Climate Con: why a new global deal on aviation emissions is really bad news


Screenshot from Fern video 'Airlines: Cheating the Climate?' (embedded below).

It sounds like a fine riddle: what can grow exponentially but still remain the same size? A new global deal on climate emissions from aviation promises just that, ‘carbon neutral growth’ from an industry that is the world’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gases.

The proposal has a series of loopholes big enough to fly a jumbo jet through

When diplomats meet in Montreal this week for the triennial Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the results are likely to be prosaic: a delay in cutting emissions until 2021, at which time a voluntary scheme would be introduced that allows airlines to continue polluting by paying others to clean up for them. The controversial ‘carbon offsetting’ scheme at the heart of this proposal is likely to involve counting reductions in greenhouse gas emissions twice, posing a significant new threat to hopes of avoiding dangerous climate change.

A growing problem

The airline industry is currently responsible for about two per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions that play a lead role in causing climate change, but the impact of flying could be more than double that headline figure.

Without getting too technical, emissions from planes change the balance of energy in the atmosphere (‘radiative forcing’), as well as forming cirrus clouds (the contrails so beloved of conspiracy theorists) that can lock in further warming. Taking all of these factors into account, aviation is responsible for closer to five per cent of the climate change problem, a small but significant share. The bigger problem, though, is that flying is expected to be the fastest growing cause of climate change.

Airlines fly over three billion passengers every year – a figure that is heavily concentrated on a handful of frequent flyers based in the world’s richest countries. That number is expected to double by 2035, accompanied by a large increase in cargo flights. By 2050, ICAO estimates that emissions from civil aviation could rise by between 300 and 700 per cent, which could see them accounting for over 20 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions by that date.

The carbon neutral myth

Global regulators have been glacially slow in reacting to the rise of aviation emissions. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the first major treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, excluded international aviation altogether and left it in the hands of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The recent Paris Climate Agreement confirmed that position, even though ICAO, heavily influenced by the airline industry, has dragged its feet and avoided climate action for nearly two decades. Greenhouse gas emissions from aviation have already doubled since 1990, the baseline used to measure progress in tackling climate change in other economic sectors.

The core of the proposed ICAO declaration will be a promise of ‘carbon neutral growth’ in international flights from 2020, but it has a series of loopholes big enough to fly a jumbo jet through them.

Although the ICAO deal would be global in scope, it does not cover anything close to all of the world’s civilian flights. Around 40 per cent of flights start and end in the same country, and these are not covered by the scheme. Domestic flights made by US carriers alone represent 14 per cent of global aviation emissions, while domestic flights in India and China are the fastest growing aviation markets in the world.

While the EU, USA, China and Japan have suggested they would take part in ICAO’s voluntary scheme, Brazil and South Africa head the list of countries that have stated they would opt out until it became mandatory in 2027. Even after that date, many low-income countries will remain exempt. These opt-outs are argued for on the basis of justice between countries ‘but they will not protect the economic or other interests of anyone but a small globe-trotting elite’ explains Parth Vaishnav, a research engineer at Carnegie Mellon University.

The actual emissions reduction measures that ICAO is proposing are mainly limited to technological improvements to the efficiency of plane engines and frames, alongside planning smarter routes. As these all rely on mature technologies, however, efficiency gains are likely to be vastly outstripped by the growth of aviation traffic. Besides, ‘If you make a more efficient product it spurs route development and overall expansion’ points out Jeff Gazzard, coordinator of the European GreenSkies Alliance, a grassroots campaign on air transport.

ICAO’s other major proposal to reduce emissions is increasing the use of biofuels. Despite years of testing, there are few signs that ‘biofuels or the latest Virgin-backed wankpot’ (to use Gazzard’s colourful phrasing) could displace a significant proportion of aviation fuel, or their associated CO2 emissions. And if biofuels were taken up widely, this could come at a huge social and environmental cost. Vast areas of land would be required for biofuel plantations, which would mean either cutting down forests or taking over areas currently used for food production.

Even then, ICAO admits that none of these measures will plug the gap to put aviation on a pathway consistent with 2°C, let alone the 1.5°C target that the Paris Agreement ‘aspires’ to. So it has put a ‘market-based mechanism’ at the centre of its carbon neutral plan.


