If we want to pass on to our children a healthy world fit to live in we
need to recognise that carbon trading will do little more than make a
few global consumers very wealthy, suggests Tony Watkins.
Many years ago Auckland Councils sought water rights to allow them to discharge sewage into the Tamaki Estuary during times of high rainfall. It was happening, and it seemed it would go on happening forever, so the argument was that the situation ought to be rationalised. Two of us took the Councils to court and won some 189 cases, one for each pump station. The presumption of fighting the battle pump station by pump station was that by setting up a war of attrition citizens with no ratepayer resources could never win, but tenacity can be a powerful allay for the disadvantaged. When it was all over it seemed that nothing had changed. The sewage continued to flow into the Tamaki, but it was also still illegal, as it always had been.
Winning the cases meant that the incentive remained to do something about the sewage overflows. Without that incentive unacceptable pollution would over time have become accepted as normal.
As it turned out over the next thirty years all those pump stations were upgraded and their holding tanks were enlarged until now it is an extremely rare event for sewage to enter the Tamaki. You can safely enjoy a swim at Karaka Bay.
Cap and trade carbon trading begins by making a wrong first move. Everyone is given a right to pollute.
The incentive to reduce pollution down to zero is taken away. It is wrong to say that carbon trading will reduce emissions. On the contrary it gives everyone a right to pollute which they did not have before. It encourages them, if they cannot manage to pollute enough, to get someone else to do it for them.
The incentive for the big polluters to mend their ways is taken away because now all they need to do is to buy credits off the idealists who long ago realised that in nature there is no waste. Pollution is neither necessary nor normal. It is a process of transferring costs to someone else or the environment. Climate change is really the result of selfishness rather than carbon emissions.
Cap and trade carbon trading is a process which will allow the rich to become significantly richer and for power to become even more concentrated in the hands of an even smaller elite. In this sense it is not only undemocratic but also bad for the environment.
The process of accumulating wealth is slowed down when you need to waste time manufacturing, growing or creating. Shrewd people move into the service industries which make money out of money. Markets are where the big gains are to be made.
Carbon comes free and there is a lot of it. Making a market out of nothing is the perfect scenario. Billions of dollars have already been made and carbon trading has hardly got started.
If you want to erect a building to make money the best first move is to avoid the cost of buying a site. Land on one side of Tamaki Drive is very expensive, but the sea on the other side comes free. For a modest outlay on a Resource Consent you can build a restaurant in the public domain and easily compete with someone who has site overheads. Privatising the public domain is very lucrative.
Cap and trade carbon trading provides a very good answer to the question “How can we make money out of climate change?” but fails to address the much more difficult question “What can we do to prevent climate change?”.
Carbon trading thus becomes the greatest con-trick of all time. It sustains the people and the attitudes of those who have been the cause of a sick planet in which species and cultures die every day. The alternative is for us all to be fully alive, living on a planet which is also fully alive.
The last 150 years of New Zealand history have been devoted to cutting down trees and we have been very good at it. A town like Kohukohu is built on sawdust. The thirty metre layer of silt in Coromandel Harbour was once a mighty forest. In the night sky we still see the glow of the fires where trees have been bulldozed into heaps to burn. We have cleared the land. Now it is ready for, surprise, surprise, planting trees to offset our carbon emissions.
Real money is not to be made by planting trees nor by flying around the world to university conferences to discuss climate change, but in the service sector. In the days of the kiwifruit boom the easiest money was made supplying the poles, wire and trees. The profit was immediate, no risk was involved, and you could walk away with nothing but your money.
Climate change is the consequence of living by a life equation which only takes a few factors into account and leaves everything else out. Carbon trading simply postpones the need to do anything about the resulting sick planet. Carbon trading assumes that economic tools can solve social and attitudinal problems.
The alternative is to recognise interconnectedness. Everything we do has consequences for the world, and everything which happens in the world has consequences for us. You could say that the world is a very big marketplace. We trade off our health against filling our houses with toxic chemicals to kill off ants and spiders, without recognising that if our environment is not good for the natural world then it probably is not good for us either.
Carbon trading is a last resort, only left standing because everything else has fallen over. It will leave a few people laughing all the way to the bank. The alternative is a humane global marketplace which will simply leave everyone laughing.
Tony Watkins is an architect, urban designer and planner who has been involved in high-end environmental issues for more than forty years.