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Xinhua reports today that the Chinese government has banned Chinese airlines from participating in the EU carbon markets, which is required by European law. It sets the stage for a showdown over climate rules increasingly interpreted in terms of international trade.

Some critics of carbon markets have expressed a certain degree of satisfaction in seeing the EU’s market agenda thwarted. It is true the market approach is increasingly unconvincing.

But it strikes me that the obvious point to make here is not the critique of market mechanisms. Rather, will global climate policy will be held hostage to trade in the spirit of the WTO’s Doha round – which is to say, in the spirit of failure? There are of course lots of reasons why major industrial polluters would like to forestall something serious as long as possible. This is evidence of some of the worst tendencies concerning climate policy fragmentation. The worst possible outcome for global climate policy is that it be managed in the way international trade negotiations have been managed. Climate justice activists should rather be increasingly forceful in arguing for a novel political ontology of the atmosphere.

The EU’s purpose in establishing this rule seems to be to maintain some leverage in international climate negotiations, since it has already given away everything and the spoils go to those who hold out.

As far as carbon markets go, I see two things happening. Within the EU ETS, the airline rule is being used to set up EU-wide registries (currently these are managed by individual member sates), so one could argue the rule is helping consolidate carbon markets against individual member states’ sometimes recalcitrance to toe the EU agenda. But I think globally we will see Pacific Rim carbon markets set up as ‘equivalent measures’ that will allow, say, Chinese airlines to opt out of EU rules because they buy offsets on the Shanghai exchange. China is pursuing a more serious domestic carbon market agenda, and other countries are definitely keeping that option open / developing ‘voluntary’ systems. Another possibility would be an industry-specific (instead of geography-specific) sectoral approach that airlines could opt into to comply with EU law. I think the EU would see their approach as a success (if only a partial one) if it encouraged other countries to set up regulatory mechanisms, however weak in practice, and it would be willing to accept something far shoddier than the ETS as ‘equivalent.’ But that’s just my sense.

Again, I feel that the issues surrounding carbon markets here are a sideshow to a far more serious issue that CJ folks should be hammering home in increasingly sophisticated ways – I mean the overarching illegitimacy of the current negotiations.

Climate Justice Research Project

Carbon markets do not reduce emissions.

The EU ETS has systematically failed to induce investment in low-carbon technologies. This is true in both phases, and it has been true both during and before the euro crisis.

The EU ETS has been repeatedly subject to fraudulent practices, not simply by fringe or criminal elements but also by financial actors at the center of carbon trading. The European Commission recently accepted there would be inevitably some stolen allowances circulating in the markets, and made provisions to legally protect traders. The EC and national law enforcement have been unable to recover the vast majority of stolen credits or lost tax revenue.

Before the euro crisis, the glut of allowances in the ETS was projected to be over 1.1 billion tons of emissions at the beginning of phase 3 in 2013. The price of carbon is far below the cost of implementing new technologies for reduction. Financial actors are quickly abandoning carbon markets due to their dysfunction.

The ETS is highly susceptible to widespread lobbying, with the effect of completely unrealistic market pricing, windfall profits for industrials, political imbalances in who receives free allowances, and inability to include new sectors, such as airlines, into the market.

Carbon markets have especially failed to reduce CO2. Markets treat all GHGs as equivalent even when they are not, and subsequently avoid the real problem of reducing reliance on fossil energy. The ETS is simply an industrial subsidy for polluters, a fact which helps explain why the economic recovery has increased CO2 emissions to record levels.

Among other perverse incentives, the ETS has provided a major incentive distortion in favor of new dirty power plants, while the CDM has provided a major incentive to generate HFCs.

Environmental integrity is systematically undermined in the rule making surrounding carbon markets. The only partial exception is when NGO actors, using their own funds, research and initiative, are able to forcefully criticize specific market failings. There is no internal process to maintain or even verify the environmental integrity of carbon markets.