ICAO’s carbon market plan would allow airlines to continue polluting more, while buying carbon offsets to compensate for this additional pollution.

Offsets do not reduce emissions, but just shift where those reductions are coming from. In practice, richer countries and those with the highest aviation emissions would purchase offsets generated by projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in other economic sectors, often located in developing countries.

That’s similar to the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the world’s largest carbon offsetting scheme, which was established as part of the Kyoto Protocol but had woeful results. CDM offsets have been notable for dubious accounting that meant polluting companies got paid for doing almost nothing, or even expanding harmful projects. The market for CDM credits ‘essentially collapsed’ in 2012, and since then a ton of carbon has cost far less than a cup of coffee.

There is a significant danger that the offsets bought as part of the ICAO scheme could be double-counted – showing up in both the national greenhouse gas reduction plans submitted as part of the Paris Climate Agreement, as well as being claimed by airlines as a means to continue polluting.

It’s a very dangerous lie to present aviation as sustainable or carbon neutral – this distracts from real necessary solutions

The use of offsets generated by forestry projects could pose particular problems. ‘Examples of where forest offsets have excluded people from their land are rife’ says Hannah Mowat, forest and climate campaigner at FERN. ‘Given the social conflict that’s arisen from people being denied access to their land and their traditional use of forests being restricted, airlines must consider the likely damage to communities – and hence their own reputation.’

‘Offsets provide the aviation industry a license to grow,’ says Magdalena Heuwieser of FT Watch, an Austrian environmental and human rights group. ‘It’s a very dangerous lie to present aviation as sustainable or carbon neutral – this distracts from real necessary solutions.’

ICAO: a fox guarding the henhouse

The fact that ICAO is closing in on a climate treaty that allows aviation emissions to keep on growing rapidly comes as no surprise to seasoned observers of the industry.

‘ICAO is a technocratic organization staffed mainly by people with backgrounds in airlines or airline manufacturing, and whose decisions are made by representatives from transport and aviation ministries of its 170 member states’ explains Gazzard, a veteran of many campaigns on aviation and the environment. ‘There is almost a default position for everything ICAO does that is a compromise lowest common denominator… it is there to preserve the status quo.’

ICAO’s mandate, established in the 1944 Chicago Convention, is to ensure ‘the safe and orderly growth of international civil aviation.’ But faced with an environmental crisis, it is very difficult to square the circle of growth and emissions control – ‘and, effectively, they don’t bother,’ says Gazzard.

The influence of the airline industry on the regulator is a key factor here. Across the street from ICAO’s head office in Montreal, where this week’s assembly takes place, likes the headquarters of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the industry’s main corporate lobby group.

IATA’s influence on the mooted ICAO deal is not hard to see. In fact, the main points of the UN body’s ‘carbon neutral growth’ plan are virtually indistinguishable from a ‘carbon neutral growth’ plan put forward by the IATA, which similarly promotes a system based on offsets, supplemented by biofuels and modest efficiency gains.

No deal is better than a bad deal

Given the proximity of ICAO to the industry it is meant to regulate, and its long track record of avoiding climate action, it is highly unlikely that it will adequately regulate greenhouse gas emissions from flying. The offer on the table in Montreal offers no advance on efficiency improvements that the industry is likely to make anyway to achieve cost savings. Biofuels and offsets are a dangerous distraction that could have significant negative impacts on communities in the Global South.

Against this backdrop, the best possible outcome would be that ICAO fails to agree a climate deal at all, increasing pressure for the UN Climate Change Convention to take responsibility for aviation, and for domestic climate regulators to take action.

Whatever happens at the Montreal talks, countries and regions will need to take further rapid action to reduce emissions from flying in their own airspace.

In the European Union, that is likely to see efforts to revive the inclusion of international aviation emissions in the bloc’s Emissions Trading System (ETS) – similar, in some respects, to the ICAO market measure, but with a set of binding targets.

The ETS is far from perfect, admits Gazzard, but ‘applying it to aviation was a strategic breakthrough that we now must defend at all costs. It was the first time ever that we had [regulators] who were not part of the industry.’

