18th Sep 2020

G20 protesters target European Climate Exchange

  • While there was some trouble on the fringes of the protests, demonstrators have been mainly peaceful (Photo: EUobserver)

Amidst the tens of thousands of activists of various stripes targeting London's financial district as the G20 summit opened on Wednesday (1 April), one of the more colourful contingents of mostly youthful activists set up a 'Climate Camp' outside the European Climate Exchange, saying the same free-wheeling financial system that has led to the current economic crisis will not be able to save the planet from the climate crisis.

While outside the Bank of England a motley crowd tussled with police and a handful stormed a Royal Bank of Scotland office, resulting in 63 arrests, according to authorities, and elsewhere in the British capital peace campaigners voiced their opposition to the war in Afghanistan and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, in this particular corner of London for some 2,000 students, academics and environmental campaigners, the centrepiece of the EU's climate change strategy, the Emissions Trading Scheme, was their key target during the G20 meeting.

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The exchange, or ECX, is a pan-European platform for carbon emissions trading, whose buying and selling of contracts based on EU Allowances (EUAs) attracts some 80 percent of the exchange-traded volume in the European market.

At 12:30 on the dot, dozens of protester 'affinity groups' swooped in on Bishopsgate, home to the exchange, rapidly pitching a flock of stake-less green and blue pup tents, filling the street. Hanging colourful bunting across the street and affixing green and anti-capitalist posters and banners to building walls with red and yellow fake 'police line' tape that instead declared "capitalism means war," the protesters had control of the road within minutes.

A carnival atmosphere emerged with the plentiful sun and sudden appearance of brass bands and campers singing in the round. Two women dressed as mermaids held placards warning of rising sea-levels while others were partially successful in holding workshops on the science and politics of climate over bullhorns not loud enough to penetrate the din from the cheerful ruckus and the drone of the helicopters overhead.

In front of one tent, draped in a Bolivian flag, was placed something of a welcome mat, bearing the nigh-on ubiquitous visage of revolutionary Che Guevara and Evo Morales, the land-locked South American country's socialist president, quoting his anti-capitalist warning: "Under capitalism, Mother Earth doesn't exist: We are not human beings, but consumers."

A few metres away from the Bolivian tent meanwhile, beneath a banner demanding "Farmers' markets, not carbon markets," some climate camp activists dressed in tweed vests, green wellington boots and cloth caps in the English gentleman-farmer fashion had set out a stall with locally grown organic carrots, apples and freshly baked vegan cakes.

'Turning the atmosphere into a commodity'

Ian Duff, an organiser with the Climate Camp explained the pun while decrying the EU's ETS.

"Carbon markets employ the same processes, the same system that has resulted in the current economic crisis, and if governments embrace the ETS as a model, we will see the same situation, the same sort of collapse with carbon credits," he said.

"Carbon trading creates a commodity out of the atmosphere and leaves it to the same bankers that have created this mess to trade our way out of climate change."

"It is up to the market to set the price of carbon, which, with the economic slump, has plunged from around €30 a ton to just €10, which is not sending the price signal we need for industry to begin changing its ways."

Instead of providing a market incentive to reduce carbon output, emissions credits, most of which have been allocated for free, now provide a source of revenue for companies, he argued.

Moreover, carbon markets require that a single commodity - the equivalent of a ton of carbon - is universally exchangeable. But greenhouse gases are in the real world are produced in a variety of ways and have effects on the climate far more complex than this "imagined" tradable commodity. Not all tons of greenhouse gas emissions are the same, so they require regulation tailored to different industries rather than a market "oversimplification," he explained.

This oversimplification at the same time is then complicated by traders as carbon markets become as abstruse and tangled as the obscure world of derivatives, sub-prime mortgages, credit default swaps and other complex financial products, with carbon credits sliced and diced in a similar fashion.

"We've seen how these people cannot be relied upon to look after the economy, so we can't trust them to look after the planet," he said.

Instead of looking for market-based or technical fixes, global leaders need to begin shepherding society through more substantial economic changes.

"Farmers' markets are one aspect of a more sustainable economy," he said. "It's a half-serious joke rather than serious preaching, but about the sort of system-wide change we need to combat global warming, rather than the false solution offered by carbon markets."

‘Protesting doesn't get rid of the bankers'

Right next to the climate campers, a group of construction workers on a tea break watching the ruckus were split over the protesters. While trade unionists and farmers have played a prominent role in the demonstrations, strikes and wider unrest in other EU countries, in the UK, such protests as the climate camp and at the Bank of England have remained largely the preserve of youthful activists and NGOs.

Lester, a middle-aged man, did not think much of the demonstration at first: "They would do a better job if they were working. It's just a day off isn't it? If I'd a day off, I would've gone fishing. No time for this lark."

Asked what he thought of economic crisis, however, he said he did not have much time for the financial world either: "The bankers have destroyed this country, brought it to its knees. None of them should have been bailed out."

His co-worker, Philip, slightly younger than his friend, then piped up that he would be at the protest himself if he were not at work. "It's fantastic. We need more protests like this. In fact, there should be more people here. I don't know why there aren't."

Lester then thought twice about what he had said a moment earlier: "What I mean is, it's not going to change anything is it? It's not going to work. Just protesting doesn't get rid of these guys, does it?"

A few streets over, a more hardened crowd of anarchists and anti-globalisation protesters did indeed engage in more militant actions.

Mid-morning, demonstrators smashed the windows of an RBS office and chucked out into the street a stream of computers, filing cabinets and other office equipment before the bank was stormed by riot police with dogs.

For the most part, however, the convergence of protesters on Threadneedle Street and the surrounding roads - sealed in by riot police - maintained a peaceful, festival atmosphere, with jugglers, the dreadlocked and the heavily tattooed basking in the April sun.

A statue of the Duke of Wellington now sported a black anarchist flag, a skull on a stick and a banner calling for "worldwide direct action against homelessness".

An Osama bin Laden look-a-like busker sung "Sweet Home Al-Qaeda" in front of a placard that read "Quantititavely ease me". He joked with the crowd that the economic crisis had been tough for terrorism too. "We've had to let go 40 jihadists this week alone," he lamented.

Elsewhere, 11 protesters who had brought their own tank to the demo were arrested for being dressed as police and had their armoured but unarmed vehicle impounded.

Anarchists in Starbucks

While many shops and cafes were closed or even boarded up, surprisingly, a Starbucks, long-time target of anti-globalisation protesters since the famous ‘Battle in Seattle' almost a decade ago, remained open. More surprising still, not a few anarchists popped in throughout the day for snacks, drinks and the toilet. One young man dressed as Death, complete with a black hood and cape, bought a lollipop and a yoghurt smoothie.

Students engaging in a sit-down in the street complained that they were baton-charged by police, but otherwise, apart from reaction to the attack on the bank and the sealing off roads and steady, tightening advance of police - a process known as ‘kettling' - the 5,000 police drawn from across the country took a largely hands-off approach until the mid-afternoon, when protesters at the Bank of England pushed through police lines. Military police soon filed in, containing the situation.

However, late in the evening, officers moved in to break up the climate camp as well, provoking running battles in the neighbouring streets that eventually petered out around 1 am.

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