Carbon offsetting through tree planting will not help solve the climate crisis

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By Chris Lang

During the first phase of the postponed Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity (COP15), Ian Scoones, Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the UK, wrote an article explaining why carbon offsetting through tree planting will not help solve the climate crisis. The post is the second of two articles by Scoones focussing on tree planting, climate change and biodiversity.

REDD-Monitor featured Scoones’ first article here:

Carbon offsetting through tree planting

Scoones starts by describing carbon offsetting and trees planting. It “sounds like a win-win neat solution to the climate and biodiversity crises,” he writes.

It’s simple, they say: you give carbon a price; you plant trees or pay for them to be protected through a scheme in a far-off place; those involved in the scheme claim the credits and make a bit of money, while areas are protected and biodiversity improved. And then you can say you have offset your carbon footprint and feel much better about your green credentials, continuing with business as usual.

Scoones mentions that Mark Carney, the UN special envoy for climate action and finance, is pushing to increase the voluntary carbon market to US$100 billion a year, through his Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets.

But, as Scoones notes, “it’s not so simple”. He links to Greenpeace’s critique of Carney’s Taskforce:

It’s almost as if, in the face of a housing crisis, the world’s governments were to decide that the people to solve the problem were the same bankers who favoured financialisation, the bundling of dodgy mortgages leading to a mountain of unsecured debt, and the near collapse of the world’s banking system. What could possibly go wrong?

Carbon conflicts

Scoones refers to a 2015 book he co-edited with Melissa Leach: “Carbon Conflicts and Forest Landscapes in Africa”. Many of the carbon forestry schemes in the book were REDD projects, linked to voluntary carbon markets. “We expected to find a diversity of experiences: some working, some not, with room for improvement,” Scoones writes. “But the tale sadly was fairly universally depressing.”

Carbon offsetting through tree planting

Scoones outlines some of the many problems the research found:

The ‘baseline’ reference areas chosen were often inappropriate; the areas protected (loss avoided) were large and meant that if not being completely excluded, people had to change their use of these areas; alternative livelihood projects that were meant to replace supposedly damaging land uses were inadequate; the credits earned were minimal (the carbon price was very low at the time) and the bureaucratic processes involved in counting and calculating carbon losses and benefits made money for consultants and the project managers, but with little local effect.

The claims made to the corporations buying the carbon offsets were not realised on the ground, Scoones concludes.

Carbon forestry critiques

Since 2015, the critique of carbon forestry has grown, Scoones notes. Adeniyi Asiyanbi and Jens Friis Lund argue that REDD has become “too big to fail“.

REDD has become irrevocably interlinked with the global commitment to offsetting as a “green fix”. Despite its dismal track record, REDD has been rebranded as a “Natural Climate Solution”.

Voluntary carbon market proponents argue that these are just teething problems, to be resolved with new and improved standards, and better regulations. Buffer pools of credits that are never sold are supposed to address projects that fail to slow deforestation.

Scoones responds to this argument:

In a number of the cases we studied, there were real questions as to whether carbon was even being conserved at all, as the leakage effects were so large and the dodgy baselines so misleading.

He also raises wider arguments. Many of the REDD projects that the “Carbon conflicts” book examined were in savannah environments with patches of woodland and grass. Scoones notes that, “these are anthropogenic landscapes created by thousands of years of use by wildlife, domestic livestock and humans, with the effects of controlled fire being vital for ecosystem health”.

Carbon is cycled and preserved in these ecosystems as part of the use of the land. “Protecting” such areas from human use and grazing runs a serious risk of a huge build-up of flammable material with the danger of wildfires releasing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

The commodification of nature and green grabbing

Scoones writes that,

Some object to the commodification of carbon and the financialisation of conservation, full stop. The commodification of nature, it is argued, generates distortions in favour of capital and against people, in turn undermine local efforts to tackle climate change. As Amber Huff argues, there is inevitably a mismatch between the promises of market environmentalism through the creation of ideal-type carbon markets and the messy realities on the ground, generating a whole range of frictions and political contests.

The easiest way to generate carbon offsets is to “farm” carbon in industrial tree plantations. “Making profits from nature also result in processes of exclusion,” Scoones writes. A recent report by Oxfam estimates that an area of 1.6 billion hectares of plantations would be required to achieve “net zero” by 2050. That’s five times the size of India, or more than all the farmland on the planet.

Carbon offsetting through tree planting

In 2012, Scoones co-wrote an article in The Journal of Peasant Studies looking into the “appropriation of land and resources for environmental ends”. Such “green grabbing” is certainly part of the expansion of carbon forestry Scoones writes. This will only get worse with an increase in the carbon price. “The boom in offsetting projects also brings many players often with little knowledge of complexities of forestry projects across the world.”

Myths of carbon equivalence

Scoones points out that carbon offsetting makes an equivalence between the carbon emitted from burning fossil fuels and the carbon stored in trees. He asks whether this equivalence makes scientific sense in terms of reducing emissions.

Scoones responds by explaining the “fast” and “slow” carbon cycles:

Carbon emitted through burning fossil fuels is not the same as carbon in a forest. They are part of two different carbon cycles – one very slow (the geological cycle) and one relatively fast (the biological cycle). Trees – and other ‘nature-based solutions’ – are part of the fast cycle, and carbon can be both replaced and lost, for example through fires. For fossil fuels it’s basically best not to burn them in the first place – and thus, as the slogan goes: keep coal in the hole.

Scoones also points out the climate justice and ethical arguments against the idea of carbon equivalence. Luxury emissions from driving an SUV, or air travel, in the UK, are not the same as emissions from subsistence agriculture in (say) Tanzania. Neither are emissions from industrial farming of meat or milk the same as emissions from extensive, pastoral farming.

Net zero is not zero

In 2019, the UK announced a “net zero” target by 2050. In a commentary in the journal One Earth Scoones wrote that, “It is too little too late, is over-reliant on technological and market fixes, and doesn’t commit to a major structural transformation of the fossil-fuel-dependent economy.”

Carbon offsetting through tree planting

“Net zero” was at the centre of the build-up to COP26, the UN climate meeting in Glasgow in November 2021. Big Polluters love “net zero” targets, because they provide a cover for business as usual. “In exchange for non-verifiable offsets,” Yanis Varoufakis writes, Big Polluters “are allowed to continue plundering the planet’s remaining stored carbon”.

“Net zero” targets fail to address the problem of reducing emissions, and as Scoones writes, “may undermine the livelihoods of those living in often poor and marginalised settings – such as pastoralists in extensive rangelands – where carbon projects are introduced, with the result that exclusions are generated and ecologies are upset”.

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