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Recently, the so-called “forgotten solution” of natural climate solutions has been widely promoted. More than 150 nature-based solutions were announced at the recent UN Climate Action Summit in New York.

Some of the proposals specifically mention REDD or natural climate solutions in their titles, including the following:

  • UN-REDD: Supporting countries with complex policy and institutional reforms to scale up climate actions and ambitions on sustainable land and forest management, conservation and restoration;

Reporting on the Climate Action Summit, ProPublica journalist Lisa Song writes,

There was little talk of eliminating the use of fossil fuels, a drastic but economically tricky and politically painful step that would guarantee those emissions reductions.

Instead, some experts fear, the answer involves an overreliance on offsets, a word that has become so unfashionable, it has been replaced by euphemisms like “nature-based solutions.” In general, offsets allow polluters to get credit for cutting their own emissions by paying someone in another city, state or country to reduce theirs.

Some of the support for natural climate solutions comes from a surprising source. Just before the Climate Action Summit, journalist George Monbiot and Greta Thunberg put out a video promoting natural climate solutions. They produced the video with Conservation International and Nature4Climate.

Monbiot has for many years written brilliant articles opposing offsetting and urging that leaving fossil fuels in the ground be the focus of climate negotiations.

But both Conservation International and Nature4Climate are proponents of offsetting. Conservation International runs several REDD offsetting projects. Nature4Climate was set up by The Nature Conservancy, which also runs REDD offsetting projects, and has long been a major proponent of forest carbon offsets.

Reorienting the climate debate

Green Finance Observatory is a team of team of academic, ex financial market and advocacy professionals that focusses on the “nuts and bolts of green financial markets and instruments”. This week Green Finance Observatory published a briefing on natural climate solutions.

The briefing argues that while it is possible to achieve a fully decarbonised energy system, in some sectors it is impossible to completely eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.

So some sort of carbon capture and storage, in trees and soils, or in geological formations, for example, is going to be necessary if we are to stand a chance of avoiding climate breakdown.

Green Finance Observatory notes that “Protecting natural forests and planting trees to absorb CO2 in itself is a good thing – provided it’s not monoculture tree plantation”.

Green Finance Observatory is concerned that natural climate solutions are being used to reorientate the climate debate away from reducing avoidable emissions from fossil fuels.

Five major problems with natural climate solutions

Having acknowledged that sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is going to be necessary, and that protecting forests and planting trees is a good thing, the Green Finance Observatory lists five major problems with natural climate solutions:

1. Storing carbon in soils and trees is not permanent and is highly uncertain: Measuring exactly how much carbon is not released to the atmosphere as the result of a natural climate solution project involves “incredibly high scientific uncertainty”.

There is also the “very real possibility” that the stored carbon will be released to the atmosphere after only a short time when the trees are cut or burned.

Calculating the impact of carbon capture and storage projects would require being able to determine with reasonable certainty a hypothetical world without the project and then assign a single number to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with that world over the next 100 years – the approximate residence time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In a 2008 assessment of the Clean Development Mechanism the US General Accounting Office stated that “it is impossible to know with certainty whether any given project is additional”.

A 2016 study published by the European Commission found that of the carbon offset projects it investigated, 85% had failed to reduce emissions.

In 2018, a San Diego court rejected a climate action plan that relied on carbon offsets, ruling that carbon offsetting was not acceptable. The court called the mitigation “unverifiable”.

The Green Finance Observatory notes that,

There is an inherent high risk that forests do not represent real emission reductions due to the impermanence of forest carbon, inflated baseline, problematic additionality testing and difficult monitoring reporting and verification.

Forest conservation was excluded from the CDM and from the EU Emissions Trading System for precisely these reasons.

2. Natural climate solutions are likely to be instead of reductions in emissions from fossil fuels: Many countries are planning “net zero” emissions targets by 2050, or sooner. These rely on absorbing greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere, equivalent to the amount of CO2 emissions that remained.

Recently, Professor Kevin Anderson noted that the British Committee on Climate Change’s most recent report relies on “approximately 40% higher negative emission technologies by 2050 than in their previous analysis. As we fail on mitigation, we simply turn up the negative emission technologies’ dial”.

Oil companies, including Eni and Shell, are planning large scale tree planting and forest conservation operations, while expanding their oil exploration and extraction operations.

The aviation industry is setting up its Carbon Offset Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) which will allow emissions to increase while using offsets to claim to be reducing its emissions. CORSIA is a cap-and-trade scheme, without the cap.

3. Carbon capture and storage is typically financing by carbon offsets: Green Finance Observatory notes that financing natural climate solutions with offsets wrongly equates temporary sequestration with permanent emissions from fossil fuels.

Green Finance Observatory argues that natural climate solutions should be excluded from carbon markets, and severely capped in Nationally Determined Contributions and Net Zero emissions targets.

The briefing states that,

The issue in doing so, however, is that hardly anyone would likely be interested in financing them anymore, as their political appeal resides precisely in their cost-effectiveness compared to emission reductions.

Green Finance Observatory welcomes George Monbiot’s statement that “the age of offsets is over”, but contrasts this with calls to include natural climate solutions in carbon markets. For example, the Natural Climate Solutions Alliance, organised by WEF, WBCSD, and Nature4Climate, which states, “Markets for carbon credits have the potential to mobilize finance for NCS at the scale required quickly.”

Despite the fact that Nature4Climate promotes carbon offsets, it is one of the organisations listed as “allies” on George Monbiot’s Natural Climate Solutions website.

4. A devastating social impact? Carbon offset projects have in far too many cases resulted in land ownership conflicts, land grabs, and human rights abuses against Indigenous communities.

The supposed scientific basis for natural climate solutions is a single 2017 paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. The lead author was Bronson Griscom, Director of Forest Carbon Science at The Nature Conservancy. (See REDD-Monitor’s critique of the paper here, co-written with Simon Counsell of Rainforest Foundation UK.)

The paper states that, “the majority of potential reforestation area is located in the tropics”.

This “is a cause for concern,” Green Finance Observatory notes. “So is the suggestion that NCS should be implemented in priority on land whose agricultural yield are low, as such land is typically owned by the more vulnerable communities.”

5. Large-scale forest carbon sequestration could cause food prices to skyrocket: Forest carbon sequestration competes with cropland, and will disproportionally affect the poor. Green Finance Observatory writes that, “It can at best only be a small piece of the puzzle.”

Green Finance Observatory quotes from a recent study in the journal Environmental and Resource Economics:

[M]eeting half the Paris Agreement’s goal for atmospheric carbon reduction would send food prices soaring, especially in developing economies. In some places, food prices would get so high that it would never happen…. Significant forest carbon sequestration leads to reductions in food supply at the same time we’re expecting population increases. This is a simple supply and demand problem.

Four suggestions

Green Finance Observatory puts forward four suggestions to ensure the “environmental and social integrity” of natural climate solutions:

  • Natural climate solutions should be severely capped in Nationally Determined Contributions and Net Zero targets, to ensure that they don’t exceed emissions that are demonstrably unavoidable.
  • Natural climate solution projects should not be financed by carbon trading. Emissions from fossil fuels is not comparable with carbon sequestration in soils and trees.
  • Projects fostering the monetary valuation and/or trading of ecosystem services and biodiversity destruction should be excluded.
  • Binding rules should be developed to prevent predatory behaviour with local indigenous communities, with deterring penalties and adequate enforcement resources.

Green Finance Observatory concludes that without these criteria, natural climate solutions “will only be the latest rebranding of failed carbon offsets”.

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