Burying Heads in the Sandbag: Helping the Market Bring Climate Catastrophe

Merrick, 30th November 2009ce

Imagine thinking the best way to solve climate change is to leave it the bankers, financiers and brokers who caused the financial crisis, using the same complex web of deals and dodgy accounting. Welcome to the world of carbon trading, the get out of jail free card being used by the polluter nations at the Copenhagen talks. And welcome, too, to advocates among those who should know better.

This year’s Shared Planet conference featured a talk by Anna Pearson from Sandbag - an environmental organisation I'd not heard of before - about their particular issue, making carbon emissions trading more effective.

I went in unconvinced, and came out more so. Carbon trading is a way of making the illusion of emissions cuts happen in a way that's acceptable - and usually very profitable - to the most polluting industries.

In Europe, we've got the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS), a cap-and-trade system like the one they're proposing in the USA. Basically, the government sets a limit on the amount of emissions allowed, and then issues permits to emitters. If they want to emit above their allowance, they have to buy spare ones off someone who emits less.

The problems begin when industry lobbies for a very high cap to be set, rather than one based on what climate science demands of us. Then industry gets the government to give the permits away instead of auctioning them.

The permit levels in the EU were set so high that high-emitting power and steel companies were given enough to cover their activities and way more besides, so they sold off the excess and made billions of euros in windfall profits.

Where cuts have to be made, it is substantially done by means of offsets. Instead of people here taking responsibility for their actions and cutting their emissions, they pay people abroad to do some carbon-saving scheme. Ensuring that the schemes work isn’t easy when it’s in the interests of both parties to exaggerate their effectiveness.

Sandbag agree with all this analysis. They think, though, that we can push for a tighter cap, and for regulation that bans crap offsets and the like.


The carbon trading system is modelled on the American system for dealing with sulphur dioxide emissions in the 1980s. The industrialised nations had to cut back in order to abate acid rain. Everyone else made laws, and these ensured greater cuts in a shorter space of time. But, more to the point, these were national schemes aimed at a substance produced by a few installations that could get by without it.

As Larry Lohmann said in New Scientist,

global warming requires a more radical solution: nothing less than a reorganisation of society and technology that will leave most remaining fossil fuels safely underground. Carbon trading can't do this. It just encourages the industries most addicted to coal, oil and gas to carry on much as before.

Had the sulphur dioxide trading been an international system, with a tangle of offsets and different countries trying to hit different targets and myriad other complexities, it would have failed. And indeed, the five years of the EU-ETS have seen no real reductions in emissions.

Emissions trading is, in short, a system proven to fail, a system designed to be acceptable to - and in no small part actually designed by - the very polluters who don't want to rein in emissions.

Sandbag’s Anna Pearson agreed with most of that but said we were 'living in cloud cuckoo land' if we thought we could get stringent cuts by straight regulation. Industry has fought against the fractionally-decent emissions trading system, it would surely fight proper loophole-free regulation all the more.

But it's not the method industry fights, it's the outcome - they don't want to actually cut emissions. It would be just as hard to get rules for emissions trading that delivered serious cuts as it would to get those cuts by decree. Thinking that we could somehow come in on carbon trading and inch it towards swift, deep cuts without resistance is genuine cloud cuckoo land.

The capital city of cloud cuckoo land is a place where we have to be reducing emissions within ten years and believe we’ll do it using a system designed to prevent serious cuts. We do not have time to tweak the EU-ETS and watch it fail all the more. We have to see what is most needed, then get it by the route most likely to deliver it with certainty.


Sandbag’s approach has an implied acceptance that the necessary changes are impossible. Anna Pearson said that, whilst there might be plenty of passionate climate campaigners, if we asked people 'out there' if they'd make the cuts required, they wouldn't say yes.

I beg to differ. And, right here, we hit the thing that makes me be not just a bit exasperated at this well-meaning but misguided NGO, but actively angry at their whole perspective. This is a global issue about global justice.