Carbon offsets are rights to pollute. The CDM is a market formally organized to transfer a new ‘natural’ resource asset from the developing world to Europe.

Carbon offsets create more problems for poor people, and make marginalized groups and developing countries bear the climate burden.

The CDM does not reduce emissions and is not designed to reduce emissions. At best, it produces a net zero balance of emissions, but with any error it actually increases emissions.

Widespread error in additionality requirements virtually guarantees that a very high proportion of CDM projects actually increase emissions, while concentrating wealth among a financial elite.

CDM investment is not ‘development,’ but cash payments to existing elite. Its idea of development is highly reductive, focused only on indices of FDI and GDP, with little awareness of the factors that encourage broad social development on an equitable basis. In some cases, CDM projects actively harm the lives of already marginalized groups.

Renewable energy standards have been far more important than carbon markets for investment in China and in Europe.

Forestry offsets are essentially law enforcement programs designed to kick marginalized groups and indigenous people off their land, often by enriching some local elite, promoting plantations and consolidating land grabs. They are incapable of curtailing commercial logging.

Private sector investment in ‘low-hanging fruit’ uses up the most valuable opportunities for developing countries to participate in carbon reduction activities. If and when developing countries have reduction commitments, they will be obligated to pay for far more expensive reductions.

The CDM Executive Board is unable to make necessary changes when environmental integrity of carbon offsets is against the interests of individual member states. Its inability to curtail HFC-based offsets is an excellent example.

The political organization of the CDM perpetuates the marginalization of smaller developing countries.

Instead of acknowledging the problems with carbon markets, the World Bank and related financial bodies have worked to create more carbon markets with lower standards and less transparency. The use of tools like Programme of Activities (PoA) and creditable NAMAs, and the proliferation of Pacific Rim domestic markets stand to make markets ungovernable.

Land use and forestry credits are systemically faulty and highly dangerous. Biospheric carbon cycles are not equivalent to geological carbon cycles, and the substitution of agricultural and forestry projects for fossil fuel extraction is a failure to confront the climate problem.

Science calls for a finite limit on CO2 emissions. The easiest way to achieve this is to limit fossil energy extraction.

A recent post of mine was picked up by redd-monitor.org and also by Ticker.org. In this post I follow up with a streamlined redux of the proposal for a planned phase out of fossil fuels through a volume cap on fossil energy extraction.

A global volume cap on fossil energy extraction will give a clear price signal to the market, without any need to commodify emissions. A cap on fossil energy extraction will efficiently distribute costs between fossil energy producers, distributors and end-users, all of whom benefit from cheap, dirty fuels. A volume cap on extraction will allow for a planned phase out of fossil fuels by providing a clear signal about available reserves and their value.

By correctly aligning the expected harm caused with the volume of supply, the price of fossil fuels at market should correctly reflect their danger to human lives and to the planet. A volume cap on extraction attaches the value of CO2 emissions directly to the price of energy by making fossil fuel energy sources artificially scarce, without a separate emissions-based mechanism.

In contrast, carbon markets and clean energy subsidies risk lowering demand for fossil fuels, paradoxically making them cheaper and weakening the effect of a carbon price, because they place the whole burden on energy consumers without decommissioning fossil energy assets. Carbon markets trust that competition will drive reductions in fossil fuel use, but they fail to recognize that fossil fuel producers are political actors.

Fossil fuel producers do not have the right to continue extraction unabated. There is no right to property that supersedes the right to climate security. Fossil fuels are only safe when they remain unmined in their natural state.

Fossil energy companies are unresponsive to any current regulatory signals. They do not believe that any existing policy proposals will reduce the use of fossil fuels in the foreseeable future.

Development of non-fossil energy solutions may simply increase energy use without curtailing fossil energy extraction.  In addition to giving incentives for development of renewable energy, explicit decisions must be made about how much and which reserves will be left untapped.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuels is not equivalent to carbon already in the biosphere, or other GHGs. Carbon markets enable continued mining of dirty fuels on the false assumption that biotic carbon is equally safe as unmined fossil carbon. It is not possible to adequately substitute protection of forests for continued fossil fuel extraction. Likewise, carbon capture and storage represents a highly risky and temporary solution that can only ever counter a small portion of fossil carbon emissions. These false solutions fail to answer questions of scale and risk.

