Wednesday, September 27, 2006


The Carbon Offset Con

Adam Ma’anit

From The New Internationalist

‘For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong.’ HL Mencken, journalist and social critic (1880-1956)

When British physicist Freeman Dyson wrote in 1972 of his dream of the ‘greening of the galaxy’ – in which humans would populate the stars by means of massive genetically engineered trees planted on comets – few took him seriously. Likewise when he advocated triggering nuclear explosions underneath space probes as a means of propulsion, most gave the idea a bemused miss. Dyson is, however, a tenacious character. When in 1977 he advocated using trees to soak up excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, people took notice.1 Third time lucky.

The timing was certainly perfect. Scientific understanding about climate change was just beginning to provoke industry concerns that governments might soon start to crack down on corporate polluters. Seeking ways to head off this dreadful prospect – which one industry group once referred to as the ‘road to serfdom’ – some companies started to explore ways to ‘offset’ their emissions by using tree plantations rather than cut pollution at source.

It wasn’t until 1989 that the first carbon offset project was launched, conceived by US power company, Applied Energy Services (AES), together with the environmental think-tank World Resources Institute, the official US aid agency USAID, and the big development NGO, CARE. At the time, AES was looking for regulatory approval for a new 183 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Connecticut. It eventually got the go-ahead thanks to its ‘mitigation’ project in the Western Highlands region of Guatemala. The project entailed planting 50 million non-native pine and eucalyptus trees on some 40,000 small farm holdings in this deeply impoverished region, which in theory would ‘soak up’ the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions expected to be generated for the lifetime of the plant.2

According to Hannah Wittman of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, the project was a dismal failure. ‘What it did first and foremost was to take access to the trees out of the hands of ordinary people.’ An external evaluation revealed that subsistence activities undertaken by the largely indigenous population, such as gathering fuelwood for cooking, were now criminalized and conflicts erupted over rights to the trees, excarcerbating existing tensions over access to resources and local decision-making. Initially the tree species used were largely inappropriate for the area and resulted in land degradation. The evaluators, Winrock International, concluded in 1999 – 10 years after the project began – that AES’s offset target was falling far below the expected level. By 2001, farmers were still not receiving direct payments for the trees they planted and looked after and many were not aware that these trees were being used for storing carbon for AES. These problems, however, did not prevent the company from getting approval for its coal-fired power plant.2 Dyson’s legacy

But what some call ‘failure’, the offset industry calls ‘learning by doing’ – and it has been ‘learning by doing’ ever since. What could have been regarded as another one of Dyson’s more wacky notions is now part of a multi-billion dollar market that involves everyone from the world’s largest transnationals, governments, the World Bank and the UN, down to ‘boutique’ merchant banks, mom-and-pop offset companies, consultancies, and NGOs. The World Bank estimated the global carbon market, of which tree-planting is just one part, to be worth $11 billion at the end of 2005 – 10 times the value of the previous year.3

Carbon is now a hot commodity – and carbon offsets have arrived in the public consciousness. When you take a flight or rent a car, chances are the carbon emissions from that activity might already be ‘neutralized’ through some corporate scheme, or you may be given the option to neutralize them. The G8 meeting in Scotland last year was ‘carbon neutral’ according to its organizers, so too the élite business schmooze-fest, the World Economic Forum in Davos. It seems everyone is in on the game.

A rush of blood to the head

When it was announced that Coldplay’s latest album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, would be offset with 10,000 mango trees in Karnataka, India, it was met with much fanfare. After all, rock super-groups rarely addressed the environmental impacts of things like CD production, and so there was much positive publicity. Other rock stars were also clamouring for their own ‘celebrity forests’. Fans too could get in on the act. For just 25 dollars fans could get a certificate from the Carbon Neutral Company (formerly Future Forests) – the British offset company that devised the scheme – affirming that they had dedicated trees in ‘The Coldplay Forest’. A recent investigation into the scheme, however, revealed that all that glitters is not necessarily green.

A report in the Sunday Telegraph stated that, of the 10,000 trees that were supposedly distributed to small farmers in this largely dry Indian state, only a few hundred were found to be still alive. The rest perished through lack of water and inadequate financial and infrastructure support from the Carbon Neutral Company and its partners.

