Environmental Slight Of Hand

If you believe press reports, governments are preparing for “serious” climate negotiations at the upcoming December UN climate conference in Paris.  I put quotes around serious because there is good reason to believe that most governments, at least the most powerful, care little about the outcome.  One indicator is their commitment to protecting the environment in two so-called free trade agreements.

For example, the Guardian newspaper recently leaked the EU proposal for the Sustainable Development Chapter of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. Here is what the Guardian had to say:

In January, the bloc promised to safeguard green laws, defend international standards and protect the EU’s right to set high levels of environmental protection, in a haggle with the US over terms for a free trade deal.

But a confidential text seen by the Guardian and filed in the sustainable development chapter of negotiations earlier this week contains only vaguely phrased and non-binding commitments to environmental safeguards.

No obligations to ratify international environmental conventions are proposed, and ways of enforcing goals on biodiversity, chemicals and the illegal wildlife trade are similarly absent.

The document does recognize a “right of each party to determine its sustainable development policies and priorities”. But lawyers say this will have far weaker standing than provisions allowing investors to sue states that pass laws breaching legitimate expectations of profit.

“The safeguards provided to sustainable development are virtually non-existent compared to those provided to investors and the difference is rather stark,” said Tim Grabiel, a Paris-based environmental attorney. “The sustainable development chapter comprises a series of aspirational statements and loosely worded commitments with an unclear dispute settlement mechanism. It has little if any legal force.” . . .

Last year, more than a million people across Europe signed a petition calling for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks to be scrapped. Their concern was that multinationals could use the treaty’s investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions to sue authorities in private tribunals, not bound by legal precedent.

In one famous case, Lone Pine launched an unresolved $250m suit against the state of Quebec after it introduced a fracking moratorium, using ISDS provisions in the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). . . .

Natacha Cingotti, a trade campaigner for [Friends of the Earth Europe], said that only a carve-out of environmental protections from the tribunal process could prevent such cases mushrooming after a TTIP deal.

“This new leak illustrates that the European commission is not serious about protecting essential safeguards for citizens and the environment in the context of the TTIP talks,” she told the Guardian. “Powerful corporate polluters are likely to get VIP treatment under it, while the only chapter that could bring strong language to protect essential regulations to build a sustainable future is weak and unenforceable.” . . .

An EU promise that TTIP would “support our climate targets, for example by promoting trade and investment in green goods and services” has already been thrown into doubt by the leak of a draft energy chapter last May. In it, Europe’s negotiators pushed for “a legally binding commitment in the TTIP guaranteeing the free export of crude oil and gas resources”.

So, in sum, the one chapter that might point to a serious stance on climate change will likely include no requirements to ratify international environmental conventions.  More importantly, the agreement would include an investor-state dispute resolution system that allows corporations to sue governments if they believe implemented environmental policies will cause them to lose expected profits.

And European governments are not alone in seeking to create a structure of regulations that will make it difficult to protect the environment and reverse climate change.  Here is what governments have to say about the environmental chapter of the US-driven Transpacific Partnership Agreement; of course this is the most hopeful perspective since it is drawn from official statements–the actual terms of the chapter remains secret.

According to a UK information service, it appears that:

the environment chapter will contain obligations related to three of the seven multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) set forth by congressional Democrats as a minimum standard for inclusion in the final deal, but that only one of these agreements will be fully enforceable under TPP’s dispute settlement mechanism.

Specifically, [government statements] make clear that the TPP environment chapter will include an obligation for all parties to uphold their commitments under the Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), which generally requires countries to ban trade in specific endangered species.

They also suggest that the environment chapter will include obligations similar to those contained in the Montreal Protocol on protection of the ozone layer, and the Convention on the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) — without specifically subjecting these MEAs to the TPP dispute settlement mechanism.

Finally, the TPP environment chapter will contain a general obligation for countries to reaffirm their commitments to implementing other MEAs to which they are parties, without specifically making these enforceable under the TPP, countries have signaled.

This architecture would mean TPP falls short of the standard established in the May 10, 2007 agreement between House Democrats and the George W. Bush administration, which was that future free trade agreements would contain a commitment for countries to adopt, maintain, and implement laws and regulations that fulfill their obligations under any of seven specific MEAs to which they are a party. The May 10 language also subjected this commitment to the regular dispute settlement mechanism of the FTA.

The missing MEAs in TPP are the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and Waterfowl; the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources; the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling; and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Convention. . . .

The U.S. fact sheet says the environment chapter requires TPP countries to “[p]romote cooperative efforts to address issues such as energy efficiency; development of cost-effective, low-emissions technologies and alternative, clean and renewable energy sources; deforestation and forest degradation; and resilient development.” The joint summary says parties will cooperate to “transition to low-emissions and resilient economies.”

So, again, lots of fine words but, as revealed by the reach of the investor-state dispute resolution mechanism, it is profits before all.


US Policy Fails To Protect Our Climate

Governments were charged by the UN to develop national plans for combating climate change in advance of the upcoming 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which will be held in Paris from November 30 to December 11.  These “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” are to be used by the climate treaty secretariat to create a draft agreement for discussion and approval at the Paris conference.

The US government submitted its Intended National Determined Contribution in May.  In it, the government stated that the US intends to reduce its economy-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.  It calls this target “fair and ambitious.”

