The West’s new greenness conceals a giant protectionist racket
On 27 September, President George W. Bush will finally come in from the cold over global warming. On that day he will host a conference in Washington to be attended by what he has defined as the world’s 15 most polluting nations. He intends, for the first time, to commit the United States to slashing its carbon emissions.
That, anyway, is the positive spin. Alternatively, one might put Bush’s multilateralist initiative like this: he is fed up with being depicted as the bad boy of climate change. Rather than keeping the US out of the world’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions, as he did when he withdrew from the Kyoto treaty, he has seen an opportunity in joining the process: to suppress industrial competition from the Third World. He has already made clear his price for committing the US to cutting carbon emissions: to impose similar cuts on the developing nations invited to the conference, which include China, India, Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia. Don’t be the least surprised if he gets away with it. It isn’t only President Bush who appears to think that it is the duty of the world’s poor to carry the can for the fossil fuel-guzzling habits of the West. One doesn’t have to deny, or even question, the science of global warming to come to the conclusion that the West’s policy on global warming is rapidly evolving into a giant protectionist racket against the developing world.
When the Kyoto treaty was signed in 1997, developing nations were exempt from targets obliging them to cut their carbon emissions. The argument for excluding them was thoroughly logical: their per-capita carbon emissions were only a fraction of those of the developed world. It was the duty of the rich nations to set an example in cutting their own emissions before any targets were imposed on developing nations.
Since 1997, Western efforts to cut carbon emissions have come to almost naught. US carbon emissions are now 15 per cent higher than they were in 1990 — the baseline level used for all Kyoto targets. Japan’s emissions have risen by 11 per cent. While EU carbon emissions have fallen by 2.9 per cent, overall greenhouse gas emissions have risen. Yet in spite of this record of non-achievement the West is increasingly hectoring the developing world on its carbon emissions. How about this remark from Tony Blair in Johannesburg in May: ‘If we shut down the whole of Britain and emitted nothing, within two years the growth of China’s emissions would make up the difference. They are building a coal-fired power station every four days. They are, I think, about to build 70 major airports. One thing the wealthy world can’t say is, “You can’t grow.” But, on the other hand, one thing I think is really absurd if we want to tackle climate change, is if the world’s largest emitters are not part of the deal.’ In other words, it isn’t us with our Chrysler Voyagers and long-haul holidays to Florida who are to blame for global warming, it is all those pesky Chinamen with their woks and their electrical sewing machines.
The International Energy Agency recently made the prediction that China’s carbon emissions would overtake America’s by 2009. That may or may not happen, but even if it does, it doesn’t quite mean that the Chinese are as culpable as Americans for carbon emissions, because it rather ignores the fact that China has five times the population. Head for head, in 2003 the Chinese emitted 3.2 tonnes of carbon and India 1.19 tonnes. The US, on the other hand, emitted 19.8 tonnes of carbon per capita. The UK emitted 9.4 tonnes, Germany 9.8 tonnes and France, which has a high proportion of energy generated by nuclear power, 6.4 tonnes. But even those figures are highly misleading, because they ignore the fact that much of China’s rising carbon emissions are being spewed out in the name of producing goods for Western consumers. These are emissions, of course, which used to come from chimneys in Birmingham and Manchester, before our manufacturing base was reduced to a shadow of what it was. If Britain meets its Kyoto target in 2012 (and it may well do), it won’t be because British consumers have made sacrifices to save the planet; it will be because we, like other Western nations, have exported a sizeable proportion of our carbon emissions to China.
Somehow, I doubt whether President Bush will recognise this at his conference in September. He won’t be suggesting, for example, that China be allowed to emit extra carbon emissions to compensate for the fact that the country now produces 43 per cent of the world’s cement. Neither will he be negotiating a target which would limit China to the same per-capita carbon emissions as the US. Rather he will attempt to make a deal which will effectively cap China’s emissions permanently at a fraction of those of the US. In other words his aim will be to institutionalise the gap in wealth between rich countries and poor ones, and give the US an inbuilt advantage against Chinese producers.
While this will cause outrage in India and China, those countries shouldn’t expect a great deal of sympathy from Gordon Brown, who has already made it his ambition for Britain to benefit from global warming at the expense of the poor. Imagine if you were a Third World peasant listening, on a crackling, wind-up radio set, to the then Chancellor’s pre-budget report last December: ‘I can report that following the Stern Review, 31 countries in the EU and EFTA have already signed up to emissions trading as the first step to this global framework. And we are bringing together the major financial institutions: our aim, to make London the world’s trading centre for carbon trading.’
