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Steffen Böhm: The Paris Climate Talks and other Events of Carbon Fetishism

John Merrick 3 December 2015

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As part of our series looking critically at climate change and the ongoing COP21 talks in Paris, Steffen Böhm, Professor in Management and Sustainability at the University of Essex, argues that the limits of the current negotations result from the current "carbon fetishism", in which even emissions are commodified in an event to maintain the economic status quo.

While many people are still hopeful that the current UN climate talks in Paris will produce a strong, path-defining agreement, experts have already warned that the carbon-cutting commitments submitted by countries in the run-up to Paris fall far short of what is required to prevent global warming beyond the 2 degrees mark. To make matters worse, the US has already unilaterally declared that any Paris deal won’t be legally binding.

Yet, even if the world were to unexpectedly celebrate a Paris climate deal on 11 December, it would have to be regarded as a failure. What is taking place is an historical process of carbon fetishisation, which must be seen as a reordering of capital and its relation to nature. Even progressive forces put all their hopes in a climate reformist agenda, what Peter Newell and Matthew Paterson have called ‘climate capitalism’, yet in the process a whole range of environmental and social relations are veiled that make up the exploitative nature of, what can be called, carbon fetishism.

“Uncharted territory” 

According to the UK’s Met Office, we have recently passed the halfway mark of 2⁰C, which at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks were agreed to be the upper safe limit of global warming. While 1⁰C global warming since the start of the industrial revolution might not sound much, climate scientists tell us that this represents the fastest surface temperature increase in the world’s known geological history, leading the Met Office to say that we are now entering “uncharted territory”.

This 1⁰C is an average. Hot spots have already seen much higher temperature hikes. Arctic and sub-arctic regions, for example, have been hard hit with the Greenland ice sheet melting at an alarming rate. In the Middle East, most of North Africa and large parts of Asia desertification is increasing and the pressures of freshwater supply are alarmingly real. Some experts have claimed that the outbreak of the Syrian conflict can, at least in part, be traced to three years of unprecedented drought from 2007 to 2010, leading to crop failures and food shortages and, ultimately, to conflict. 

The dangers of global warming have been known (even to oil company executives) since at least the early 1980s. At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit climate change was on top of the agenda, paving the way for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the world’s first binding agreement to reduce carbon emissions in rich, industrialised countries. Yet, despite 25 years of UN-led climate talks at the highest level, the world is burning more fossil fuels than ever, resulting in record carbon concentrations in the atmosphere.

This is not simply the fault of big emerging economies, such as China, India and Brazil, as some want us to believe. Instead, what we are dealing with is the fundamental failure of neoliberal capitalism, as the world’s dominant economic system, to confront its hunger for exponential growth of production and consumption that has been made possible by the unique energy density of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas.

Historical responsibility forgotten

A glance at global history reveals how closely energy is linked to economic growth. The Netherlands was the first country to get a taste for exponential industrial growth back in the 16th and 17th centuries, which would have been unthinkable without the availability of cheap domestic peat as well as timber from Norwegian and Baltic forests.

One reason that the British took over Holland’s imperial leadership was its vast reserves of cheap coal, which started to be burnt at the end of the 18th century, exponentially growing in the 19th century. Then came oil and gas, which have helped make US America the imperial master from the early 20th century. 

There is thus more than 300 years of massive fossil fuel burning by the so-called West to account for. While this historical responsibility still played a significant role at Kyoto in 1997 (resulting in emissions cuts only legally required in industrialised countries), it has gradually been pushed into the background. Now in Paris it seems almost forgotten. But the fact that approx. 80% of historical carbon emissions have to be attributed to the rich world cannot simply be wished away.

The rapid rise of emissions, particularly in China and India, are often cited as reason for why these fast industrialising countries now also have to curb their emissions. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t. Both countries clearly have their own imperial ambitions, which they hope to achieve by stimulating massive industrial expansion. But let’s bear in mind that India’s carbon emissions per capita are still 10 times lower than those of the United States. And China’s rapidly rising emissions are to a great extend driven by export-driven industries, producing consumer goods for the West.

