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Publication Details

Reference
Bond, Patrick  (2008) The global carbon trade debate For or against the privatisation of the air?
Paper presented to the SA Sociological Association 15th Congress : 1-15.

Summary
“I can’t understand why there aren’t rings of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants.” - Al Gore speaking privately, August 2007

What is the state of the strategic debate over climate change? What kinds of reforms are being contested? Are we in danger of seeing the air itself – one of our last commons – become commodified, reflecting not only the core elite strategy to mitigate global warming, but market-environmentalist acquiescence?

As climate change generates destruction and misery, the people and corporations responsible for these problems – especially in the US/EU-centred petro-mineral-military complex and associated financial agencies like the World Bank – are renewing their grip on power, but likewise reasserting their rights to property and to inaction on climate change. And a good many activists once strongly opposed to the corporate elites have bought in, seduced by the idea that we have to tackle the climate crisis one step at a time, with reforms that the establishment can live with, that in turn can be used to leverage substantial cuts in emissions through clever market incentives.

In this article, four sets of strategies to combat climate change receive consideration: emissions cap-and-trade options including investments in Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects, carbon taxation, command and control of activities responsible for emissions, and alternative grassroots climate change mitigation strategies. The latter two are what, ultimately, will be necessary to save the planet, yet the former two strategies are still ascendant, in part because in 1997 at Kyoto, the idea of a market solution (carbon trading) to a market problem (emissions as an externality) won approval, along with a sigh of relief that this strategy would bring the United States of America to the table. Al Gore, the US vice president, said so, and promised the US Congress would join the fight – but the US never ratified Kyoto, instead setting up a “Major Economies” group (including South Africa) that avoided major cuts.

US intransigence notwithstanding, a scientific consensus now appears unshakable: by 2050, the world requires 80% reductions in CO2 emissions to prevent tipping of the world environment into an unmanageable process and potentially a species-threatening crisis. Yet the options being contemplated in global and national public policy debates to take us to 80% reductions were nowhere near what is required, for several reasons.

The main reason is that the global balance of forces appears adverse to the deep emissions cuts desperately required. As a June 2008 report from Bonn put it,

Another round of talks on the road towards a new global deal on climate change was wrapping up in Germany on Friday, battered by criticism that progress had been negligible. The 12-day haggle under the 192-nation United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was the second since the accord in Bali, Indonesia, last December that set down a “road map” towards a new planetary treaty... India representative Chandrashekar Dasgupta deplored “the lack of any real progress” in Bonn and “a deafening silence” among industrialised countries, save the European Union.

At the G8 Summit in Japan in July 2008, the ruling parties of the largest economic powers agreed to only a 50% reduction by 2050, but with no genuine plan as to how to accomplish this. In this context of adverse power balance, the debate now divides environmentalists between those who would want the world economy to slowly and painlessly adapt to CO2 abatement strategies using mainly global governance initiatives, and those who would advocate dramatic emissions cuts in a manner that is both redistributive (from rich to poor and North to South, and in the process male to female), and sufficiently shocking to economic structures and markets that major transformations in production and consumption are compelled, beginning with local action that works to national and then finally global scales once power is sufficiently redistributed to make global environmental governance feasible.

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