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Kyoto Protocol: Money To Burn

Industrial societies have long been releasing excessive amounts of carbon from underground deposits of coal and oil, where it was safely sealed off from the atmosphere, into the air. It's now clear to everyone except the flat earth society that this burning of carbon-based fuels has set us on a collision course for climate chaos. It's also clear that the world's most highly industrialised countries - with the US firmly at the top of the list - have done the bulk of the damage.

Cue the United Nations on its shining white charger, riding into Kyoto to deal justly with this threat to the planet with a 'protocol' that rights all the wrongs. In your dreams.

The Kyoto Protocol is aimed initially only at rich industrialised countries, asking that they make a pathetic 5.2% average reduction of 1990 carbon emission levels by 2012, and, for the time being, countries in the 'global south' don't have to change. This appears like the industrialised countries are taking responsibility for the problems they know they've caused, keeping the onus away from the poorer economies for the moment. Again, sorry to disappoint.

Kyoto is not a positive change towards reducing greenhouse emissions, let alone a redressing of global imbalances, but rather a commodification of the atmosphere, a thriving new market with the same old business interests firmly in charge. For a start, a 5.2% reduction isn't remotely what's needed to halt climate change - try something nearer 60-90%. The Protocol is effectively not just business-as-usual for the energy and financial industries, but actually creates the conditions for them to keep growing.

Carbon Trading is a central part of the deal. This is a system where instead of actually reducing emissions, a system of credits is introduced, where permits to 'emit' can be bought instead of actually reducing emissions. It goes something like this: countries which are either using less than their quota of emissions, or say they can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by planting something called a 'carbon sink' (that's a forest you and me), have credits to sell 'permits' to those who are spewing out more emissions than they should. For example if Russia doesn't need all the permits of greenhouse gas output which it was granted in 1997, it can then sell the surplus to Europe or Japan, who may decide that reducing emissions by 6% was too expensive, and a cheaper option is to buy cheap emissions permits from elsewhere. It won't need to buy permits for the remaining 94%: these it already has "title" to, free of charge - at least until 2008.

This is a key inequality of Kyoto - that from the outset every country is given permits to spew out what it's already spewing (minus the paltry 5.2%). So in this privatisation of the atmosphere, the worst polluters continue to get a vastly disproportionate licence to pollute, as they drag the rest of the world towards climatic catastrophe. The succession of UN conferences (known as COP's, or Conference of the Parties) which have been held since Kyoto have led the protocol firmly towards a new carbon trading market, with oil industry lobbyists weaving in loopholes wherever possible, pushing the fact of this global inequality to one side, and the prevention of climate change on the other. The most recent meeting - November 2001's COP7 in Marrakech - was no different, and it's unlikely that there will be a change at October 2002's COP8 in New Delhi either.

How can you earn these 'carbon credits' in this emerging new market of the carbo-industrial complex? Not only by planting trees, but also rearranging traffic signals (!), 'managing' forests, or even burning more coal - provided you can show that these are resulting in fewer greenhouse gas emissions than "would otherwise be the case".

George W Bush's withdrawal from the climate negotiations means very little at this point because Kyoto isn't even a very small step in the right direction, and essentially the oil lobby have got what they wanted.