Analysis – State Failures: Siding with North against South, with Colonisers against the Colonised

By Sinéad Mercier. Originally published in The Ditch's State Failures.

It comes as no surprise that the Irish government does not actually reduce its emissions. Each year the Irish government buys carbon credits from other countries as evidence of its compliance with European Union climate legislation.

Carbon credits are pieces of paper that say emissions reduced or not emitted in one country have been bought by another to offset their own emissions. These are legal fictions, the ability to own the carbon building blocks of life, volatile gases that you cannot feel, cannot see, cannot contain. It is essentially the commodification of pollution – the creation of a market in make-believe money out of not-so-thin air. This is a perfectly legal enterprise, backed by international and EU law and innumerable company accreditations. 

This system of market-based climate law isn’t working. Emissions released in one place add their accelerant weight to an already rapidly warming atmosphere; this physical process cannot be undone by human belief systems in commodities, money or capital. Even the world’s currently most rigorous trading regime – the EU Emissions Trading Scheme – has been found by the most positive analyses to only have reduced emissions by 3.8-10 percent. Many others state that the scheme is a complete failure, encouraging the use of the worst fossil fuels in coal and lignite and leading to major windfalls for the world’s largest polluters.

Continued reliance on the fiction of pollution trading has undermined far more effective, proven efforts. Prior to emissions trading schemes and other ‘flexible environmental policy instruments’ – which gained prominence in the 1980s under the influence of Reaganomics in the United States – countries were working together to ban or limit damaging pollutants. The 1987 Montreal Protocol to ban CFC chemicals, once common in deodorants and fridges, has worked to almost completely close the hole in the ozone layer. EU emissions reductions attributed to the EU Emissions Trading Scheme also largely occurred due to bans and more stringent standards on power plants. 

The diversion tactic has proven effective. Fossil fuels are owned and produced by powerful multinational companies larger than states. Actions repeatedly recommended by climate scientists – such as bans on new fossil fuel infrastructure, forced reduction of outputs from oil and gas fields or a worldwide cap on fossil fuels – are proving impossible to secure. It is little wonder, considering that official acknowledgement of fossil fuels as the root cause of climate change has been years overdue due to the pressure from oil- and gas-funded think tanks and campaign groups. Today, climate scientists face increasing harassment and death threats.

In buying carbon credits, Ireland avoids repercussions for its actual state of affairs: the fact that the country’s emissions are 57 percent higher than the rest of the EU per capita in 2020. Rather than a clear goal of reducing apocalyptic levels of pollutants in the atmosphere, climate action has become a numbers game of who can best massage or creatively ‘account’ the statistics.

From land-as-commodity to pollution-as-commodity

For historical reasons, Ireland is a key and leading international player in reinforcing this institutional ludomania. Carbon credits and their attendant markets are merely the newest in a long line of legal techniques developed in the colonial era to instrumentalise land-people relations and render them into thin-air commodities for a global market. These techniques have a long history.

Our use of carbon credits and pollution-as-commodity has its origins in land-as-commodity, something we now know to be toxic to life on earth – and one imposed through early modern colonial-capitalist techniques first practised in the laboratory of Ireland.

Historian Eileen McCracken and geographer William J Smyth have described Ireland in the pre-colonial era as “a woodland culture” where land was understood and mapped in the oral tradition in terms of its land-use potential, webs of kinship and forms of animism. As Niamh Guiry has shown, animist understandings of forests and trees had high standing in pre-existing Brehon law. Others such as Mary Laheen have interrogated place names, stone wall formations and early maps to show how forests, bogs and specific forms of land-use operated as existential boundaries for the community. These can be understood from the Irish for environment, comhshaol, which translates as the collective or shared life/world or mórshaol, the greater-than life within which we are enveloped. In English, environ-ment makes a moral assumption, that the land is a dead, enclosable, surround to extract from.

These more complex, negotiated and vital forms of seeing and living in the world were deliberately and violently eradicated from the 1500s onwards to facilitate the conquest and colonisation of the country. New ‘scientific’ processes of standardisation and quantification were used to financialise the land in order to pay for its conquest, for example through the Cromwellian Adventurers Act 1642. In the Downs Survey, the surgeon-general of the English army, William Petty rendered Ireland a blank slate, a tabula rasa – which overlaid a new understanding of the land and its ecological/cultural forms. As Brenna Bhandar describes, earth, mountains, people and other species became a mere “amalgam of economic units”, which could only be owned by those who fitted racialised specifications of how to manage, or ‘Shire’, the land for the sole aim of profit. As described by historians, lawyers and cultural theorists such as Jane Ohlmeyer, Michael Cronin, Brenna Bhandar and Amanda Byer, new imperial legal property regimes followed these scientific techniques, designed to dispossess, mollify and fundamentally alter people-place relations. This fundamental change in people-place relations caused the population terrible anguish, evident in Dirge of the Munster Forest (1591) and Caoine Cill Cais/The Lament for Kilcash. Many became ‘woodkerns’ conducting guerrilla warfare against plantations, which exacerbated forest clearances in retaliation. Only two percent of Ireland’s great forests remained by 1800, becoming the preserve of the Anglo-Irish demesne.

