Tracking the World Bank at the UN Climate Negotiations

Photo by Lindsey Gillies with Gears of Change

Photo by Lindsey Gillies with Gears of Change
Photo by Lindsey Gillies with Gears of Change
Source: Gears of Change

This past December I attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP17 negotiations in Durban, South Africa, branded by social movements as the “Durban Disaster.” With the UN process still in a daze after the spectacular failure of the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, the G20 nations have moved quickly over the past two years to ensure that any outcomes from the negotiations only serve to reinforce their positions of economic dominance within the fossil-fueled global economy. Despite the strong objections of civil society, the United States was successful in 2010 at securing the World Bank – an institution viewed as an instrument of US imperialism by many social movements in the South – as the interim trustee of a major new fund created to distribute finance for climate mitigation and adaptation.

In addition to following the ongoing development of the Green Climate Fund in Durban, I also took the time to attend a number of World Bank organized side events focused on climate finance and investment. Besides funding massive fossil fuel intensive projects, such as last year’s three and a half billion dollar loan to build one of the planet’s largest coal-fired power plant complexes in South Africa, the World Bank has been ramping up its portfolio of “Climate Investment Funds” and is jockeying for leadership roles in most of the aspects of the UN climate change proceedings.

So, is the World Bank really turning over a new clean, green leaf, ready to help the world’s poor contend with the climate chaos caused by the same fossil fuel-intensive development patterns which the Bank has championed?  Hardly. Instead, under the leadership of President Robert Zoellick, a former head honcho at Goldman Sachs, the Bank is moving at full speed towards laying the groundwork for a colossal new financial services sector based in environmental products, while using the UN process as a legitimizing cover.  This brilliant scheme (note that all the environmental market initiatives are called “schemes”) will simultaneously provide a new investment frontier for the pools of stagnant capital controlled by the 1% in this slumping world-economy, as well as provide an offsets-based shell game which allows the planet’s biggest polluters to continue with business-as-usual, while giving the appearance that they’re “going green.”

Potentially the most interesting part of tracking the Bank was observing how it functioned in partnership with the US negotiators, and in fact seemed to be generating the policy language which Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing (the US reps) would later echo impeccably.  Repeat after me: “Private sector engagement…public sector finance as guarantor of private sector loans…catalyzing investment…markets, markets, markets.”  It was essentially like watching a game of telephone, as other government delegations would parrot the US/World Bank line, with mainstream NGO’s such as World Wildlife Foundation following suit like puppies eager to please.

Climate Investment Fun with the World Bank

The first event I attended at COP17 was the launching of a new Climate Investment Fund (CIF).  As of 2011, the World Bank’s Carbon Finance Unit hosts 15 of these funds, which taken together are capitalized to the tune of $2.3 billion USD1.

The Carbon Initiative for Development, or the “Ci-Dev Fund”, was launched in Durban with the goal of helping “the least-developed countries access financing for low-carbon investments and enable them to tap into carbon markets after 2012… [t]he Bank wants to ensure that its suite of financial instruments, including private sources of capital via carbon markets, is accessible to all country clients so they can invest in their sustainable development2.”

The key words here are “financial instruments” and “private sources of capital via carbon markets.”  The Ci-Dev fund exists to fast-track the generation of carbon offset credits from projects as cook stoves in Africa, and household biogas systems in Nepal.  These offset credits will then be sold on international carbon markets, and can be purchased by polluting firms eager to meet emissions targets without actually changing their high-polluting behavior.

So the claim that Ci-Dev finance will aid in “sustainable development” is a wee bit of a misnomer – for how can development be ‘sustainable’ if it is de facto allowing for the continued frying of the planet, with the poorest and most marginalized regions to be hit the hardest?

Let’s say it: Se-ques-tra-tion

Another set of World Bank side events which I had the pleasure of attending at COP17 dealt with what the Bank calls ‘Climate Smart Agriculture.’  As with forest carbon initiatives such as the controversial Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) UN program, ‘Climate Smart Agriculture’ is just a recognition that good agro-ecological practices can actually sequester carbon from the atmosphere, and store it semi-permanently in the soil.  This is precisely what the global federation of peasant farmers La Via Campesina has been saying for years, with their slogan “Small farmers (Campesinos) cool the planet.”

