Carbon credits not the way to fight climate change

It’s a rare occasion when our two main political parties publicly agree on major policy but we saw this last week on climate change. Labour and National are both pointing to trade in carbon credits as the main solution to global warming.

With a consensus like this it’s tempting to think that at least on one issue we must be heading in the right direction. Unfortunately this is not so.

Like so much policy that has sprung from neo-liberal economics in the past 20 years this proposal has all the hallmarks of a myopic business-driven approach by which we will consume and pollute our way to a greener planet. It won’t work.

Labour previously suggested direct taxes on the main polluters. Agriculture produces about half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions – from livestock – and the government proposed a so-called “fart tax” to raise $8.4million to begin the mitigation process. Such was the farming outcry the proposal was abandoned. They next proposed a carbon tax but timidly backed down after a business-led revolt.

Both parties are now proposing a cap-and-trade system whereby supposedly the total man-made emission of carbon dioxide is capped and then carbon credits are traded between companies to regulate the amount of this global warming gas in the atmosphere.

Companies which burn fossil fuels such as gas and oil would purchase carbon credits to offset the carbon they are releasing. These credits could come from companies involved in such ventures as forestry projects, which store carbon in trees, or investment in renewable energy sources.

This is a very seductive proposal because rather than change our lifestyles it suggests we can continue to burn fossil fuels in the same profligate way as at present. We can continue to drive as much as we want in our SUVs, take a flight to Sydney for a weekend shopping or buy out of season fruit and vegetables specially transported here from all over the world. The carbon traders tell us that we can do all these things and salve our conscience with, for example, just a small investment in a forestry project in the developing world which will soak up the carbon emissions from our fossil-fuelled activities.

If only it were so simple.

Tree plantations at best provide only a temporary store of carbon which ends with harvesting, disease, fire and natural decay while the burning of fossil fuels creates a permanent increase in the amount of carbon which is actively cycling through forests, oceans and atmosphere. David Bellamy has suggested, only semi-seriously, that we may need to bury whole forests to remove carbon from cycling in the environment. A botanist from Cambridge University, Oliver Rackham, puts it more bluntly “Telling people to plant trees (to solve climate change) is like telling them to drink more water to keep down rising sea levels”.

The future of global trading in carbon credits is the unprecedented dislocation of people in developing countries as they give up their land for forests needed to soak up the carbon spewed out by the wealthy industrial world.

It’s the majority of humanity in these countries who will pay with their land, their freedom and ultimately their lives to maintain the developed world in the lifestyles to which we are wedded.

Of course if we only give them a chance the markets will find another solution when sea levels rise and climates change around the world. The wealthy will be able to abandon their homes near expanding deserts, violent storms or coastline swamps as “the market” revalues land and allocates it according to ability to pay. Our business leaders and assorted profligates will pick up the prime real estate in a globally-warmed planet. It might be a resort by a lovely lake in the Sahara or perhaps a vineyard high in the Southern Alps where snow is a distant memory.

Because market ideology is so dominant in both Labour and National we are working towards dead-end solutions to global warming and are discounting the chance for more effective nationally planned solutions. Ideas such as free buses and trains in our larger centres paid for with a steep increase in tax on petrol would be a healthy start.

Getting serious about the planet we leave our children and grandchildren means getting serious with the mindless mantra of economic growth and putting in place policies which reflect the true meaning of sustainability.

The last word here should go to Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network in the US. “Powerful interests have hijacked the climate debate and are forcing a corporate, free-market approach to the earth’s peril”