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I attended a Climate Camp workshop yesterday entitled ‘Copenhagen and carbon trading – where did it all go wrong?’ With a title like that of course I knew what to expect – lots of ‘evidence’ that carbon trading is the work of the devil and unredeemable. What I hadn’t anticipated was the counsel of despair about Copenhagen itself and the complete absence of ideas for what should replace it.

It is always easier to conduct negative campaigns – to react against threats both real and perceived – to criticize and condemn. It’s much harder to articulate a positive vision of what needs to be done and persuade people to support it.

We were presented with the evidence against carbon trading: it lets rich countries off the hook, it doesn’t result in real emissions reductions, it creates equivalence (between say forests and coal) where there is none, it pays big business, consultants, bankers, accountants, lawyers but does not reward local people and it threatens the rights of indigenous people. Many of these statements are based on truth, but they do not represent the whole picture. You can always investigate a barrel of apples, find the rotten fruit and display them as evidence that the whole barrel must be rotten, but this is deliberately misleading.

But there is an alternate interpretation of what is currently going on in the world of carbon trading, and people who care about achieving change should seek to explore both sides of the story.

The only reason trading exists is because there are now legally binding requirements on countries and companies to reduce their emissions. These laws can be made tougher and applied to more sources of emissions. The rules governing the extent to which trading can be used are also up for reform and the types of projects that qualify can also be improved. This is what Copenhagen is all about.

There are plenty of positive messages for reform people can adopt and promote. If we can understand the factors that contribute to both the positive and negative outcomes, we can demand specific changes that will lead to an overall improvement.

On the positive side power companies in Europe are now being forced to pay for the pollution they have previously emitted for free, this may in part involve paying for windfarms in India, but is that really such a bad thing? India desperately needs to provide its rural poor with access to electricity – using coal would be the cheapest option, but if the carbon market can make alternatives more profitable, then it will enable them to leapfrog our dirty development path and build clean infrastructure from the start.
If we could get large polluting power companies in rich countries across the globe committed to doing the same as those in Europe, the pace of the green energy revolution would be significantly increased. This is our positive vision and the focus of our One Giant Leap campaign. Now is not the time to give up on Copenhagen. Please pick a campaign with a positive ask and lend them your voice.