It is vital that climate or environmental regulators are put in charge of aviation emissions, which means the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Climate Action in the case of EU countries, but there is less agreement on the methods. Corporate Europe Observatory and others argue that the EU ETS is failing to reduce emissions, with the aviation sector gaining huge windfall profits in the early stages of the scheme and continuing to receive free permits to pollute. Stopping airport expansion, taxing aviation fuel (or proxy measures such as passenger duties) and rebalancing subsidies from air to rail might all be considered alternatives. But if negotiators come back from ICAO with a deal on climate emissions, it’s a safe bet that it will be so weak as to form part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Oscar Reyes is a coordinator of Corporate Europe Observatory’s The ETS files series on emissions trading.

COP21 and the carbon market menace


by Corporate Europe Observatory

Carbon markets are unlikely to merit even a single mention in a Paris climate change agreement, but the idea of trading emissions has not gone away. Market advocates have simply found new code-words for referring to a practice that guarantees a fight in international climate negotiations. So they’ve hedged their bets – canvassing new mechanisms without naming them, dreaming up accounting rules for schemes that have yet to be agreed, or just referring to a vague system of ‘transfers’ whose meaning can be fought out once the Paris spotlight fades.

Whatever the outcome, the public profile of carbon trading will be marginal to any agreement coming out of Paris. To understand the significance of this, it’s worth a quick look back at how the fate of international emissions targets got tangled with carbon markets in the first place.

The ghost of COPs past

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Our story starts in Kyoto, where the first international agreement with mandatory targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions was signed. The United States was a laggard, as it always is – only agreeing to cuts on the condition that they could be made elsewhere. Al Gore was the lead negotiator that day, but he was working under the influence of fossil fuel lobbyists.

The Kyoto Protocol introduced two ‘flexible mechanisms’ allowing countries to buy ‘emissions reductions’ (in the form of carbon credits) from abroad and count those as their own – a practice known as ‘offsetting.’ In accepting the principle that units of emissions could be transferred between countries, the Protocol also triggered a rethink of climate policy in the EU, paving the way for the development of the Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), which is by far the largest carbon market in the world today, and the main source of carbon credit purchases.

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is the largest of the UN offset schemes, generating carbon credits from projects set up in poor countries whose greenhouse gas emissions are not capped. The credits are meant to represent a ton of carbon cuts, but are based on dubious accounting that meant polluting companies got paid for doing almost nothing, or even expanding harmful projects.

A smaller ‘Joint Implementation’ mechanism – mostly confined to projects in Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Germany – has faired little better. A recent, comprehensive overview of the scheme conducted by the Stockholm Environment Institute found that up to three-quarters of its credits may not represent actual emissions reductions (UN officials suspected ‘significant criminal’ activity), allowing for an overall increase of 600 million tonnes. That's roughly equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of the United Kingdom, the world's fifth largest economy.

This story of environmental failure has been superseded, in recent years, by the near collapse of the UN carbon market mechanisms. The lack of clear or ambitious new climate targets and a delay in replacing the Kyoto Protocol were partly to blame for this, as was reduced demand for offsets within the EU ETS. For several years already, a UN-certified ‘tonne of carbon’ has cost far less than a cup of coffee.

The road to Paris

Carbon markets collapse, alongside the Kyoto Protocol itself, at COP17 in Durban in 2011. But confusing these market contractions for birth pangs, a number of developed countries still used that conference to push for the creation of a , New Market Mechanism. The EU led the charge, hoping to scale up carbon markets by replacing the project-by-project schemes from the Kyoto Protocol with a new system covering whole industrial sectors at a time.

But in the face of increased opposition led by Bolivia and its allies in ALBA (a Latin American country grouping) and the wider G77 group of developing countries, the New Market Mechanism was stillborn. A parallel ‘Framework for Various Approaches’, which amongst other things saw discussions on how the UNFCCC might provide common accounting rules for carbon markets created by countries and regions themselves, met a similar fate. As renewed discussions have fizzled into inconclusiveness with each successive COP, attention has increasingly turned to the role of markets in the negotiations for a new climate treaty.

A diplomatic silence

With the development of new markets blocked in UN climate talks for close to four years, carbon trading enthusiasts have come to Paris with a strategy so cunning it would make Baldrick from Blackadder blush. They have simply replaced the words ‘carbon markets’ with references to ‘international transferrable mitigation outcomes’ (and variations on that theme), with the even vaguer language of ‘cooperative approaches’ proposed as a backup. The Clean Development Mechanism is out, but a potential ‘Mechanism to Support Sustainable Development’ is still up for discussion.

‘[I]f you want to become too specific in the agreement in Paris you are going to get into fights that you don't need to have in Paris’ explains Andrei Marcu, a longstanding carbon trade lobbyist who now works as a Senior Advisor to the industry-friendly Centre for European Policy Studies. Marcu's remarks are more than simply those of an interested observer. As a representative of Papua New Guinea, and co-convenor of the G77+China group on market mechanisms, he has played a crucial role in crafting the Paris agreement's carbon market euphemisms.

Bargaining chips

Carbon markets are a bargaining chip that could be traded until the last minute for other aspects of the Paris agreement, making it hard to predict with any certainty what will happen at COP21.

If the core proposals on markets were to be agreed, then we would leave Paris with a new market mechanism or several mechanisms written into the architecture of the international climate agreement – extending the failed regime of the CDM and paving the way for a UN-administered scheme that covers whole economic sectors (rather than individual projects) in years to come. Forest carbon markets (under the guise of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, or REDD+) would receive a PR boost, although most of the architecture for those was already signed off in Warsaw.

Common carbon accounting rules would be established that would make it easier to link up existing carbon markets, like the EU ETS and California cap-and-trade programme. This might be spun as a step on the road to a ‘global carbon market’ that could price pollution everywhere. The reality would be more messy: a complex web of rules as to how carbon is calculated, opening the door to more of the unscrupulous dealings that have dogged carbon markets to date.

A more modest Paris agreement would leave some or all or these elements on the table, recognizing simply the principle that emissions are ‘transferrable.’ That outcome would leave the door open to carbon markets under the UN, but postpone the debate another year.

There remains a chance, too, that an agreement will be made without reference to carbon markets at all. That would appear to seal the fate of the existing UN climate schemes, whose mandate runs out with the Kyoto Protocol, and (at least for now) put a lid on the prospect of new ones.

That’s the favoured outcome for opponents of carbon markets, like the Bolivian government, which has called for the ‘eradication of the commodification of nature and carbon markets which promote climate business millionaires and do not solve the problem of the climate crisis.’

But the same outcome is also viewed positively by some countries, like Japan and New Zealand, that are pushing for an international system of carbon trading beyond the control of the UN.

National plans

Look beyond the letter of the Paris climate agreement itself, and things get even more messy. In advance of Paris, every country was asked to state what action it promised to take to address climate change. 176 of the world’s 196 countries obliged with their statements of intent, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) in the official jargon. INDCs will probably not become legally binding (they are ‘intended’, not set in stone) but they give a good guide to what the world of climate responses will look like after 2020.

Around half of these plans state an intention to use international carbon markets, but there is a massive disparity between the large number of developing countries hoping to sell carbon offsets and the small number of developed countries (Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Switzerland) willing to buy them. If that transpires, offsets could price a tonne of carbon at less than a cup of coffee for a long time to come.

Beyond the COP

At the same time, increasing numbers of countries are organizing domestic carbon markets, with China recently announcing that it plans a nationwide scheme starting in 2017, and South Korea launching a domestic market at the start of this year.

Yet while the number of carbon markets has grown, the overall value of the carbon traded has shrunk in recent years. Alongside price falls on the back of an over-supply of allowances, much of the financial sector interest in these schemes has dried up, with many large banks closing their carbon desks.

The effort to lure speculators back to the market is what’s behind a big push on ‘linking’ carbon markets, spearheaded by the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA). Linked markets have more ‘liquidity’ – in essence, a greater number of trades happening more quickly, offering more chances for the types of bets that speculators thrive on.