One of the project participants, Anandi Sharan Mieli of Women for Sustainable Development, accused the Carbon Neutral Company of having a ‘condescending’ attitude. ‘They do it for their interests, not really for reducing emissions. They do it because it’s good money,’ she was quoted as saying. The Carbon Neutral Company, however, blames Mieli’s group for not meeting its ‘contractual obligations’ to provide the necessary irrigation and support. Coldplay themselves claim no responsibility. According to a spokesperson for the band, ‘Coldplay signed up to the scheme in good faith with Future Forests and it’s in their hands. There are loads of bands involved in this kind of thing. For a band on the road all the time, it would be difficult to monitor a forest.’4

And there’s the rub. In the global carbon market, from its very inception in the AES scheme to ‘The Coldplay Forest’ and many more projects today, there is a complex chain of responsibility. Each link in that chain actually assumes little or no responsibility, so no-one is ultimately responsible (see ‘Uprooted’). Project partners blame project funders. Funders blame contractors. Contractors blame verifiers. Somehow everyone still manages to make money – except, often, local people.

But what is this whole offsets business about? Does planting trees or investing in other offsets projects solve climate change? Fossil fiction

‘The ordinary novel would trace the history of the diamond – but I say, “Diamond, what! This is carbon.” And my diamond may be coal or soot and my theme is carbon.’ DH Lawrence, writer (1885-1930)

Climate change is ultimately a narrative of oil, coal and gas. It is the story of humanity’s plundering of the earth’s fossil carbon, burning it and releasing it into the active carbon cycle, in turn disrupting the balance of carbon in air, soil and seas. If we were to succeed in harvesting all the ‘locked’ carbon in fossil fuels and setting it free to circulate in the atmosphere, we’d render the earth inhospitable to life as we know it. Unless we want to live on Venus, our task therefore is to leave that fossil carbon in the ground. This basic requirement, however, is precisely what the carbon market (of which offsets are a part) has been set up to avoid.

Rather than stop the flow of oil, coal and gas, the offset industry tells us that we can continue as normal. We can drive as much as want, fly as much as we want, and eat our non-organic Coldplay mangoes in the Canadian winter. We need not reduce; in fact we can now consume our way out of the problem. Now we can buy offsets on top of our Caribbean holiday and thus ‘neutralize’ our impacts. It is a seductive argument.

But it is a falsehood – a con.

That flight to Bermuda has an immediate impact on the climate. Aircraft emissions are of particular concern as not only do they release carbon dioxide and other pollutants, but also trail water vapour which has a significant heat-trapping effect in the atmosphere. Aircraft are also the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions as more of us are flying – and more frequently. If aircraft emissions are not reduced significantly, climate change will only accelerate.

Devil’s orchards

Offsets do nothing about the very immediate impact of such emissions. Tree plantations at most provide temporary storage for carbon dioxide but even that is not immediate and the science is hotly disputed. Trees take time to grow and are susceptible to disease, fire, timber harvesting and natural decay (see ‘10 things you should know about tree “offsets”’, page 7). Oliver Rackham, a Cambridge University botanist and landscape historian, describes the problem succinctly: ‘Telling people to plant trees [to solve climate change] is like telling them to drink more water to keep down rising sea levels.’

Tree planting projects have also often resulted in dramatic conflicts between local peoples dispossessed from their land and the big plantation companies grabbing it. These are not merely protracted courthouse conflicts, but at times pitched battles as people are often wounded and sometimes killed trying to reclaim their homes and livelihoods. Monoculture tree plantations such as of the ever popular eucalyptus and pine come with a string of negatives – including depletion of the water table, increased soil acidity, biodiversity loss and pesticide contamination. Some indigenous groups in the Amazon refer to them as ‘devil’s orchards’.

The plantation industry is now also experimenting with controversial super-carbon-absorbing varieties of genetically engineered trees to claim more offset potential and also to make them easy to pulp for paper. In short, the tree has become for many environmental groups and communities no longer an iconic symbol of the green movement, but often a metaphor for oppression, ecological devastation and misery.

It is precisely because of all the criticism by environmental groups and the bad press that has resulted, that offset companies have ramped-up investments in other types of projects besides trees. The new wave of offsets is likely to be in bioenergy – energy derived from agricultural and animal waste (biomass) and crops (biofuels). If the official offsets market, the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol, is anything to go by, than the new wave has already arrived. Over half of CDM’s registered projects (see ‘Carbon Offsets – The Facts’ page 14-15) are in bioenergy, mostly associated with the sugar, rice, corn and palm industries. The bioenergy revolution brings with it its own controversies, not least the question of land rights and concerns about genetic engineering. Equally, there is the possibility that expanded biofuel plantations could further threaten the world’s remaining natural forests. And lastly, there are concerns that the energy required to produce such fuels would be more than the energy they would in turn produce. All these issues are just beginning to surface and the offsets market will likely play a big role.

But for the moment the consumer demand for trees is strong and many companies are reluctant to forego such projects altogether. Planting a tree endures as the ultimate ‘good’ deed for many (even though in many cases offset companies don’t even plant trees, they just take credit for existing ones).