However, while Via Campesina sees in this another reason to protect the land, food, and other rights of peasant farmers worldwide, the World Bank sees an immense new investment frontier, through the creation of agriculture-based carbon offsets which can be bought and sold on global markets.

The Bank led an all-out push to get agriculture included under the UNFCCC’s carbon mitigation proceedings, building momentum for the decision by hosting agriculture-focused panels which featured UN dignitaries, finance and agricultural ministers, and of course, the ubiquitous private sector representatives.  Thanks partly to heavy organizing and a letter signed by over 100 civil society organizations from Africa and around the world calling for the UN to reject efforts to consider agricultural soils within carbon markets, it didn’t happen.  At least, not yet.  In the Durban Platform outcome from COP17, agriculture is found not under markets-focused mitigation, but under the Scientific and Technical body, a relative backwater.  We’ll see if this moves forward at COP18.

The delay is good news, considering how the inclusion of soil carbon into offset markets has played out so far.  During the question and answer session at the launch of the Bank’s third ‘tranche’ of its BioCarbon Fund (which finances soil and forest-based initiatives), a young woman spoke up who had worked for a Bank-funded soil carbon project in Kenya.  She referenced a report from her organization which revealed how the focus on carbon finance and mitigation has posed real dangers for food security and rural community livelihoods, with most of the finance ending up in the pockets of private companies and project developers.  A representative from CARE International working in Africa piped up and said that they are facing soil carbon projects where the financial break-even point for the farmers won’t be reached for 10 years.

One Big Happy Family

Celebrating one year in operation for its Partnership for Market Readiness, the World Bank hosted a panel discussion which included finance ministers from Mexico, Brazil, Denmark, and South Africa.  Connie Hedegaard, the European Union’s Commissioner for Climate Action, opened the panel:

“[The Partnership for Market Readiness] brings together developed and developing countries with a shared interest to further the development of the next generation of multilateral carbon market mechanisms…We need to succeed in developing functioning new market mechanisms at the multilateral level.  The alternative will be a world of fragmented crediting mechanisms and a multitude of carbon currencies that would move us away from a seamless international carbon market with a single carbon price.”

After reflecting on the new market initiatives announced in the past year by California, China, Denmark, and Australia, Hedegaard concluded “So, the good news is the carbon market family is definitely growing.”

Here’s where the interesting part comes in – the carbon price, in actuality, has collapsed.   So is it good news that more countries are headed down this policy cul-de-sac?

Over the past year, the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) – the largest carbon market on the planet – has seen its carbon price lose over half its value, currently trading at about 7 Euros per ton of CO2.  The carbon price in the UNFCCC’s Clean Development Mechanism, which generates carbon offset credits that are accepted in the EU ETS, has fallen to under 4 Euros/ton.  Economically speaking, at this price, there is zero incentive for polluting firms to invest in low-carbon technologies.  At this price the market is useless – a playground for speculators.

In fact, this June Andrew Steer, the World Bank’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, was quoted in the Guardian saying: “The [carbon] market is failing us.  It has done very good things in the past but is not delivering what we feel is necessary.”  And in August (when the price was even higher than it is now!), Reuters proclaimed carbon to be the “world’s worst performing commodity.”

This was the elephant in the room at all of these World Bank events.  The panelists danced around it, making references to the “too-low carbon price” (Hedegaard) and fluctuating markets, yadda yadda.  But when confronted with the basic reality that the planet’s future is being handed over to jumpy Wall Street traders and unstable and untested financial schemes, the room would get silent.

“I’ve been waiting for someone to ask that question,” was the measured response Rachel Kyte, VP of Sustainable Development at the World Bank, gave to a query about the carbon price and long-term viability of carbon markets.  Responding to my question about when the Bank saw the “carbon market bubble bursting,” the Mexican undersecretary at the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources chuckled and leaned forward to speak into the mic: “It already popped.”

