By Chris Lang
Academics Tor A. Benjaminsen and Hanne Svarstad recently wrote a great piece in the Norwegian magazine Bistandsaktuelt about forest-based carbon trading. Their article is part of an on-going debate in Bistandsaktuelt, which is published by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD).
Benjaminsen and Svarstad are in part responding to an article by Henrik Wiig, an economist and researcher at Oslo Metropolitan University. Wiig writes that we should be celebrating the “breakthrough” achieved at COP26 in Glasgow with the finalising of the climate trading rules in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.
“Climate measures are less effective in Norway”
Wiig’s arguement boils down to saying that it is cheaper to address the climate crisis by reducing emissions in the Global South, rather than in the Global North. He explains that avoiding deforestation in Colombia costs only US$4 per ton of CO2 whereas Norway’s electric car policy costs US$1,200 per ton of CO2. Wiig writes that,
Climate measures are less effective in Norway. Now we can save the rainforest and develop alternative energy in the South, and reduce poverty by transferring climate money from the North.
Wiig argues that it is “unrealistic” to argue that cuts in emissions in the Global South cannot be used to offset continued emissions in the Global North. Wiig dismisses criticism of the Clean Development Mechanism, which utterly failed either to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or reduce poverty.
“We have now come much further in measuring results and designing projects,” he argues, “and can thus better secure ourselves against such a lack of carbon reduction.”
It’s as if Wiig has never heard of the carbon budget – the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere, and the additional amount the world can risk burning from today, if we are to avoid climate breakdown. Burning fossil fuels results in CO2 entering the atmosphere, that “will be in the atmosphere for centuries, some of it will be there for thousands of years, changing the climate”, as climate scientist Kevin Anderson notes. Anderson adds that to stand a chance of staying “well below 2°C” we have to reduce emissions from burning fossil fuels.
(Anderson also notes that when economists do talk about a carbon budget they tend to assume a figure twice as big as that used by climate scientists.)
Fast and slow carbon cycles
Wiig also pretends that the fast and slow carbon cycles simply do not exist. Here’s how 41 scientists explain the carbon cycle, in a statement explaining why “storage of carbon in plants and soils cannot compensate for emissions of fossil carbon”.
The carbon cycle has two parts: one fast cycle whereby carbon circulates between the atmosphere, land and seas, and one slow cycle whereby carbon circulates between the atmosphere and the rocks which make up Earth’s interior.
Fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) come from rocks (part of the slow cycle). Carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning are today 80 times larger than the natural flow of carbon from Earth’s interior (via volcanoes). Since the return of carbon to Earth’s interior takes millions of years, about half of the emitted carbon remains in the atmosphere for a long time and contributes to global warming.
Neither does Wiig appear to have any concept of the fact that Norway is a rich country because of its oil. Norway has profited hugely from its contribution to the climate crisis. Rather than buying their way out of its responsibility for the climate crisis, Norway and other rich nations should be paying climate reparations to address their historical contribution to the climate crisis.
Instead Wiig appears to believe that Norway can continue drilling oil in the Arctic as long as the country pays someone else to mop up its climate pollution. Not only is that inequitable, it will not help address the climate crisis – it will make it worse.
Useful for politicians who want to avoid difficult decisions
Wiig’s argument “sounds tempting to many”, Benjaminsen and Svarstad write, “but not necessarily for climate reasons.” Instead, his arguments are useful for politicians who want to avoid difficult decisions and unpopular climate measures in Norway.
Benjaminsen and Svarstad note that international cost-effectiveness has been a main principle of Norwegian climate policy since the early 1990s. The problem is that, “reality is unfortunately not that simple, and there is often a big gap between what the economic theory of cost-effectiveness says and what happens in practice”.
Forest-based climate measures and carbon trading often lead to costs being shifted to local communities in the Global South. Such measure are neither fair nor are they cost-effective, if all costs are included.
Wiig argues that local communities can be compensated for the costs imposed on them. But real compensation for lost access to land and forest resources is rarely paid. Benjaminsen and Svarstad write that,
Research also shows that lack of compensation is a weak point in both forest protection and tree planting as a climate measure in the South. This is because those affected lack the necessary rights and have minimal bargaining power.
International cost-effectiveness results in the poorest of the poor paying the costs, and a form of climate policy that does not work.
“It is no coincidence,” Benjaminsen and Svarstad write, “that the oil nation Norway is an international driving force for carbon trading and forest-based climate measures in the Global South.”
Norway has managed to continue exploring and drilling for oil while appearing on the global stage as an international climate leader.
In 2018, in an article in the Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen, Svarstad and Benjaminsen describe Norway’s climate policies as “new colonialism” in which “Norwegian interests effectively take over control of areas in countries far away to offset Norwegian climate emissions.”
The costs of this new colonialism are borne by the poor, who are “prevented from modest use of forest resources such as gathering wood as fuel for cooking”.
Norway: Fossil of the day
On 2 November 2021, Climate Action Network awarded Norway with its “Fossil of the Day” Award for the country’s oil lubricated climate policy. “Norway likes to play the climate champion but behind closed doors, new prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre is gaining a reputation as a fossil fuel cheerleader,” Climate Action Network states.
Vast areas of tree planting are planned for the Global South, supposedly to address the climate crisis – a crisis that is largely driven by the historical carbon emissions of the Global North. Benjaminsen and Svarstad write that,
there is reason to expect extensive local costs in the form of lost food security, increased conflicts, also violent, and reduced biological diversity by establishing monocultures such as pine or eucalyptus. Such interventions entail social and ecological costs that are not included when economists talk about cost-effectiveness.
Forest protection as a climate measure faces the same challenges as tree planting in the form of social costs, costs that are hidden to the likes of economists such as Wiig.
Norway has so far spent more than NOK 32 billion (about US$3.6 billion) on its climate and forestry programme in the Global South. Benjaminsen and Svarstad note that while conservation of biodiversity is crucial, top-down initiatives to protect forests often fail to protect forests or help address the climate crisis. The impact that forest protection has on local communities’ livelihoods has often taken place without significant compensation.
Forest fires or changes in government policies can quickly reverse forest protection measures. In Brazil, deforestation is once again accelerating, a situation that is exacerbated by the policies of President Jair Bolsonaro.
Heisann og hoppsann og fallerallera
There is a narrative in Norway that the country’s forest climate policy is a success.
Håvard Mokleiv Nygård, the Director of Knowledge and Evaluations at NORAD, claims that,
Through the rainforest investment, Norway has contributed to reduced greenhouse gas emissions from forests corresponding to more than 100 times Norway’s annual emissions.
And Norway’s Minister of Climate and Environment, Barth Eide, claims that Norway paid to reduce 320 million tons of CO2 emissions from forests, which amounts to “about half of Norway’s emissions on average each year”.
Benjaminsen and Svarstad point out that while this is a nice Christmas story for Norwegians, it’s about as fact-based as the Norwegian carol, Musevisa. (For those not familiar with Norwegian Christmas carols, this translates as “The Mouse Song”, and was written by Alf Prøysen in 1946. It’s well worth a listen. The chorus includes the words, “Heisann og hoppsann og fallerallera”.)
Benjaminsen and Svarstad write that instead of believing that the climate crisis can be addressed cheaply (and overseas), a “green shift” is required that needs extensive societal changes, including the end of oil production. Norway is one of the countries in the world in the best position to start that “green shift”.
Benjaminsen and Svarstad conclude that,
It’s time to end the diversionary manoeuvres and not least those that are legitimised by the myth of cost-effective climate measures in countries far away. The most effective climate measure is to reduce our own emissions.