The privatisation of Britain's air traffic control systems is rather like the Millennium Dome. First the government backs it, then it tries to figure out what on earth it is for. Ministers' attempts to explain the inexplicable have not been helped by an unequivocal promise the Labour party made in opposition: "Our skies," it announced, "are not for sale."
The government is clearly trying to beat its own egregious record, for in one week it is planning to break this promise not once, but twice. It is currently trying to sell not only our flight paths, but also the sky itself. The world's weather is on the brink of being privatised.
The original purpose of the climate change negotiations taking place in the Hague this week was to cut the amount of greenhouse gases the world produces, in order to avert more catastrophic weather of the kind Britain has suffered over the past few weeks. But corporations have discovered in the world's disasters a marvellous opportunity for making money. Thanks to their lobbying, the climate saving talks have been turned into a surreal discussion about how the atmosphere can be bought and sold.
Under the Kyoto protocol on climate change, countries are allowed to reduce their emissions through something called "flexibility mechanisms". Instead of cutting carbon dioxide at home, they can either buy "carbon credits" from countries which have exceeded their own targets for cuts, or invest in carbon-reducing technologies elsewhere in the world. At first sight, this looks like a fine idea. It places a financial premium on cleanliness, and encourages the transfer of environmentally-friendly technology to the developing world. In practice, it promises to exacerbate both climate change and inequality.
Flexibility mechanisms could enable countries to trade in hot air. A nation's entitlement to pollute depends upon how much carbon dioxide it was producing in 1990. Since then, heavy industry in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan has all but collapsed, with the result that they have accidentally achieved far greater carbon cuts than anticipated. The United States is hoping to avoid cutting its own emissions by buying unused entitlements from these countries, thus making no net contribution to carbon reduction.
The UK wants to engage in a similar scam, by selling the carbon dioxide we would have produced if we hadn't shut the coal mines. The government has also offered state aid for the privatisation of the climate. In July it laid down £30m to help private companies start bidding for each other's reduced emissions. A research institute in the United States calculates that the weather market will be worth $13 trillion by 2050.
But the subtler plans are still more hazardous. As a new report by the Corporate Europe Observatory shows, they amount to subsidies for northern corporations seeking to exploit developing countries. The British government is insisting, for example, that if BNFL builds nuclear power stations in China it should be able to obtain a carbon discount for the UK, on the basis that they will emit less greenhouse gas than coal-burning plants. The discount could be used to subsidise their construction, thus saving a dangerous technology from extinction.
Monsanto is hoping to find new markets for its unpopular herbicide-tolerant crops by promoting them as "carbon friendly", on the basis that they leave more organic matter in the soil than conventional crops (though far less, of course, than organic farming). A Malaysian logging company is already selling pollution permits to an electricity firm in the US, claiming, in the looking-glass world of carbon trading, that it is sucking carbon out of the atmosphere by replacing the virgin forests it is cutting with plantations.
Such schemes not only finance environmental destruction; they are also grossly unjust. If first world countries can buy their way out of their commitments by funding carbon-saving projects in the third world, then developing nations will have trouble making reductions of their own, when, in the future, such cuts are demanded of them.
Indeed, when the amount of carbon dioxide a country or a company generates is used to determine how much it should be allowed to produce, then the worst polluters acquire the greatest rights. The greater your right to pollute, the more carbon credits you can sell to other people. Those least responsible for the problem, in other words, benefit least from the solution.
The polluters meeting in the Hague this week claim that they are saving the planet. In truth they are selling it.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000