In other words, the driving force behind the Prime Minister’s great mission to extend carbon trading worldwide isn’t so much to prevent climate change as to boost the profits of the City. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme forces companies and organisations which emit more carbon than their agreed targets to buy carbon credits from those who undershoot their targets. That it is a bizarre piece of bureaucracy which enriches those good at negotiating their targets at the expense of those who are less good should already be obvious following the revelation that Shell has made a £49.9 million profit and BP a £43.1 million from selling their unused allocations, while the NHS has made a net loss of £6 million. But it will be even more absurd when industries undergoing expansion in developing nations are forced to buy carbon credits from shrinking industrial operations in Europe, helping in the process to buy Porsches for big wheels in the City.
It isn’t just politicians who see in climate change an opportunity to keep the poor in their place. If you are an environmental group wanting to raise awareness of global warming through the Western advertising media, it has become customary to start with a picture of an emaciated woman wading through floodwaters in Bangladesh with her malnourished kids. Whether the woman and her kids will thank Western environmentalists for their attentions is questionable. Take the concept of ‘food miles’, which has made its way on to the packaging of supermarket food in Britain. The idea is to make Western consumers feel guilty about buying food flown in from halfway across the world and persuade them to choose more environmentally friendly locally grown nosh instead. Yet there is only a tenuous connection between the distance a foodstuff has travelled and the carbon emitted in its production and distribution. For example, a New Zealand study recently revealed that lamb raised in that country and transported 11,000 miles to Britain causes 688kg of carbon emissions per tonne. Lamb produced and eaten in Britain, on the other hand, causes 2,849kg of carbon emissions per tonne, the greater efficiency of farming in New Zealand more than making up for the energy consumed in transit. A separate study by Cranfield University revealed that roses produced in the Netherlands and transported to Britain cause 35,000kg of carbon emissions per 12,000 stems, against 600kg of carbon emissions per 12,000 stems of Kenyan roses: the carbon cost of flying the roses to Britain being more than countered by the manual nature of farming in Kenya.
What the concept of food miles does achieve, on the other hand, is very neatly to discriminate against farmers in the far-off Third World and in favour of local farmers. It is a straightforward protectionist device. That so few ‘enlightened’ Western consumers seem able to see this is worrying, but not as depressing as the failure of consumers to see through the carbon-offsetting business. ‘Neutralising’ one’s carbon emissions has expanded from Hollywood stars planting a few trees on their estates to a multimillion pound business much patronised by politicians out to earn brownie points. If you are flying off to the sun this week, the chances are you will have been invited to counter the pollution caused by your plane by paying a few pounds to help reduce carbon emissions somewhere else in the world.
At least the naivety of the Hollywood stars who thought they could neutralise the emissions of fossil fuels by planting trees (which store carbon only for the 100 years or so in which they are alive) was less damaging than some of the carbon-offset schemes on offer now. Delegates to the 2005 G8 summit at Gleneagles, for example, were given a certificate to say that the emissions from their flights had been offset by a scheme to replace the tin roofs of huts in a shantytown suburb of Cape Town with a more insulating material. In other words, you burn airline fuel, while a South African peasant saves heating oil.
What could possibly be wrong with that? Quite a lot, actually. It stands to reason that the carbon emitted by delegates’ flights will only continue to be offset for as long as the occupants of the huts carry on living in shanty-town conditions. If, in a couple of years’ time, they better themselves to the point that they can afford a home just a little closer to the standard enjoyed by the average resident of the first world (never mind one like Al Gore’s Tennessee mansion, recently found to consume 20 times as much energy as the average US home), they will replace their insulated shacks with much more power-hungry bungalows. It is the same with carbon-offset schemes to provide Kenyans with dung-powered generators, replacing Indians’ kerosene lamps with solar-powered lamps or all the rest. As acts of charity they are one thing, but as carbon-offset schemes they
only work if the recipients continue to live in very basic conditions. Once they aspire to Western, fossil fuel-powered lifestyles, then the scheme is undone. Needless to say, carbon-offsetting schemes only work in one direction: one can only imagine the reaction if a middle-class Kenyan tried to offset the carbon emissions from his swimming pool by buying Al Gore a dung-fired stove.
None of this is to say that the theory of global warming is wrong, or that mankind isn’t facing a man-made climatic disaster — I leave that debate to another time. It is just that increasingly the politics appear to be shifting the burden of cutting carbon emissions on to the world’s poor: they must be kept in a state of noble peasanthood so that we can carry on living pretty much as before. The attitude of the West can be summed up by Tony Blair’s remark when ‘offsetting’ the carbon emissions from his holiday last January to Florida: ‘It’s just not practical’ to ask people to give up their foreign holidays. Indeed not: far more practical that we assuage our environmental guilt by making the developing world give up their chance to aspire to our standard of living.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 11, 2007