New Internationalist

Just or bust

Issue 419

Can the Copenhagen talks deliver Climate Justice? Danny Chivers casts an eye over the options.

The Same Boat

Imagine 10 rabbits lost at sea, in a boat carved out of a giant carrot.

The carrot is their only source of food, so they all keep nibbling at it. The boat is shrinking rapidly – but none of them wants to be the first to stop, because then they’ll be the first to starve. There’s no point in any of them stopping unless everyone stops – if even one rabbit carries on eating, the boat will sink.

This is the international climate crisis in a (Beatrix Potter-flavoured) nutshell: action by individual nations achieves little unless we all act together. Of course, reality is a little more complex. While it’s easy to imagine the rabbits reaching a simple agreement where they all learn to dredge for seaweed instead, our situation involves massive global inequalities, differing levels of responsibility, and a history of exploitation and broken international promises.

Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t be too surprised that the international climate negotiations – which began in earnest in 1990 with the talks that created the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – have not yet got us a workable global solution. The best we’ve managed so far has been the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, under which industrialized nations (known as ‘Annex 1’ countries) pledged to cut their CO2 emissions by a completely inadequate 5.2 per cent by 2012. The US famously pulled out of the deal, and most of those who remained in are unlikely to achieve even these small cuts.

A Fair Point

Meanwhile, no definite plan has been agreed for ensuring that the poorer nations switch to a climate-friendly development path. The US says it won’t play unless, in the name of ‘fairness’, all non-Annex 1 countries also take on emissions reduction targets. Southern governments, however, point out that they’ve arrived late to the fossil fuel party: the industrialized nations got us into this mess by emitting, over the past 200 years, the vast majority of the greenhouse gases currently warming up the atmosphere. How can the Annex 1 countries demand that the South restrict its development with tough carbon targets when the North has mostly missed its own Kyoto goals?

At the same time, despite promised funds to support low-carbon development, to adapt to the impacts of climate change, and to transfer to low-carbon technology, the only real money flowing from North to South through the UNFCCC process has been via the highly flawed Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). This has allowed wealthy nations to offset their domestic emissions with such ‘clean development’ projects as urban landfill sites, giant dams that were being built anyway, and slightly more efficient steel refineries. There are now near-universal calls for the CDM to be reformed, or scrapped altogether and replaced with something fairer.

With Kyoto limping to the end of its life, governments are feverishly trying to strike a new deal on global emissions cuts between 2012 and 2020. They’ll be thrashing it out in meetings in Bonn in April and June, with the aim of signing an agreement at the next big Conference Of Parties (COP) – Copenhagen, 1-12 December 2009.

Efforts have been focused on getting the US – responsible for 30 per cent of current emissions – to sign up. But a deal that favours the interests of wealthy nations over the real needs of the world’s people would fail on two crucial counts. The expanded carbon market demanded by the US and the EU would enrich private traders at the expense of lives and livelihoods in the South; meanwhile, any deal without a strong justice element would almost certainly be rejected by many Southern governments.

Poorer nations have fought bitterly to enshrine a ‘right to development’ and an acknowledgement of countries’ ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ within Kyoto, which means that richer countries are expected to act first. Unless the Annex 1 countries start showing real commitment to these principles – through deep domestic emissions cuts, strings-free funding, technology transfer and development allowances – the chances of the South staying on board with a post-2012 deal are slim.1

Poorer nations have fought bitterly to enshrine a ‘right to development’ and an acknowledgement of countries’ ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ within Kyoto, which means that richer countries are expected to act first. Unless the Annex 1 countries start showing real commitment to these principles – through deep domestic emissions cuts, strings-free funding, technology transfer and development allowances – the chances of the South staying on board with a post-2012 deal are slim.1

Talking It Up

Unfortunately, the trend has so far been in the opposite direction. As the climate talks have progressed from Toronto (1988) to Kyoto (1997) to Bali (2007), the rich countries’ targets have been weakened by around 1,900 million tonnes of CO2, and the role of carbon trading has grown steadily.2

For example, a major subject at the recent Poznan talks was the REDD initiative (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), which proposes that the carbon stored in the world’s forests be added to the carbon market.3 In one fell swoop, forest lands where people have lived for thousands of years would be commodified and sold from beneath them, generating credits to allow wealthy Northerners to carry on driving and shopping – despite the fact that new research has revealed that recognizing indigenous forest people’s land rights would cost less and be more effective than using the carbon markets.4

Here are some of the main proposals on the table and how they measure up when it comes to climate justice.

