By Chris Lang
The solution to preventing climate change is simple. We have to leave fossil fuels in the ground. But you wouldn’t know that from COP26, the UN climate meeting that took place in Glasgow in November 2021.
The tragic reality is that the 26 UN climate summits that have taken place since the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development have utterly failed to make even a slight dent in the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The most recent climate agreement, the 2015 Paris Agreement, does not even mention fossil fuels.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its first report in 1990. In the three decades since then, we have emitted more CO2 as we did in all of history before that date.
Blah, blah, blah
There is an odd sense of deja vu with the UN meetings. Back in 1995, at COP1 which was held in Berlin, hundreds of protesters blocked the doors arguing that the delegates should not be allowed to leave until they had achieved something meaningful to address the climate crisis.
“No more blah, blah, blah. Action now!” the protesters chanted.
26 years later, shortly before COP26 started, Greta Thunberg gave a speech at the Youth4Climate summit in which she dismissed governments’ promises on climate as “blah, blah, blah”:
“Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.”
But it would be wrong to dismiss everything that has been decided at the UN’s climate meetings as words that have not led to action. The reality is that the actions that have been taken have the aim not of addressing the climate crisis, but of appearing to do something while in reality avoiding what actually needs to be done: leaving fossil fuels in the ground.
Let’s take a quick look at the most pernicious of climate actions: The introduction of carbon trading mechanisms in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Offsetting: A dangerous distraction
The Kyoto Protocol was very much “made in the USA”. After the Kyoto Protocol was agreed at COP3, then-US President Bill Clinton declared that it was a success:
“I’m particularly pleased at the agreement. It strongly reflected the commitment of the United States to use the tools of the free market to tackle this problem. We got what we wanted, which is joint implementation, emissions trading, a market oriented approach.”
Before the Kyoto climate meeting, the EU wanted cuts in greenhouse gas emissions of 15% by 2010 and a tax on emissions.
Al Gore was the lead negotiator for the US in Kyoto. Gore’s negotiating team drove down the EU’s target for emission reductions to 5.2%. Then it argued that the rich countries should be allowed to buy their emission reductions from other countries.
The US team pushed the gigantic carbon trading loophole into the Kyoto Protocol. That loophole allowed Russia to sell vast amounts of “hot air” through the Joint Implementation mechanism. It could do so because its emissions had fallen dramatically when its industry collapsed following the dissolution of the USSR.
And the clean development mechanism loophole allowed factories in India and China to make billions of dollars from the sale of carbon credits from the destruction of HFC-23 gases. Without the CDM, the gases would never have been manufactured.
CDM projects have also led to serious human rights abuses: including the Alto Maipo hydropower dam in Chile, the Bisasar Road rubbish dump in South Africa, the Aguan biogas project in Honduras, and Green Resources’ industrial tree plantations in Uganda, to name only a few of the many deeply problematic CDM projects.
A 2016 report by the Öko-Institut found that,
Overall, our results suggest that 85% of the projects covered in this analysis and 73% of the potential 2013-2020 Certified Emissions Reduction (CER) supply have a low likelihood that emission reductions are additional and are not over-estimated.
Al Gore: Profiting from the climate crisis
Meanwhile, in 2004, Al Gore teamed up with David Blood, ex-CEO of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, to create Generation Investment Management. The company was set up 10 months before the Kyoto Protocol came into force. Among Generation Investment Management’s many investments is an industrial tree plantation in Laos that generates carbon credits. Forest was cleared to make way for the monoculture.
The purpose of introducing carbon trading into the UN climate negotiations was to give the appearance of acting on climate while allowing the fossil fuel industry to continue its deadly business as usual.
As Larry Lohmann of UK-based organisation The Corner House notes,
Carbon markets are not designed to reduce emissions. Their function … is to extend the life of the fossil fuel economy and, indirectly, an exploitative and unequal system of extractivism and nature degradation. That is why they are backed by so many fossil-driven corporations and capitalist states. Carbon markets have coexisted very happily for more than 20 years with a catastrophic increase in emissions.
Montreal, COP11: Enter REDD
Avoided deforestation was excluded from the Kyoto Protocol for three main reasons:
- The concern that rich countries would simply buy carbon offsets to avoid reducing emissions at home.
