When the G8 meet in Scotland this July one of the two issues at the top of their agenda is climate change. And rightly so: UK Prime Minister Tony Blair - current holder of the G8 Presidency - has described it as "long-term the single most important issue we face as a global community". Meanwhile the Pentagon has suggested that "the risk of abrupt climate change â€¦ should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern". The other top issue on the G8 agenda is poverty in Africa - a conundrum with no hope of resolution without, at least, a stable climate. The cost of environmental degradation in Ghana is already estimated to be two per cent of national income. Meanwhile, Africa's dependence on ecosystems that are under severe pressure from unpredictable weather patterns means that the continent may be home to up to 80 per cent of the people predicted to be at risk from hunger by 2080. Despite a compelling combination of expressed concern and pressing need, effective G8 action on climate change is, unfortunately, about as likely as a dash to the slaughterhouse by turkeys in late November. The forecast for the G8 summit is certainly looking bleak.
One of the fundamental blocks to G8 engagement with climate change is the fact that these most industrialised countries are all most reliant on that key driver of climate change: oil. Despite being only eight countries, the G8 member states produce around 47 per cent of all global carbon dioxide emissions and are home to most of the world's top twenty oil companies. Russia has the biggest oil reserves of all the G8 countries and would certainly struggle without its fossil fuel exports. Another forum that the G8 dominates - the World Bank - illustrates the level of G8 commitment to fossil fuels. World Bank support for fossil fuel projects amounts to around 94 per cent of its energy portfolio, while support for renewables is around just six per cent.
Reliant on fossil fuels, and so reluctant to engage in the shift in energy sources that climate change demands, the G8 countries are investing in the other end of things - capture of the greenhouse gases emitted when these fuels are used. G8 members are supportive of the idea of storing carbon dioxide both above and below ground to prevent it being released into the atmosphere, with G8 countries pledging to invest in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology. Underground burial involves great stashes under land or sea, with no current certainty over the logistics of such a process, nor guarantee against leaks at a future date. The G8 countries involved in the Kyoto process have, in agreements under the Protocol, expressed support for overground capture in the form of 'carbon sinks'. This involves the planting or conservation of forests and trees. After all, as is commonly understood, trees soak up carbon dioxide. While this basic scientific point is true, methods of accounting for just how much carbon dioxide a tree can store are far more complex. Forests and tree plantations are subject to unpredictable influences including wildfires, pests, diseases and availability of nutrients. Temperature change from global warming is a fairly predictable factor but the changes that this will bring in trees' behaviour are not. And human behaviour, fortunately, can be equally unpredictable.
While visiting Scotland, one project that the G8 leaders may wish to reflect on is a carbon sink project in Brazil, which is funded by BP, the global oil company that owns Scotland's major oil refinery at Grangemouth on the River Forth. To make up for carbon dioxide emitted in its operations at Grangemouth and across the globe, BP has funded carbon sinks, including eucalyptus plantations in Espirito Santo, Brazil. The people of Espirito Santo are, however, not so keen on their role as passive components in an accounting system that has over-consumption by rich countries as its bottom line. This May, indigenous people in the area reclaimed 11,000 hectares of land, including eucalyptus plantations, for restoration to native forest and construction of new villages. The reclaimers point out that the monoculture eucalyptus plantations created as carbon sinks are an environmental pest, rather than an environmental solution. The eucalyptus plantations allow for pesticide run-off and poisoning. They consume vast amounts of water resources, devastate local agriculture and support little biodiversity. Heidi Bachram of Carbon Trade Watch has suggested that such carbon sink plantations have a specifically political role, describing how they act "as an occupying force in impoverished rural communities dependent on these lands for survival".
In terms of issues around international debt - which are also due to be addressed at the G8 meeting - indigenous participants at a 2003 Forest Peoples Programme workshop in India released a declaration stating that: "the carbon credit approach [to climate change] may trigger a new wave of debt mechanism and inequity on the South. The more carbon a person / company in a Northern country emit, the more land it will be entitled to grab in the South for its carbon emissions." The trend of richer countries taking resources from poorer countries, while keeping countries poor through the system of international debt, is likely to be made worse by the G8's approach to climate change. Andrew Simms, policy director of the UK's New Economics Foundation, has described climate change itself as an issue of debt. In a recent book, 'Ecological Debt: The Health of the Planet & the Wealth of Nations', he describes how the G8 countries are using up environmental resources and running up ecological debts. He suggests that while these are different to monetary debts they are just as important. Simms claims that this process - richer countries unfairly consuming and degrading environmental resources that should also belong to poorer countries - poses a bigger threat to global poverty eradication than the foreign debts of poor countries.
Alongside carbon storage, nuclear power is another technology likely to be boosted by the G8 summit. Although the draft of a G8 climate change communique leaked prior to the summit did not indicate a position on nuclear power, both Bush and Blair are known to be keen on this outdated energy source, despite the longer-term problems and the financial drain that it creates.
The tragedy of all this is that it is not impossible to tackle climate change. Far from it. In a report for the International Climate Change Taskforce this year, the UK's Institute for Public Policy Research reminded readers that, according to the G8 Renewables Taskforce, the barriers to the deployment of renewable energy are financial and political, rather than technological. The IPPR report outlined steps that could be taken to de-carbonise the global economy, reconcile climate policy with trade and competitiveness, and make climate policy contribute to poverty eradication. Aimed at a Taskforce co-chaired by former UK Transport Secretary Stephen Byers, this report was framed in language that G8 policy-makers could understand. Elsewhere, commentators on both left and right have suggested that, alongside reduced energy consumption, a wholesale re-think of energy systems - such as a shift from large and remote megapower energy developments to micropower systems sited close to the point of use - is needed, and is possible.
Little will happen at Gleneagles this July in terms of climate change agreements. The US refuses to sign up to a timeline for emission cuts - a basic first step to slow down climate change. Other G8 members may resist further emissions cuts from fear of being out-competed by US companies, which have less restraints on energy use. Meanwhile the G8 summit takes place at a time that may be the endgame for life on planet Earth. Global temperature is changing at a rate never seen before in human history. Species extinction is taking place at a rate never seen before in human history. The last 50 years has seen an upheaval in biodiversity on a scale never seen before in human history. Despite all this, the G8 leaders are likely to congratulate themselves on even getting agreement that yes, something possibly serious really is going on.
Melanie Jarman writes a column for Red Pepper magazine on climate change-related issues (see www.redpepper.org.uk , then 'index', then 'Temperature Gauge').
She edits the supporters' magazine for Campaign Against the Arms Trade, has written books on big business and on global poverty for the 'Citizenship' part of the UK school curriculum, and has worked as an editor for Corporate Watch UK.