However, as the just released report–Captain America, US climate goals: a reckoningauthored by the New Delhi Center for Science and the Environment, makes clear, this commitment is anything but fair and ambitious.

As the report points out, the 2005 baseline is key to US claims of climate change progress.  Most importantly, US greenhouse gas emissions hit a post-1990 peak in 2005 and trended down over the following years.  Setting its target against this base year rather than the 1990 base year that was widely endorsed in past UN meetings greatly eases the ability of the US to meet its own self-declared target.  This recent decrease in emissions has also allowed the US to falsely present itself as part of the climate change solution not problem.

As we can see in the graph below, despite the reduction in recent years, US emissions were still greater in 2013 than they were in 1990.  Thus, the US has not actually begun reducing its emissions relative to 1990.

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Moreover, as we see in the next graph, US emissions fluctuate yearly and the post-2005 reduction is likely more the result of the recent major recession and weak economic expansion, not a restructured and more environmentally stable economy.  In fact, emissions have begun to grow again.

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As the Center for Science and the Environment explains:

Whereas 1990 is the baseline fixed in the global climate convention for nations to reduce GHG emissions, the US’ choice is 2005. It is the first mask the US wears to veil its climate-inaction. The US has cleverly used 2005 as its base year because, 1990-2005, the US allowed its emissions to grow, whereas it should have actually been reducing its emissions. The masking effect of 2005 as a base to reduce emissions translates to millions of tons of CO2 emissions the US has cloaked — that, for some reason, the world has failed to notice.

If we calculate the US emissions target using a 1990 baseline, its pledge translates into a far more modest reduction of 13-15 percent by 2025. This is even lower than what it had pledged at the 2010 Cancun UN climate meetings.  In percentage as well as absolute terms, the US INDC trails that of many countries, including that of the EU-28.

The year 2005 was important to the US for yet another reason.  It was the last year that the US was the world’s largest yearly emitter of greenhouse gasses.  China now holds the title.  This development has helped the US shift public attention from its own historical responsibilities for our global climate change crisis to the rising emissions of emerging economies like China and India.

However, the US still remains one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters on a percapita basis, as we can see in the following graph.

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And, the US is still the biggest historical emitter of greenhouse gases.  As the Center for Science and the Environment explains:

So far, we have looked at the ‘flow’ of US emissions. But what of the stock: 411 billion tons CO2, emitted 1850-2011?  The US has borrowed from the global commons a share of other countries’ carbon space to become the economic powerhouse it is today. This is its natural debt. And, as with a financial debt, the natural debt needs to be paid. Try as it might, the US cannot erase its historical emissions from its climate action record. CO2 is a gas with a past, present and future. Once emitted, it stays in the atmosphere. So, the US’s past emissions are a legacy that must be accounted for in any future emissions reduction plan or move. 1850-2011, the US was responsible for 21 per cent of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere.20 emissions have caused the warming we see today, whose impacts are now devastating the lives of the poorest. It has the capacity. But it also has the responsibility to reduce emissions. Not by tinkering year-to-year, or creating a perceptual veneer of reduction, but rather through drastic reductions that make space for the rest of the world to grow.

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The report, which examines US energy production, consumption, and policies in great detail, makes clear that the US has yet to take meaningful steps to create a more ecologically responsible economy.  In fact, as we see next, the US has become the world’s biggest producer of oil and natural gas and its fossil fuel consumption continues to grow.

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Tragically, US determination to continue with business as usual will likely mean that the upcoming UN conference will once again be long on speeches and short on meaningful action. Unfortunately, there is no fooling the climate or avoiding the consequences of inaction.

Union-Community Victory In Seattle

Seattle teachers deserve praise for their recent contract victory.  It highlights how unions can and should defend both their members and the public interest.

From Valerie Strauss who covers education for the Washington Post:

Seattle teachers went on strike for a week this month [September] with a list of goals for a new contract. By the time the strike officially ended this week, teachers had won some of the usual stuff of contract negotiations — for example, the first cost-of-living raises in six years — but also less standard objectives.

For one thing, teachers demanded, and won, guaranteed daily recess for all elementary school students — 30 minutes each day. In an era when recess for many students has become limited or non-existent despite the known benefits of physical activity, this is a big deal, and something parents had sought.

What’s more, the union and school officials agreed to create committees at 30 schools to look at equity issues, including disciplinary measures that disproportionately affect minorities. Several days after the end of the strike, the Seattle School Board voted for a one-year ban on out-of-school suspensions of elementary students who commit specific nonviolent offenses, and called for a plan that could eliminate all elementary school suspensions.

Other wins for students in Seattle’s nearly 100 traditional public schools include:

Teachers won an end to the use of student standardized test scores to evaluate them — and now, teachers will be included in decisions on the amount of standardized testing for students. This evaluation practice has been slammed by assessment experts as invalid and unreliable, and has led to the narrowing of curriculum, with emphasis on the two subjects for which there are standardized tests, math and English Language arts.

Special education teachers will have fewer students to work with at a time. In addition, there will be caseload limits for other specialists, including psychologists and occupational therapists.

Seattle teachers had said they were not only fighting for pay raises but to make the system better for students. It sounds like they did.