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The time is right for Europe to change its carbon trading rules, giving Africa access to the market, writes Louis V. Verchot.

Last month (14 November), Japan became the first country in the world to receive its purchased allotment of carbon offsets from the UN, under a program considered critical for combating global warming.

The carbon offset initiative has been widely touted as a win-win situation. Rich countries that have promised to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions can essentially pay developing countries to do it for them.

But now that the carbon-offset program is open for business, it's time to acknowledge what has been apparent for some time. 

Despite the best efforts of proponents of the scheme, the poorest regions of the world — places that are awash in potential carbon offsets  — are being shut out of a market now valued in excess of US$30 billion.

Disadvantaged Africa

The exclusion is particularly unfair to the millions of small farmers in Africa, where, according to a recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), rising temperatures and increasingly arid conditions caused by emissions from wealthy nations could prove devastating to food production.

As world leaders gather in Bali, Indonesia, this month (December) to work out a roadmap for addressing climate change, they might well address the exclusion of poor countries from carbon trading, an oversight that threatens to undermine international efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

To a large extent, the problem lies with the European Union's Emission Trading Scheme. Under this system, European firms may purchase carbon credits from industrial sources but not from forestry, agriculture or "agroforestry" projects.

We are told that there is no reliable method for measuring carbon stored in trees or soil, particularly if it is stored on small landholdings, such as the farms typical of sub-Saharan Africa. But this rationale may no longer be justified.

Scientists can now use satellite imagery and infrared spectroscopy to determine the amount of carbon captured by small farms in Africa. The technique, which can identify carbon and other compounds, is relatively inexpensive, and worth the investment, given the value of carbon credits.

Africa's opportunity

The prospect of earning revenue from carbon markets can encourage African farmers to more rapidly adopt sustainable and productive practices — much needed in addressing the damaging effects that agriculture can have on the environment.

In African countries, like Kenya and Malawi, farmers and policymakers are beginning to view agroforestry as an environmentally sustainable way to boost income and production on small farms.

Among the most popular applications are those that also efficiently trap and store carbon — fodder trees that provide feed for dairy cows, the fruit and nut trees that produce food, home gardens that supply a multitude of products to enrich diets, and trees and shrubs that produce gums, resins and valuable medicines, including the malaria drug artemisinin.

The return on investment from these trees can be substantial, but can also take several years to recoup. Subsistence farmers might be more willing to invest in them if they knew that their land and the trees they plant might generate revenue as a carbon credit.

Rich countries eager to reduce their emissions through offsets would also benefit. By some accounts, farmland in Africa and other developing countries could reliably store up to a quarter of all the carbon dioxide that needs to be removed from the atmosphere.

But the EU policy remains in place, effectively sidelining farmers in Africa and elsewhere. These small landholders must watch from the stands, while other, larger players dominate  the market  for carbon offsets.

Today, just four countries — China, Brazil, India and the Republic of Korea — account for more than 90 per cent of all credits sold. The world's least developed countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, have benefited little.

It's clear that more will have to be done if we are to provide small farmers in the poorest nations with access to the carbon markets.

As a first step, however, the Europeans could remove this one clear obstacle. If their leaders are truly committed to changing the status quo, they will find a way to allow small farmers into the carbon trading club.

Louis V. Verchot is the lead scientist for climate change at the CGIAR-Supported World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.