Over the next 10 days, an estimated 10,000 people – government officials, politicians, campaigners and journalists – will converge on Montreal to try to decide how the world should halt global warming.
The meeting they are attending – COP-11, the 11th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – could scarcely be more important. A handful of sceptics apart, there is universal agreement that the survival of much of humanity depends on the eventual outcome of the process of which the COP is part.
Most of those going to Montreal accept that to stand a good chance of preventing mass extinctions, droughts, runaway melting of icecaps and the Gulf Stream turning off, the volumes of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere need to be reduced sufficiently quickly to prevent Earth’s average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. (We have already had a third of this rise and cannot avoid one-third more.)
They also agree that unless these reductions begin within about five years, the rate at which cuts would have to proceed would be so rapid that many people might regard them as impossible.
Yet, in spite of this consensus, for all the progress that those heading for Montreal will make, they might as well stay at home. The reason is simple: the UN process for agreeing an international emissions reduction treaty has been set up in a way which guarantees its failure.
The most fundamental problem with it is that because climate change is caused by the way our economic system operates, halting it can only be achieved by making profoundly radical changes to that system.
However, the UN process militates against any radical proposals being put forward as governments and international agencies are the only bodies which can introduce ideas to it. Governments naturally favour only those ideas that suit their immediate national interests, while academic economists and NGOs self-censor their proposals as they have to get them adopted by governments if they are to have a chance of going anywhere.
If a government finds an idea it likes, it will seek support from other nations with similar interests and develop it as a draft treaty which other nations can accept, reject or attempt to amend line by line.
The rich countries have an big advantage here because of their experience and diplomatic resources but, since really radical redistributive ideas will never be put forward by the EU or the US, they are unlikely to propose a treaty which reflects the interests of the majority of the world. As a result, the chances are that no treaty will be achieved at all.
The second problem with the UN process is that to be of any value, the treaty would have to set out how the very restricted amount of the main greenhouse gas – about 900 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide – should be allocated around the world over the next century.
No country is going to be happy with its allocation given the importance of energy to everything it does, in particular, to its achievement of economic growth.
Yet the UN process consists entirely of negotiations between nations. As a result, it inevitably sets every country against all the others since, if one country is allocated more emissions, the other countries have less to share.
The negotiations which have taken place so far show this quite clearly. The “developing” countries have argued that they need a bigger allocation in order to be able to catch up with the rich countries which have caused the climate problem. South Africa is a good example. With only 0.7 per cent of the world’s population, it is responsible for 1.4 per cent of global emissions. Will it cut these back?
No, says its government. We need to increase the amount of fossil energy we use, hence our emissions, if we are to lift millions of our people out of poverty.
The truth, of course, is that there are two South Africas. One is a grossly over-developed country which should be making emissions reductions now, the other a very poor “developing” country which the over-developed one is using as an excuse to shirk its international responsibilities.
Some of those heading for Montreal argue that countries should be given emissions rations on the basis of their populations. Others say this would be unfair, as more energy is needed to live in some parts of the world than others. A third group led by Brazil argues that the countries which caused the climate problem in the past through heavy emissions should get a smaller allocation now to compensate.
And then there are leaders like George Bush and Tony Blair who shy away from any emissions rationing at all because of the damage that they think that would do to their economies.
The UN negotiations might have a better chance of success if they were carried out on an entirely different basis.
Suppose that emissions were shared out not country-by-country, but person-by-person. Under this arrangement, every quarter or every year each person in the world would receive a ration permit entitling him or her to burn whatever amount of fossil fuel would result in the release of their portion of the allowable weight of greenhouse gas allocated for that year.
Recipients would not, of course, be entitled to the fuel itself, but they would be able to sell their permits through a bank or post office just as if they were foreign currency.
The banks would sell the permits on to companies who wished to buy fossil fuel from mines or from oil and gas producers. The producers in turn would have to present the permits to international inspectors who would check that the number they had received corresponded with the emissions to be released by the amount of fossil fuel they had delivered.
Under this individualised system, people whose lifestyles required a lot of energy would have to make changes regardless of whether they lived in India or the US, and people who boosted their productivity with fossil energy would have to pay for the right to do so by buying permits from those who used less of it.
This system is not necessarily fair as people in some parts of the world have challenges to overcome before they can live as well on their emissions ration as their counterparts elsewhere.
To meet these circumstances, Feasta, the Dublin-based Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability with which I work, has suggested that some of each person’s emissions allocation should be held back and given to governments to sell so that they have the funds to put their countries in as favourable a position as the rest of the world.
But an allocation system on these lines is too radical to be considered – and still less be adopted – by the UN process. Moreover, it is only one of the major economic changes that are required to solve the climate crisis.
Our national economies have been structured in such a way that if they don’t grow, investment stops, unemployment soars and they collapse into a deep depression.
Consequently, no government will dare tackle the climate crisis until that defect in their economic structure has been changed.
But as no one will talk about how the structure might be changed in Montreal or in any other mainstream forum in the immediate future, there is no hope of serious cuts in emissions starting within the next five years.
Richard Douthwaite is the author of The Growth Illusion: How Economic Growth Enriched the Few, Impoverished the Many and Endangered the World.