eco-fraud. There’s me thinking that we should be protecting the land, the sea and the atmosphere from the profit motives of large corporations, and then a big group of like-minded people come along with a signed document saying the opposite and repeatedly hit you round the face with it.
All the time I have been trying to do the right thing but now it seems that I have been wrong all along: the corporations and the national governments of the world can be trusted to look after the planet.
What a load of crap.
Time was, when the Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace and Friends Of The Earth were the kind of organisations that did really good things; clever things that showed that they weren’t just mindless Luddites, but intelligent, joined-up organisations with only the best interests of the biosphere in mind – maybe they still are. But what have they gone and done? Signed a document that effectively condones the handing over of the last unclaimed element on Earth to private interests. Read this:
By auctioning pollution allowances, we affirm that no one has a “right” to pollute. Instead, we claim the atmosphere as a common resource, to be managed for the benefit of the public, which no polluter may foul without due compensation.
By auctioning pollution allowances, we reduce the societal cost of achieving emission reductions, enabling America to achieve its climate protection goals with less disruption to our economy and the lives of individual Americans.
And by auctioning pollution allowances, we prevent the accumulation of billions of dollars in windfall profits by polluters, and instead put those revenues to work on behalf of the public. Allowance revenues can support efforts to transform America into a clean energy economy and to provide a regular dividend or rebate to American consumers.
We call on state and federal lawmakers to limit global warming emissions to the levels demanded by the science and to auction all pollution allowances in any cap-and-trade program.
(US PIRG, 2007 : my emphasis)
This makes me feel a little queasy. At first sight we read that the many organisations and individuals who have countersigned the document, of which this is an extract, are requesting a tightening of the rules that govern the way that carbon trading credits are issued. All well and good. Then you realise that the same signatories are actually condoning future carbon trading, and defending the economic system that brought us the climate crisis in the first place. That’s what makes me queasy. In effect, this statement says, “It’s ok for us to hand over the keys to the atmosphere to corporations, providing they pay for it.”
This is being supported by just about every mainstream environmental organisation in the USA!
Trading The Air : Another Viewpoint
Cap and Trade, the mechanism that this statement refers to, is a way of bringing Contraction and Convergence into the commercial world. Contraction and Convergence is basically a method of combining the necessary reduction of greenhouse gases with the equal distribution of the ‘right’ to emit those greenhouse gases. Of course, no one has the ‘right’ to emit greenhouse gases in reality – we share the biosphere with all other living organisms, and no organism except for humans expects any rights, especially not to put agents of global warming into the air. Non-human organisms just live, and die. However, at least with a mechanism like C&C the amount of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and so on, that is emitted, is not dictated by the amount of money you have in the bank, or how many tanks or missiles you have.
Cap and Trade, on the other hand, goes beyond the concept of a mutually agreed limit and share, and puts the various baskets of greenhouse gases into the marketplace. What has happened is that rather than saying, “Here’s your limit, don’t go beyond it,” the people supporting Cap and Trade are saying, “Here’s your limit, but you can go over it providing you have the cash.”
The place where Contraction and Convergence fell down was not in the original idea, which was brilliantly simple and effective, but in the acceptance that the allowances could be traded. Again, in principle, some element of trading seems inevitable while heavily polluting countries bring down their emissions; but why must this be so? Surely the only guaranteed way of bringing down emissions and ensuring they stay there is to make sure that each human being has an agreed limit on their personal greenhouse gases (say 1 tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2030). If a rich country or region cannot bring down its emissions to that level for its population then they must pay an appropriate fine into a central ‘pot’ used for global climate initiatives. The fine would be sufficiently large to ensure it hurts. The fine would not be used to pay for the ‘right’ to emit by proxy, it would be used to counteract the damage caused by the country or region on a global scale, because that country or region is clearly not capable of dealing with the problem themselves.
Meanwhile, should another country or region be below it’s emissions allowance then, hooray! They don’t get money from the failing party in trade-offs, but they can use a share of the money from the global ‘pot’ not being used for large-scale climate initiatives, to ensure their emissions do not rise.
There are, at the time of writing, only 23 years left to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 60%. If the fines are large enough, then the offending countries will have to act quickly. If they pay large fines then there will be sufficient funds to protect the climate in the intervening period, for instance by placing an enormous area of rainforest in trust (a Common Good), or investing huge amounts of money into public transportation systems.
At no point does any of that money have to be traded, less so have anything to do with ‘the market’.
The Pernicious Market
I spent 9 years managing IT systems for a large financial organisation. I’m not proud of this, but I will say that it made me very aware of what lengths corporations will go to in order to protect their bottom lines. You will, no doubt, be aware that any incorporated business, be it an Inc., a GmbH, a Ltd. or an S.A., has many of the same legal rights as an individual. Not only that, but corporations lack any collective moral obligation – how can a company decide what is right or wrong? There lies the dichotomy: they have the rights of an individual, yet do not have to follow the rules that an individual does! If a person dies as the result of another person’s neglect then they will probably go to prison. If an employee dies as a result of a corporation’s neglect, the corporation will have to pay a fine. Maybe.
If a person is caught throwing the contents of their garbage can in a protected area then they will be fined, and may be jailed. If a corporation announces that they have emitted 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere then, well, they will just have to go and buy some carbon credits.
Everything can be traded on the market, even lives.
WASHINGTON – The Pentagon on Tuesday abandoned a plan to establish a futures market that would have allowed traders to profit by correctly predicting assassinations and terrorist strikes in the Middle East.
(Associated Press, July 29, 2003)
The resulting uproar in the House and the Senate was not unexpected, but think of it this way: the economic system that exists in the majority of the world’s rich nations does not have any explicit rules banning what can be traded. If there is a market for war then, providing enough people want to trade War Futures then that market will be liquid. If there is a market in coal, bauxite, uranium, plutonium, carbon dioxide – well, what the hell. Let’s make a killing.
This culture is screwed up!
The Moral Question
As seems obvious now, we cannot trust the market to play fair with our climate. From a simply mechanistic point of view, the climate crisis is not going to be solved by turning it into some kind of big trading experiment. But my problem with having a market in greenhouse gases goes far deeper than that.
It wasn't until a few weeks ago that I first heard Satish Kumar of Resurgence speaking. He was addressing a conference related to economics and the environment. What he said was so obvious that at first I didn’t think I had heard anything new; but he had said something new, or rather something that seems to have been purposefully ignored by those with a vested interest:
“Carbon emissions trading is simply a way of privatising the atmosphere.”
Our air is now going to be chopped up into myriad global packets, into which each nation has certain rights to pump greenhouse gases. Forget the fact that the atmosphere and its greenhouse gases do not respect national boundaries; the rich nations and their corporations are buying the atmosphere from the Earth and there is no way they are giving it back. Once something is in private ownership then the only way of making it a Common Good once again is to buy it back. Who is going to buy it back, and for whom?
Morally, humans have no more right to pollute than any other organism; we complain of animal infestations, algal blooms, swarms of insects, and then try and fix the problems with deadly force to the organisms responsible, not realising that even in these cases humans may be to blame. What about accepting that the atmosphere is not ours to fill with greenhouse gases and then just agreeing not to fill it with greenhouse gases? Wouldn’t that be a good idea? Wouldn’t that be the right thing to do?
The atmosphere is not for sale.