Select Committee on International Development Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 4

Memorandum submitted by The Corner House

SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

  1.  To support sustainable development, environmental regeneration and poverty elimination in developing countries, particularly to the benefit of the poorest people within those countries, the Department for International Development (DFID), and the multilateral agencies and non-governmental agencies to which DFID contributes, should first and foremost act to curb emissions of greenhouse gases in developed countries.

  2.  Current "mitigation" schemes, such as emissions trading, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Joint Implementation are likely to make sustainable development harder to achieve in developing countries; to increase the negative impacts in these countries of climate change; and to increase numerous disparities between developed and developing countries. In particular, carbon "offset" plantations are likely to increase forest loss and forest degradation; to increase climate unfriendly practices; to increase rural to urban migration; and to increase conflicts.

  3.  The very idea of carbon accounting involving the biosphere is impossible and thus trading in carbon involving the biosphere is inherently fraudulent.

  4.  Ultimately, to support sustainable development, environmental regeneration and poverty elimination in developing countries, particularly to the benefit of the poorest people within those countries, the Department for International Development (DFID), and the multilateral agencies and non-governmental agencies to which DFID contributes, should support initiatives to keep fossil fuels in the ground; to support alternative sources of energy; and to support (or at least not thwart) movements working towards these ends.

1.  To support sustainable development, environmental regeneration and poverty elimination in developing countries, particularly to the benefit of the poorest people within those countries, the Department for International Development (DFID), and the multilateral agencies and non-governmental agencies to which DFID contributes, should first and foremost act to curb emissions of greenhouse gases in developed countries

  For a century and a half, industrial societies have been moving carbon into the air from underground reserves of coal and oil. The most important greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide, which is responsible for perhaps three-quarters of global warming. (Others include methane, nitrous oxide, CFCs and HCFCs.)

  North America, Europe, Japan, Australia and other industrialised regions already use far more than their fair share of the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas dump: developed countries are responsible for 75 per cent of current annual greenhouse gas emissions. The United States produces roughly one-quarter of the greenhouse gases which are released yearly in the world, and one-third of its carbon dioxide, even though it has only 4 per cent of the world's population. Just over 120 corporations account for 80 per cent of all carbon dioxide emissions.

  To stabilise levels of greenhouse gases at a level twice those at the time of the industrial revolution, global emissions would have to be reduced from the current one tonne of carbon per person per year to an average of 0.4 tonnes. The US emits 13 times this amount per head (5.2 tonnes) and Japan and Western European nations 5-12 times this amount (2-5 tonnes). More than 50 Southern countries, including India, emit less than half the maximum level (0.2 tonnes per person).

  In addition to current disparities in greenhouse gas emissions, there is also an accumulated "carbon debt" which the developed countries owe to developing ones because of their disproportionate emissions over the past century and a half. The Brazilian government has argued that the North is responsible for 80 per cent of total accumulated emissions, and 88 per cent of global temperature increase.

  Yet the Kyoto Protocol allows developed countries in various ways to continue emitting high levels of greenhouse gases. It rewards historically high emitters and penalises low emitters, such as many developing countries, and thus gives developed countries unsustainable and unfair atmospheric dumping rights.

  Many industrialised countries have abandoned the goal of meeting their Kyoto Protocol targets by reducing emissions, while most climate negotiators no longer discuss how to make deep cuts in fossil fuel emissions.

  Instead of lowering its greenhouse gas emissions by 7 per cent by the year 2012, as specified in the Protocol, the United States is likely to increase them by 25-30 per cent. Indeed, nearly half of the total growth in global carbon dioxide emissions since 1990 has come from the US, more than the combined increase of China, India, Africa and Latin America. Instead of cutting its emissions by 6 per cent, Canada will probably increase them by 44 per cent. Since 1990, Australia's carbon dioxide emissions have risen by 17 per cent and Japan's by over 14 per cent.

