By Chris Lang
On 29 September 2020, Total put out a press release stating that it had “delivered its first shipment of carbon neutral liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC)”. Total explained that the fossil fuel was “carbon neutral” because Total and CNOOC had bought carbon offsets from two ten-year-old projects: the Hebei Guyuan Wind Power Project in China; and the Kariba REDD+ project in Zimbabwe.
Last week, Bloomberg Green published an excellent piece of investigative journalism about Total’s LNG delivery under the headline: “How to Sell ‘Carbon Neutral’ Fossil Fuel That Doesn’t Exist”.
Carbon neutral fossil fuel: “Obvious nonsense”
Bloomberg Green reported that Total’s fantasy carbon neutral fossil fuel resulted from a meeting with the carbon consulting firm South Pole – which helped develop the Kariba REDD+ Project.
Total extracted the gas from the deep-sea Ichthys gas field. From there it was piped 890 kilometres to the Ichthys LNG processing facilities near Darwin, where it was chilled into a liquid for shipping to Shenzen in China. And once it was delivered to CNOOC, the LNG was burned.
The offsets are supposed to make all those emissions just disappear. The LNG transaction cost US$17 million and the offsets cost US$600,000.
Danny Cullenward, lecturer at Stanford University and policy director at CarbonPlan, pointed out to Bloomberg Green that buying offsets to create carbon neutral fossil fuels makes no sense:
“The claim that you can market the sale of fossil fuels as carbon neutral because of a meager few dollars you put into tropical conservation is not a defensible claim.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Renat Heuberger, the co-founder of South Pole, the company that sold the offsets to Total agrees with Cullenward. Heuberger told Bloomberg Green that,
“It’s such obvious nonsense. Even my 9-year-old daughter will understand that’s not the case. You’re burning fossil fuels and creating CO₂ emissions.”
Heuberger told Bloomberg Green that South Pole tells its clients that they should not make claims that they have neutralised ongoing pollution. Total told Bloomberg Green that South Pole did not raise objections about Total using the term “carbon neutral”.
EARTH Tokens and cryptocurrency
In February 2018, REDD-Monitor wrote about the Kariba REDD+ project. At the time, the project was struggling to sell carbon offsets. In 2016, an article in the Zimbabwean newspaper The Herald stated that the project developers, Carbon Green Africa were holding 3.5 million unsold offsets. Of the 1.5 million offsets sold since 2014, some were sold for as little as US$0.50.
Carbon Green Africa is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Carbon Green Investments Guernsey Limited, which is registered in the tax haven of Guersnsey.
In November 2017, Carbon Green Investments and a company called impactChoice announced that carbon credits from the Kariba REDD+ Project would be “for sale on the EARTH token Natural Asset Exchange”.
Also in November 2017, ImpactChoice launched a cryptocurrency called EARTH Token. Until recently, there was an EARTH Token discussion on Reddit, but recently the discussion was replaced with a notice stating that “This subreddit was banned due to being unmoderated”.
Leonard Harley, Earth Token’s co-founder and managing director, died in December 2017.
“It was a scam”, dilberthead commented on the Reddit discussion two years ago, “they’ve taken our money!”
Migrants and squatters opposed the project
According to Bloomberg Green, the Kariba REDD+ credits were sold to Total and CNOOC for “less than $3 a ton, according to people familiar with the deal”. The offsets from the Hebei Guyuan wind project were even cheaper.
Carbon Market Watch’s Gilles Dufrasne told Bloomberg Green that Verra has since updated its policies to exclude large-scale grid-connected renewables like the Hebei Guyuan wind project. If the project developers attempted to register the project with Verra today, “it would not be accepted,” Dufrasne told Bloomberg Green.
The Kariba REDD+ Project covers an area of 785,000 hectares. When I wrote about the project in 2018, I quoted from a chapter in the book “Carbon conflicts and forest landscapes in Africa”, edited by Melissa Leach and Ian Scoones. Written by Vupenya Dzingirai, an Associate Professor at the University of Zimbabwe, and Lindiwe Mangwanya, a doctoral candidate at the University of Zimbabwe, the chapter stated that “the project undermines livelihoods , forbidding access to foraging, agriculture and hunting across large areas that were traditionally used.”
Dzingirai and Mangwanya wrote that the project was “strongly opposed by migrants” and squatters. Both groups wanted land within the project area.
Bloomberg Green reported that the project “has helped improve life in Mbire, one of the districts in Zimbabwe that’s home to volunteers in the forest-protection project”. More than a dozen residents spoke positively about the project to Bloomberg Green‘s reporter.
Where the migrants and squatters have gone is far from clear. The rate of deforestation has gone down in the project area, but did the migrants and squatters move elsewhere and clear land outside the project area?
“Climate neutral” fossil fuel is a disaster for the climate
Last year, Carbon Green Africa paid US$2.5 million to Mbire, with most of the funding going to infrastructure projects such as roads and schools.
A 2019 World Bank report explains where the money from carbon credit sales from the Kariba REDD+ Project goes:
Of the carbon revenues generated by the sale of emission reductions from the Kariba REDD+ Project, 30 percent go to the private sector project proponent Carbon Green Investment, and 70 percent go to the Kariba REDD+ Trust. The Kariba REDD+ Trust then disburses 30 percent of these funds to Rural District Councils, 20 percent to a Community and Project Sustainability Fund, 20 percent for environmental management, 20 percent to a leaseholder safari operator (for the two districts where there is one, or shared equally as an additional 10 percent each for the Rural District Councils and Community Fund otherwise), and 10 percent to a longevity fund. The longevity fund is set aside for future delivery of benefits after the REDD+ project terminates.
The sale of carbon credits from the Kariba REDD+ Project may have raised much needed money for the districts covered by the project in Zimbabwe. But on the other side of the trade, the carbon credits allow Total and CNOOC to make the nonsensical claim that fossil fuels can be “carbon neutral”. Offsetting allows oil corporations to appear to be taking action on climate, while continuing business as usual. And that’s a disaster for the climate.