If you went out there and had a world referendum asking, ‘should the rich countries responsible for climate change repay their carbon debt? Should they downscale their luxury profligate consumption before they do any more damage?’ we all know what the answer would be.

Sandbag’s ‘out there’ only means the minority rich world. Their chosen focus reinforces the corporate power that created and perpetuates the problem. It is a perspective skewed in favour of wealth and against the majority world and justice. Worse, it is seemingly unaware that it has this bias. It has been around market economies so long it cannot imagine what concerns outside it might look like.

What cuts emitters are forced to make are judged solely on what’s cheapest, rather than what’s most sustainable, most just or most socially useful. They're allowed to buy offsets in far-off places for schemes that are poorly verified, ineffective or that would have happened anyway. China appears to have set up installations emitting fluorocarbons so it could get EU money for shutting them down as EU-ETS offsets. Meanwhile the Kyoto treaty’s Clean Development Mechanism gave carbon credits to rubbish incinerators in residential areas of India and schemes driving Indonesian farmers from their land so palm oil plantations could expand.

If we do not place justice at the heart of our thinking in creating climate solutions, it will not get a look-in at all. The rich have the loudest voices and it is easy for them to make enough bluster to obscure the smaller voices of the majority world.

The intricacies of emissions trading have expanded to become the main focus of what solutions to climate change should be, instead of implementing the fair, solid, practical, proven projects that are already here, waiting. As long as we accept emissions trading we are paying for a grand act of deckchair rearrangement and giving our money to the person who steered us into the iceberg.

Emissions trading is a way for the polluters to design their own rules so that rich to get richer, and the worst offenders get the biggest rewards. Trying to create a system acceptable to their desires is absurd enough, but pandering to it denies the fact that their wealth has been accrued by passing on the costs to others, largely on to the poorest in the world. They are climate criminals. They should be glad that all we want to take is their ability to carry on and not demanding they hand over their misgotten riches.


Sandbag point out that reducing our personal electricity consumption, whilst important, has an unintended and unavoidable counter-productive effect. Energy generators are given a number of permits based on what they emit. So, just cutting your consumption at home has the effect of giving the generator a surplus of trading permits, which they then sell to over-polluters. Your responsible action becomes their profit!

This is even true if you buy your electricity from a 100% green electricity supplier like Good Energy. If you use less, the ‘spare’ electricity will be bought up by other suppliers due to government incentives to supply renewable power. So, somewhere down the line, there's a cutback in fossil generation leading to unused permits.

We need a way to make them pay, and Sandbag’s idea is that we can take permits out of the market. One of their main activities is actually buying EU-ETS permits on the market and destroying them. If enough people did it, it would force up the price of the credits still in circulation, and thereby make the EU-ETS start to function as it should. Given that this would require people giving millions of pounds to Sandbag, it’s not a short-term solution.

With buying permits, just as with carbon offsets, there is an implication that we can buy our way out of having to bring our personal emissions down to a sustainable level. Indeed, this is suggested by the way Sandbag's website sells permits with the sole yardstick of 'one permit equals one transatlantic flight', ignoring the inescapable unsustainability of long-haul aviation. Nobody who takes transatlantic flights emits a sustainable amount of carbon.

This was reinforced by Anna Pearson explaining carbon rationing in the UK by saying that, for example, we could have an allowance of ten tonnes per person, without any reference to what might actually be sustainable. Were we to share it equally among all people, the sustainable amount is around two tonnes. Say bye bye to those long-haul flights that Sandbag try to help you justify.

When carbon offsets were launched it was, in the main, done by well-informed and noble people who just hadn’t foreseen how devious corporate interests were going to be, nor that there was in an inherent injustice in allowing the rich to buy their choice of activity at the expense of the poor. Sandbag’s foray into emissions trading is strikingly similar.

