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With carbon markets set to expand worldwide, forest and other indigenous communities fear their land could be up for grabs as governments and companies pivot towards net zero emissions.
Details on how voluntary carbon markets might function were fleshed out at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. Carbon credits allow companies or governments to continue producing emissions in exchange for projects that conserve or create carbon sinks, such as land restoration or tree planting.
Carbon market advocates argue that similar cap-and-trade models – such as those set up in connection with the 1979 air pollution treaty to address acid rain – have successfully managed complex transnational environmental issues.
But not everyone is so enthusiastic. Indigenous and climate-vulnerable communities have flagged what they say are the potential pitfalls that could come from a greater focus on carbon credits and offsetting via so-called ‘nature-based solutions’ that protect, manage or restore the environment so that it stores more carbon.
Community leaders say it is essential to embed robust monitoring and grievance mechanisms into carbon markets.
While the market for carbon credits emerged with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, parties at the 2021 climate summit in Glasgow were set the task of developing a new framework to implement the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Chief among the needs of the ‘Paris Rulebook’, according to this year’s presidency, was finding “a solution on carbon markets, by creating a robust system of carbon credits that supports the move to net zero”. The result was a 15-page document that includes guidance on carbon markets and carbon credits – known as “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes”.
Herein lies opportunity for communities in the global South to financially benefit from carbon credit systems, says Frances Seymour, a leading researcher from the World Resources Institute.
“The revenue flows from carbon credits are a good thing both in terms of incentivising governments to protect their forests, but also through benefit sharing, getting revenues to the actual people who are conserving forests – who are often indigenous peoples,” says Seymour.
But indigenous leaders say that such carbon offset projects include so-called ‘clean energy’ projects, such as hydropower and biofuels, which can require access to inhabited lands that supply water and food, support livelihoods and are central to culture and spiritual beliefs.
“Net zero opens the door to nature-based solutions giving way to a financialisation of nature process that separates, quantifies and privatises the cycles and functions of Mother Earth turning nature into units to be sold in financial and speculative markets,” said Tom BK Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network.
Opposing major infrastructure projects can prove deadly for local communities. The non-profit Global Witness says that 227 land and environment activists were murdered in 2020 – the highest recorded number for the second year in a row. At least 30 per cent of recorded attacks were reportedly linked to opposition to hydroelectric dams, large-scale agribusiness, mining and logging.
Forests and protected landscapes are not only vital for the communities who depend on them, they also maintain significant carbon stores. More than 20 per cent of ‘irrecoverable carbon’ lies within protected areas, with 33.6 per cent of protected lands managed by indigenous peoples and local communities, a Conservation International-led study published in Nature Sustainability last month reported.
Irrecoverable carbon is a new concept that refers to carbon stocks that, if lost, would represent a permanent withdrawal from the world’s ‘carbon budget’ – the amount of carbon that humans can emit while remaining with 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.
Irrecoverable carbon can be secured by allocating international finance to prioritise the protection of relevant lands and supporting indigenous peoples and local communities’ rights, say the authors, including joint director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, Johan Rockström.
REDD+, TREES 2.0 and LEAF
According to one of the world’s peak climate science bodies, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the activity with the greatest potential to reduce agriculture, forestry and other land use sector emissions this is the REDD+ forest programme.
A framework adopted at the 2013 climate summit, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries has courted controversy ever since.
REDD+ refers to actions that reduce emissions released by deforestation or degradation in developing countries, as well as the role of conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.
While large-scale tree planting is becoming an increasingly popular mitigation approach, scientists warn than uninformed tree planting or wilding schemes can cause long-term damage to ecosystems and communities, for example by obliterating ancient grasslands.
Researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and World Agroforestry (ICRAF) cautioned that the urgency of the climate crisis must not override equality and justice. They said that change requires consideration rather than “silver bullets”, and that indigenous and local communities must be “included as ‘eye-level’ partners and fellow change-makers, rather than project beneficiaries”.
The Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance (LEAF) Coalition was a “major announcement on finance and forests”, they said. The coalition was launched by the UK, US, Norway and a range of large global companies and seeks to support companies in reducing emissions in their supply chains, while assisting countries in the sale of forest-based carbon credits to companies to achieve net zero.
Several developing countries have signed up to the LEAF coalition, including Brazil, Burkina Faso, Guyana, Mexico, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The coalition announced at COP26 that it had mobilised US$1 billion for activities in tropical and sub-tropical forests.
Seymour is chair of the Architecture for REDD+ Transactions, as well as a member of the Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative’s expert advisory group. She says that updated compliance guidance, called TREES 2.0, will enable countries and subnational jurisdictions to generate verified emissions reduction and removals credits – so long as they meet comprehensive requirements.
LEAF coalition transactions are conditioned on being able to demonstrate compliance with the TREES 2.0 requirements, Seymour tells SciDev.Net. This includes stipulations that activities on indigenous territories must be conducted in line with a range of safeguards.
Rights and recourse
Yet, indigenous leaders say they remain wary that net zero proposals will amount to greenwashing, while potentially putting their land at risk in the new landscape of carbon markets.
Stanley Kimaren Ole Riamit, executive director of Indigenous Livelihoods Enhancement Partners, in Kenya, said carbon market approaches needed to be tempered with rights for indigenous peoples. He said while governments acknowledged that indigenous peoples were good land stewards and recognised that their land tenure rights were not secure, “the test of the pudding is in the eating”.
“We have seen in REDD+ for example that safeguards are there, but we have not seen the safety in the enacting and operationalisation of REDD+ on the ground,” Riamit said.
Eileen Mairena Cunningham, a research and advocacy officer at Nicaragua’s Center for Indigenous Peoples Autonomy and Development and a Green Climate Fund observer for developing countries, said monitoring the money – and who it was reaching – was critical.
She said the Indigenous Peoples Tracker on GCF Projects was “so important”. Set up by the Philippines-based policy and research centre Tebtebba Foundation and the international Elatia indigenous organisations network, the tracker is a platform dedicated to monitoring Green Climate Fund-approved projects in indigenous peoples’ territories.
Seymour says that while the forest offset debate is at risk of becoming polarised, there is room for discussion and disagreement.
“You can be for both [carbon credits and indigenous rights] together and find a way to issue carbon credits in a way that benefits indigenous communities,” Seymour says. “Is it going to be easy? No, but it has to be done because certainly no one is in favour of carbon credits that dispossess indigenous peoples.
“But without carbon credits and the finance that comes with it, it’s hard to imagine how we incentivise governments to invest in protecting forest that otherwise could generate employment and tax revenues and political votes by allowing deforestation as usual to continue. Because it’s all those things that drive deforestation now.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Global desk.