'Climate action has been colonised'

Ireland’s brutal experience of financialised land and relations set in train the practices that would commodify the atmosphere centuries later in carbon markets. These practices were then exported, as in the words of Michael Cronin—the Tudor experiment in extractivism “made Ireland the ideal laboratory for a form of ecological dispossession that will be replayed endlessly in various corners of the Empire”. Now predominately ‘white’ in international law, Ireland benefits from the continued use of these techniques as it positions itself as a hub for international private (or financial) law and accountancy. Techniques of exclusive property ownership that count all the world and its creatures as economic units of value have repeatedly shown themselves to be direct contributors to climate change, environmental degradation and repeated mass extinctions of others with whom we share the land. As noted by Ohlmeyer, “Ireland was England’s first colony. Yet if Ireland was colonial, it was also imperial. The Irish were victims of imperialism as well as aggressive perpetrators of it.”

From the 1990s onwards the primary means of climate action in international law have been aligned with the same reductive thinking that dispossessed large swathes of the Irish population in the colonial era. The land, its elements and its inhabitants are mere commodities. In international law, climate action has been colonised by the idea that markets in essential goods like clean air or dangerous pollutants such as carbon dioxide are the solution. This is despite repeated evidence that it has not reduced emissions. 

The idea that you can turn all the world into a market truly took hold in the 1980s in the financial centres of London and New York. Not just land, food and oil were commodities, but the process of selling them too, which was packaged into new legal inventions, themselves becoming commodities – loans, derivatives, shares. Buoyed by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the winning out of greed is good, by the 1990s and early 2000s the market became the primary means of tackling capitalism’s newest, and probably its most existential challenge: climate change. 

The now infamous Enron embodies the recklessness of the age as markets became increasingly untethered from reality and physical constraints. Beginning as an ordinary oil and gas trader, Enron took Petty and Cromwell’s financial engineering to new heights. Learning from the forced application of neoliberal techniques in the Southern Cone of Argentina and Chile, Enron promoted the infrastructures of electricity systems themselves as a market. Privatising networks of wires, power plants and the currents themselves became a money-spinner; choke-points, shorts, blackouts and even the weather forecast were exploited to charge extortionate amounts. Those calling for caution or for the rollback of privatisation were labelled “economic girly men” by Enron-style energy market advocates such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. This personal advocacy did little to prevent the crippling of Schwarzenegger’s own state’s electricity infrastructure during the California energy crisis of 2000-2001, which resulted in an 800 percent increase in prices. In the words of one Enron energy trader caught on tape, “Burn, baby, burn. That's a beautiful thing."

Growing environmentalist campaigns against oil and gas seemed to threaten this happy equation of capitalism, freedom and unlimited extraction. However, the mainstream US environmental movement, underpinned as it was by an aversion to major state projects, and a liberalism disconnected from Global South campaigners, was caught off guard. Many were naïvely taken in not only by the ‘end of history’ vibe of the era, but the false complexity of new financial mechanisms. If these impenetrable, and highly profitable, market solutions could revolutionise oil and gas and electricity, couldn’t this approach also be the solution? 

'Former colonies, Latin American and indigenous peoples fought hard against carbon credits'

As the 1990s came to an end, the US approach to the new United Nations framework convention on climate change was to dictate a free market in emissions trading (without binding targets) as the best means of reducing global emissions.

From the earliest days of these international negotiations, former colonies, Latin American and indigenous peoples fought hard against carbon credits, trading and offset regimes as “carbon colonialism”. They pointed to the futility of using the same techniques that caused climate change to end it. Indigenous groups, in particular, criticised the northern European and US idea that you can trade the essentials of life as antithetical to their way of understanding the world. 

Even the EU originally blocked the carbon markets approach until it was desperate to get the US to sign the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which put these agreements on international climate action into practice. However, the US under President Bill Clinton (and advised by Al Gore) refused to participate in the protocol unless it was changed to an Enron-inspired ‘cost-effective’ trading format based on “banking and borrowing” the new commodity of carbon emissions. A process that would “harness the power of free markets to free our planet from an unacceptable risk”, said Clinton in 1997. By the time the entire UN format was changed to suit this unilateral ideological mission, president George W Bush was in power and pulled the US out in any case. Despite being born under this bad (and imploding) star, carbon markets have remained the EU’s primary legal means of reducing emissions under the Emissions Trading Scheme, and the Effort Sharing Decision, now Regulation.