A planned phase out of fossil fuels eliminates the role of the financial services industry as a de facto regulator of climate policy and the carbon price. In the United States, even while major NGOs and finance corporations eagerly lobbied for a cap-and-trade system, there has been significant apprehension about handing a $2 trillion market to an industry which traffics in other people’s risk. There are very serious political implications to anointing this class of people to be the arbiters of an economic transformation.

The proposal will allow for wise choices to be made about which reserves will be exploited. Dangerous extraction techniques such as mountaintop removal coal mining, hydro fracking for natural gas, tar sands and deepwater oil drilling will be irrelevant with a volume cap. By putting a cap on fossil extraction, energy companies could put their R&D dollars into non-fossil energy technology.

Since taxes and markets are meant to generate revenues for public investment in climate mitigation and adaptation, the proposal raises a significant hurdle. The best approach might be a windfall tax for fossil fuel producers, levied internationally and used to support calls for climate debt as an alternative financing mechanism. The fund could also be used to support energy costs for economically marginalized consumers. Regardless, this is an important issue to be studied.

We cannot avoid the political implications of climate change by fudging the numbers or assuming that an abstract carbon market will confuse the real cost of dealing with climate change for rich-world consumers. The developing world and millions living in environmentally distressed areas are inevitably facing a future of constrained options and diminished hopes. There is no reason the fossil fuel industry should be exempt from this constrained future at their expense.

I have been surprised at the persistence of doubt about climate change science among anthropologists. There are lots of strains to this doubt but, partly, it is surprising because it re-frames many debates from the old ‘science wars.’ This time, the politically conservative position points again and again to the constructed nature of science, whereas those on the left tend to accept the science as a matter of course. For environmental anthropologists a rift has opened up. Climate concerns have the tendency to trump or swamp other environmental concerns. Those other concerns, often much older, are motivated by a tendency toward libertarianism and organic intellectualism (no pun intended). No matter how you spin it, climate change is not.

As I’m involved in studying climate change as an anthropological topic – what I sometimes refer to as the ‘cultural significance of climate change’ – I am often called upon to take judgement on the veracity of climate change science. This is an extremely tricky topic, but one I think anthropologists need to confront directly. Personally, I feel that statements such as by the National Academy of Sciences are judiciously true, by which I mean it must remain open to revision, while the IPCC is true enough for government work. But that is not the point. To claim the science is true and then ask why people don’t believe it is intellectually & ethically stingy.

Debates on the Environmental Anthropology email list, however, often seem to conflate our responsibilities as scholars, as citizens, and – the point that unites those two – as lovers of truth and freedom.

To be sure, I don’t consider myself an expert on the climate science, and my interest is far more in global attempts to deal with climate change by managing the atmosphere. But I think it is crucial for anthropologists of climate change to find an analytical mode in which doubts about the science can be expressed by groups with diverse commitments. Doubts about climate science are integral to the cultural significance of climate change. All of climate science is organized around a problem of anticipating an uncertain future. Hence it plays into the quasi-apocalyptic fears of American religions, whether of ecological end-times or of political domination by financial Illuminati. But it plays into other things as well – financial strategies, for instance.

There is a long-standing tradition of anthropologists studying rumor and gossip, which aptly recognizes that determining the truth of a rumor is irrelevant from the perspective of the anthropologist. Rumors don’t circulate because they are true, but because the possibility that they might be true is dangerous.