Anna Pearson said it was important that 'the NGO community' doesn't get caught up in in-fighting over whether carbon trading is valid or not, that there be a united front. This, too, is similar to what was said by offsetting and agrofuel companies a couple of years ago. When someone hitches a horse to the back of your cart and it starts pulling in the wrong direction, you need to stop and cut it loose, and preferably bring it round the front to pull in the direction you need to go.

Sandbag have diagnosed the problem correctly, namely that there’s too much polluter power steering our response to climate change, and they won’t let us implement an effective strategy. But their conclusion – that we should tug at the sleeve of that power and plead with it instead of overcome it – is defeatist and useless. If we are to have a chance of making the global movement so desperately needed then we have to base our ideas on justice. The majority world will not stand alongside us if we’re proposing things that fuck them over, and climate campaigners will stay dissipated and ineffectual.


It's not necessarily a binary choice between regulation and emissions trading, Anna Pearson told us, instead she was in favour of both, 'using every tool in the box'. Sounds so lovely, just like Arthur Scargill talking of an ‘integrated energy policy’. Scargill wants renewables like the rest of us, but along with coal and even the obscenely high-carbon coal-to-liquid replacement for oil. He uses words like ‘integrate’ and ‘balance’ to make it sound cuddly. Speak the language of inclusivity and people feel they should include you, even if what you stand for is obscene and unacceptable. Who could be against balance and diversity?

But I don't want my surgeon to use 'every tool in the box' when one of them is a rusty pair of secateurs put there by a convicted serial killer. Carbon trading is a market tool, for market benefit, designed and implemented by people who have a strong faith in the inherent rightness of the market. It puts decisions about what the solutions to climate change should be in the hands of the same sort of banking gamblers and speculators who caused the financial crisis.

To go into that labyrinth of wilfully dubious accounting and corporate dominance is to pretty much guarantee failure and distract us away from our ever-slimming chance of avoiding runaway climate change. To not just drift in but actively advocate it, as Sandbag do, is to choose to become part of the problem. It makes those of us who advocate the solutions science demands of us seem extremist nutters.

This market apologism ran through everything Anna Pearson said. Her galling understatement that “the market might not be working perfectly at the moment” wasn’t some slip of the tongue. The Sandbag website explains that

these huge polluting companies are actually just making stuff that we need, ok and some stuff we perhaps don’t, but on the whole they are not James Bond villains deliberately destroying the planet. They only stop doing things if they’re told to by Governments or if doing so makes them money.

We’re talking about people who know the science as well as we do, people who run installations that are emitting more greenhouse gases than many entire nations, doing so largely unnecessarily, in the full and certain knowledge that it will kill people in large numbers. And yet these people don’t have to do it but choose to because they get rich from it. They refuse to stop except by force or an offer of even more money elsewhere.

What word best describes them? ‘Genocidal’ isn’t right, but it’s as close as I can think of. Certainly, the James Bond villain holding centres of population to ransom with a death-ray may be a caricature, but it’s a pretty accurate one.
Carbon trading is a market system and these all, sooner or later, keel over and need rescuing by the state. With financial collapse, the state has reserves to bail us out, money can be borrowed. With the climate, there is no credit or Federal Reserve. Nature doesn't do bailouts.

If we don't discredit and abandon market solutions, rejecting their paramount desire for profit rather than survival, then we can never tackle climate change. If we don't recognise that their belief in infinite economic growth is literally insane on a finite planet and erase it from the foundations of our society, we cannot solve the problems of overconsumption and condemn those who come after us to be its victims.


Carbon Trade Watch

The Corner House features a lot of the work of Larry Lohmann, author of Carbon Trading: A Critical Conversation on Climate Change, Privatisation and Power.

The current issue of New Internationalist focuses on the Copenhagen talks. In Taking Care Of Business, the corporate takeover of the talks is documented, with carbon trading as the centerpiece. The ways in which change can be made outside of that are covered by In Our Hands.