Whether or not the Paris conference agrees on common carbon accounting rules, the overall trend is towards a complex system of interlinked carbon markets. In this new global system, private ratings agencies would police the system with all of the effectiveness that they brought to rating the speculative instruments that caused the financial crisis (since they would likely face the same conflicts of interest).

The phantom menace

In short, the road through Paris looks likely to leave the carbon market menace in place for many years to come. The words markets may not figure in the text of the Paris agreement, but there’s a good chance that a placeholder could be found to allow their return in future.

‘There is a level of generality that gives everybody what they want and allows the continuation of the discussion post-Paris’ concludes Marcu. ‘That balance is not a science, it's an art. Whether the negotiators have mastered it remains to be seen.’

This article was written by Oscar Reyes as part of the series ‘Capturing COP21: corporate influence and the UN’ by Corporate Europe Observatory.

Taking care of business

Exhaust destroyer!

Illustration by Stephen Munday /

A flower blooms under a floodlight. It is projected on to a huge screen, behind a panel of expensively suited executives. A CNN business correspondent struts up and down a catwalk, excitedly thanking UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the ubiquitous Al Gore. The scene of this corporate love-in? The World Business Summit on Climate Change.

‘The fact that I flew here to sit on a panel for one and a half hours, then I´m flying straight back to the US, is an example of our commitment to environmental sustainability,’ boasts Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, blissfully unaware of the irony of her statement. Her fellow industry representatives make similar claims about just how energetically they are saving the planet.

This is the new face of the climate business.

Until recently, many of the globe’s biggest corporations were firmly in the climate change denial camp – and funding spurious research to back up their claims. Now a new realism has emerged. Climate change is no longer rejected as a bogus theory the economy can ill afford. Instead, it’s a business opportunity.

Back in the days of George W Bush, the ostrich-headed faction of US industry held sway. Companies like ExxonMobil saw no profits in ‘climate solutions’, so opposed any climate legislation. Now, carbon markets – the buying and selling of the right to pollute – are at the heart of proposals for a new global deal at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen this December, and the ‘progressive’ wing of big business, backed by large US-based NGOs, argues that this market-driven approach is the only way to secure an international emissions reductions deal.

The problem is, critics say, that carbon markets are delaying genuine action on climate change, and shifting attention away from the fundamental task of rapidly phasing out fossil fuels. How did it come to this?

The ostrich position

Of course, head-in-the-sand corporate opposition to serious policy changes is still around. The US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers continue to bankroll resistance to the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act. Instead of simple climate change denial, their rhetoric now focuses on ‘threats to American competitiveness’. But according to the US-based Center for Public Integrity there were 2,340 corporate lobbyists in Washington in 2008, and a clear majority of them were pushing to weaken environmental controls.

Companies hide behind ‘trade associations’ to side-step the bad PR they might invite for opposing measures to fight climate change. The American Petroleum Institute spent considerable energy last summer stimulating fake ‘grassroots’ opposition to ACES. The Act has now been so weakened by concessions to big business that the NGO International Rivers estimates it could allow US companies to avoid actually reducing their emissions until 2026. Now, with the US climate debate bogged down in the Senate, negotiators are rapidly talking down expectations for a strong climate agreement at Copenhagen.

This is not the first time that business has had a defining impact on humanity’s attempts to get to grips with the enormous challenge of climate change. In the 1990s the Global Climate Coalition (GCC) – a front group for 50 major oil, coal, auto and chemical corporations and trade associations – played a key role in delaying and weakening international climate agreements, mainly by pressuring US politicians.

The GCC successfully lobbied Washington to ensure that no binding targets were included in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, agreed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It also promoted a 1997 Senate resolution where US legislators expressed unanimous opposition to legally binding greenhouse gas reductions unless developing countries (responsible for a fraction of the current and historical emissions) adopted the same rules.

Al Gore, the US chief negotiator at the time, took this message to the UN climate negotiations and ‘demanded a series of loopholes [in the Kyoto Protocol] big enough to drive a Hummer through,’ as British journalist George Monbiot put it. Gore insisted on a new carbon offset scheme, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Northern companies could avoid having to curb their own pollution by buying ‘emissions reductions’ from the Global South. Larry Lohmann, of the UK advocacy group The Corner House, recalls: ‘Kyoto was written, largely by the US, as a treaty friendly to big business. Companies like Enron, which as an energy trader was well placed to make profits from carbon trading, were happy about Kyoto and wanted the US to be part of it.’

