Rogue traders could save Kyoto

Carbon traders do not easily secure sympathy. Yet their role is vital.

Shed a tear for the carbon traders. At a Point Carbon trading conference in Amsterdam earlier this month, the air of despondency was more than palpable, it was physical. At the session I chaired, delegates sat slumped in their seats. There were few questions. Everyone I spoke to felt the same way. Copenhagen was a disaster. No one knew where things were headed now. Some were considering new careers.

Carbon traders do not easily secure sympathy. Many are well-off; they show no particular interest in saving the planet. Yet their role is vital. Via the markets they operate, they have put a cost on our use of the atmosphere as a carbon-dioxide dumping ground, "as if", as Al Gore puts it, "it were an open sewer".

Economists, politicians and campaigners all agree that putting a price on carbon is necessary to make the shift to a low-carbon economy real. As a result, non-fossil alternatives such as wind and solar become cheaper by comparison, and the worst polluters such as coal become relatively more expensive. With no price on carbon, dumping CO2 in the atmosphere is free. The big polluters, whether Peabody Energy or Exxon Mobil, are able to make billions because the cost to the environment of their products is borne by the rest of us. Price carbon properly and the fossil fuel behemoths can begin to pay us back.

Kyoto, for all its failings, began to weave this price signal through global commerce, and not just in the industrialised countries that took on its targets. In China and India, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) has become huge business - worth $6.5bn in 2008. It has driven millions of dollars' worth of clean investments into developing countries which otherwise have no incentive not to burn fossil fuels.

But the CDM appears doomed unless a new period of the Kyoto Protocol is negotiated to replace the current one when it runs out in 2012. But a new lease of life for Kyoto gets less likely by the day. The US pulled out under George W Bush, and will never rejoin - "Kyoto" is politically toxic in Washington. Canada, thanks in part to its tar sands oil extraction operations, is miles over its target, and seems not to care.

Even the EU, once the bedrock of Kyoto support, has gone cold. The main cheerleading now comes from the developing world, particularly China and India. But this is politics, too - China supports Kyoto because it divides the world into rich and poor. China is considered poor, so is exempted from targets and can go on building coal-fired power stations at a breakneck pace.The carbon trade is also important as it might have helped protect the world's tropical forests from the loggers, plantation owners and cattle ranchers who threaten their survival. With no price on carbon, there is no price on forests either - and their value as dead timber or cleared land will remain far higher than their value as irreplaceable stores of biodiversity and living carbon.

But the real reason for the latest bout of depression is not China, nor forests - but the US. Unless President Obama can find some way to force climate legislation through the Senate, the $2trn potential US carbon market will never materialise. Emitting carbon will continue to be free to American companies, weakening any argument for tougher regulation in India and China. All in all, the prospects currently look great if you are Exxon Mobil or Peabody Energy. And that is bad news for the rest of us.

This piece also appears in this week's issue of the New Statesman

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Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage