Durban talks. They won’t? They can’t?

There is a whirlpool sucking at the Kyoto protocol, under which rich nations are supposed to curb their greenhouse gas emissions – and in Durban, South Africa, where the 17th UN Climate Change Conference is in progress, the sound of sucking is getting louder, writes STEVE DRURY in this site’s first guest post.

Before the Durban gathering (28 November to 9 December) had even begun, there were not-entirely-unexpected rumblings that the Kyoto protocol, which expires next year, will be replaced by little or nothing. Since 1997 Kyoto was supposed to commit wealthy nations – except the USA which never signed up – to limit emissions and help poor countries technically and financially to avoid emissions if and when they “develop”.

To say there has been backsliding on Kyoto pledges would be something of an understatement. But that is not the only background to the Durban round of UN deliberations. For one thing, the emissions picture has changed dramatically in the 14 years leading up to Durban, with China now leading the emissions league table ahead of the USA and EU, and India in an unhealthy fourth place. For another, there is the raging global economic crisis.

The European Commission (EC), perhaps otherwise occupied, gave a nice introductory fillip to the Durban conference, three days before it opened, by delivering 300 million tradable permits to emit one metric ton of carbon dioxide to the European Investment Bank on 25 November.[1]

The intention of these EU Allowances (EUA) for emissions is partly to raise funds for “clean energy” projects, but mainly to develop a market that will encourage emitters to behave in a more environmentally friendly way: ten thousand major energy producers and users in the EU have to measure their annual emissions and hand over the equivalent in EUAs.[2] The catch is that trade in EUAs follows the same logic as the trade in bad debt, and that of capital as a whole.

Punters betting on the carbon market saw this coming, and during the last two weeks in November the spot and futures prices for EUAs fell by about 20%. Emitters have to buy EUAs so polluting is going to be cheaper – and what would have raised €4.5 billion for “green causes” in a stable market will net at most €2.3 billion. Yet that may not be the entire story, for the collapse in the price of permits to pollute coincides with a gigantic crisis at the roots of the euro zone: a recession or even depression will reduce energy use and emissions.

Could this be a cunning plan by the European Commission (EC) to take some pressure off the economy by making it cheaper to emit greenhouse gases so reducing overall energy costs, knowing full well that dumping permits on the market would drive down their price? (In January 2011 hackers stole between €28-30 million worth of EUAs from the national registries). Whatever, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) has a complexity all of its own … though I can’t help being reminded of a similar scheme in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 that benefitted Major Major’s father, whose “specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce”.

Clarification of the material basis of carbon credits and the trade therein would be welcomed.

Kyoto’s future looks grim

It looks highly unlikely that Kyoto will be extended. Indeed at the international climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, Japan, Canada and Russia baulked at any further “altruistic” commitment. The “pledge” by wealthy countries of $30 billion in green financing for the so-called “third world” by 2012 may turn out to be a triumph of hope over expectation, and it’s boosting to an annual $100 billion by 2020 looks even more dodgy.

And then there is the Copenhagen Accord aimed at limiting future global warming definitely to 2°C, and hopefully to 1.5°C. …

By the third day of the Durban gathering, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was under pressure from a 16-organisation open letter reminding her of Barack Obama’s pledge in November 2008 to “engage vigorously in these negotiations, and help lead the world toward a new era of global co-operation on climate change”,[3] at a time when the US remains the “major obstacle to progress”. The EU too is adding its half penn’orth, aiming at the conference committing participants to a “roadmap” towards a further “binding agreement” on emissions cuts by 2015.

The US delegation announced on the opening day that if India and China will not commit, neither will it, the Chinese delegation having ruled out any commitment from that quarter. The next 10 days looked even grimmer, with the news that JP Morgan Chase, Barclays and RBS along with other banks had upped their investment in coal – by far the largest contributor to carbon emissions – by €232 billion.

A good start to avoiding the warming scenario about which many climate scientists are warning …

Nevertheless, on Day 4 the 48-country Least Developed Countries bloc, mainly from Africa but including Bangladesh and several low-lying island states, tabled a motion insisting that discussions on a new mandate should start on 1 January 2012 to present a draft at the next Climate Summit in Qatar in December 2012, aimed at ensuring a peak in global CO2 emissions by 2015 and reduction of at least 85% below 1990 levels by 2050. The niceties of the Copenhagen emissions pledges, set for review by 2015 but which run to 2020, will surely be used to derail progress.

