By Chris Lang
Sarah Milne is a Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University. She studies natural resource struggles and environmental intervention, with a focus on conservation initiatives and REDD. She also studies the impact of large infrastructure project such as hydropower dams. Since 2020 she has worked in Cambodia for UNDP, IUCN and other global conservation NGOs.
Milne recently gave a TEDx Talk at the Australian National University, titled “Beyond Carbon Credits”. Her talk is an excellent overview of the problems with carbon credits – in particular REDD credits:
Milne starts with the murder of Chut Wutty in 2012. He was Cambodia’s most prominent environmental activist at the time. Milne had known him for 10 years. Wutty was murdered in the Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong province in southwest Cambodia. He was exposing illegal logging.
Wutty was murdered because the illegal logging was linked to top government officials. “This might be hard to believe for a relatively small forested country that seems to have embraced green growth, but there is a dark side to the green in Cambodia,” Milne says in her TEDx Talk.
Wutty’s murder took place inside a conservation area financed by international aid agencies.
He was also not far from a hydropower dam that generates carbon credits: the Lower Stung Russei Chrum dam. Milne notes that,
Somehow the carbon certifier in this case failed to realise that the dam had triggered an illegal logging racket, deep in the forest. And the problem is that there are three such dams, in the Cardamom Mountains landscape. All of them sell carbon credits, and all of them have attracted illegal logging. In the three years leading up to Wutty’s death, over half-a-billion dollars of luxury timber was removed from this forested landscape.
Carbon credits are not necessarily clean and green
Milne argues that we need to look inside carbon credits to see how they are made. “I think there is a moral argument for doing this,” Milne says. “Especially when it comes to carbon credits that come from complex forested landscapes”.
Milne asks her audience who has bought a carbon credit. “I would say most of us has,” she adds. She bought carbon credits the last time she took a domestic flight.
“It’s just so easy. You click the button, and it’s remarkably cheap. But I think we all know that it shouldn’t be so cheap and easy. So that’s why we need to decommodify and understand how carbon credits get made.”
Milne explains compliance and voluntary carbon trading mechanisms. She mentions the Clean Development Mechanism, which is the scheme under which the Lower Stung Russei Chrum dam, and the other two dams in the Cardamom Mountains, generate carbon credits.
And she comes on to REDD+. “The idea of REDD+ is that you change land use patterns and you keep carbon sequestered in forests and land,” Milne says. “The value of REDD+ credits increased by 30% last year. So these are really hot property. And there’s something desirable about credits that come from the conservation of tropical forests in developing countries.”
To create carbon as a tradable commodity we have to measure the behaviour change. “This requires certification, verification, and validation of the carbon emissions that are avoided using international carbon standards,” Milne explains. This process of commodification is a social and a political process, not just a technical process. “The key thing about commodification is that it disguises the conditions of production,” Milne says.
REDD in Cambodia: High forest cover, high deforestation rate
“Cambodia suffered a long and tragic civil war at the end of last century. And for this reason at the turn of the century it had very high forest cover. 60% of the country’s surface area was covered in forests.” The high forest cover attracted the international conservation movement that worked with the Cambodian government to create protected areas that officially cover more than 40% of Cambodia’s surface area.
But there has been massive deforestation in Cambodia. Between 2000 and 2012 Cambodia had the world’s third highest deforestation rate.
The combination of high forest cover and high deforestation rates make Cambodia an ideal candidate for generating REDD credits. Milne explains that to set up a REDD project, typically an international NGO partners with the Cambodian government to manage protected areas better. “The argument is that with the extra funding and extra technical advice forest encroachment can be reduced, deforestation can be halted, and you get carbon credits as a result,” Milne says.
The Seima REDD project
In practice, protected area management in Cambodia is very complicated. To illustrate this complexity, Milne talks about the Seima REDD project in the northeast of Cambodia. In 2016, the Seima REDD project sold US$2.6 million of carbon credits to the Walt Disney Company.
“For all intents and purposes, this is a pretty successful REDD+ project,” Milne says. “Certainly the online marketing looks very good.”
But Milne adds that there are three things that make her feel uncomfortable about the credits generated by the Seima REDD project. These three things could be applied to any REDD+ project in Cambodia, and the region, and in similar settings, Milne notes.
- In order to implement REDD+ in Cambodia, you have to partner with the government. “And project implementation involves extending government power and control over natural resources into the protected area system. In Cambodia, authoritarian power has been on the rise. This means that the carbon credits that are coming from this context are not made under democratic conditions. And this rise of unchecked government power also brings risks, especially the risk of corrupt land deals. This photo is an example of such a land deal resulting in deforestation:
“It’s a foreign company that’s come in, acquired land illegally from a protected area and created a rubber plantation. It’s in the buffer zone of the Seima REDD+ project.”
- They have been very weak on Indigenous rights. “This image shows an Indigenous elder of Bunong ethnicity demarcating his territory:
“He’s worried about encroachment. He’s worried about dispossession. This is because Indigenous People in Cambodia very rarely have formal land rights. So his demarcation of the territory is in the hope of gaining formal communal title for land.”Except that being inside the carbon project, when the REDD+ technicalities came along, it turned out that they couldn’t compute complex land tenure arrangements. So land that was subject to Indigenous claims, or plural uses had to be excised from the REDD+ project.”This might sound like just a technicality, but it’s actually a symbolic act, which effectively alienates Indigenous People from forested land, and the Indigenous People here are the traditional custodians of this forest land. So REDD+ needs to do better than that.”
- The illegal logging inside protected areas. “As I said, it’s rife in Cambodia. Most of the time the logging is conducted by really powerful government officials. And so for lowly park rangers, you either accept bribes, or you look the other way when this illegal logging is happening. Or, if you do want to enforce the law, you often risk violent retribution. This is what happened in 2018.
These three park rangers were murdered by an illegal logging gang in the Seima REDD+ project. And one of them was a young Indigenous man.”
“So these three things that I’ve just said,” Milne summarises, “unchecked government power, the erosion of Indigenous rights, and violence against environmental defenders, cause me to question carbon credits in general.”
Milne concludes by saying that apparently easy technical fixes to solving the climate crisis are rarely going to be easy and simple:
“In the case of REDD+ credits this involves the simplification of really complex landscapes, that have deep human and ecological dimensions. It also involves ignoring incovenient truths such as the erosion of Indigenous rights. So rather than focussing on the transactions of tons of CO2 equivalent, we need to think more about moral and ecological issues, and we need to recognise that solving the climate crisis is much more about social and environmental justice than it is about tons of carbon.”