The challenge for citizens is different than that of scholars. As citizens we are called upon to respond to public problems and ecological dangers; we must assess the science (as citizens, not as scientists), come to conclusions and pursue action. Even if the science is 100% certain, the action will always be characterized by uncertainty. Why? Because political action is irreversible, unpredictable and prone to failure. Political practice happens ‘in time’ in a way that is very different from drawing scientific conclusions. There are lots of different ways to put a price on carbon, for instance. All of them have important risks, and if I’m an investor, your risk is my opportunity.

And yet these problems of action must also fit within the anthropological, scholarly framework. We have seen this problem before; it was called reflexivity.

Philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers makes an important observation about Creationism which strikes me as relevant here. She argues that normal biological science – Darwinism – is often treated as unproblematic, transparently factual, unconstructed, ‘neutral’ – all of the things STS has called into question. Calling attention to parents’ committees, pressure groups, and other forms of organizing, she writes, “It is as if collectives were needed, capable of providing organized resistance, tenacious and fanatic, to certain types of knowledge, so that the transmission of that knowledge in schools might acknowledge its risky, selective, interesting mode of existence – the very thing that demonstrates its scientific nature” (Cosmopolitics I, 268, n.3).

I am not trying to associate Creationism with any of the comments that have been made by anthropologists. My point is different.

But before I make this point, let me draw one more connection, now between climate skeptic positions and those of political radicals in the far-left ‘climate justice’ camp. There are important parallels. Both tend to take a dire view of the future, neither are particularly subtle about how scientific conclusions are used in debate, both worry a lot about the role of money in science and policy, both are afraid of social-engineering solutions (such as carbon markets) and both tend to exaggerate the political importance of authoritative bodies, especially the UN, whether from an anti-authoritarian or a regulatory view point. Both worry obsessively about American consumer entitlement while referencing US global military dominance – both for good reason.

So it strikes me that the debates we’ve been having on E-Anth are unsurprising from a broader social perspective – they deal with many of the same issues that characterize American debates more generally and they resonate with problems surrounding not individual scientific conclusions per se but the conditions in which that knowledge was produced, the work it is expected to do, and especially the implications of that science for existing human practice.

The solution – it seems to me – to the analytical puzzle is to point out that the experience of climate change is one of threat/opportunity before an uncertain future. This even applies to how climate change became a scientific problem. But as the science has become accepted, an implication is that lots of people take climate change as an opportunity, and this opportunism is threatening. To use Stengers’ words, climate science is risky, selective, interesting – it is real science – because it is risky, selective & interesting sociopolitically. The possibility that climate science might be true is dangerous – not only because of biophysical atmospheric changes – and this danger is what we anthropologists might be discussing, as lovers of truth & freedom.

Photo Dec 09, 2010 at the climate justice / Via Campesina space (Dialogo Climatico – Espacio Mexicano [Esmex]). These women were part of a meeting of about 150 people, reading together and discussing a position statement on climate change. Cambia el Sistema! No el Clima!

After a week of hanging out with carbon traders and their lackeys, what a relief to get to roam around Cancun city and talk to people today.

As many of you know, carbon markets require quantifying carbon emissions and turning them into financial assets. Nowhere is this more true than in the Clean Development Mechanism, which is a UN carbon offset development mechanism. Offsets have a particular quality: they involve natural resource transfers from the developing world to Europe.

The colonial implications of this are not slight. In fact these market makers are in the process of developing a novel and unique asset class, carbon assets, as a matter of the global distribution of wealth. Let’s be clear that these distributional issues go to the heart of the stalemate in climate negotiations.

I was shocked – shocked! – to hear this afternoon after Kim Carnahan from an industry lobby group, IETA, said that they were pleased with the CDM’s progress on efficiency improvements. Clifford Mahlung, the Chair of the CDM Executive Board, nearly gloated over the praise. He said – I paraphrase – ‘If IETA’s happy, then probably everyone in the room is happy, and of course we’re doing everything we can to keep IETA happy.’

This evening I caught up with the Project Developers’ Forum, which is an industry lobby group that has consistently sought to make offsets cheaper, faster, easier and more profitable. What was surprising was the smugness with which a panel of seven white men sought to outdo each other to ensure that the UN board would go out of its way to make the system as easy and profitable to Northern investors as they possibly could.