What China does matters

There are interesting developments taking place in China. Early in November China’s  State Council approved a plan to promote low-carbon energy and slash CO2 emissions by 17% per unit of GDP by 2015. Yet just what the  largest emitter’s balance sheet in the carbon cycle is remains very imprecise: it could be out by as much as 20% above or below reality compared with an error of ~5% for most developed countries.

Part of the drive is that the Chinese Academy of Sciences is charged with a five-year initiative to compile a more exact inventory of emissions from energy-use figures covering all industrial sectors. US$125 million of government funding will support several hundred scientists engaged in this and other initiatives:[4] the academy’s own supercomputing capacity will run climate models – to back up or refute those used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) may eventually become clear – and natural scientists will try to work out how much carbon the country’s surface takes out of the atmosphere. 

This last point – about the carbon removed from the atmosphere – is especially interesting, as all the confusing emissions protocols, pledges, carbon credits and what-have-you include allowances for the negative side of the greenhouse-gas balance sheet.

Usually the absorption of CO2 relates to land cover by trees and other vegetation, plus conservation and reforestation, but there are inorganic processes that are rarely totted up. One of these is the way in which rain made slightly acid by dissolved CO2 attacks rocks and minerals. In soil the acid breaks down calcium silicate minerals, and if conditions are seasonally dry calcium and carbonate ions form solid calcium carbonate nodules in the soil. More familiar is acid rainwater attacking limestone rock to form caves. About 15% of China exposes limestones to the weather.[5]

Dissolving a kilogram of limestone – made of calcium carbonate – removes 0.44 kg of CO2 from the atmosphere: it ends up as bicarbonate and calcium ions dissolved in groundwater that can recombine in solid form thereafter. Some limestones are made of calcium-magnesium carbonate and if they are attacked double the amount of CO2 is “drawn down”. And geology has more to offer: many desert soils are alkaline, and it seems that carbon dioxide dissolved in rainfall also becomes ‘fixed’ by chemical reactions.

Some of China’s vast number of geoscientists are now intent on analysing waters that have flowed through the country’s limestone to see what contribution it makes to “balancing the books” of the carbon cycle. No doubt the data will be used to take pressure off China’s role in global warming. But this is a natural part of the cycle that goes on with no human intervention, some areas being better endowed than others: is this endeavour a form of fiddling the commitments to “greening-up”?

There can be little doubt that such a ruse will catch on in the coming years in limestone-rich countries like France, but a great deal of scepticism that it makes a ha’porth of difference to any control over climate globally.

A step towards artificially encouraging CO2 drawdown is spreading vast areas with gravel made of crushed limestones, and more exotic rocks known as dunites rich in magnesium silicate, so that they become weathered and produce lots of solid carbonate.

Won’t and can’t

In the run-up to Durban, depressing evidence of the level of cooperation between capitalist states came in a dispute over an attempt by the EU to make airlines pay for emissions.

As part of its Emissions Trading Scheme, the EU is to require from 1 January 2012 that international airlines using European airports buy EUAs to match CO2 emissions from aircraft during landing and take-off.

This has been opposed by China, Russia, the US, India, Brazil and Japan on grounds of niceties in international law, as well as airlines who claim that the move will damage their profits and reduce investment in clean technology.[6]

Interestingly, aviation fuel is the only one free of any tax or duty worldwide. …

All in all, events in the run-up to and during the Durban conference begin to show clearly that globalised capital is incapable of resolving environmental problems.

That shouldn’t be surprising to socialists because cleaning up, developing alternatives to those industries that have a negative effect on the environment, and conducting research to better understand how our home world “works”, are not economically or politically neutral. They drive up the ratio of constant to variable capital, thereby driving down the rate of profit and capital accumulation.

It is not just a case of “capital won’t” but that it “can’t” without driving itself further into economic crisis.

POSTSCRIPT. Joint monitoring, let alone action, is tough.

International cooperation on monitoring greenhouse gas concentrations from space has been plagued by political and funding problems – showing in microcosm, perhaps, just how difficult it is for capitalist states jointly to get their act together on global warming.