Another problem of the carbon market is its emphasis on the Global South. A majority of the world’s offset projects, especially those of the CDM, take place in the South, and there are a number of reasons for this. Foremost is cost. It is simply cheaper to invest in projects in Latin America, Africa or most of Asia than it would be in Europe or North America.

The other is spin.

Projects that suggest some sort of ‘development’ benefit for people in the South, such as Coldplay’s mango trees in India, have more appeal to potential ‘consumers’ of those carbon ‘offsets’ simply because they appeal to their charitable impulse. This ‘win-win’ ethic is a major selling point for an industry that is practically built on conscience. Not only does the consumer get to salve their eco-guilt but now they can feel even better with the knowledge that they’ve funded cooking stoves for Bangladeshi villagers.

The offset industry’s message is simple and seductive. The more you fly and the more you offset as a result, the more stoves impoverished families get. You don’t need to change your lifestyle, the climate will be saved, and poor communities will benefit – win-win-win. With a sell like that, it’s no wonder the carbon market is booming.

It is precisely for this reason that offsetters and governments are so fixated on the Majority World. When the announcement was made that the G8 meeting in Scotland in 2005 would be ‘carbon neutral’, the British host Government made a point of saying that the money would go to ‘clean development’ projects in Africa. A year later there is still no clarity on what specific projects have been funded to offset the summit’s emissions and what criteria were used. But such accountability doesn’t matter. The G8 needed to demonstrate action on its two core issues of Africa and climate change, and the positive press reports about the offsets announcement were proof that the strategy worked. This of course is a common feature of G8 summits. Some years ago the world’s eight most industrialized countries announced a commitment to deliver renewable energy to a billion people by 2020. To date there is little sign of movement on this pledge.

Few of us have the time, energy, expertise and diligence to follow up these claims and monitor the projects; therefore we only have the Government’s word for it. This is true of much of the carbon market as a whole. Distance serves them well.

I raise this issue with Climate Care founder and entrepreneur Mike Mason in his Oxford office. I show him the article in which Trusha Reddy reveals problems with their energy-efficient light bulb project in South Africa (see ‘Blinded by the Light’, page 12). I explain that it is difficult for ordinary consumers of offsets to be able to judge independently the merits of a project, especially when they are so far away. ‘Why? We’ve done that. We’ve visited all of our projects and have seen them for ourselves,’ remarks Mason. I suggest that he would have a vested interest in supporting his own company’s projects and that few people have his wealth and resources to be able to do such a first-hand investigation. He denies this, arguing that it is in his interests to ensure his company only invests in ‘sound’ projects. ‘Anyway,’ he adds, ‘we don’t solve South Africa’s problems.’ He then qualifies that by arguing that by saving energy, people are saving money.

‘I would rather that 100 per cent of people offset their emissions from flights than 50 per cent of those people not fly at all,’ argues Mason.

Which brings us to the final point – keeping carbon in the ground.

Since climate change is caused for the most part by extracting and then burning fossil carbon – oil, coal and gas – then any solution to climate change must aim to move us away from this dependency. For once that carbon is ‘liberated’ into the atmosphere, it compounds an already monumental problem. Carbon conundrums

Offsets slot into the oil, coal and gas continuum – they do not challenge it. Some argue that offsets at least educate the public about their carbon emissions, but what exactly does it teach? That it is OK to fly and drive so long as you pay some third party a small fee to ease your conscience? That we can consume our way out of a problem caused by our consumption in the first place?

One company, Australian-based Climate Friendly, promises us that ‘in five minutes and for the cost of a cappuccino a week you can go climate neutral’.5 Another, US-based Drive Neutral advertises that ‘for about the cost of a single tank of gas, you can neutralize your CO2 emissions for an entire year’.6

Many individuals and small organizations that buy offsets are probably eco-literate and do make other changes necessary to reduce their environmental impacts. But there are many that don’t. After all, if you truly believed that you were carbon neutral just for the cost of a cappuccino, what’s to stop you from flying for that weekend shopping trip to New York or Paris?

For those corporations fully dependent on and profiting from fossil fuels, offsets are a lifesaver. Oil giant BP has long been a carbon market enthusiast. A major investor in the World Bank’s carbon funds which sponsor dubious projects in the South, such as plantation projects in Brazil (see ‘Forest Fever’), BP now also offers Australian consumers its ‘Global Choice’ programme whereby the company offsets any of its petrol used to fill up your tank.7 At the same time, BP is well on the way towards completing its highly controversial pipeline spanning Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. The Baku-Ceyhan-Tbilisi pipeline has been criticised by Amnesty International for threatening human rights in the three countries. Campaigners also warn that the $5 billion dollar pipeline project will cause ‘far more than the pollution from every car, truck, bus and train in the UK’ in terms of carbon emissions.8

Ford motor company has just launched its own offset initiative in partnership with US offsetter TerraPass.9 The average fuel economy for a Ford car is 18.8 miles per gallon. That’s last in US Environmental Protection Agency list of top six automakers.10 According to environmental studies professor Michael Dorsey of Dartmouth College in the US, ‘Ford is playing games and peddling gimmicks in its new partnership with TerraPass. If Ford wants to reduce CO2 and get serious about climate change it will increase its fleet’s overall miles per gallon (MPG) and not peddle spurious offsets based on cooked MPG numbers.’

