Michael Liebreich: You got involved with carbon markets representing the Alliance of Small Island States, is that right?
Farhana Yamin: Yes, one of my early projects as a lawyer was to advise on the negotiations that became the 1992 Climate Change Treaty. The remit was to find a way of jointly implementing emissions reductions; that's the legal hook and the terminology that was used to launch offsets and tradable permits, and that's what I became involved in. Those island countries could not afford legal advice, they could not afford the economists, they could not afford the scientists. We came along and said, no, you need more coordinated diplomatic efforts, because your countries are at stake. A large part of what I did in the early 90s, especially in the run up to the to the first COP in 1995 in Berlin, was trying to get an emissions reductions-based protocol in. A large part of the Kyoto Protocol negotiations was then designing different kinds of carbon markets. In the end industry and private lobbies stuffed these initiatives with too much hot air. That's why moving forward, by the time it gets to 2008, the small islands are saying, actually, these market mechanisms are not working. They may be producing lots of careers for carbon traders but they're not resulting in real reductions. These tools did not come from the environmental community; they came from the economic community and industry. In the UK, industry led the design of those, hand in hand with the regulators. Very few NGOs - I was one of the few that had the expertise in this area - were in favour of them. The environmentalists always hated these and could see the abuse and could see the gaming.
ML: In my view the whole thing blew up because, from a game theory perspective, it was a ridiculous goal. It was castle-in-the-sky thinking…
FY: In Kyoto, there was acceptance that there was a legally-binding emissions target. Some of them were reduction targets, and some of them were absolute reduction targets, but there was a cap. And that was agreed in 1997. So actually, the high point of international environmental law is ‘97, and everything goes down the drain after that. The US negotiated in good faith its legally binding target. I've got my Kyoto Protocol here - these were real targets that were negotiated. And after that, it becomes problematic, because the richer countries don't want to implement their reduction targets. And then there was this huge looming issue that was brought up of developing countries immediately having to sign up in equivalence was seen as unfair. So, that all broke down. It wasn't just the idea of the cap was ridiculous; it was the fact that there was no implementation by the richer countries. They created these carbon markets, but everybody could see there was just paper compliance, and not real reductions. Secondly, they did not give the grace period that the developing countries were expecting.
ML: At that point China embarked on 15 years of the most extraordinary export-driven, coal-fired development. China in that period became the number one emitter and was not bound at all. So, that framework was never going to work, was it?
FY: I think it wasn't never going to work. It never worked because the basic premise that richer countries start by phasing down or phasing out oil, gas, coal, was not followed. It's not that it’s based on a ridiculous model. And at the same time, as a result of both privatisation and globalisation, you had outsourcing of the dirtiest industries to countries like China, India, Pakistan, parts of Africa. So, you actually had a completely hypocritical situation where there was a promise of leadership, the wealthiest countries which had caused most of the pollution to date were not picking up responsibility for actually changing their economies. Today, India and China are right up there in a way that they weren't then even in aggregate terms. So obviously, things have changed massively. At that time, those developing countries thought it was an unfair to ask for their emissions to be reduced. On the question of fairness, it's only in the last 10 years that we've even had advocacy and campaigns to expose the supportive role of finance; London is still one of the largest centres of fossil fuel-based finance. So, you then get initiatives like Carbon Tracker showing that the financial sector is holding up and supporting fossil fuel-based development in both rich and poor countries in richer and developing countries, that is completely out of kilter with what we're trying to do through our little environmental laws. We don't have the stick to discipline or even restructure the incentives that the finance industry works on.
ML: The world changes with the arrival of Greta Thunberg and what you call XR, Extinction Rebellion. Were you a founder of Extinction Rebellion?
FY: No, no, I was not a founder, I joined in the second half of 2018. Back then, Net Zero wasn't on the legislation in the UK. Three years after Paris, having negotiated the phase out target, net zero, 1.5, Britain did nothing. Very few MPs even spoke for climate action; the whole thing was languishing. So, these different movements arose in different parts of the world because there was a complete mismatch between what was happening on the ground in reality with emissions and then with politicians thinking, yeah, we ratified the thing, we don't have to actually do anything. Every newspaper, from Vogue magazine to the Daily Mail now carries climate related news around the year. Climate was really languishing and was nowhere on the political agenda. It can't just be every election cycle that we acknowledge how irreversible and huge the impacts already are. These impacts are here; they’re cooked into the system; they're impacting millions of people right now. XR has been behind more participatory ways of discussing climate action, and not just having these technocratic energy economy models saying, oh, yeah, just implement a carbon tax. Frankly, we’d forgotten to consult and involve people and engage them. You can't do this year to year and you can't do this election cycle by election cycle. This is a societal overhaul. I felt like I'd been part of that incrementalist thinking, thinking COP by COP, let's do it every five years, allocate a budget… I think that approach has failed. The entire financial system, the way in which energy, transport, agriculture, land is produced, neglects nature and it neglects people in other countries. So, we need a really big reset of capitalism. This isn't going to get solved by someone sticking on a carbon price. The capitalist political economy is orientated around not recognising nature as an input that is different from technology and innovation and other things. We have to stop people who are saying let's price this through carbon markets, oh, let's invent tradable systems. I have done it… I've written books on carbon markets. This is rubbish, these systems are not working.
ML: How do you explain that the wealthiest countries have peaked their emissions and are reducing them? There is pricing, there is regulation, there are all sorts of mechanisms that have been...
FY: Shell and BP have just carried on investing. Let's be very clear about that. They have continued to invest in huge greenwashing, lobbying, marketing, absolute corruption all over the world to push their toxic products down the throats increasingly of a more educated public, who has rejected them. They have resisted regulation, they torpedoed the Kyoto Protocol. That is why the rage is there, and I'm at the head of that rage. These are industries that are profitable only because the externalities and the impacts that they have caused all around the world. Let’s stop calling it nice, neutral words like climate impact, let's call it for what it is: devastation. No one prevented them from putting their money into renewables. You had to have governments who actually funded and brought the price of renewables down, of battery storage done, these companies didn't do that. There's no point just saying that, oh, now China's doing more of them. I'm not protecting China. XR exists to cause increased awareness of the huge footprint and the huge political power and the stranglehold, especially in the UK, and in many parts of the world, that these companies continue to play in our public life. The good news is Michael, as a result of much of your work, and many others, we have alternatives.