Carbon trade-offs

When the Kyoto Protocol was agreed in December 1997, John Palmisano, Enron’s senior director for environmental policy, celebrated an agreement that was full of ‘immediate business opportunities’. Twelve years later, the carbon trading market is worth over $100 billion.

One often-repeated claim is that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are equivalent wherever they take place – which is only true up to a point. It is worth stressing that offsets are not reductions. In practice, ‘offsetting’ allows generous subsidies for existing technologies to mop up industrial gases, rather than stimulating the speedy shift toward the low carbon world we desperately need. As of September 2009, three-quarters of the offset credits being traded had nothing to do with CO2 reductions. Instead, they were for large firms, operating in developing countries, making minor technical adjustments to eliminate HFCs (refrigerant gases) and N2O (a by-product of synthetic fibre production). Corporations and governments in the North then buy these credits to avoid taking action domestically.

This flawed assumption – that the market can effectively drive the transition to more sustainable models of development – also underlies one of the major new initiatives on the table for agreement at Copenhagen: the proposal to curb deforestation, known as REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation).

A new realism has emerged. Climate change is no longer rejected as a bogus theory the economy can ill afford. Instead, it’s a business opportunity

Deforestation is responsible for around 20 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But REDD assumes that this is because intact forests have no dollar value attached to them; they’re worth less than forests that are cut down. So the solution is to put a price tag on standing forests, and allow countries and companies to trade in the amorphous concept of ‘avoided emissions’.

Yet forest communities and indigenous peoples are deeply opposed. They warn that treating forests merely as carbon stores, the rights to which can be bought and sold on the international markets, will further erode their land rights, despite the fact that they are the most effective stewards and protectors of forests, when left in peace to play this role. What REDD is doing, they argue, is financially rewarding the owners of the major construction, mining, logging and plantation developments that are the real drivers of deforestation.

The financial sector’s main interest in the new climate deal is that it will deliver bigger and more lucrative carbon markets. As Tracy Wolstencroft, Managing Director of Goldman Sachs, told the World Business Summit, carbon trading now encompasses ‘some of the largest emerging markets in the world’.

This rapid growth has already spawned more complex markets where carbon credits are bundled together, then sliced up and resold – similar to the structures that brought the derivatives market to its knees during the recent financial crisis. It is dangerous for the same reason: carbon markets sell a product that has no tangible underlying asset – fertile conditions for the creation of a new ‘bubble’. Traders don’t know exactly what they are selling. And it becomes increasingly meaningless to talk about emissions reductions since what is ‘reduced’ on paper is so far removed from any measurable change in industrial practice or energy production. Speculation has become an end in itself. Meanwhile, emissions continue to rise.

‘Let the market play’

These developments are not simply the work of business lobbyists, however. Governments have created a favourable regulatory climate which assumes that markets know best. ‘Our role is to keep the regulatory structure as simple as possible and let the market play,’ says Jos Delbeke, Deputy Director-General for the Environment at the European Commission. Delbeke has for several years been the EU’s chief climate negotiator. He was a key player in developing the EU Emissions Trading Scheme which has allowed ‘the market to play’ by gifting large amounts of free credits to major polluters and setting too generous a cap on the total amount of emissions. So, as a consequence, there has been no overall reduction in greenhouse gases, but vast windfall profits have been generated for some of the EU’s most carbon-intensive companies.

Professor Matthew Patterson, co-author of forthcoming book Climate Capitalism, characterizes such an approach as the internalization of corporate interest by public decision-makers. ‘I think the best way to think of corporate influence is in terms of structural power rather than directly observable influence,’ he says. ‘Governments internalize the interests of powerful businesses and act to promote those interests (even unconsciously).’

Other academics talk of a revolving door between governments, corporations and the large, pro-business NGOs. Take the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), probably the largest lobby group at the UN climate talks. IETA’s CEO, Henry Derwent, was previously head of climate policy for the British Government and a special adviser to the G8 in 2005: a good choice to represent corporate interests in shaping the principles of a post-2012 agreement.

