The atmosphere business

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The most recent issue of the journal ephemera is titled “The atmosphere business”. It “takes on the political and economic logic of the atmosphere business, putting it under renewed critical scrutiny”, questioning the underlying ideologies and assumptions and the contradiction of “climate capitalism”.

ephemera is an independent journal, supported by the School of Business and Management, Queen Mary, University of London. Unlike many other journals, it is free and the editors encourage copying and redistribution (provided the work of the authors is acknowledged). It can be viewed and downloaded below, or via the ephemera website.

The introduction to the issue, by Steffen Böhm, Anna-Maria Murtola and Sverre Spoelstra, includes an overview of the contents, including two articles specifically about REDD (details and here and here). It also includes a glossary of the deliberately confusing, non-transparent and complex language of the atmosphere business.

Carbon trading has not reduced emissions. The introduction notes that,

The only drops in carbon emissions that have occurred over the past two decades were during recessions or some other type of serious economic collapse. For example, the ex-Eastern bloc countries battled with various GDP contractions throughout the 1990s, and then, of course, there was the 2008 global financial crisis and resulting recession. Both events resulted in considerable GHG emission reductions, while carbon markets have had near to no impact whatsoever, other than creating new business and profit opportunities.

Given the fraud in the clean development mechanism (HFC-23, to mention the most obvious and prevalent fraud), carbon trading has actually increased emissions. In March 2012, a CDM and carbon professional commented anonymously on CDM Watch’s discussion forum:

Almost every project I encountered was being been [sic] gamed or defrauded in some way in order to prove additionality. Unorthodox financial engineering, false certificates, false board meeting minutes…, redacted and re-edited feasibility studies, deliberate omission of material information…. These were all tools of the trade if the original documents or numbers didn’t “fit” the rules. At times, when it got really bad we were told to turn a blind eye as our clients created the necessary evidence… Given the above it begs the question: why is there no global investigation taking place? … Where are the serious fraud offices and Interpol in all of this? A part of the answer, surely, is that UNFCCC Parties (i.e. governments) are complicit in the sham of the CDM.

The special issue of ephemera starts with five notes:

Mike Childs (Privatising the atmosphere: A solution or dangerous con?) “sets the scene from the point of view of a non-governmental organization, which has been (critically) engaged with the politics of climate change negotiations for many years. Childs provides an accessible overview of some of the key points of contention in the negotiations and points to the difficulties and dangers involved in thinking of the atmosphere in terms of property to be owned and divided amongst a number of shareholders in a global market.”

Oscar Reyes (Carbon markets after Durban) “discusses the state of carbon markets in light of the COP17 negotiations in Durban. He throws us directly into the deep end, as the note tackles the contradictions and shortcomings of various market-based mechanisms intended to solve the challenge of climate change, in particular the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). As Reyes concludes, despite the evident shortcomings of these mechanisms and the recent collapse of carbon markets, the outcome of the negotiations at Durban still involved an ongoing expansion of trading mechanisms, on the reasons of which he offers some reflections.”

Gökçe Günel (A dark art: Field notes on carbon capture and storage policy negotiations at COP17) “offers an ethnographic account of the climate negotiations in Durban with focus in particular on the controversies involved in the negotiations around carbon capture and storage (CCS). The note provides a rare backstage view into how climate negotiations actually unfold and the various ideas and arguments involved in the deliberations.”

Patrick Bond (Durban’s conference of polluters, market failure and critic failure) “gives a detailed assessment of the climate negotiations in Durban, naming its winners and losers. Bond puts the negotiations both in a local, South African context and a global politico-economic one. He offers a detailed analysis of the role of critics and climate justice activists at the conference, reflecting in particular on their failure to mobilise people for their cause. Based on his assessment of how the conference proceeded, Bond concludes with a call for a necessary regrouping of critical forces.”

Tadzio Mueller (The people’s climate summit in Cochabamba: A tragedy in three acts) “provides some reflections on the alternative global meeting on climate change that was held in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2010 in direct response to the perceived inadequacies of the COP negotiations taking place under the UN framework. Taking his inspiration from Shakespeare, this note sets up the meeting in the context of a play with three acts, in which Mueller reflects on the politics involved. Mueller pays attention in particular to the difficulties in articulating a global, anti-capitalist climate politics and the controversies involved in the ‘new extractivism’ embraced by the Latin American New Left.”

Next up is a conversation:

Larry Lohmann and Steffen Böhm (Critiquing carbon markets: A conversation) “engage in a conversation about what it might mean to ‘critique’ carbon markets. In their discussion on the contradictions of the ‘climate commodity’ and the politics of critique, they touch upon a variety of issues from the problems of inequality, incoherence and procrastination to the benefits and limits for political struggles of various theoretical traditions such as actor-network theory, world-systems theory and Marxism.”

Followed by six articles:

Robert Fletcher (Capitalizing on chaos: Climate change and disaster capitalism) “develops Naomi Klein’s notion of ‘disaster capitalism’, which refers to the growing trend to see climate change as a business opportunity. Whereas Klein uses this phrase in particular for attempts to capitalize on natural disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis, Fletcher shows how this notion also speaks to the way the climate crisis is treated at large. In particular, Fletcher shows how the climate crisis has (i) been used for the marketization of formerly public domains and (ii) how climate disasters are used for short-term and long-term financial gains.”