Seven Dwarves Hashing Out the Rules for Global Distribution of Climate Rights

To his credit, toward the end of the meeting Martin Hession, the VP of the CDM board, finally stood up for himself and his board to claim that the investors simply were demanding too much.

But I don’t take up the colonial critique lightly. This sort of line of attack is not intellectually interesting, and is hardly my stock-in-trade.

The man on the left in this photograph, Netherlander Reggie Hernaus, is the representative of the ‘DNA Forum.’ DNAs are the offices in developing country governments who are responsible for approving the carbon offset projects. Why, exactly, a Netherlander is the representative of these offices in this industry group is an unanswered question.

But it’s not primarily a matter of the politics of representation. The industry groups – the Project Developers’ Forum, IETA, and the Carbon Markets and Investors’ Association – have been hammering the CDM to streamline its procedures, to increase efficiency requirements and maximize returns. In the earlier panel today, numerous questions were raised about social equity and environmental integrity – questions which were addressed, unhappily and partially, by the CDM executive board only after much prodding even by those rare investors who know that environmental integrity is crucial to the CDM’s credibility. But the CDM’s credibility is still on the line, and the fact is that they are more than willing to bend over backwards to make investors and project developers happy but have scarcely put to rest the questions about integrity. Only until those integrity and equity considerations are dealt with, head on, will the CDM stand a chance of being a serious tool for dealing with climate change.

The news this week, just prior to the COP-16 UN conference on climate change in Mexico, is that the EU is openly considering a ban on carbon offsets from industrial gasses, including both HFCs and N2O. HFCs are a by-product of refrigerant production, while nitrous oxide comes from adipic acid production – and both are very cheap and very profitable to destroy. Both have been criticized for a) encouraging industrial production for the purpose of creating the byproducts, which are very lucrative to destroy under the UN carbon market system, and b) unduly lowering the price of carbon credits, making the markets less effective at stimulating cleaner investment. Beyond those criticisms, the ban could have a very important impact on equity considerations of a climate deal.

From the NY Times:

Several members of a United Nations panel that oversees the international offsetting scheme agreed that the hydrofluorocarbon 23 scheme should be revised. Europe’s executive commission said the hydrofluorocarbon credits from industrial projects were overvalued in Europe by a factor of 78, discouraging the flow of money to more credible projects in the least developed countries.

“The rates of return of these projects are excessive,” it said in a statement. “The E.U. considers that cheap emission reductions, such as those from industrial gas projects, should not be done through the carbon market, but instead should be the responsibility of developing countries as part of their appropriate own action to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.”

Basically it’s really good news if they’re thinking of how to integrate a ban on HFCs into a way for developing countries to cheaply meet emissions commitments. As with forestry offsets, part of the risk is that developing countries in effect give away all the cheap emissions reductions – the so-called low hanging fruit – to whoever has moved first into the market. While those private investors reap windfall profits, national governments in developing countries are increasingly called upon to commit to future reductions as part of the global agreement, but are finding that the cheap and easy-to-achieve reductions have already been taken. (Reductions can’t count for both purposes.) By banning market-based investment in these industrial gas projects, it could free up private capital for more substantial investments, raise the price of carbon and hence encourage greener technologies in the West, and lastly allow developing countries to reap the benefits of national investment in emissions reduction commitments. All good!

The one risk: what if these projects fall by the wayside and the gasses are not destroyed properly? It would be a travesty if the cheapest emissions reductions on  the planet were not made because they fell through the cracks between the global climate institutions. Already the Montreal Protocol on ozone-harming refrigerants has declined to regulate HFCs as an unwarranted extension of its original mandate.

Here’s Michael Dorsey on Climate Justice – a 19 minute podcast.

Everyone should check out Annie Leonard’s awesome short animated flick on Cap and Trade. You’ll remember Annie from her brilliant Story of Stuff, for which Glenn Beck called her a communist.