  Some Southern delegates to the international climate negotiations have insisted strongly that the industrialised countries—those historically responsible for the problem of global warming—must take action first to reduce their emissions dramatically. There is no long-term technical solution to global warming short of leaving the bulk of the remaining minable fossil fuels in the ground.

  Trading carbon sequestered in tree plantations for carbon resulting from the burning of fossil fuels (see points 2 and 3 below) cannot justify postponing deep reductions in carbon dioxide emissions in industrialised countries.

2.  Current "mitigation" schemes, such as emissions trading, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Joint Implementation, aimed at helping industrialised countries meet their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, are likely:

    —  to make sustainable development harder to achieve in developing countries;

    —  to increase the negative impacts in these countries of climate change; and

    —  to increase numerous disparities between developed and developing countries.

In particular, carbon "offset" plantations are likely to increase forest loss and forest degradation; to increase climate-unfriendly practices; to increase rural to urban migration; and to increase conflicts.

  According to the July 2001 Bonn agreement of the Kyoto Protocol, developed countries can use set up tree plantations in developing countries to "compensate" for up to 1 per cent of their emissions above their 1990 ceiling—a total of 145 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. Depending on the carbon calculations (see note 3 below), this allows developed countries access to a parcel of land roughly the size of one small Southern nation every year for use as a carbon dumping ground. If plantation lands are assumed, generously, to sequester five tonnes of carbon per hectare per year during the short life span of plantations, the Bonn agreement sanctions the use of 10 million hectares of Southern land annually as a carbon disposal zone.

  Tree plantations aimed at "compensating" for industrial carbon-dioxide emissions are now being established in many parts of the world. The push for them puts particular pressure on local land and water rights in developing countries and could well become a source of rural strife.

  It should be noted that forests and tree plantations are completely different entities. It is critical that a distinction is made between them in climate change discussions. Large-scale tree plantations that would be established as carbon sinks are likely to feature densely packed monocultures of fast-growing species such as eucalyptus or pine, which are of little or no value to forest biodiversity. Consisting of thousands or even millions of trees of the same species, bred for rapid growth, uniformity and high yield of raw material, such plantations require intensive preparation of the soil, fertilisation, planting with regular spacing, mechanical or chemical weeding, use of pesticides. A trade in carbon would increase the area of industrial pulpwood, oil palm, rubber and other tree plantations which already pose severe social and ecological problems worldwide. The most frequently cited environmental impacts are:

    —  reduced soil fertility;

    —  increased erosion and compaction of the soil;

    —  loss of natural biodiversity;

    —  reduced groundwater reserves and stream flow;

    —  increased fires and fire risks.

  Industrial tree plantations have in many cases been preceded by the burning or clearcutting of native forests, or they have taken over productive cropland and pastures. In many cases, they have resulted in forced displacement or resettlement of local people. In Chile and Indonesia, tree plantations have destroyed natural forests. In South Africa, Argentina and Uruguay, they have replaced valuable ecosystems such as grasslands. In Brazil, Thailand and Chile, tree plantations are at the root of serious land conflicts among local communities, landowners, corporations and the state. Nearly everywhere they have been established, industrial tree plantations have destroyed people's livelihoods in agriculture, fisheries, animal husbandry and gathering, and have led to a loss of water resources and biodiversity. The few jobs they create cannot compensate for these losses, especially when such jobs are insecure, seasonal, badly paid and frequently dangerous.

  To attempt to counteract just a small fraction of industrial emissions of carbon dioxide, millions of hectares of new plantation land would have to be taken over. Experience with existing large-scale tree plantations suggests that such "offset" projects would take away needed agricultural lands, replace valuable native ecosystems, worsen inequity in land ownership, increase poverty, lead to evictions of local peoples, and undermine local stewardship practices needed for forest conservation. Those evicted from land wanted for plantations could well clear forests elsewhere to make up for lost food and other crops.

