Saturday, December 15, 2007

The great carbon trading scam?

The Bali summit: Our attempts to end deforestation require complex solutions, not quick fixes.

Deforestation has been big on the agenda here at the climate talks in Bali, and with some good reason. About a fifth of the carbon dioxide emissions entering the atmosphere each year because of human activities are down to the clearance of forests, especially the tropical forests. Halting deforestation is also necessary because a huge proportion of the planet's biological diversity is found in forest ecosystems. Some 70% of terrestrial species are believed to dwell in tropical rainforests. It is thus very clear that deforestation must be halted, but how?


Yesterday the World Bank unveiled plans to do just that. The chief himself, Robert Zoellick (who was also a former US trade representative), turned up to announce the launch of a new Forest Carbon Partnership Facility. The idea, we were told, is to link forests into a global carbon-trading scheme that rewards the protection of a forest that might otherwise have been cut down, or by replanting a forest that has already been cut down. Sounds great: until you look a bit deeper.

Such a scheme would rely on someone buying "carbon credits" that are linked to the protected or replanted forests. At a price per tonne determined by market forces, a company or government would pay to count the carbon benefit of protecting or planting a forest against the carbon damage caused by its emissions at home. So, in the future we could theoretically see British Airports Authority buying carbon credits derived from the protection of a Brazilian rainforest and counting that against the carbon emitted from the construction of a third runway at Heathrow, and for the new tarmac to be declared "carbon neutral".

(This is aleady happening: Virgin Atlantic launches Carbon Offset Scheme )

This raises major problems. The first is the way in which such a mechanism would allow high polluting industrialised countries to continue with business as usual on the strength of protecting forests (that need to be protected anyway). It also raises huge issues equity and justice and in some ways can be regarded as a form of "ecological imperialism". Having cut down our own forests, and now going through the fossil fuels like there is no tomorrow, we are asking that we pay a small fee to solve our problem though counting a developing country's forests as an offset to our own pollution. The forests that we are counting against our pollution are of course located mainly in countries that have contributed very little to the problem that we are seeking to solve. In addition, these forests very often are occupied by peoples who have struggled for years to gain legal title to their ancestral territories. It is clear that turning their homes into an excuse for the west to pollute is quite wrong.

The social impacts can be huge too. Land that might to the World Bank be classified as "degraded", and a good place to put a carbon "sink" in the form of a newly planted forest, might be occupied by landless people who rely on it for their living. The World Bank has a poor track record in relocating people to accommodate its projects and a new market in carbon offsets could perpetuate injustices of this kind.

Here is the full story.