It’s the system, stupid: Why the Paris climate talks are doomed to fail

Nothing significant has changed since Rio 1992 or Kyoto 1997. COP21 in Paris 2015 will be no different. Here’s why.

Photograph by Thibaud Saintin.

Photograph by Thibaud Saintin.

Even if the world celebrates a Paris climate deal on 11 December, the process will still have to be regarded as failure. Let me explain why.

The basic reason is that the unequal distribution of carbon emissions is not even on its agenda. The historical responsibility of the West is not on the table, nor is a method of national carbon accounting that looks at how the emissions a country consumes rather than produces. Instead, what is on the table are expanded and new mechanisms that will allow the rich, Western countries to outsource their emission cuts so they can paint themselves green.

When the figures are in, 2015 is likely to be the warmest year on record and we’ve just reached 1°C temperature rise since the industrial revolution, halfway to the 2°C widely agreed to be the upper safe limit of global warming. It’s the fastest surface temperature increase in the world’s known geological history. We are now entering “uncharted territory”.

The dangers of global warming have been known – even to oil company executives – since at least the early 1980s. Yet, despite 25 years of UN-led climate talks, the world is burning more fossil fuels than ever.

This is not simply the fault of big emerging economies such as China, India or Brazil. Instead, what we are dealing with is the fundamental failure of neoliberal capitalism, the world’s dominant economic system, to confront its hunger for exponential growth that is only made possible by the unique energy density of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.

Historical responsibility

A glance at global history reveals how closely energy is linked to economic growth. The Netherlands was the first country to get a taste for exponential industrial growth back in the 16th and 17th centuries – and the Dutch empire was built on the availability of cheap domestic peat as well as timber from Norwegian and Baltic forests.

One reason the British took over the Netherlands’ imperial leadership was its vast reserves of cheap coal, which started to be burned at the end of the 18th century, exponentially growing in the 19th century. Then came oil and gas, which helped make America the imperial master from the early 20th century onwards.

So there are more than 300 years of massive fossil fuel burning by the so-called West to account for. And while this historical responsibility still played a significant role at Kyoto in 1997 – resulting in emissions cuts that were only legally binding for industrialised countries– it has gradually been pushed into the background.

Now in Paris it seems almost forgotten. But the fact that about 80% of historical carbon emissions have to be attributed to the developed countries cannot simply be wished away.

The rapid rise of emissions, particularly in China and India, is often cited as reason for why these rapidly industrialising countries now also have to curb their emissions. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t. Both countries clearly have their own imperial ambitions, which they hope to achieve by stimulating massive industrial expansion.

But let’s bear in mind that India’s carbon emissions per capita are still 10 times lower than those of the US. And China’s rapidly rising emissions are to a great extent driven by export-driven industries, producing consumer goods for the West.

Creative carbon accounting

In fact if a consumption-based approach to carbon accounting is taken, the UK’s national carbon emissions would be twice as high as officially reported. This is also true for most Western European countries and the United States, which have experienced increasing rates of deindustrialisation over the past two decades with not only jobs but also carbon emissions being offshored to developing countries. In return the West is receiving cheap consumer goods without recognising the responsibility for the embedded carbon emissions that come with them. A clear form of carbon colonialism.

Of course, some of the exponential growth in carbon emissions by India and China is also due to increases in home-grown consumption. China apparently now has the largest middle class in the world. However, if we take a consumption-based view, then even China’s emissions per capita will not reach the US’s current rate for a long time – and India’s lag further behind.

Yet rich countries continue to be eager to outsource their responsibilities. Carbon offsettingwill see an unprecedented growth in the coming years. Countries such as Norway and Switzerland will continue to strike bilateral deals with poor nations desperate for cash. Emissions trading systems (ETS) will allow maximum flexibility for companies to offset their emissions.

These are all mechanisms designed to cement the status quo. The EU ETS has not made a significant impact on the trading bloc’s carbon emissions since its inception in 2005, allowing Shell’s chief executive, Ben Van Beurden, to insist even in 2015 that: “The reality of demand growth is such that fossil fuels will be needed for decades to come.”

Nothing significant has changed since Rio 1992 or Kyoto 1997. Paris 2015 will be no different. The talking will continue until we realise climate change is a failure of a system, which – on the back of fossil fuel – is geared towards exponential economic growth. Nobody who sits at the negotiation table in Paris has the mandate nor inclination to ask fundamental, systemic questions of the logic of the dominant economic system and the way we consume the resources of this planet.

Steffen Bí¶hm is a Professor in Management and Sustainability, and Director, Essex Sustainability Institute, University of Essex.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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