Patrick Bond, Guest Blogger
A secondary objective of the Copenhagen deal – aside from avoiding emissions cuts the world so desperately requires – was to maintain a modicum of confidence in carbon markets. Especially after the 2008 financial meltdown and rapid decline of European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, BASIC leaders felt renewed desperation to prop up the ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ (CDM), the Third World’s version of carbon trading. Questioning the West’s banker-centric climate strategy – which critics term ‘the privatisation of the air’ – was not an option for BRICS elites, given their likeminded neoliberal orientation.
By the end of 2012, the BRICS no longer qualified to receive direct CDM funds, so efforts shifted towards subsidies for new internal carbon markets, especially in Brazil and China. In February 2013, South African finance minister Pravin Gordhan also announced that as part of a carbon tax, Pretoria would also allow corporations to offset 40 percent of their emissions cuts via carbon markets.
The best way to understand this flirtation with emissions trading is within the broader context of economic power, for it is based on the faith that financiers can solve the world’s most dangerous market externality – when in reality they cannot maintain their own markets. As sustainability scholars Steffen Böhm, Maria Ceci Misoczky and Sandra Moog argue, ‘the subimperialist drive has remained the same: while domestic capital continues to invest heavily in extractive and monocultural industries at home, it is increasingly searching for investment opportunities in other peripheral markets as well, precipitating processes of accumulation by dispossession within their broader spheres of influence. This mode of development can be observed in many semi-peripheral nations, particularly in the BRICS.’
For example, according to Böhm, Misoczky and Moog, “China’s extensive investment in African arable land and extractive industries in recent years has been well documented. What is perhaps less well recognized in the development literature, however, is the extent to which financing from carbon markets like the CDM is now being leveraged by elites from these BRICS countries, to help underwrite these forms of subimperialist expansion.”
In terms of global-scale climate negotiations, the Washington+BASIC negotiators can thus explicitly act on behalf of their fossil fuel and extractive industries to slow emission-reduction obligations, but with a financial-sector back-up, in the event a global climate regime does appear in 2020, as agreed at the Durban COP17. Similar cozy ties between Pretoria politicians, London-based mining houses, Johannesburg ‘Black Economic Empowerment’ tycoons and sweetheart trade unions were subsequently exposed at Marikana, the site of a massacre of 34 Lonmin platinum workers in August 2012.
Other BRICS countries have similar power configurations, and in Russia’s case it led to a formal withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period (2012-2020) in spite of huge ‘hot air’ benefits the country would have earned in carbon markets as a result of the industrial economy’s disastrous exposure to world capitalism during the early 1990s. That economic crash cut Russian emissions far below 1990 Soviet Union levels during the first (2005-2012) commitment period. But given the 2008-13 crash of carbon markets – where the hot air benefits would have earlier been realised as €33/tonne benefits but by early 2013 fell to below €3/tonne – Moscow’s calculation was to promote its own oil and gas industries helter-skelter, and hence binding emissions cuts were not in Russia’s interests, no matter that 2010-11 climate-related droughts and wildfires raised the price of wheat to extreme levels and did tens of billions of dollars of damage.
The same pro-corporate calculations are being made in the four other BRICS, although their leaders occasionally postured about the need for larger northern industrial country emissions cuts. However, the crucial processes in which UN climate regulatory language was hammered out climaxed at the COP17 in Durban in December 2011 in a revealing manner. ‘The Durban Platform was promising because of what it did not say,’ bragged US State Department adviser Trevor Houser to the New York Times. ‘There is no mention of historic responsibility or per capita emissions. There is no mention of economic development as the priority for developing countries. There is no mention of a difference between developed and developing country action.’
The COP17 deal squashed poor countries’ ability to defend against climate disaster. With South African foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane chairing, the climate summit confirmed this century’s climate-related deaths of what will be more than 180 million Africans, according to Christian Aid. Already 400 000 people die each year from climate-related chaos due to catastrophes in agriculture, public health and ‘frankenstorms’.
What, then, should be done about the BRICS? They have been given a ‘pass’ from many climate activists because on per capita and in historic terms, their industries and agriculture have not been nearly so guilty of greenhouse gas emissions as the rich Western countries. Most recently, the huge increase in emissions by China for the sake of manufacturing production is now understood to be associated with the deindustrialisation of the West: the ‘outsourcing’ of emissions. So emissions from the east coast of China should logically be attributed to Western consumers, in large part.
But the pass is over. Pablo Solon and Walden Bello of the Bangkok-based institute Focus on the Global South opened a debate in September 2012: “We should demand that China, India, Brazil and South Africa also agree to mandatory cuts without offsets, although of course, these should be lower than the Annex 1 countries, in line with the UNFCCC principles.’ For Solon and Bello, the problem is the BRICS’ “high-speed, consumption-dependent, and greenhouse gases-intensive growth paths.”
The Durban summit is an opportune moment to ask and answer many questions regarding the BRICS’ economic strategies. With Zuma recently declaring his government “anti-imperialist: on foreign policy, it is appropriate to ask whether this is not merely another case of talk left so as to walk right, because on the most crucial long-term foreign policy of all, climate, BRICS appear distinctly sub-imperialist.
Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society and recently authored Politics of Climate Justice.
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