Monday, October 24, 2011

Paying to contaminate

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, more than two centuries ago, the emission of greenhouse gases has constantly been on the rise. We know that these gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and the infamous CFC, which destroy the ozone layer) are the ones to be blamed for the global warming, and we all know that either we solve this problem or climate change will reach a tipping point that could destroy all life on our planet. We are also aware that carbon dioxide is ranked number one in terms of its direct contribution to the greenhouse effect due to the amount of the gas rather than it being particularly more harmful than others. Carbon dioxide emissions are mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels but there are other causes too, such as deforestation (releasing great amounts of CO2 and destroying woods which would reabsorb it). Nevertheless, the burning of oil, coal and gas is still by far the main source of CO2 into the atmosphere. 
So far, we know about it, but we do nothing to solve it. With this in mind, in 1997 the UN called an International Convention on climate change, resulting in the approval of a framework known as the Kyoto Protocol. This international treaty aimed at achieving a reduction of emissions from industrialised countries of 8% from 1990 levels -- not an extraordinary percentage but a good start in combating global warming nonetheless. The ratification of the Kyoto Protocol was rather complex because it required the ratifying countries to account for at least 55% of global emissions, but the US and Russia initially opposed it. Eventually, in 2005 Russia signed this protocol, achieving this 55% requirement, in exchange for an EU commitment to funding the Russian restructuring of industry and modernisation of oil plants. When it comes to international treaties, all signatories want something in return. For its part, the US has not signed it yet.

However, the problem is that the Kyoto Protocol, which is already in force, seems to be fairly useless in practice. It is a good treaty but we should always pay close attention to the small print. In the Kyoto Protocol, this small print includes a clause about “flexible mechanisms” which in effect make it completely redundant. To sum it up, the treaty establishes a maximum limit of annual CO2 emissions per country, but global warming is precisely global, so it does not matter where these emissions come from because they all end up in our atmosphere, so parties to the Kyoto Protocol are allowed to buy CO2 units (emission permits for greenhouse gas) from other countries to help meet their domestic emission reduction targets. In other words, countries with high emission rates can buy some extra polluting allowance from other countries with lower emission rates. Basically, if I am very hungry and you are not going to eat up all your cake, I eat my piece of cake and buy some of yours too. The richest countries have more industry, so they should work harder to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but thanks to this trade mechanism they can buy emission units from poorer countries with less industry, so that the global amount of emissions is still within legal limits. 
Moreover, the money received by developing countries for their emission units should theoretically help them to introduce cleaner energy sources to progress towards becoming “healthy” and non-polluting countries. The overall aim is to reduce the total amount of emissions and everyone will be happy: rich countries do not need to reduce their production and poor countries have money to invest in clean energies. It does sound like a pretty good plan, but in practice it is just a con.
First of all, these flexible mechanisms allow northern countries to contaminate even more than before just in exchange for some money, but in the end they receive a double benefit because their money is assigned to projects in southern countries run by the same transnational companies which pollute and they take the profits back to northern countries with them (what a coincidence!). The way things are set up, rich countries always come out on top, as they still contaminate the same or even more, but thanks to the emission units bought from other countries, it is all legal: we comply with the Kyoto Protocol! Poor countries do not end up benefiting at all because these apparently clean energy projects still use fossil fuels so they also contaminate even more than before. And on top of that, most of these projects are implemented and run by foreign companies, so profits do not remain in the country. At the end of the day, gas emissions increase, but every country complies with its rates, so we have a clean conscience.
However, not only do CO2 emissions increase, but also the inequalities between rich and poor countries, due to the rise of a new speculative market: emission unit dealing. It is known as carbon colonialism. Just to give an example: by May 2011, Spain had already reached its CO2 emission rate (because no effective measure to cut emissions has been ever implemented), so we just bought emission units from Senegal to be able to pollute even more.
And just a funny story: one of the main promoters of these flexible mechanisms (who put pressure on the EU to approve them) was a well-known former US vice-president who went on to become an environmental activist: Al Gore. Funny, isn’t it?
At this point, we can only wonder whether the Kyoto Protocol has been of any use. One of the best answers to this question was given by Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner in an article at Nature: “The Kyoto Protocol is a symbolically important expression of governments’ concern about climate change. But as an instrument for achieving emissions reductions, it has failed”.  

Some data about CO2 emissions worldwide:
There are many different lists ranking countries by carbon dioxide emissions, but in all of them the US and China are always at the top (some times the US is the first, some other times it is the second). The third is always the European Union, although in the lists ranking countries by emissions per capita, the EU goes down to number 10 and China ranks only number 19, whereas the top positions are for the US, Australia and Canada. In any case, these lists with the most polluting countries always show the same names in different orders: the most industrialised countries plus some emerging nations such as China, Brazil, Russia, Iran or Turkey.
Pollution by carbon dioxide emissions is in the hands of the big players: the 10 most contaminating countries release 67.07% of the total emissions. Spain (47 million inhabitants) releases 30 times more CO2 than Kenya (41 million inhabitants) and 175 times more CO2 than the Democratic Republic of the Congo (70 millions inhabitants).


  1. Kyoto Protocol text:
  2. About “carbon colonialism":
  3. Article by Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner published at the scientific journal Nature about the results of Kyoto Protocol:
  4. List of countries by carbon dioxide emissions:
  5. CO2 emissions per capita:


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