Creative carbon accounting masking system failure 

Western European countries, such as the UK, like to portray themselves in green, responsible colours, highlighting that their carbon emissions are significantly lower than the Kyoto baseline of 1990. What is conveniently forgotten is that the UK’s apparent Kyoto success is largely due to the early adoption of gas, which has lower emissions than coal and oil, in the early 1990s, i.e. before Kyoto. 

In addition, and even more significantly, if a consumption-based approach to carbon accounting is taken, the UK’s national carbon emissions would be twice as high as officially reported. This is also true for most Western European countries as well as the United States, which have seen increasing rates of deindustrialisation over the last two decades with not only jobs but also carbon emissions being offshored to countries of the Global South. In return the West is receiving cheap consumer goods whose embedded carbon emissions are not attributed to itself. A clear form of carbon colonialism. 

Of course, some of the exponential growth in carbon emissions by India and China is also due to increases in home-grown consumption. China apparently now has the largest middle class in the world. However, if we take a consumption-based view, then even China’s emissions per capita will not reach the US’s current rate for a long time – and India’s lag further behind.

Yet, these issues of unequal distribution of carbon emissions are not even on its agenda at the Paris climate talks. The historical responsibility of the West is not on the table, nor is a consumption-based method of national carbon accounting. Instead, what is on the table are expanded and new mechanisms that will allow the rich world to outsource their emission cuts so that they can paint themselves green. 

Carbon markets

Already at Kyoto in 1997 the rich world demanded ‘flexibility’ in terms of how the highly industrialised countries can deal with cutting their carbon emissions. This has resulted in a range of market mechanisms. First and foremost, we have seen the introduction of a variety of cap-and-trade systems, which is enabling the trading of emissions. In addition, there are the UN controlled schemes Joint Implementation (JI) and the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allow the offsetting of emissions whilst maintaining ‘business-as-usual’ at home.

These ‘flexibility’ mechanisms have again aided greenwashing on a massive scale. Plenty of evidence has emerged over the last 10 years, since the introduction of the largest carbon market, the EU’s Emissions Trading System, that the trading of carbon has a lot unintended (but perhaps also intended) consequences that should be described as nothing less than ‘carbon colonialism’.

When in 2009, in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate change talks, we published the book Upsetting the Offset, the whole point was to show the negative and not-much-talked-about impacts of carbon offsetting on the ground in the Global South. Tamra Gilbertson, for example, in her case of A.T. Biopower, shows how, what used to be sustainable agricultural practices in Thailand, are turned into so-called carbon neutral operations that create profits and rents for local elites and international polluters yet disadvantages local people and communities.

Carbon offsetting will see an unprecedented growth in the coming years. Bilateral deals between rich countries, such as Norway and Switzerland, and poor countries, which are desperate for the cash, will continue to be struck. Emissions trading systems (ETS) will allow maximum flexibility for companies to offset their emissions without cleaning up their act at home. These are all mechanisms, which have been well practiced in Europe for the past decade, designed to cement the status quo. The EU ETS has not made a verifiable impact on the trading block’s carbon emissions since its inception in 2005, allowing Shell’s chief executive Van Beurden to insist even in 2015 that “The reality of demand growth is such that fossil fuels will be needed for decades to come.”

Carbon fetishism

What all this amounts to is what the critical geographer Erik Swyngedouw has called ‘CO2 fetishism’. For him, capitalism’s attempt to deal with the climate crisis is a perfect example of ‘post-politics’, generating a lot of talk about what needs to change to make our existence on earth sustainable – such as at the current Paris climate summit – without there much changing at all. 

What’s important to bear in mind though is that this talk about change is not all there is. Swyngedouw also argues that capital attempts to materially reconfigure itself through the crisis of climate change, precisely by turning carbon (nature) into a commodity. And of course this must be seen in line with the commodification processes that have always been part of capitalism’s history.

