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Monday, Dec 12, 2011, 11:01 am

As Durban Dust Settles, Pondering Emissions Reductions and Jobs

BY Kari Lydersen

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The head of Greenpeace, Kumi Naidoo, (C) tries to negotiate a way forward with United Nations security forces as protesters demonstrate at UN Climate Talks, on the final day of the COP17 Climate Change Conference on December 9, 2011. (RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty Images)  

As negotiators at the United Nations COP17 climate conference in Durban, South Africa, reached a deal at literally almost the last minute this weekend, I can't resist speculating in very general terms about what mandatory carbon emissions reduction in the future could mean for jobs in developing countries.

First, here's what happened: The Durban agreement will extend the Kyoto Protocol until 2017. The protocol, which would have expired next year, set binding carbon emissions reduction targets for developed countries but not developing countries like China and India. The new agreement promises a treaty to be negotiated by 2015 and to take effect in 2020 that will demand binding emissions reductions from developed and developing countries, although the language and the time table is much weaker than many had hoped.

As for how the Kyoto Protocol—signed in 1997 and enacted in 2005—and the future binding emissions reduction targets for developing countries have affected and will affect jobs, it's hard to tell. Industry opponents of the Kyoto Protocol argued it would cause massive job losses, but I don’t think there’s been any credible documentation that this has been the case. The Sierra Club said this in countering the claims of the Albertan government and the Canadian oil and gas industry:

This concern for job losses by the Kyoto critics is particularly vexing when during the last decade of massive production increases in the oil and gas sector, more than 80,000 Canadian jobs were lost in this sector. What's even more incredible is the public response. Why Canadians passively accept tens of thousands of job losses each year in the name of profit, yet passionately decry comparatively minor job loss in the name of a liveable planet blows the mind.

The Kyoto Protocol could theoretically have sparked job losses because of carbon taxes, regulatory requirements or other costs imposed on fossil fuel emitters and producers, which would increase the cost of doing business for countless industries.

Theoretically, a dedicated move to reduce emissions could also create jobs in clean energy—related to research and development, manufacturing, installing and otherwise promoting solar panels, wind turbines, energy efficient windows, electric vehicles and the like. Many studies in the United States and abroad have predicted and/or catalogued job increases in clean energy sectors in recent years.

Whether these were directly driven by Kyoto or not is hard to say. The United States, of course, has seen significant growth in the clean energy economy without having signed onto Kyoto.

Has Kyoto Protocol worked?

The actual success of the Kyoto Protocol in reducing carbon emissions is questionable at best. The former-Eastern Bloc countries logged big reductions in their carbon emissions compared to 1990 levels, but that’s largely due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and ensuing deindustrialization, not any huge switch to clean energy.

Countries including Canada have apparently failed to meet their Kyoto targets, and analyses including a 2010 paper by a panel of international experts convened by the London School of Economics found that the Kyoto Protocol had “failed to produce any discernible real world reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases.”

Without trading carbon emissions credits and carbon offsets, which many critics refer to as smoke and mirrors, there was little way many countries could have been expected to meet their Kyoto targets.

In his book The Climate Fix, University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke Jr. does the math to show that, for example, the United Kingdom would need to build 40 new nuclear power plants by 2015 (and eliminate an equivalent amount of fossil fuel) to meet the Kyoto-related target enshrined in the country's 2008 UK Climate Change Act. The number of nuclear power plants, wind farms and solar installations that other countries would need to create to reduce their carbon emissions significantly are even more staggering.

Building scores of nuclear reactors and solar and wind farms would create thousands of jobs of course, but the regulatory, political, financial and other hurdles necessary to step up renewable and nuclear energy so quickly make it virtually impossible in most countries. If such a switch ever did take place, there would also be job losses in the fossil fuel sectors being taken offline, though depending on the situation, it's likely the renewable/ nuclear energy jobs would outnumber the lost fossil fuel jobs.

Technologically, nuclear power is the most realistic way to meet emissions reductions targets quickly in many countries, but especially since the Fukushima disaster many countries are trying to reduce, not increase their reliance on nuclear energy.

After Durban

Post-Durban, developing countries will continue to receive subsidies from the developed world for both adapting to climate change and shifting their own economies to cleaner energy sources. A $100 billion Green Climate Fund was debated at the conference, though stalled by objections from the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Venezuela over the specifics of the fund, what it would cover and who would contribute. The final agreement mentions a $60 billion fund by 2020, though details are sketchy.

International funding for climate change adaptation and mitigation is surely creating and will increasingly create at least some jobs in developing countries, though there’s much debate and concern about how effectively and equitably the money is spent.

Also debated at the conference was the UN-REDD program (The United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries), which pays countries and indigenous groups for leaving forests in place rather than cutting them down. In Durban, African and partner countries issued what was billed as an historic joint resolution on commitment to the program in the Congo Basin, the second-largest tropical rain forest in the world.

Paying for forests to be left intact theoretically reduces jobs related to forestry, while providing cash that theoretically could help indigenous and peasant groups create jobs in other ways. During COP17 in Durban, the International Institute for Sustainable Development released a brief on how the UN-REDD program is a form of “natural capital” that spurs “green investment” and by extension jobs.

But everything surrounding the REDD program seems fairly theoretical, since tradeoffs and goings-on related to this program are not necessarily well-documented, transparent or clear-cut, no pun intended. Illegal or undetected logging may occur even in areas designated for protection under the program, and moneys paid through it could easily be siphoned off or dissipated through governmental or local corruption or inefficiency.

The program also raises the larger ethical issue of natural resource sovereignty, the idea that international actors can tell countries or indigenous groups what to do with “their” forests…to some an offensive concept even if there are economic and environmental benefits for all involved.

The inclusion of carbon credits in worldwide emissions reductions efforts has also already proved highly problematic, especially in the case of biofuels, where the cultivation of biofuel crops has competed with food crops and contributed to deforestation and displacement of peasants and indigenous people. (Jeremy Kryt recently reported for In These Times about how, ironically, U.N.-certified carbon credits for biogas plants connected with African palm production in Honduras have helped fuel an armed conflict in the Aguan region.

The past few years have shown that the surest way to reduce carbon emissions is to suffer an economic crisis and curb production and consumption. But no politician would ever propose intentionally shrinking an economy  or stalling economic progress in order to reduce emissions. Pielke calls this the “iron law of climate policy”: essentially, that in a tussle between environmental and economic forces, the economic argument will always win out.

Given the results (or lack thereof) from Kyoto, and the fact that developing countries are often characterized by more chaos and corruption and less technological and academic infrastructure than their richer counterparts, it’s hard to picture truly meaningful carbon emissions reductions or big concrete effects on jobs one way or another when these countries are subjected to mandatory emissions reductions.

Given that the deal snatched from the jaws of defeat in Durban was essentially to extend the whole process another few years, it may be a long time before we find out.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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