Ford is also a member of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a US corporate think-tank that has just released a series of television commercials in the US dismissing the notion that climate change is a problem. ‘Carbon dioxide: THEY call it “pollution”, WE call it “life”,’ proclaim the adverts.

This is the carbon con. Offsets do little to challenge our consumption of fossil fuels. And if we are to avert the worst excesses of climate change, we must end our reliance on those fuels quickly. Offsets do not fundamentally challenge the huge inequities in the world. In fact, they sometimes make them worse. Offsetting doesn’t pressure companies to switch from fossil fuels to renewables or encourage governments to regulate polluting companies. It doesn’t stop airport runways being built, planes being flown, cars being driven or even coal-fired power plants being brought online. In fact, it encourages them to continue and expand. It feeds on the good intentions of consumers and ethical business so that the fossil-fuel industry can thrive.

Wild enthusiasm for the carbon market has fuelled investments in other Dyson-esque schemes such as emerging markets in ‘wetlands banking’ and ‘endangered species credit-trading’.11 It is but one part of a vigorous attempt to marketize environmentalism itself and force us to rely on those markets rather than democratic institutions for our ‘solutions’. And it does nothing to solve climate change.

Carbon positive

Climate change is an issue we shouldn’t be ‘neutral’ on. Carbon offsets are at best a distraction and at worst a grandiose carbon laundering scheme. We need to grab hold of our responsibility for climate change and take action now. There is absolutely nothing wrong with funding renewables and even some well-designed and appropriate tree-planting projects. Just don’t equate them with a ‘license to pollute’. A ‘carbon positive’ agenda sees through the offset industry’s gambit and relies on a more fundamental commitment to solving climate change.

There are no easy answers. Solving climate change requires difficult choices to be made. But if seen in the context of wider social change, the movement is vast and strong. After all, there are vibrant global movements seeking to bring lasting and meaningful debt cancellation, end fossil fuel subsidies, reform the world trade system, and reinvigorate democratic control over our economies. Seen in this light, progress on any of these fronts has real benefits for the climate. According to Patrick Bond of the South African Centre for Civil Society, ‘If the World Bank were not holding the reigns on most Southern states’ monetary policy, more local fiscal resources could be used for renewables.’

The solution to climate change is social change. Tall order? Yes. Pipe dream? Perhaps. But it is ultimately what’s needed – and at least, seen from this perspective, we have a lot of friends and allies. After all, if Freeman Dyson can strike lucky with his wacky ideas, why can’t we?

What’s with all the carbon?

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas that is released when fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal are burned.

Carbon in the context of this article refers to CO2 as well as other carbon-based greenhouse gases such as methane (CH4).

Carbon offsets are projects that are designed supposedly to ‘absorb’ carbon from the atmosphere – such as tree plantations – or assume savings in emissions that wouldn’t otherwise have been made – investments in energy-efficient light bulbs.

Carbon trading refers to the trade in ‘rights to pollute’ be they in the form of pollution quotas set by governments or ‘credits’ generated from offset projects.

The carbon market broadly refers to the market in offsets as well as pollution permit trading. There is an ‘official’ carbon market set out under the rules of the Kyoto Protocol (which includes both offset projects and permit-trading for compliance purposes), and a ‘voluntary’ market whereby individuals and companies volunteer to fund offset projects. Although commonly referred to as a ‘commodity’ market – like oil or coffee – by traders, the World Bank recently likened the global carbon trade to ‘currency’

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Monday, September 25, 2006


How Much Reality Can You Take?

Does anyone really want to stop climate change?

By George Monbiot.

You have to pinch yourself. Until now, the Sun has denounced environmentalists as “loonies” and “eco beards”. Last week it published “photographic proof that climate change is real.”(1). In a page that could have come straight from a Greenpeace pamphlet, it laid down ten “rules” for its readers to follow – “Use public transport when possible; use energy-saving lightbulbs; turn off electric gadgets at the wall; do not use a tumble dryer …”(2).