- Relying on forest conservation is a risky strategy for addressing the climate crisis. Forests can burn down (which is increasingly likely as the climate heats up). Slowing deforestation by protecting an area of forest does not stop “leakage”, as forest destroyers, such as palm oil corporations, simply move operations and continue their forest destruction elsewhere.
- And Brazil opposed international carbon trading because it was concerned that rich countries would be able to limit future “development” options in the Amazon rainforest.
In 2005, the idea of reduced emissions from deforestation was re-introduced to the UN climate negotiations by the governments of Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica.
Two years later, in Bali, the World Bank launched its Forest Carbon Partnership Facility. The “ultimate goal” of the FCPF was to “jump-start a forest carbon market”, the Bank announced.
Not to be left out, three UN agencies (Food and Agriculture Organisation, UN Development Programme, and UN environment) launched the UN-REDD programme.
And Norway jumped on the band-wagon with NICFI (Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative). Norway’s then-prime minister Jens Stoltenberg announced that Norway woud hand out US$500 million a year “to prevent deforestation in developing countries”.
“We have to create a global system of carbon trading and CO2 taxes,” Stoltenberg said in his speech in Bali.
But in the 14 years since the Bali COP, none of these initiatives can point to a single hectare of avoided deforestation as a result of the billions of dollars thrown at REDD. (Norway argues that the reduction in deforestation in Brazil from 2004 to 2012 was a somehow a result of REDD, but the vast majority of the reductions took place before any REDD payments had been made to Brazil. The first payment came in 2009. Since 2012, deforestation has increased in Brazil, and in the last two years under Jair Bolsonaro deforestation has dramatically increased.)
The poorest of the poor pay for REDD
When REDD projects have gone ahead, they have far too often done so at the expense of some of the poorest communities on the planet.
In Cambodia, the Oddar Meanchey REDD project failed to stop deforestation and failed to benefit local communities. Timothy Frewer, a geographer at the University of Sydney, who carried out research over several years in the project area states that,
If we measure REDD in terms of providing people with a humble income stream that can act as a disincentive to clearing forest, then the project has failed miserably.
A report by the Rights and Resources Initiative found that REDD risks harming the livelihoods of people living in Mai Ndombe province, the site of a massive proposed World Bank REDD programme. Pouring money into Mai Ndombe for REDD would only exacerbate land conflict, the report states. Widespread corruption and poor governance only makes matters worse.
In Tanzania, Norwegian academics Hanne Svarstad and Tor A. Benjaminsen found that the Norwegian-funded Kondoa Irangi REDD project had caused extra hardship for villagers.
People living close to the forest were particularly affected, especially those who did not have access to alternative areas of forest. Villagers with small farms or no farmland at all were more affected. Women were more affected than men, particularly because they were prevented from collecting firewood for cooking.
A 2019 paper that looked at “actually existing” REDD projects found a series of problems. Local communities were “confused” about REDD, financial benefits were not delivered, and there was strong evidence that REDD was not achieving its social and environmental goals.
The authors write that,
Early evidence from REDD+ projects suggests major challenges, including: ongoing weak enforcement of domestic laws on forests and land, leading to limited effectiveness; contestation or conflict over property rights and community benefits; as well as securitisation and violence, often perpetrated by government agencies.
REDD: Too big to fail?
But despite all these well-documented problems, REDD was too big to fail. Or at least too big for the governments that had spent billions backing REDD to admit to failure. Something had to be done.
All of these re-brandings have two things in common. First, they are all carbon trading mechanisms. Second, Big Polluters love them because they allow business as usual to continue. A series of oil and gas corporations including Shell, BP, Total, Gazprom, Eni, Petronas, PetroChina, and Occidental, have recently announced deliveries of “carbon neutral” liquified natural gas.
Fossil fuels, of course, cannot be “carbon neutral” and claims that the emissions have been “offset” by buying carbon credits are pure greenwash. Climate scams such as REDD and natural climate solutions exist for exactly that purpose. To allow the fossil fuel industry to greenwash itself.
A version of this post was published by Forum Umwelt und Entwicklung in Rundbrief III/2021: Übernutzte Wälder. Unser widersprüchliches Verhältnis zum Wald (in German – thanks to Ramona Bruck for the translation).
PHOTO Credit: Jp Valery, Unsplash.