What’s on the table?


‘Grandfathering’ of Kyoto Targets

What is it? A delightfully twee name for the way industrialized countries’ emissions targets have been allocated through the UNFCCC – everyone has to reduce their emissions a certain percentage below the amount they were emitting in 1990.

  • FAIRNESS: 2/10 Countries that were big polluters in 1990 get to stay as big polluters, with a slight percentage cut. A fairer system would instead be based upon per capita emissions (such as the ‘Contraction and Convergence’ model championed by the Global Commons Institute), historical responsibility for emissions, and/or ability to pay.
  • EFFECTIVENESS: 2/10 The 1990 baseline is completely arbitrary, with no relation to climate science.
  • CURRENT SUPPORT: 10/10 The EU is proposing a new target of a 30% emissions cut by 2020 for Annex 1 countries. The coalition of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) has said it would prefer that to be a 45-50% cut. Both of these targets are against the 1990 baseline – it’s just being taken for granted. Alternative ideas such as ‘Contraction and Convergence’ are sometimes discussed, but not acted upon.

It’s A Bit Like… A group of wealthy tourists and destitute refugees have survived a plane crash and are stranded on a mountain. They decide to ration out the food based on how much each person ate in the week before the crash – the more you ate per day back then, the more food you get now.

Global Commons Institute:

Greenhouse Development Rights (GDRs)

What Is It? An alternative method for setting carbon targets. It assumes that everyone on the planet below a certain income threshold should first have the right to get themselves out of poverty and are therefore exempt from any emissions targets. Responsibility for climate action is then allocated to countries based on how many of their citizens are above the income threshold, how far above it they are, and how much greenhouse gas that country produces.

  • FAIRNESS: 8/10 Includes an explicit ‘right to develop’ for the world’s poor (North and South), while ensuring that wealthy Southern élites are not excluded from responsibility. However, it doesn’t acknowledge historical responsibility or the ‘offshoring’ of emissions by wealthier countries, and there are many potential devils lurking in the details – such as how to set the income threshold.
  • EFFECTIVENESS: 9/10 The targets within the framework are based on up-to-date climate science, and if they were met it would give us a decent shot at avoiding the worst stuff.
  • CURRENT SUPPORT: 4/10 Some G77 governments have talked about it, and it’s gained the backing of Christian Aid and Oxfam, but as yet has no official position within the UNFCCC process.

It’s A Bit Like… A city is razed to the ground by alien invaders. The people who escaped unscathed because they lived in solid houses built from money they stole from the aliens (thus provoking the attack) are expected to take on most of the rebuilding work. The people who had left the aliens alone, stayed poor, and lived in rickety houses that collapsed on them during the attack are allowed to recover in hospital before joining in the work.

Emissions Trading

What Is It? It’s the main way in which wealthy industrialized countries are planning to meet their reduction targets – by trading ‘carbon credits’ (permits to pollute) with other countries. Forests are due to be added to the scheme at Copenhagen.

  • FAIRNESS: 1/10 The system allows polluting industries and governments to buy their way out of their carbon commitments, using complex trading rules written by Northern economists. Private trading firms get rich by buying and selling the rights to the carbon in other people’s forests and fields, investing in dodgy quick-fixes and propping up polluting industries.
  • EFFECTIVENESS: 2/10 The EU Emissions Trading Scheme has yet to produce any proven emissions reductions. Wealthy governments and companies can avoid difficult-but-vital domestic emissions cuts by buying (both real and imaginary) carbon reductions from elsewhere. Politicians get an excuse not to stump up desperately needed cash for more effective low-carbon development in the Global South.
  • MAD, BAD, AND DANGEROUS EFFECTS: 8/10 Want to unleash a genetically modified carbon-munching microbe, create a famine-inducing agro-fuel plantation, privatize a forest or build a few nuclear power stations? The carbon market is the place for you!
  • CURRENT SUPPORT: 9.5/10 Unless we decide to stop it.

It’s A Bit Like… Handing control of the Earth’s vital natural systems over to a bunch of grinning Wall Street traders. Oh no, wait: it’s exactly like that.