  The Norwegian firms Tree Farms and Norwegian Afforestation Group, for instance, have leased land from Uganda at cheap prices to soak up Norwegian carbon dioxide. This take-over threatens the livelihoods of 8,000 people, mainly farmers and fisherfolk, many of whom consider themselves the owners of the land in question. Carbon revenues to the companies will far exceed the rent paid to the Uganda government.

  In neighbouring Tanzania, Tree Farms anticipates selling carbon credits from pine and eucalyptus plantations worth US$27 million to Industrikraft Midt-Norge on a land rent payment to the Tanzanian government of $565,000. Local people were hired as casual plantation workers at a rate less than the government's minimum wage (US$1.05). The agreement requires Tanzania not only to give up rights to use the land but also to use the land in its own carbon dioxide budgets in the future.

  Even if millions of hectares of land was taken over, the new plantations would in practice do little to mitigate climate change. The ostensible point of carbon "offset" forestry is to take some of the carbon out of the atmosphere and keep it on or near the earth's surface. It would need to do this for 100-150 years or more to have full effect. Unlike subterranean oil or coal, however, carbon stored in live or dead trees is "fragile": it can quickly re-enter the atmosphere at any time. Fires, for instance, are unavoidable features of forests and plantations. Plantations, meanwhile, typically reduce the capacity of soils to store carbon both inside and outside project areas. Thus vulnerable, dynamic and unpredictable plantations are insecure storage places for carbon. Keeping the carbon from re-entering the atmosphere for a century or more would require forms of biological, political and economic policing unknown in human history. At present, only 12 per cent of the carbon warehoused in commercial tree plantations has a life expectancy of more than five years. Some of the time periods of carbon "offset" projects are substantially less than one hundred years. The specified time period of one eucalyptus plantation in New South Wales, supposedly offsetting the power needs of 3,750 suburban homes, was 10 years, making the project in fact virtually irrelevant to global warming.

  Even so, licensing the burning of fossil fuels in developed countries by financing tree plantations supposedly to "absorb" carbon dioxide in developing ones would expand the ecological and social footprint of the developed countries, making existing inequalities between and within countries worse. Citizens of a developed country which uses (say) 20 times more per capita of the atmosphere for carbon dioxide-dumping than citizens of a developing country would be entitled, under the rationale of carbon trading, to use 20 times more tree plantation land in order to compensate for their emissions. This land would in practice be taken disproportionately from poorer people in developing countries.

  Thus the push for carbon "offset" plantations extends and normalises inequality. Trading emissions for tree carbon would intensify the regressive redistribution of world resources. "Carbon trading" between developed and developing countries suggests that it is legitimate for richer countries and companies—which already use more than their share of the world's carbon sinks and stocks—to buy still more of them using cash which has itself been accumulated partly through a history of overexploiting those sinks and stocks.

  Moreover, when developing countries begin to have to make cuts in their emissions, they would be at a disadvantage because their cuts would in effect have already been purchased and credited to the developed world. In addition, rural dwellers may well have been carrying out carbon storing or sequestering projects for generations, yet gain no credit for doing so.

3.  The very idea of carbon accounting involving the biosphere is impossible and thus trading in carbon involving the biosphere is inherently fraudulent

  A market in "carbon offsets" presupposes a notion of "climate neutrality" or "climate equivalence", on the assumption that a carbon atom in a tree is the same as a carbon atom in a greenhouse gas emission. Yet the claim of quantifiable "climate neutrality" upon which the trade in carbon emissions rests has no sound scientific basis. Nonetheless, it still sanctions external political interference in the policymaking of many developing countries.

  In order for a plantation "offset" project to be tradable for a given amount of industrial emissions, a single determinate number would need to be calculated to represent the amount of carbon sequestered or stored as a result of the project over and above what would have been sequestered or stored in its absence. This cannot be done because none of four conditions are met:

    (i)  The current state of biophysical knowledge regarding the sources of carbon and the sinks which absorb carbon in the world is not remotely sufficient to determine the quantitative levels and flows of carbon between the atmosphere and biosphere with sufficient accuracy.