Two weeks ago, the Economist also recanted. In the past it has asserted that “Mr Bush was right to reject the prohibitively expensive Kyoto pact”(3). It co-published the Copenhagen Consensus papers, which put climate change at the bottom of the list of global priorities(4). Now, in a special issue devoted to scaring the living daylights out of its readers, it maintains that “the slice of global output that would have to be spent to control emissions is probably … below 1%.”(5) It calls for carbon taxes and an ambitious programme of government spending.

Almost everywhere, climate change denial now looks as stupid and as unacceptable as Holocaust denial. But I’m not celebrating yet. The danger is not that we will stop talking about climate change, or recognising that it presents an existential threat to humankind. The danger is that we will talk ourselves to Kingdom Come.

If the biosphere is wrecked, it will not be done by those who couldn’t give a damn about it, as they now belong to a diminishing minority. It will be destroyed by nice, well-meaning, cosmopolitan people who accept the case for cutting emissions, but who won’t change by one iota the way they live. I know people who profess to care deeply about global warming, but who would sooner drink Toilet Duck than get rid of their agas, patio heaters and plasma TVs, all of which are staggeringly wasteful. A recent brochure published by the Co-operative Bank boasts that its “solar tower” in Manchester “will generate enough electricity every year to make 9 million cups of tea.” On the previous page, it urges its customers “to live the dream and purchase that perfect holiday home … With low cost flights now available, jetting off to your home in the sun at the drop of a hat is far more achievable than you think.”(6)

While environmentalism has always been characterised as a middle-class concern, and while this has often been unfair, there is now an undeniable nexus of class politics and morally-superior consumerism. People allow themselves to believe that their impact on the planet is lower than that of the great unwashed because they shop at Waitrose rather than Asda, buy tomme de savoie instead of processed cheese slices and take eco-safaris in the Serengeti instead of package holidays in Torremolinos. In reality, carbon emissions are closely correlated to income: the richer you are, the more likely you are to be wrecking the planet, however much stripped wood and hand-thrown crockery there is in your kitchen.

It doesn’t help that politicians, businesses and even climate change campaigners seek to shield us from the brutal truth of just how much has to change. Last week Friends of the Earth published the report it had commissioned from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, which laid out the case for a 90% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050(7). This caused astonishment in the media. But other calculations, using the same sources, show that even this ambitious target is two decades too late(8). It becomes rather complicated, but please bear with me, for our future rests on these numbers.

The Tyndall Centre says that to prevent the earth from warming by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere must be stabilised at 450 parts per million or less (they currently stand at 380). But this, as its sources show, is plainly insufficient(9). The reason is that carbon dioxide (CO2) is not the only greenhouse gas. The others – such as methane, nitrous oxide and hydrofluorocarbons – boost its impacts by around 15%. When you add the concentrations of CO2 and the other greenhouse gases together, you get a figure known as “CO2 equivalent”. But the Tyndall centre uses “CO2” and “CO2 equivalent” interchangeably, which leads to an embarrassing scientific mishmash.

“Concentrations of 450 parts per million CO2 equivalent or lower”, it says, provide a “reasonable-to-high probability of not exceeding 2 degrees C”(10). This is true, but the report is not calling for a limit of 450 parts of “CO2 equivalent”. It is calling for a limit of 450 parts of CO2, which means at least 500 parts of CO2 equivalent. At this level, there is a low-to-very-low probability of keeping the temperature rise to below 2 degrees(11,12). So why on earth has this reputable scientific institution muddled the figures?

You can find the answer on page 16 of the report. “As with all client-consultant relationships, boundary conditions were established within which to conduct the analysis. ... Friends of the Earth, in conjunction with a consortium of NGOs and with increasing cross-party support from MPs, have been lobbying hard for the introduction of a ‘climate change bill’ ... [The bill] is founded essentially on a correlation of 2°C with 450 parts per million of CO2.”

In other words, Friends of the Earth had already set the target before it asked its researchers to find out what the target should be. I suspect that it chose the wrong number because it believed a 90% cut by 2030 would not be politically acceptable.

This echoes the refusal of Sir David King, the chief scientist, to call for a target of less than 550 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, on the grounds that it would be “politically unrealistic”(13). The message seems to be that the science can go to hell – we will tell people what we think they can bear.

So we all deceive ourselves and deceive each other about the change that needs to take place. The middle classes think they have gone green because they buy organic cotton pyjamas and handmade soaps with bits of leaf in them – though they still heat their conservatories and retain their holiday homes in Croatia. The people who should be confronting them with hard truths balk at the scale of the challenge. And the politicians won’t jump until the rest of us do.

On Sunday the Liberal Democrats announced that they are making climate change their top political priority, and on Tuesday they voted to shift taxation from people to pollution. At first sight it looks bold, but then you discover that they have scarcely touched the problem. While total tax receipts in the United Kingdom amount to £350 billion a year(14), they intend to shift just £8 billion – or 2.3%.