Jerome Whitington (The prey of uncertainty: Climate change as opportunity) “elaborates on the speculative nature of climate capitalism, arguing that the atmosphere business is currently characterized by multiple levels of uncertainty. This uncertainty, Whitington argues, applies for example to what we call ‘carbon’: instead of being a tangible product that can be measured, valued and traded, Whitington argues that carbon ‘is an assemblage of agreements, conventional practices, durable artefacts and rules held among people who operate in very different contexts around the world’ (Whitington, in this issue). It is this uncertainty about the very nature of the ‘thing’ that is traded in carbon which feeds speculation and climate opportunism, hindering the establishment of international agreements.”

Ingmar Lippert (Carbon classified? Unpacking heterogenous relations inscribed into corporate carbon emissions) “shows the contingent nature of taken-for-granted facts about corporate carbon emissions. By entering the ‘hidden abode’ of their production, Lippert shows the practical difficulties involved in the accounting practices used as a basis for the representation of a company’s total carbon emissions. The detailed analysis points to the highly political nature of the classificatory practices underlying the creation of carbon emissions as physical facts. Thus, Lippert calls for more attention to be paid to the ‘ontological politics’ of the creation of carbon facts.”

Joanna Cabello and Tamra Gilbertson (A colonial mechanism to enclose lands: A critical review of two REDD+-focused special issues) “provide a detailed review of two recent special issues on the REDD+ mechanism, a carbon offset scheme designed to contribute to climate change mitigation through a focus on the governance of global forests through market means. They point to the many contentious elements involved in REDD+ projects, raising questions about their actual contribution to the reduction of GHG emissions. Cabello and Gilbertson criticise in particular the epistemological assumptions underlying many of the discussions of the REDD+ architecture, which reduce all value to monetary value and assume that further incorporation of indigenous communities into the capitalist markets automatically constitutes progress, thus silencing alternative voices in the process.”

Rebecca Pearse (Mapping REDD in the Asia-Pacific: Governance, marketisation and contention) “focuses on the governance issues involved in the establishment of REDD projects in the Asia-Pacific. Focusing on the mapping of ongoing projects in the region, and taking a closer look at four projects in particular, Pearse argues that what is often presented as a triple ‘win’ situation for ecological, economic and social interests is actually riddled with contradictions. Far from being a coherent framework, then, Pearse presents the REDD architecture as continuously contested by a range of actors and calls for more research into the networks of different actors that contribute to the success and failure of the mechanism.”

Esteve Corbera and Charlotte Friedli (Planting trees through the Clean Development Mechanism: A critical assessment) “critically assess eight forestry projects registered under the United Nation’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which is a carbon offsetting scheme established by the Kyoto Protocol. Corbera and Friedli pay attention in particular to the local social, cultural and environmental effects of the projects over and above purely economic aspects. They also emphasise the underlying uncertainties with regards to accounting and monitoring practices that are also discussed in some of the other contributions to this issue, and argue for the need for more stringent regulation if the mechanism is to continue to operate. Corbera and Friedli call for more empirical research into the consequences of the carbon offsetting projects currently in operation, and suggest that the establishment of an ‘Ecological Debt Fund’ would constitute a more effective and just mechanism through which Northern countries can repay their ecological debt to the Global South.”

The special issue ends with three book reviews:

Siddhartha Dabhi (The ‘third way’ for climate action) “offers a critical review of Anthony Giddens’ The politics of climate change. Giddens, in line with his ideas of (and affiliation with) ‘third way’ politics, suggests that free market capitalism must be controlled by a politics that finds a balance between free market neo-liberalism, on the one hand, and reformist socialism on the other. Dabhi welcomes the book’s accessible introduction to some of the most crucial topics in the politics of climate change, but laments its lack of depth: the ‘solution’ of a third way may only appear as a solution by systematically leaving some of the political tensions unaddressed. Dabhi turns Giddens’ thesis that climate change is still waiting for a politics on its head: discussions around climate change are political through and through, whereas the suggested solution of a ‘third way’ politics denies the complex and often opposing forces that currently make up the political landscape of climate change.”

Peter Newell (Carbon trading in South Africa: Plus ça change?) “reviews Patrick Bond, Rehana Dada and Graham Erion’s (eds.) Climate change, carbon trading and civil society. The book, in Newell’s reading, provides an important contribution to debates around carbon markets. He has two main critical comments: its polemic nature (against carbon markets and CDM in particular) occasionally overshadows needed reflections on the dynamics behind the belief in CDM-like solutions and their specific consequences. In his review, Newell’s also touches upon what we as editors have experienced: the atmosphere business is moving fast – perhaps too fast for traditional academic outlets such as edited volumes and journal issues.”

David Levy (Can capitalism survive climate change?) “What Giddens’ analysis lacks (see Dabhi’s review) is, according to David Levy, one of the main strengths of Peter Newell and Matthew Paterson’s Climate capitalism: they provide a nuanced overview of the complexities that underlie the question if and to what extent capitalism is able to provide an answer to climate change. Newell and Paterson, in Levy’s words, ‘demonstrate a grudging embrace’ of carbon markets while recognising its many flaws. While this embrace by some of the leading critical commentators and academics on the political economy of environmental change and development has been a bit of a surprise to some (see, e.g. Lohmann and Böhm, this issue), Levy seems to support their analysis, adding, however, one important caveat. Capitalism may well survive climate change, but in a way that could bring its ugly, authoritarian face to the fore, rather than its (imagined) promise of a harmonious order between man, nature and economic growth. We have been warned!”

Download here:

The Atmosphere Business
The Atmosphere Business (3.0 MB).

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