Commodifying Nature in an Age of Climate Change

For about two weeks, starting today, the world will be locked into another session of negotiations on how to tackle climate change. The conference, to be held in Cancun, Mexico, has drawn less excitement than its predecessor held in Copenhagen, Denmark, a year ago.


The excitement of Copenhagen was partly driven by the false information that circulated that the Kyoto Protocol was ending at that meeting. Though there were serious, but failed efforts, made at that conference to lay the protocol to rest, its first period actually ends in 2012, while a second commitment period will be entered into as soon as the first period elapses.


But why would anyone want to kill the protocol and why should it be sustained? The Kyoto Protocol is seen by some as the only legally binding instrument to which the industrialised and highly polluting nations can be made to commit to cutting emissions at source. From this perspective, when countries fight to abolish the protocol, they are simply trying to avoid making any real commitment to tackling climate change. Leave it to the market?


One problem with the workings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the ongoing negotiations is that it bases a chunk of its reasoning and framings on the market logic. This follows the path created by the mindset that has built a vicious paradigm of disaster capitalism, in which tragedy is seen as opportunity for profit. What do we mean by this?


Rather than take steps to curtail emissions of greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, some people are busy devising ways of making every item of nature a commodity placed at the altar of the market. Through this, everything is being assigned a value and many others are privatised in addition.


What makes this offensive is firstly that you cannot place a price on nature, on life. Secondly, speculators are hyping the utility of the carbon market as a means of fighting climate change. Some of the ways this manifests is through the carbon offsetting projects by which polluters in the industrialised countries continue to pollute, on the calculation that their emissions are being compensated for elsewhere.


As Friends of the Earth International stated in a recent media advisory, "Carbon trading does not lead to real emissions reductions. It is a dangerous distraction from real action to address the structural causes of climate change, such as over-consumption. Developed countries should radically cut their carbon emissions through real change at home, not by buying offsets from other countries. Carbon offsetting has no benefits for the climate or for developing countries – it only benefits developed countries, private investors, and major polluters who want to continue business as usual."


Cancun will obviously be crawling with carbon speculators and traders, as was the case in Copenhagen. And they have good reasons to be there. They will be there because policy makers on both sides of the divide see benefits in the schemes, even though the so-called benefits are pecuniary and are actually harmful to Mother Earth. But as far as the money enters the pockets of some poor countries, the rich countries can go on polluting, having paid their "penance." Not just money alone


The world appears deaf to the need for real actions to curb climate change, and the focus remains on money. In fact, while many of the items of the Cancun agenda have stalled, with regard to reduction of carbon emissions in the industralised nations, there is no shortage of proposals on how carbon markets can be brought in to give appearance of action.


Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) is one of such schemes in the scheme. Quick progress is being made on REDD and already, talks are advancing on other variants of the scheme. Indigenous and forest community people are opposed to REDD and object to its implementation, as attention is being focused on forests merely as carbon stocks for mercantile purposes. Significantly, many see REDD as not seeking to stop deforestation, but merely to reduce it.


It is also argued that that any reduced deforestation may not be sustained, as deforesters may just shift to another forest or zone to continue with their activities. In other words, REDD is a pretty fiction that may pump money into the pockets of some countries and corporations, but will marginalise forest peoples and will not help to fight climate change. The attraction, as critics have said, is that if this mechanism is linked to the carbon market, it will allow developed countries pay money to REDD-projects that preserve forests in developing countries, and in return receive carbon credits – buying the right to pollute.


There will also be strident rejection of any role at all for the World Bank in the climate finance architecture that may be devised in Cancun.


The atmosphere is set for a somber, winding series of negotiations. However, social movements and other civil society groups are set to push up the voices of the people, as already broadly articulated in the Peoples Agreement, reached at the World Peoples Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held in April 2010 at Cochabamba, Bolivia.


The environmental justice movement that took first serious steps in Copenhagen is sure to take firmer steps on the streets of Cancun and in thousands of Cancuns being planned for a multitude of locations around the world.


The message in Cancun, if we must expect motions towards real actions to tackle climate change, is that governments must pay attention to what the people are saying, to the real challenges faced by vulnerable peoples around the world, and not lend their ears to carbon speculators.


Find out more about what Friends of the Earth is calling for in Cancun


Nnimmo Bassey is Chair of Friends of the Earth International.

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