    (ii)  There is unlikely to be consensus on who or what—country, corporation, group or individual—is entitled to which carbon credits. Accounting presupposes accountability. Who is to be credited and debited?

    (iii)  As well as biophysical knowledge, sociological knowledge is also needed. Planting trees, for instance, is likely to have social effects, such as outrage from local farmers, diminished interest in renewable energy and a loss of local knowledge (see point 2 above). These social effects may have further physical effects, such as migration to the cities and increased use of fossil fuels. But the social effects of plantations, which affect the amount of carbon stored, are impossible to quantify, to predict, to monitor or to control.

    (iv)  The question of what would have happened without a plantation can never have a singular answer: several alternative emissions scenarios are possible. It is impossible to compare quantitatively the atmospheric effects of a plantation with "what would have happened without it" because the second scenario depends on so many variables which cannot be prejudged.

  The market for carbon "offset" plantations presupposes an accounting system capable of commensurating and calculating over decades the global interactions of intercoupled ecological, social, geological, political, hydrological, bureaucratic, biochemical, economic and atmospheric systems. Such an accounting scheme is quadruply impossible. No equivalence between industrial emissions and trees can be established of the type that would be necessary to establish a "carbon offset" plantation market.

  This market's impossibility has not stopped efforts to construct it. But the construction can never be completed. Bad or unverifiable carbon credits are likely to jam any carbon trading system involving the biosphere. Cheating will be encouraged and uncontrollable. Ultimately, the market is unlikely to survive. Far from being checked, climate change will be subsidised and exacerbated—to the detriment of the poorest.

  Meanwhile, the lives and livelihoods of many people in the South will have been adversely affected by offset plantations.

  Even the carbon trading enthusiast Michael Grubb concludes that the Clean Development Mechanism has the potential to become:

    "not just a source of spurious emission credits, but a sink for the intellectual as well as some of the physical resources of the developing world, and a distraction from the fundamental goals of sustainable development". (Grubb, M, The Kyoto Protocol: A Guide and Assessment, Royal Institute for International Affairs, London, 1999.)

4.  Ultimately, to support sustainable development, environmental regeneration and poverty elimination in developing countries, particularly to the benefit of the poorest people within those countries, the Department for International Development (DFID), and the multilateral agencies and non-governmental agencies to which DfiD contributes, should support initiatives to keep fossil fuels in the ground; to support alternative sources of energy; and to support (or at least not thwart) movements working towards these ends

  Some 4,000 billion tonnes of carbon fossil fuels are still under the earth's surface—more than ten times the amount of carbon stored in forests. According to current scientific consensus, adding as little as a few hundred billion tons of this to the air could result in a climate disaster even beyond the extreme storms, droughts and floods, disruptions of agriculture, increased pest infestations, drowning islands and coastlines and huge movements of "climate refugees" to which the world is already committed.

  DFID should support national and international efforts to address climate change through energy conservation, particularly in developed countries; consumption reduction, again in developed countries; more equitable resource use; and equitable development and sharing of renewable sources of energy.

  It should strengthen or guarantee forest peoples' and local communities' rights to land and natural resources. It should support local people's rights and struggles against the invasion of their lands by industrial tree plantations and encourage awareness of the negative social and environmental impacts of large-scale industrial monocrop tree plantations. It should support existing positive practices and initiatives which go straight to the political and social root causes of global warming, including:

    —  the protests of communities against oil drilling and burning in their territories;

    —  research into energy efficiency and renewable energy programmes;

    —  movements protecting community forests and low-input swidden agricultural systems, who thereby prevent climatically-destabilising land clearance, commercial logging and high-input intensive agriculture;

    —  initiatives which emphasise the importance of an equitable property rights regime as a prerequisite for a "contraction and convergence" agenda for action on climate change.

  Most important of all, it should work to end state subsidies, including export credits, for oil, gas and coal extraction, fossil-fuel generation projects, and the transport of internationally-traded goods.

The Corner House

January 2002



 
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