Copenhagen climate change talks: we need working-class answers

Submitted by Matthew on 19 November, 2009 - 1:59 Author: Paul Vernadsky

The climate talks in Copenhagen in December had been billed as the most important international meeting since the Second World War. Instead, they are likely to be the greatest let-down since global warming was first debated internationally two decades ago.

World leaders are already talking down expectations of the UN Climate Change Conference 2009, which takes place between 7 and 18 December in Copenhagen. Over the last month it became clear that the US Senate would not pass its climate change bill before the meeting. After talks in Barcelona in early November, most commentators agreed that no treaty will be signed in Copenhagen, making the conference at best another round of haggling.

Beneath the surface there are still major sticking points to resolve before an agreement can be signed, possibly next year. These include: setting a global emissions reduction target for 2050; setting an emissions target for advanced economies for 2020; what actions developing countries will take to curb emissions; action on deforestation, including creating a market for forest permits; financing for developing countries to adapt to the effects of climate change; and developing countries’ access to technology and intellectual property.


Climate campaigners want a new climate treaty, coming into force by 2012, in time for when the current Kyoto deal runs out. They want a peak-and-decline in global emissions by 2015, with industrialised countries leading the effort. This means industrialised countries making an aggregate emissions reduction of least 40% by 2020 (compared to 1990 levels) and at least 80% by 2050.

The argument is that the countries with historic responsibility for emissions and with current capability to tackle them should make the steepest cuts. NGOs argue that the developmental needs of the poorest countries needs to be factored into their emissions reduction pathways. There are particular demands on the European Union. Currently, it has a 20% target for 2020, rising to 30% if a global deal is reached in Copenhagen. Climate campaigners want a pledge of 40% by 2020.


Climate campaigners are demanding new funding from industrialised countries of at least €110 billion (£100 billion) per year by 2020, of which at least half will be for adaptation, because of current climate impacts.

These commitments would be in addition to the existing internationally agreed aid target for donor countries (0.7% of GDP). Climate NGOs argue that revenues from the auctioning of EU Emissions Trading Scheme permits and/or international taxes on aviation and shipping fuel would fund this spending.

Forest offsets, carbon trading

Carbon offsetting and carbon trading for forest protection is also being discussed. This involves paying to lock carbon away in trees and forests instead of cutting them down. By preventing trees from being cut down, firms or governments can count the carbon they store in their timber as “balancing” the carbon being emitted by polluters – usually in advanced economies.

The Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) agreement, a carbon-trading scheme that allows companies to buy and trade carbon stored in forests to offset carbon emissions, is due to be decided at Copenhagen. Greenpeace argues that this scheme is still problematic. It looked at the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project (NKCAP), a joint venture between American Electric Power, BP and Pacificorp. These firms paid the Bolivian government in return for the carbon credits from an area of rainforest that was agreed to be protected from logging for 30 years. Greenpeace research concluded that that NKCAP has “yet to produce real, measurable, reportable, and verifiable emissions reductions”.

Tipping point?

The need for an agreement is plain from the latest science. A conference in Oxford in September revealed that temperatures could rise by 4°C by 2060.

A 4°C global average is also predicted for the UK by 2080 – meaning that the 2003 heatwave, which was responsible for more than 30,000 deaths across Europe, will become the norm during many summers.

The Arctic and parts of Africa could experience warming up to 10°C. Emissions have also increased rapidly in the first decade of the 21st century, according to the Tyndall Centre. There has been a slowdown over the last year or so, due to the recession, but emissions rises will resume with economic growth.

What do these events tell us about the current state of climate politics? The principal reason for the stalling of a treaty is domestic rather than international. The US endorsed Kyoto in 1997, only to fail to get anywhere near a majority for it in Congress afterwards. Obama doesn’t want to make the same mistake again.

However, in the background, imperial rivalries between states are also a factor. Whilst there is some consensus between the traditional big power blocs (i.e. the US, EU and Japan) on the need for emissions reductions (though not on how much), the rising sub-imperialist powers of China and India are not willing to sacrifice their economic growth to cut emissions – particularly when they will not get the technologies needed at a low cost.

One of the arguments used by the British government for developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) is that if UK capital develops a competitive advantage, it can sell it to the rest of the world for huge profits. At the root of global and domestic climate policy are neoliberal market mechanisms working to ensure that it is (profitable) business as usual for capital.

The main conclusion we should draw is that we cannot trust global capital and its governments to deliver on preventing climate change. They might sign an agreement next year. They might even begin to reduce emissions in parts of the world. But they will do it too slowly and at the expense of millions of workers.

Their way will not help the millions who will die in the coming years from climate-related droughts and storms, floods and famines.

Their way will see workers pay higher fuel bills and higher taxes, while private energy and transport firms reap windfalls from emissions trading, government subsidies, and their monopoly power.


The political economy of climate change is crying out for an alternative. Public ownership of the key emitting sectors, and huge public investment in new renewable technologies to create millions of green jobs; workers’ control over production in all sectors; and union-worker climate reps agitating on these issues are just some of the answers that need to be adopted.

Several hundred trade unionists are taking part in the negotiations in Copenhagen, and international unions are organising a side event, the World of Work Pavilion from 14 to 16 December at the LO-Denmark building, but their political demands are weak. Although the call “for a just transition to a low-carbon economy” attempts to tackle the issue of who pays, who benefits and what kind of jobs come out of climate change, without more control and more action, the demand can be acceded to with little changing in practice.

The closure of Vestas, Isle of Wight this summer showed that even in green sectors workers are tossed onto the scrap heap by capital when they are not deemed productive enough for the current market.

The science, the talks and the limitations of the existing labour movement underline the need for more and urgent action. Socialists should be in Copenhagen in December for the Klimaforum09, a social forum side event that runs parallel to the official talks. Even though the politics of the Klimaforum09 are very weak and confused, it will attract climate activists who want real action on the issue and could help to coordinate future campaigning (see box).

There is also a demonstration in Copenhagen organised by a broad coalition of organisations and NGOs on 12 December. Its slogan is “Planet First, People First” – not exactly revolutionary, but it also will attract thousands of participants.

There are demonstrations in the UK which all socialists should attend. On Saturday 5 December 2009, the Stop Climate Chaos (SCC) coalition is organising “The Wave” in London and Glasgow. (see box) The Campaign against Climate Change (CaCC) has called a Climate Emergency Rally at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park on 5 December at 12 noon, followed by a march to join “The Wave”. Its main demand is for a million green jobs by the end of 2010 (see box). Although the political basis of the demonstrations are weak, as they have been before (last year the Green New Deal was emphasised), they are still worth building and intervening in.

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