Mitigation and Adaptation Funds

What Is It? The G77 (a coalition of, confusingly, about 130 developing countries) and China are proposing that the wealthiest countries put the climate change support money they’ve been promising (for years) into a central fund for spending on low-carbon technology, emission reductions and climate change adaptation in the Global South.5

  • FAIRNESS: 7/10 Putting it into a central fund has pros and cons: paying it straight to governments instead could lead to corruption and squandering on unhelpful projects, but the central fund takes the decision even further away from those affected by it.
  • EFFECTIVENESS: 5/10 Will the funds be spent on effective projects such as protecting the land rights of indigenous forest people, or on expensive distractions like nuclear power?
  • CURRENT SUPPORT: 7/10 The wealthy nations are going to have to hand something over if they don’t want the talks to collapse completely.

It’s A Bit Like… The guy who drove a bulldozer through your house and sold off the rubble has promised to buy you a tent in compensation. As a huge storm gathers on the horizon, you post him another stiff reminder letter.


What Is It? A new proposal, where companies wishing to drill for oil or gas or dig up coal would have to purchase permits. These permits would be tightly restricted, and fall each year in line with the demands of climate science. The money from the permit sale would go into a global fund to protect forests, pay for adaptation measures, create a ‘revolution’ in sustainable technology and help poorer communities make the transition to a low-carbon world.

  • FAIRNESS: 7/10 The polluters pay, and the money goes to the people and places that need it. All pretty good – so long as the poor are protected from sudden fuel price rises, and the institutions charged with distributing the funds (Oliver Tickell, who developed the proposal, suggests UN agencies and NGOs) do so in a transparent and accountable way that actively includes the affected communities.
  • EFFECTIVENESS: 8/10 It looks good on paper, and is based on solid climate science. However, we all know how adept fossil fuel companies are at finding loopholes…
  • CURRENT SUPPORT: 1/10 This new proposal would involve totally changing the terms of the international negotiations, shifting the responsibility from countries to corporations (including a lot of state-owned companies). Will it be seen as a distraction from the main debate, a Northern-biased proposal that doesn’t explicitly recognize historical responsibility, or a neat way out of the current deadlock?

It’s A Bit Like… That moment near the end of a meeting where someone suggests an interesting new idea that might make the previous four hours of discussion completely irrelevant, and you don’t know whether to shake their hand or throw the water jug at them.


Underpinning the climate talks are a raft of ideas for how emissions reductions can be achieved. Here are some of the forerunners.

Government-Funded Climate Programmes

What Is It? Publicly funded schemes to tackle climate change – from revamped public transport networks to mass home insulation to giant offshore wind farms.

  • FAIRNESS: 5/10 Depends on how much you trust your government. Publicly owned climate solutions are more accountable to the people they affect than corporate or consumer-driven solutions (in democratic states, at least). However, there’s also plenty of scope for corruption and the siphoning of public funds into expensive ‘solutions’ that benefit wealthy élites rather than the climate.
  • EFFECTIVENESS: 5/10 Utterly dependent on the details. However, there are some things, such as legislating against corporate polluters, and reforming national transport and energy networks, that people and community groups cannot do alone, and governments will need to play an active role.
  • CURRENT SUPPORT: 6/10 There are positive examples out there (such as Germany’s big renewables roll-out), but they are often cancelled out by the simultaneous development of roads, runways and fossil fuel power stations.

It’s A Bit Like… Asking a big kid you don’t really like or trust to chase away some bullies for you.

Carbon Taxes

What Is It? A government tax on sources of carbon pollution.

  • FAIRNESS: 5/10 Could hit the poorest in society hardest through higher fuel prices, unless it were carefully designed. Taxes on companies producing or burning fossil fuels could be fairer, if those companies were prevented from passing those costs on to others. British Columbia’s new carbon tax includes a rebate for the poorest families.
  • EFFECTIVENESS: 6/10 Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Italy, and a few US towns and counties have experimented with carbon taxes, with mixed results. The taxes do seem to reduce carbon emissions, but usually on a smaller scale than was hoped for – often due to loopholes and concessions demanded by industry or angry consumer groups.
  • CURRENT SUPPORT: 5/10 Carbon taxes are talked about within the UNFCCC process as a potential tool, but they’re not generally very popular back home.

It’s A Bit Like… Asking a big kid you don’t really like or trust to charge the bullies £1 for every time they thump you.