As Peter Doran has noted following James Joyce, the Irish imagination moves between “twinsome minds… two thinks at a time”. Doran offers that such duality allows for an openness and multiplicity that extends its solidarities beyond Eurocentrism, but it can also cultivate a duplicitousness. As described by Conor McCabe, our colonial history has also been strategically used by a comprador class within the state to protect their interests. These actors within the Irish state are experts in the international accountancy mechanisms that hide wealth and privilege, and have ensured it is state policy to protect Ireland’s delivery of these techniques despite the little benefit they offer to the country as a whole. Aware of our colonial history and forced deindustrialisation, the béal bocht has been pleaded on the international stage to argue for exceptionalism when it comes to our low tax corporate rates in the Apple case. Climate markets have been seized upon by such interests as an extension of existing financialisation practices, knowing full well that not only do they not reduce emissions, but situate Ireland as a hub for fossil capital that has fled greener jurisdictions.

However, in keeping with its positive record on international humanitarian aid and diplomacy, Ireland first tentatively aligned itself at the UN with a climate justice approach when it came to sustainability. Kevin O’Sullivan has shown that Irish negotiations were underpinned by a latent Catholic social justice ethos—cultivated by development organisations such as Trócaire and evident still today in Ireland’s role in co-delivering with Kenya the Sustainable Development Goals. We can be proud of that history, which sets us apart from the colonial and extractivist dispositions of northern European powers and the US. It is sad then, that this alliance has begun to devolve into tired and easy alliances with those who do not have our, or the Earth’s, interests at heart. Ireland now votes both against the establishment of a new international economic order (where it abstained before) and now is the most prominent backer of the European Commission against civilian climate cases. As shown by GLAN’s Gerry Liston, the Irish government has adopted an “exceptionally hostile” approach to climate cases before the European Court of Human Rights, lodging lengthy submissions against Swedish grandmothers and Portuguese children. Ireland now argues strongly for a flexible EU trading scheme for powerful agribusinesses and lobbies intensively against new EU legislation that seeks to restrict investment into high-carbon activities under the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive. The state focuses domestically on consumer carbon taxes, as €5.7 billion a year in international fossil fuel investments are funnelled unimpeded through the IFSC.

The choice: between Empire and Republic

This comprador class’s economic view of our land, and our relationship with it, have been continually contested. This is evident not only in our long and strident history of land agitation, but the contestations between different forms of environmentalism on the island itself. As Doran has noted, “Irish nationalism is all too often presented as a variant on a property dispute rather than a truly transformative invitation to dwell differently on this island.” While northern European NGOs speak of carbon offsets and trading as legitimate means of reducing emissions, many such as Hilary Tovey, Liam Leonard, Sheila Killian, Mark Garavan and others have pointed to Ireland’s grassroots environmental campaigns as being unique from northern Europe in that they conceive of the environment as an enfolded concept that does not separate the human and non-human. This notion may have its roots in the Irish language, which is – to return to an comhshaol – closely related to place-based understandings of the world as noted by Cronin, Angela Bourke and Manchán Magan. It is an ideal that has enabled Irish campaigns across the island, as detailed by V’cenza Cirefice and Lynda Sullivan on mining, to connect with other campaigns as far and wide as North Dakota, Serbia and South and Central America. Ireland has also been home to a remarkable and heartening series of firsts in climate action and anti-fossil infrastructure campaigning, being the first country to divest its state investment fund from fossil fuels, as well as banning fracking, new offshore oil and gas exploration and liquefied natural gas. The latter campaign being linked with groups in Pennsylvania, many of them descended from Irish emigrants. 

As we consider an island to be united politically in the coming years, Robbie McVeigh and Tim Rolston state that this new Ireland should be “measured by whether it does right not just by Irish people but by the rest of the world, particularly in solidarity with other victims/survivors of colonialism”. The choice facing this new Ireland will be between “Empire and Republic”. Ireland can step outside its hitherto choice of aligning itself with those who undermined efforts to build an effective international legal framework to tackle climate change. We can ensure our climate politics is in line with the propensity towards peace, compassion and place-based relationships that is evident in the everyday practices of Ireland’s people. It’s time to give this political expression, and work with countries arguing for a new international economic order that fundamentally rejects the long line of colonial understandings of the land and our relationships with it. 

Sinéad Mercier is an occasional lecturer in planning and environmental law and PhD candidate in energy and climate law at the Sutherland School of Law, University College Dublin.

The Ditch editors

The Ditch editors