So the question which now confronts everyone – politicians, campaign groups, scientists, readers of the Guardian as well as the Economist and the Sun – is this: how much reality can you take? Do you really want to stop climate chaos, or do you just want to feel better about yourself?

George Monbiot’s book Heat: how to stop the planet burning is now published by Penguin. He has also launched a new website – – exposing fake corporate initiatives on climate change.

Friday, September 22, 2006


An 87% Cut by 2030

That’s what we need in the United Kingdom to avoid catastrophic climate change

By George Monbiot. Published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, 21st September 2006

There are three things on which almost all climate scientists are now agreed. The first is that manmade climate change is real. The second is that we need to take action. The third is that, to avert catastrophic effects on both humans and ecosystems, we should seek to prevent global temperatures from rising by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Two degrees is the point at which some of the most dangerous processes catalysed by climate change could become irreversible. This includes the melting of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, which between them could raise global sea levels by seven metres(1). It includes the drying out of many parts of Africa, and the inundation by salt water of the aquifers used by cities such as Shanghai, Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, Kolkata, Mumbai, Karachi, Lagos, Buenos Aires and Lima(2). It also means runaway positive feedback, as the Arctic tundras begin to release the methane they contain(3), and the Amazon rainforest dies off, turning trees back into carbon dioxide(4,5). In other words, if the planet warms by 2 degrees, 3 or 4 degrees becomes almost inevitable.

So by how much do we need to cut carbon emissions if we are to stop this from happening? The most persuasive analysis I have seen was compiled by a man called Colin Forrest(6). He is not a professional climate scientist, but the figures he uses have been published in peer-reviewed journals. He argues his case as follows:

Researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact in Germany have estimated that holding global temperatures to below 2 degrees means stabilising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at or below the equivalent of 440 parts of carbon dioxide per million(7). While the carbon dioxide concentration currently stands at 380 parts, the other greenhouse gases raise this to an equivalent of 440 or 450. In other words, if everything else were equal, greenhouse gas concentrations in 2030 would need to be roughly the same as they are today.

Unfortunately, everything else is not equal. By 2030, according to a paper published by scientists at the Met Office, the total capacity of the biosphere to absorb carbon will have reduced from the current 4 billion tonnes a year to 2.7 billion(8). To maintain equilibrium at that point, in other words, the world’s population can emit no more than 2.7 billion tonnes of carbon a year in 2030. As we currently produce around 7 billion, this implies a global reduction of 60%. In 2030, the world’s people are likely to number around 8.2 billion. By dividing the total carbon sink (2.7 billion tonnes) by the number of people, we find that to achieve stabilisation the weight of carbon emissions per person should be no greater than 0.33 tonnes. If this problem is to be handled fairly, everyone should have the same entitlement to release carbon, at a rate no greater than 0.33 tonnes per year.

In the rich countries, this means an average cut by 2030 of around 90%. The United Kingdom, for example, currently releases 2.6 tonnes of carbon (9.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide) per capita(9), so would need to reduce its emissions by 87%. Germany requires a cut of 88%, France of 83%, the United States, Canada and Australia, 94%. By contrast, the Kyoto Protocol – the only international agreement that has been struck so far – commits its signatories to cut their carbon emissions by a total of 5.2% by 2012.

These could be underestimates. The Potsdam Institute calculates that with the equivalent of 440 parts of carbon dioxide per million of air in the atmosphere, there is a 67% chance of holding the temperature rise to below 2 degrees(10). Another study suggests that to obtain a 90% chance of stabilisation below 2 degrees, you would need to keep the concentration below 400 parts per million – 40 or 50 parts below the current level(11). Because the carbon released now stays in the atmosphere for some 200 years and causes climate change many years into the future, there is perhaps a 30% chance that we have already blown it. We might already be committed to 2 degrees.

But to use this as an excuse for inaction is like remaining on a railway track while the train is hurtling towards you. We might not have time to jump out of the way, but if we don’t attempt it, the disaster is bound to happen. If we in the United Kingdom are to bear our fair share of dealing with climate change, we must cut our emissions by 87% in 24 years.

George Monbiot’s book Heat: how to stop the planet burning is published this week by Penguin. He has also launched a new website exposing the false green claims of corporations and celebrities –


1. Eg Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2001. Climate Change 2001:
Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.

2. Conference of the International Association of Hydrogeologists, reported by Fred Pearce, 16th April 2005. Cities may be abandoned as salt water invades. New Scientist.

3. Fred Pearce, 11th August 2005. Climate warning as Siberia melts. New Scientist.

4. Sharon A. Cowling et al, 29th March 2004. Contrasting simulated past and future responses of the Amazonian forest to atmospheric change. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Vol 359, pp539-47.

