/ 7 November 2021

Carbon offset is greenwashing, critics say

Topshot Benin Environment Forest Flora Fauna
Overuse: The Lokoli Forest in Benin, where 40% of the population live in poverty, is under threat: Photo: Yanick Folly/AFP/Getty Images

With global warming harming land, marine and coastal life, some conservationists are turning their eyes to financing their protection through carbon market trading. 

It is a highly contentious issue at the United Nations climate talks (COP26), and was left unresolved at the last meeting in 2019 at COP25 in Madrid, Spain. 

Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, said in an article headlined “COP26’s Worst outcome would be giving the green light to carbon offsetting”, that “offsetting doesn’t stop carbon entering the atmosphere and warming our world, it just keeps it off the ledgers of the governments and companies responsible”.

This kind of trade has in the past been marred by allegations of corruption with Interpol warning that carbon market schemes are easily taken advantage of by organised crime.

The Blue Natural Capital Financing Facility, which focuses on marine conservation finance, believes that marine conservation must move to income generating activities, and move away from reliance on donors. 

It is touting the use of carbon credits to support conservation initiatives. “It removes the barriers and time-limitations of traditional funding, and allows the business to become self-sustainable, providing more stability and the opportunity to make a bigger impact for ocean conservation,” the organisation said. 

In projects in the Philippines, the Caribbean’s Belize, Kenya, Tanzania, Mexico and several other places, the BNCFF said commercialised conservation projects are shown to be beneficial both for the marine environment, and coastal communities. 

In Kenya the Marine Fisheries Research Institute uses seagrass conservation to sell carbon credits to fossil fuel businesses, who use these projects to “offset” their emissions at source. 

Seagrass, forests and wetlands absorb carbon. At the same time, restoring mangroves and wetlands could reduce the harmful effect of annual flooding for about 18 million people. 

Although conservation finance facilities are eager to put conservation efforts on the carbon market to support biodiversity restoration and protection, civil society groups are not convinced that monetising climate action is necessary to meet the goals of the Paris climate accord. 

The agreement sets out this market to make mitigation efforts (such as cleaning up the energy sector and increasing natural carbon sinks) cheaper. 

But by putting a price on nature, the market will allow large carbon emitting countries to avoid reducing their own emissions at home, according to human and environmental rights watch groups. 

Concerned over what putting a price on carbon mitigation means for nature solutions, global bodies such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature have put out guidelines to avoid harming biodiversity and people. 

In 2011, when COP17 was held in Durban, civil society groups protested outside the convention centre where discussions about agri-carbon credits were underway. The discussions included polluters financing soil restoration for credits to trade on the global carbon market. 

It is argued that this is the only way large industries can afford their transition to net-zero carbon emissions. 

But the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy said that 20 years after their conception, they have failed to work, and have also been subject to fraud and other financial crimes.

“Interpol, the world’s leading policing agency, has warned that carbon market schemes are easily taken advantage of by organised crime,” the agriculture institute warned. 

In 2011 carbon credits worth $38-million went missing in the European Union’s carbon market after funds were “transferred by computer hackers from the Czech Republic to Poland, Estonia and Liechtenstein before disappearing”.

The institute said it was the fourth time funds had been stolen or mislaid.

A 2017 study by the European Commission found that more than 80% of Europe’s projects under the clean development mechanism (now debunked and discontinued) failed to reduce emissions while other projects around the world were accused of causing the removal of people from their land and homes, as well as human rights violations. 

COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, is expected to establish a rule book on the global carbon market under the Paris Agreement. 

The rule book, which has been under discussion for more than two decades, is meant to safeguard the climate finance mechanism from allocating credits for poor quality projects. 

Tunicia Phillips is a climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa