Avoiding ‘carbon colonialism’: Developing nations can’t pay the price for pollution

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The Biden administration has pledged to put the country on a path to net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. Last fall, China announced a carbon neutrality date of 2060. The U.S. and China are not alone. 

A recent survey found that 124 countries, 155 cities and 417 companies have made some form of commitment to net-zero emissions, including Amazon, American Airlines and Disney. Importantly, net-zero proposals are not the same as ending emissions. Rather, these proposals imagine that emissions generated in one location can be “offset” by removing GHGs from the atmosphere somewhere else, through tree-planting, say, or underground carbon storage. The concept rests on the idea that emissions are fungible: that as far as climate change is concerned, a ton of carbon dioxide is a ton of carbon dioxide regardless of where it is produced. The stakes are high; if emissions continue on their current trajectory, the global average temperature will rise 3 degrees Celsius this century; coastal cities will drown; and extreme weather events will become the norm.   

Today, trees are one of the most common technologies of carbon offsetting. In 2019, forestry and land use offsets represented the greatest share of transactions in the voluntary offset market (56.4 percent), followed by renewable energy projects (21.3 percent) and household device projects (8.8 percent). Proponents of forestry-based carbon offsetting often describe these projects as “win-win-win”: they combat climate change; protect forests; and offer development opportunities for local communities. But in reality, carbon offsetting projects can fail catastrophically and violently on all three counts.

The global carbon market incentivizes the privatization and commodification of land and forest resources in developing regions. Governments, organizations, corporations and individuals from developed countries purchase offsets, while developing countries usually supply the offsets. At present the greatest number of voluntary carbon credit buyers are the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Switzerland. The major offset producing countries include Peru, Brazil, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Bolivia, Indonesia and Cambodia. It is not difficult to see forest and land-use based carbon offsetting as a mode of appropriating land in the Global South for the alleged “universal” environmental end of solving climate change. In the emerging carbon economy, the Global North continues to pollute, while communities in the Global South lose land and sovereignty.

The establishment of carbon offsetting sites routinely involves the exclusion of local inhabitants from land and resources that were previously under public or shared jurisdiction. A 2011 study by Oxfam, for example, estimates that at least 22,500 people were evicted from their homes in the creation of timber plantations in Uganda that the UK-registered New Forests Company refashioned to generate carbon offsets. In some cases, experts have framed such displacement as an infringement on human rights. In a number of cases, offsetting projects have enabled a state or foreign company to seize control of land. Those purchasing carbon offsets are looking for guarantees that the carbon stock will remain stable into the future: an incentive for consolidated single-entity ownership.

Carbon offsetting projects also stand to erode food and resource security. Sociologists found this to be the case when a private Norwegian company planted stands of pine and eucalyptus in the shrubland of the Kachung Forest Reserve in Uganda. Prior to the establishment of the plantation, community members had possessed long-standing access and use rights, including for animal grazing, fishing and the collection of water, firewood and medicinal herbs. With the establishment of the plantation, however, villagers were vilified and sometimes arrested as “illegal encroachers” and “trespassers” on license areas by both the government and the company’s staff. Community members reported the destruction of crops, housing and trading centers alongside the arrival of the company’s plantation activities by a collection of state, police and private sector actors. Such projects, conducted in the name of carbon sequestration and afforestation, result in something entirely different than the positive “community development” claimed by proponents of “win-win-win” offsetting. They are carbon colonialism.

Those who defend global markets argue that carbon is cheaper in the Global South — and therefore it is a global good to buy more of it from those places, rather than to invest in local offsetting projects, because it takes more GHG out of the atmosphere. But local offsetting projects offer two benefits that cannot be understated. First, they allow for localized oversight and accountability. Second, they maintain the geographic link between environmental harm and remediation. Carbon sequestration should be expensive, and something we are willing to pay for, if a higher price ensures that offsets do not involve land dispossession and other human rights violations. 

Many Americans currently support domestic environmental policy that emphasizes “just transitions” — interventions to secure workers’ rights and livelihoods when economies shift to sustainable production. Acknowledging that in the United States, communities of color and poor communities are disproportionately harmed by pollution, the Biden administration has promised to focus on domestic environmental justice. It is crucial that American environmentalists and policy makers apply a justice framework outside the borders of the country, rather than outsourcing harm. Environmentalists must ensure that carbon sequestration does not become a pathway or even a justification for social oppression. 

Carbon offsetting may sound like a good thing, but it imperils particular places and communities in favor of global exchange value. It is a form of climate injustice under the guise of a climate solution. 

Laura J. Martin, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Williams College who researches conservation and climate change. Follow her on Twitter @Laura_J_Martin.

Tags Carbon carbon emissions Carbon sequestration Climate change climate crisis Environment environmental policies Global warming

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