5. Meteorological Office, April 2005. International Symposium on the Stabilisation of Greenhouse Gases: tables of impacts. Table 3 Major Impacts of Climate Change on the Earth System. Hadley Centre, Met Office, Exeter, UK

6. Colin Forrest, 2005. The Cutting Edge: Climate Science to April 2005.

7. Bill Hare and Malte Meinshausen, 2004. How Much Warming Are We Committed To And How Much Can Be Avoided? PIK report 93, Figure 7, page 24. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

8. Extracted by Colin Forrest from Chris D. Jones et al, 9th May 2003. Strong carbon cycle feedbacks in a climate model with interactive CO2 and sulphate aerosols. Geophysical Research Letters. Vol 30, p1479.

9. Energy Information Administration, 2005. International Energy Annual 2003. Table H.1cco2 World Per Capita Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the Consumption and Flaring of Fossil Fuels, 1980-2003.

10. Bill Hare and Malte Meinshausen, ibid.

11. Paul Baer and Tom Athanasiou, 2005. Honesty About Dangerous Climate Change.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


The Modern Successor to the Slave Trade

No longer should the peace business be undermined by the arms business

by Desmond Tutu

For many years, I've been involved in the peace business, doing what I can to help people overcome their differences. In doing so, I've also learnt a lot about the business of war: the arms trade. In my opinion it is the modern slave trade. It is an industry out of control: every day more than 1,000 people are killed by conventional weapons. The vast majority of those people are innocent men, women and children.

There have been international treaties to control the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons for decades. Yet, despite the mounting death toll, there is still no treaty governing sales of all conventional weapons from handguns to attack helicopters. As a result, weapons fall into the wrong hands all too easily, fuelling human rights abuses, prolonging wars and digging countries deeper into poverty.

This is allowed to continue because of the complicity of governments, especially rich countries' governments, which turn a blind eye to the appalling human suffering associated with the proliferation of weapons.

Every year, small arms alone kill more people than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together. Many more people are injured, terrorised or driven from their homes by armed violence. Even as you read this, one of these human tragedies is unfolding somewhere on the planet.

Take the Democratic Republic of Congo, where armed violence recently flared up again, and millions have died during almost a decade of conflict. Despite a UN arms embargo against armed groups in the country, weapons have continued to flood in from all over the world.

Arms found during weapons collections include those made in Germany, France, Israel, USA and Russia. The only common denominator is that nearly all these weapons were manufactured outside Africa. Five rich countries manufacture the vast majority of the world's weapons. In 2005, Russia, the United States, France, Germany and the UK accounted for an estimated 82 per cent of the global arms market. And it's big business: the amount rich countries spend on fighting HIV/Aids every year represents just 18 days' global spending on arms.

But while the profits flow back to the developed world, the effects of the arms trade are predominantly felt in developing countries. More than two-thirds of the value of all arms are sold to Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

In addition to the deaths, injuries and rapes perpetrated with these weapons, the cost of conflict goes deeper still, destroying health and education systems.

For example, in northern Uganda, which has been devastated by 20 years of armed conflict, it has been estimated that 250,000 children do not attend school. The war in northern Uganda, which may be finally coming to an end, has been fuelled by supplies of foreign-made weapons. And, as with so many wars, the heaviest toll has been on the region's children. Children under five are always the most vulnerable to disease, and in a war zone adequate medical care is often not available.

The world could eradicate poverty in a few generations were only a fraction of the expenditure on the war business to be spent on peace. An average of $22bn is spent on arms by countries in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa every year, according to estimates for the US Congress. This sum would have enabled those countries to put every child in school and to reduce child mortality by two-thirds by 2015, fulfilling two of the Millennium Development Goals.

This year, the world has the chance to finally say no to the continuing scandal of the unregulated weapons trade. In October, governments will vote on a resolution at the UN General Assembly to start working towards an Arms Trade Treaty. That Treaty would be based on a simple principle: no weapons for violations of international law. In other words, a ban on selling weapons if there is a clear risk they will be used to abuse human rights or fuel conflict. The UN resolution has been put forward by the governments of Australia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Finland, Japan, Kenya, and the UK. These governments believe the idea of an Arms Trade Treaty is one whose time has come.