For good reasons Jason Moore calls capital an ecological regime, because it has always produced and reproduced nature in particular ways. Adopting this perspective, we can see how the battle of the 21st century is to turn capital-as-ecology into capital-as-climate. It is a particular abstraction that involves immense economic, social, cultural and environmental forces. It is a process of fetishisation that is spurred on by the realities of the worsening climate but also by the profit and rent opportunities that emerge for the elites. 

This week, for example, it was announced that a massive renewable energy fund would be created by some of the wealthiest businessmen on the planet, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson and many more. There a plenty of other ex-politicians, celebrities and business people who speak the gospel of the new green economy. Al Gore is one of their top stars. With his film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ he opened up the climate change debate almost single-handedly in the US from 2006 onwards, conveniently flacked by Gore’s business interests in various green industries.

Many environmentalists have become successful entrepreneurs. The whole renewable energy industry is littered with green activists who believe that only by turning their political belief into a commercial reality they can change the world. At the most radical end of this spectrum are ex-environmental campaigners such as Tony Juniper, who used to be Executive Director of Friends of the Earth, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. He now advocates the need for nature to be turned into a commodity if we want to have any chance of saving it.

This is nothing else but, what Marx called, ‘commodity fetishism’, the process by which social relations are turned into commodity relations. Without this most basic of all abstractions, capital couldn’t exist. It appropriates people and things that exist outside of its logic, in order to bring them into the workings of the capital machinery. Once appropriated, they are exploited either extensively (extending the time that capital has to work on its subjects) or intensively (squeezing more value out of them within a given time). And once the basic labour process cannot be more optimized and appropriation becomes too costly (foreign wars, for example, are expensive), then financialisation kicks in.

As Moore rightly argues, capitalism is doing all of these three things simultaneously: appropriation, commodification and financialisation. ‘Climate capitalism’ is no different. It is doing this through a unique combination of the exercise of state violence, business opportunity and cultural shifting. This process of the creation of climate capitalism is not unchallenged of course. What the climate debate has shown is that this capitalisation process is a struggle of forces within capital and associated social actors themselves. It’s not something that is somehow masterminded by an evil force, placed in Washington D.C. or London or even Beijing. It emerges out of the contradictions of capital the outcome of which are not yet predictable.

The latter also means that the fetishisation of carbon is by no means an inevitable process. Given that capital can only deal with such a grave challenge as climate change by way of disenfranchising and dispossessing people and entire regions, the will of the majority world will not be left unheard. This uneven, unequal and highly volatile process of climate capitalisation, which the elites try to control, needs to be resisted and put onto a just footing.

Climate justice is not something that should come after us accepting climate capitalism. A proper just climate can only be brought about if we don’t shy away from questioning the fundamental logic of carbon fetishism and the logic of the market that attempts to appropriate, commodify and financialise nature. 

In this regard, nothing significant has changed since Rio 1992 or Kyoto 1997. Paris 2015 will be no different. The talking will continue until we realise that climate change is a failure of the system, which, on the back of fossil fuel, is geared towards exponential economic growth. No-one who sits at the negotiation table in Paris has the mandate nor inclination to ask fundamental, systemic questions of the logic of the dominant economic system and the way we consume the resources of this planet. Yet, it is precisely such questions that need to be asked if we want to have a realistic chance of tackling not only climate change but the multiple other sustainability crises we are currently facing.


A shorter version of this article was published in the The Conversation. 

Steffen Böhm is Professor of Management and Sustainability and Director of the Essex Sustainability Institute (ESI) at the University of Essex. His writes about the political economies and ecologies of the food-energy-water-environment nexus. He was a co-founder of the open-access journal ephemera: theory & politics in organization, and is co-founder and co-editor of the open-access publishing press MayFlyBooks. His books include Against Automobility (Blackwell), Upsetting the Offset: The Political Economy of Carbon Markets (Mayfly), The Atmosphere Business (Mayfly), and Ecocultures: Blueprints for Sustainable Communities (Routledge).


T: @SteffenBoehm




Filed under: anthropocene, climate-change, cop21