In February 2009 NASA attempted to launch a satellite called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), aimed at measuring the concentration in the atmosphere of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) and mapping that concentration and its variation with time over the whole Earth. Being the first of its kind, OCO was to be “a pathfinder for future long-term satellite missions to monitor carbon dioxide.” The ultimate goal was a means of permanently monitoring both natural and anthropogenic additions and subtractions of CO2 in detail across all regions.

The aims were clearly both scientific – understanding the carbon cycle – and political – identifying where the gas was emitted: potential dynamite in the political turmoil that surrounds the likelihood of global warming and climate change.

Probable controversies will never be put to the test, as OCO failed to reach the speed needed to go into orbit. It fell back into the atmosphere to be burned-up on re-entry.

Had its launch succeeded, the need for ground monitoring, such as that being undertaken by China, would not have been necessary. On top of that, any claims playing down emissions would have been subject to scrutiny. This was an important, though not especially “sexy” mission for NASA, but funding cuts make it unlikely that a replacement will be launched. (There is a mood in NASA approaching optimism following the successful launch towards Mars of the $2.9 billion Curiosity rover on 26 November, matched only in its intensity by the gloom pervading Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, after its mission to snatch soil from Phobos, the larger of Mars’s two moons. Their unfortunately-named Phobos-Grunt probe fell silent soon after launch on 8 November, and seems destined to meet the same fiery fate as OCO.)

However, the European Space Agency plans to launch a multipurpose constellation of environment monitoring satellites, beginning in 2013. The Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) has an estimated total cost of around €5.8 billion, and aims at continuously gathering data about greenhouse gases, climate change, soil erosion, food resources, air pollution and snow and ice cover: vital in understanding what is actually happening to our home world.

Together with ITER, the international effort to build a fusion reactor as a major step in cutting free from the dominance of fossil fuels, GMES is under threat.[7] Both are now deemed by the European Commission to be too costly for direct budgeting from the EU’s funds.

Instead, the EC suggests funds would have to be raised from the 27 EU member states separately. It seems highly likely that both issues will remain unresolved for 3-5 years during inevitable wrangling, setting back GMES and perhaps killing it altogether. SD.

Steve Drury is a geoscientist, author of Stepping Stones: the Making of Our Home World, and a geo-blogger at

[1] Seven Days column in Nature v. 280 (1 December 2011), p. 11

[4] Jiao, L. & Stone, R. 2011. China looks to balance its carbon books. Science v. 334 (18 Nov 2011), p. 886-887

[5] Larson, C. 2011. An unsung carbon sink. Science v. 334 (18 Nov 2011), p. 886-887

[6] Pearce, F. 2011. Trade war looms over Europe’s aircraft carbon tax. New Scientist, issue 2837 (7 November 2011), p. 14

2 Responses to Durban talks. They won’t? They can’t?

  1. Thanks for this succinct summary and the information about limestone which is fascinating. I think it is the western industrialist socialist model of development that is preventing some much needed socialist-green alliances. Sequestration is clearly the key if we want to go back down to pre-industrial levels of 270 ppm. Many IPCC scientists suggest this in private whilst they do not say it in public. AR5 will show runaway climate change already underway. The production base of the political economy has to be agriculture, grasslands, trees, forestry and well- limestone?! To give the land of the planet back to the majority who in any case are agriculturists and forest dwellers of various kinds who would like to do this work but have been made destitute by the onslaught of market capitalism, we should try and get governments to adopt the emission backed currency unit (ebcu) to replace all global currencies such as the USD, EURO and Yen. Give all the world’s adults permits to exploit hydrocarbons and nuclear energy equally, and ask corporations whether ‘private’ or ‘public’ to buy the permits with ebcu. The high emitters today e.g. US have to earn their ebcus by making something at home the poor countries with large holdings of surplus permits have: say renewable energy technologies. But the prupose of all this is not international trade so much as peaceful orderly exit from hydrocarbons and nuclear energy. Positive suggestions based on the insights of political economy to finally make political economy the servant of livelihoods over the next short period until full localisation is done may usher in useful actions to reduce severe inequality as the climate changes and living species becomes less and less able to survive.

  2. […] Janeiro in 1992. (The necessary spark went out long ago, as previously noted on People & Nature here and here.) […]

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