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How Hyper-Capitalism May Hobble the Copenhagen Summit

Unless we re-think the export-oriented capitalism that's causing all of our climate problems, the Copenhagen conference will be nothing more than a Band-Aid.

Beginning in the second week of December, representatives to the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen will wrestle with the challenge of climate change. This week, influential actors in the World Trade Organization Seventh Ministerial Conference taking place in Geneva are trying to push for a conclusion to the nine-year-old Doha Round of trade negotiations.

The two meetings are at cross-purposes and their juxtaposition highlights a profound reality: The world has to choose between free trade and effective climate management.

The Global Downturn: Relief for the Climate

The last 12 months have seen the unraveling of a particular type of international economy: export-oriented and marked by the accelerated integration of production and markets. This globalized economy has been transportation-intensive, greatly dependent on ever-increasing long-distance transportation of goods. For instance, a plate of food consumed in the United States travels an average of 1,500 miles from source to table. Transportation, in turn, is fossil-fuel intensive, accounting in 2006 for 13% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and 23% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

A downturn in the export-dependent global economy thus brings about a significant downturn in carbon emissions as well. It spells relief for the climate. In 2009, the drop in the level of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) has been the largest in the last 40 years. The thousands of ships marooned by lack of global demand in ports such as New York, Singapore, Rio de Janeiro, and Seoul means a significant reduction in the use of high-carbon Bunker C oil, which is used in 80% of ocean shipping. The cutback in air freight has meant a significant reduction in the use of aviation fuel, which has been the fastest growing source of GHG emissions in recent years.

Deglobalization as Opportunity

In response to the collapse of the export-oriented global economy, many governments have fallen back on their domestic markets, revving them up via stimulus programs that put spending money in the hands of consumers. This move has been accompanied by a retreat from globalized production structures or "deglobalization."  "The integration of the world economy is in retreat on almost every front," writes the Economist. While the magazine says that corporations continue to believe in the efficiency of global supply chains, "like any chain, these are only as strong as their weakest link. A danger point will come if firms decide that this way of organizing production has had its day."

For many environmentalists and ecological economists in the South and the North, the unraveling of the export-oriented global economy spells opportunity. It opens up the transition to more climate-friendly and ecologically sensitive ways of organizing economic life. But the fossil fuel-intensiveness of global transport and freight is merely one dimension of the problem. Environmentalists insist there must be a change in the reigning economic model itself. The global economy must make a transition from being driven fundamentally by overproduction and overconsumption to being geared to real needs, marked by moderate or low consumption, and based on sustainable and decentralized production processes. 

Accordingly, the assumption of most policymakers in the North that consumption trends can continue — and that the only challenge is the transformation of the energy mix and the adoption of technofixes such as biofuels, "clean coal," nuclear power, carbon sequestration and storage, and carbon trading — is not only based on illusions but positively dangerous. Indeed, the climate problem cannot be addressed strategically without addressing the inherently environmentally destabilizing dynamics of capitalism — its incessant drive, motivated by the search for profit, to transform living nature into dead commodities.