SOMEONE ELSE’S WINDOWS: The carbon conspiracy

MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/20 June) – Twenty years after governments and private entities met in Rio de Janeiro for the first Earth Summit, all roads lead again to the Brazilian city that is more known for the tallest statue of Christ the Redeemer. It remains a question however whether redemption will mark the three-day conference that starts today (June 20), where hundreds of world leaders, as well as participants from the media and nongovernment organizations, will try to come up with policies intended to address global economic and environmental problems.

Central to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, more popularly known as Rio+20, will be the negotiations concerning carbon dioxide emissions. Will the world finally herald a new era that will see the highly industrialized countries in particular reduce [their] carbon emissions as the measure that will significantly mitigate the impacts of global warming?

Countries aim to reduce carbon emissions through a so-called cap and trade system, which a government uses to set a limit, a cap, on allowable emissions to reduce pollution in the atmosphere. A government issues permits to companies specifying the amount of carbon they may emit. As a market-based tool, the cap and trade system allows these permits to be traded as credits. Thus a company that emits more carbon than it is allowed may purchase credits from another that produces fewer.

Starting in January 2005, the European Union has embarked on such a setup for its member states. Called the EU Emission Trading System, carbon-emitting industries are given “emissions allowances” under a national allocation plan. Firms that emit less than their quotas may sell their “surplus” allowances. On the other hand, if they emit beyond the allowed limits, they may buy from other firms or may use credits from the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

As defined in Article 12 of the Protocol, the CDM allows countries with emission-reduction or limitation commitments to implement emission-reduction projects in developing countries. Such projects, which may include reforestation and renewable energy undertakings, can earn saleable “certified emission reduction” credits, each equivalent to one ton of CO2.

Developed countries that wish to accumulate carbon credits – either for sale or for their own use – can do so by providing funds to such projects. We need not elaborate that these investments have generated windfall profits for the donor countries.

“Operational since the beginning of 2006, the mechanism has already registered more than 1,650 projects and is anticipated to produce CERs amounting to more than 2.9 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent in the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, 2008–2012,” according to the website of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

This setup presents some problems. For one, the CDM scheme relies only on voluntary project standards. The absence of regulations puts doubts on its ability to reduce CO2 emissions. In fact, critics have pointed out that some of those new companies and projects did not need the credits.

Another problem is that by putting in place a system that allows for the offsetting of emissions and by turning CO2 into a commodity, the system may fail to actually curb emissions. Industries may buy or sell carbon credits as they please without having to concern themselves with the net global effect of their business-as-usual attitude.

Moreover, it allows industrialized countries to maintain or even exceed their current levels of CO2 emissions as long as they give a pittance to indigenous, forest-dwelling communities somewhere in a developing country. In the end, the unknowing indigenous peoples of Mindanao will be among those that will have to sustain the flawed production process dominated by the rich countries.

The latest news from Rio suggested that nothing is going to change in the coming years. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at hmcmordeno@gmail.com.)