With billions at stake, there are numerous CEO-led initiatives to set the global agenda by lobbying national governments (see Hall of blame, above). The pressure is relentless. James Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, remarking on the frequency of his lobby visits to Capitol Hill says: ‘My hotel doorman in Washington greets me more regularly than my dog.’

More typically though, corporate leaders, and even the names of the companies they represent, are protected from exposure by faceless industry associations, operating at national, regional and global levels. The same lobbyists often juggle multiple hats. Take Nick Campbell, climate lobbyist for Arkema (oil giant Total’s chemical business). Campbell doubles up as head of the climate change working groups of CEFIC (the European chemical association), Business Europe (the general European business platform), and the International Chamber of Commerce (a global corporate lobby platform).

‘Basically the climate message of those groups is the same, they just act at different levels,’ says Belén Balanyá of Corporate Europe Observatory.

As Copenhagen approaches, a confusing mass of negotiating texts remain on the table – while outside the conference rooms, existing legislation and new pilot projects are being primed to take advantage of any new business opportunities. The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that ‘scores of carbon traders... have been active in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia trying to sign up landowners for not-yet-agreed REDD schemes’. Meanwhile, in Bangkok the Clean Development Mechanism Board approved a new measure last October to help biodiesel production count as an ‘offset’ – despite evidence that its expansion contributes to deforestation.

At the negotiating table both the EU and US have been working to redefine the role that public finance could play in any new deal. Jonathan Pershing – head of the US delegation at recent UN climate talks in Bonn – advocates ‘changing the debate’. Public money, he argues, should no longer be regarded as a means of helping Majority World countries adapt to climate change or to mitigate its worst effects, but as a ‘catalyst’ for private gain. Anders Turesson, chief climate negotiator for Sweden and chair of the EU Group, echoed this message, suggesting that public funds should be a ‘lubricant’ for private sector investments.

Critics agree that carbon markets could yield significant profits. But they could also end up making climate change worse – by perpetuating the failed economic and industrial models that helped create the problem in the first place, and delaying a rapid transition to a more climate-friendly future.

So what should concerned citizens do about all this? It’s clear that we need to rethink and restructure energy production, industry and agriculture in ways that rediscover and promote local knowledge. But policy changes alone will not be enough. Above all, we need to get organized politically. To roll back the advance of the nouveau-green chief executives there are no short cuts, because the struggle against climate change is part of a much larger fight: for a more just, democratic and equal world.

Oscar Reyes is a researcher with Carbon Trade Watch, a project of the Transnational Institute, and co-author of Carbon Trading: how it works and why it fails (Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, 2009).

Hall of blame

A who's who of corporate lobbyists at the UN climate talks

International Emissions Trading Association

Largest corporate lobby group at UN climate negotiations – it brought 250 business representatives to the talks in 2008. Leading the push for the expansion of carbon markets to include forests, agriculture, and carbon capture and storage (CCS) – technology to neutralize the climate impact of fossil fuels that will not be viable for many years.

International Chamber of Commerce (ICC)

Grandfather of corporate environmentalism, active on climate issues since the Rio Earth Summit. Main focus has been to avoid regulation and taxes.

World Business Council on Sustainable Development

‘CEO-led coalition’ of over 200 companies created in 1991 to lobby the Rio Earth Summit.

World Economic Forum

Hosts its own Climate Change Initiative.

Project Catalyst

Initiative of the non-profit ClimateWorks Foundation which draws heavily on research by consultancy firm McKinsey. Although it claims to be a ‘neutral adviser’ it emphasizes that a majority of ‘emissions savings’ before 2020 should be made in the Global South, creating business opportunities for large corporations.

3C (Combat Climate Change)

Initiative of CEOs of major companies, hosted by Swedish energy giant Vattenfall. Pushing proposals for a global carbon market and for the ‘streamlining’ (ie relaxing of already weak environmental checks) of carbon market rules.

The Climate Group

Non-profit organization whose members include some of the world’s largest corporations. Task force working on the climate agreement, led by former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

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