I’d like to take a moment to point out how easy it is to be a communist these days. No,I don’t mean Annie didn’t have to work on her own film – I hear she runs a tight ship, and I was privy to some of the logistical details (here’s a shout out to collaborative nonprofit digital media production). I mean, it used to be that if you wanted to be a communist you had to endure McCarthy-ite repression, hovel around in rural ag communes in California, or or take to the underground and start robbing banks. But now anybody can be a communist, thanks to the folks at Fox who have managed to popularize it for the masses.

Back to Annie’s new film, I especially like her straight-talking tone and her clear explanations. But there’s a poetic quality to it as well. When I first clicked through to the link it took a minute for the video to load, and meanwhile I flipped to another browser widow. When the video started and Annie’s voice came through I swear I heard for a minute Marlo Thomas’s Free to Be… You and Me. Ah, the memories of carefree childhood running through fields and other natural settings. Who can forget Atalanta performed by Alan Alda and Marlo? It left me humming… Glad to have a friend like you – fair and fun – and skipping free!

We’re all grateful to Andrew Revkin for keeping us up to date on the controversy surrounding hacked email messagesfrom the UK. Calls for a more inclusive science, or at any rate an approach to science that doesn’t assume the authority of its expertise, do in fact seem a long time in coming. The circles I sometimes run in – I’m thinking of people who work in development in Southeast Asia, mostly expats with a technical bent and a generally progressive but practical outlook – are deeply skeptical of the demand from the heights of the ivory tower to jump (how high?) on the climate bandwagon, especially when their imperious demands are coupled with the naive, bureaucratic idealism of United Nations proceduralism. When all of a sudden climate change adaptation and mitigation monies become the major driver of aid investment, red flags will fly.

But the disappointing aspect of the hacked email messages goes to a problem advocates for climate justice have been pointing out for a long time. All of a sudden climate science is obliged to pay much more attention to a rear-guard move to protect the legitimacy of their work, but what we’re left with is a silly, irresponsible debate between elite Northern science and the elite Northern conservative populists who don’t want the UN eroding their right to play frontiersmen on the grand stage of American exceptionalism. Meanwhile, ecosystems around the world are changing dramatically – but has anyone bothered to make localized, intimate environmental knowledges the object of public debate? The question here is trust and the mythos of provability. For some odd reason scientists and the people who fund them still think proof is only a relation between complexity of the data and the theories that may or may not account for them. Robust knowledge, on the other hand, would have a long time ago began to correlate science with localized ecological changes and the vast social and social justice implications of those changes.

Kim Fortun has brilliantly called attention to skepticism of computer modeling in the field of toxicology by pointing out that models imply one must either be a savant or be willing to trust the savants. Climate change originated as a problem based on Fourier’s thermodynamics calculations in the 19th century. Decades of advances in elite Northern science (linked to environmentalism as a cultural movement) fed into a drive for advanced computer simulation of climate calculations, with climate science and advances in computational power driving each other to ever-ethereal heights. In fact the either-or dead-end of trusting the science or denying the problem is an artifact of theparticularistic (dare I say it?) American commitment to science/anti-science dualism.

This conundrum means ‘we’ will trust ‘our’ scientists if we must, but there’s no way we’re going to trust marginalized brown people who might stand to gain from what they say. One may trust the numbers, or one might trust one’s neighbors – hopefully these things would confirm each other. I have no patience at all for claims for more and better rationalism as a solution at this point: it assumes that things were going more or less fine as it was when in fact things were deeply messed up. George Monbiot‘s response to the email thing left me breathless. He’s never felt so alone? Yes, that’s what rationalism will do to you. Try talking to other people for once – and ignore the skeptics. But another way of saying this is that precisely what’s excluded in the science/anti-science conundrum is the fact that the status quo is deeply political. The obvious way out is to simply disenfranchise the skeptics who after all simply critique the science as a wedge to protect their way of life.

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