Forging ahead, armed with ideology…and not much more

I spent one afternoon at a presentation which reviewed the recent World Bank publication, prepared at the request of G20 Finance Ministers, entitled “Mobilizing Sources of Climate Finance.”  Featuring an all-star cast of representatives from the French Finance ministry, the US Treasury Department, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, panelists discussed different methods of finance generation and emissions pricing instruments.

In the Question and Answer segment, I raised the point that the documents we’d been handed by the IMF, as well as the majority of the comments made by the presenters, claimed that there was no real difference between a carbon tax or emissions trading.  As I pointed out, experience shows otherwise.  Each of the presentations had acknowledged the major difficulties faced by emissions trading schemes, but then went on to advocate for the expansion of these complex schemes, equating them with a simple tax levied on carbon dioxide emissions.

The IMF rep took my question, and proceeded to lay out three detailed arguments of why a carbon tax is far more simple to implement, and more effective in bringing about structural changes than an emissions trading scheme.  He was nonchalant, and it was clear that this was his personal opinion, having been engaged in policy-making and having studied the matter.  But this contrasted with the “official line” we’d been fed only ten minutes earlier.  What gives?

What was clearly left out was mention that a carbon tax goes against the ‘official religion’ of the IMF or the World Bank, and increasingly, the United Nations environmental agencies.  Favoring the deregulation of business and financial activity, the opening up of borders to international trade, and the removal of ‘market-distorting’ subsidies (for housing, agriculture, or food, for example), neo-liberal economic policy and corporate globalization has been the dominant policy package of capitalism for over two decades, enforced through supra-national entities like the World Trade Organization, the IMF, and the World Bank.  Through this lens of ‘market fundamentalism,’ any kind of tax is immediately seen as creating ‘market distortions,’ which will presumably cause the ghosts of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman to rise from the dead, not to mention those of Ronald Reagan and Margaret “There Is No Alternative” Thatcher, who were essential in implementing neoliberal policies in the 1980′s in their home countries and abroad.

So, Question: How does the neoliberal economic religion approach the climate crisis, which has been dubbed “the greatest market failure the world has seen” by one prominent economist?

The answer, of course, is to create more markets.  From the Emissions Trading Scheme, or “Cap and Trade” approach, which dices up our common atmosphere into a patchwork of invisible property rights (‘rights to pollute’), then hands them over for bargain deals- although most of the time, for free- to the biggest polluters on the planet, to the nascent markets in financial securities backed by ‘ecosystem services,’ the priests of the neoliberal religion are spinning out increasingly desperate ways to maintain business as usual, while building the facade that they’re ‘solving the climate crisis.’  It would be humorous if it wasn’t all so depressing.

So, by now, one can see what some of the implications of a World Bank-controlled Green Climate Fund could be.  I’ve only touched on one aspect of the ‘green’ investment schemes getting underway, which run the gamut from new and improved GMO trees and organisms, to geo-engineering, agrofuels and nanotechnology, all the way to money for more good-old massive dams, mega wind farms, and super-sized solar arrays.  And, of course, we’ll be sending Haliburton to rebuild infrastructure after that next super-typhoon, financed though the GCF’s Private Sector Facility using ‘adaptation’ finance.

Luckily, there’s a growing movement against the Bank’s involvement in global ecological finance and policy, information around which can be found here: www.worldbankoutofclimate.org.  As we move towards Rio+20, this issue will certainly gain more traction and energy.  Occupy the World Bank?

Keith Brunner is the Media Coordinator for Gears of Change Media (www.gearsofchange.org).  An organizer and environmental educator living in Burlington, Vermont, Keith covered the 2010 and 2011 UN climate negotiations with Gears of Change, and is active in local and regional organizing in the northeast US.  He enjoys sailing on Lake Champlain, growing corn, and getting up early in the morning.

Notes:

1. www.carbonfinance.org

2. http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/NEWS/0,,contentMDK:23062384~pagePK:64257043~piPK:437376~theSitePK:4607,00.html