Nicola Liebert, ‘Why Ecotaxes May Not Be The Answer’, NI 416, October 2008

Techno-fixes and Geo-engineering

What Is It? Examples include genetically modified algal fuel, capturing CO2 for underground storage, launching mirrors into space, discovering reliable nuclear fusion, turning food crops into agro-fuels, dumping iron in the oceans and spraying sulphates in the sky.

  • FAIRNESS: 1/10 Most of these schemes would place disproportionate control of the global climate in the hands of a small number of companies or governments. Imagine if the US or China had control of a giant space mirror that was the only thing preventing the world from being fried, or if Monsanto held the patent for an algal fuel that the whole world relied upon for power. What a beautiful future we’d be building.
  • EFFECTIVENESS: 2/10 Most are more than a decade away from large-scale implementation, and would drain resources away from proven and sustainable solutions.
  • MAD, BAD, AND DANGEROUS EFFECTS: 10/10 Poisonous algal blooms, disruption of little-understood oceanic food webs, mass appropriation of lands, seas and forests, acid rain, sudden future CO2 eruptions, and corporate control of the climate system… will that do?
  • CURRENT SUPPORT: 7/10 European governments are desperate for carbon capture to materialize. There have been pro-sulphate-spraying demonstrations in Australia. An open market in carbon emissions would be a big boost to a lot of these wacky schemes.

It’s A Bit Like… Your house is on fire, so you sit down in the living room and start drawing up designs for a giant wall-smashing robot.

‘Techno-Fixes’ report, Corporate Watch,

The road ahead

If the talks continue in their current vein, then Copenhagen is likely to produce a similar deal to Kyoto – arbitrary (though larger) targets against a 1990 baseline, perhaps giving targets to some of the larger developing countries in return for extra mitigation funds, and with carbon trading as the main ‘delivery mechanism’. It would probably end up about as successful as Kyoto, too.

Fortunately, global dissent is growing. Large NGOs such as Friends of the Earth International, Oxfam and Christian Aid are becoming increasingly vocal on the issue of climate justice. New networks are forming amongst Northern and Southern social movements to demand community-led solutions to the climate crisis, and an end to the privatization of lands and forests through carbon trading schemes.

Down with Kyoto

We shouldn’t get too hung up on Copenhagen – we’re far more likely to create lasting change by building powerful national and international movements than by pouring all our energy into specific summit meetings. But it’s hard to deny that we need some sort of international framework for tackling this global issue. Despite its flaws, the UNFCCC is the only one we’ve got, and the urgency of the climate issue requires us to work with it.

However, the Kyoto Protocol has been a dismal failure. Should we demand that governments scrap it completely and start again from scratch? It’s tempting, but would be unlikely to gain the crucial support of Southern negotiators, who fear that a brand new deal would see them lose their hard-won ‘differentiated responsibility’.

A better approach might be to create space within the existing talks for alternative, fairer systems and ideas – such as GDRs, Kyoto2, community-led solutions, indigenous rights, strings-free clean development assistance, patent-free technology transfer – to get a hearing. Currently emissions trading, private financing and market-based mechanisms are seen as the only route to greenhouse gas reductions, and are crowding everything else out of the debate.

This suggests a simple, effective starting point for developing a successful – and just – global agreement: we need to get rid of carbon trading.

Just: do it

Many groups and movements could happily unite around a major campaign to discredit the carbon markets. However, this needs to start now. The massive protests planned for Copenhagen will be too late to have much effect on the talks (unless things have gone so badly that they need to be shut down!)

Let’s face it – whatever gets agreed at Copenhagen, governments are unlikely to stick to it unless there is an international movement powerful enough to make it happen. A global climate treaty will never be a panacea, but we can at least make sure it’s a step towards – rather than away from – climate justice.

Danny Chivers is a writer, researcher, activist and poet on all things climate-change related.

A longer version of this article, with more details about the different proposals on the table at Copenhagen is available at

  1. T Roberts & B Parks, A Climate Of Injustice, MIT Press 2007
  2. Diana Liverman, ‘Survival into the Future in the Face of Climate Change’ in E Shuckburgh (ed.), Survival: The Survival of the Human Race (2006 Darwin Lectures), Cambridge University Press, 2007
  3. See:
  4. The Guardian, ‘Pay indigenous people to protect rainforests, conservation groups urge’, 17 October 2008,
  5. Financial Mechanism for Meeting Financial Commitments under the Convention. Proposal by the G77 and China to the Poznan meeting.

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This article was originally published in issue 419

New Internationalist Magazine issue 419
Issue 419

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