I agree. We must end impunity for governments who authorise the supply of weapons when they know there's a great danger those weapons will be used for gross human rights abuses. Great strides are being made towards ending impunity for war criminals. It cannot be acceptable that their arms suppliers continue to escape punishment. No longer should the peace business be undermined by the arms business. I call on all governments to put the control of the international arms trade at the top of their agenda.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


The Bush-Blair Alliance Mystery

It seemed like the ultimate strategic alliance, but future generations of Britons might wonder what, if any, benefits came out of the Bush-Blair relationship. The Prime Minister’s friendship with President George W. Bush is regarded as “one of the great political riddles of our time,” as former Labour insider Mark Seddon puts it, a riddle that seemingly no one can solve: is it a marriage of convenience or star-crossed hubris? Blair may simply have applied the long-held diplomatic advice to “hug them close” in a bid to maintain the so-called “special relationship” with the US begun by Churchill. As former UK Ambassador Sir Christopher Meyer puts it, “Look at the balance sheet. Britain and the U.S. have been for years each other’s largest foreign investor.” Despite this history, however, Meyer argues that the current situation is due to “a failure in London at the highest level to have a clear vision of the national interest and to negotiate accordingly.”

The unsettling fact is that Blair’s alliance with Bush may have been based more on personal convictions rather than sheer pragmatism. Not only did he believe in Saddam’s WMD in the run-up to invasion, he was obsessed with the threat posed by such weapons since 1997 – three years before Dubya was even elected. Certainly he did not need a hand to hold on the road to war, having taken his country into five conflicts in his first six years in office, an unprecedented record. As the late Liberal Democrat peer, Roy Jenkins put it: “My view is that the prime minister, far from lacking conviction, has almost too much, particularly when dealing with the world beyond Britain. He is a little too Manichean for my perhaps now-jaded taste seeing matters in stark terms of good and evil, black and white.”

Blair foreshadowed Bush’s nation-building aspirations as well: in a 1999 US speech he announced a “doctrine of international community,” arguing that military intervention could be warranted to create more democratic and “secure” societies. Blair’s failure to consult with career diplomats and lawyers in his own foreign office before making the speech was also telling. “Not good on details,” one foreign office employee muttered darkly, “and worryingly simple minded.” Or as the IRA’s codename put it, Naïve Idiot.

Perhaps it was this very naivety and lack of attention to detail that led to Iraq. Buoyed by a personal conviction that the threat was real and with the best of intentions that he could mesh Bush’s Freudian post 9/11 foreign policies with those of the progressive left, Blair simply failed to work into his marriage of convenience the incompatibility of liberal interventionism with US threats of pre-emption and overwhelming force.

As George Galloway noted in a recent telephone interview the riddle may never be solved, just as an error made on the international stage, even with the best of intentions, cannot always be forgiven. “I wish I knew . . . why did Tony Blair join it?” he said. “Certainly, it’s been utterly ruinous to his political reputation. He will be followed into the history books and the grave with this mark of Cain on his forehead. He will be remembered for nothing other than that he followed George W. Bush over a cliff; took the rest of us with them, and we haven’t yet reached the bottom. All I can say from my own conversations with him are that I think both he and Bush are possessed of a kind of messianic belief that somebody, God perhaps, gave them the job of shouldering the white man’s burden, which is the world. Someone gave them the right to step outside of international law; go anywhere, do anything, pay any price in other people’s blood, to reshape the world in their image; in the image they want to see. And I think that both men will be damned in history. Both men have made their respective countries the two most hated countries in the world.”

Friday, September 01, 2006


"The World As I See It" by Einstein

"How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people -- first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving...

"I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves -- this critical basis I call the ideal of a pigsty. The ideals that have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. Without the sense of kinship with men of like mind, without the occupation with the objective world, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific endeavors, life would have seemed empty to me. The trite objects of human efforts -- possessions, outward success, luxury -- have always seemed to me contemptible.

"My passionate sense of social justice and social responsibility has always contrasted oddly with my pronounced lack of need for direct contact with other human beings and human communities. I am truly a 'lone traveler' and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart; in the face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for solitude..."
"My political ideal is democracy. Let every man be respected as an individual and no man idolized. It is an irony of fate that I myself have been the recipient of excessive admiration and reverence from my fellow-beings, through no fault, and no merit, of my own. The cause of this may well be the desire, unattainable for many, to understand the few ideas to which I have with my feeble powers attained through ceaseless struggle. I am quite aware that for any organization to reach its goals, one man must do the thinking and directing and generally bear the responsibility. But the led must not be coerced, they must be able to choose their leader. In my opinion, an autocratic system of coercion soon degenerates; force attracts men of low morality... The really valuable thing in the pageant of human life seems to me not the political state, but the creative, sentient individual, the personality; it alone creates the noble and the sublime, while the herd as such remains dull in thought and dull in feeling.

"This topic brings me to that worst outcrop of herd life, the military system, which I abhor... This plague-spot of civilization ought to be abolished with all possible speed. Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism -- how passionately I hate them!

"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery -- even if mixed with fear -- that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man... I am satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence -- as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature."

Albert Einstein

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