Carbon Markets: How Not to Save the Planet

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BOOK REVIEW

Upsetting the Offset: The Political Economy of Carbon Markets

Mayfly Books.

By Ioulia Fenton

Let’s say you live in a fairly rich country and you are actually quite well off. You use lots of paper in your job, drive a car, heat and air-condition your house, and regularly fly for work, vacation, and to see your family in another country. You know that this causes tons of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to be released into the atmosphere, which is driving climate change, and that if everyone in the world had your kind of a lifestyle then we’d need five planets, not one, to survive. So you decide that you want to do something about it. Even though you have started to recycle, have put energy saving light bulbs in your house, bought a Prius, and always carry your water bottle and coffee thermos flask, somehow you feel that this is not enough: the Carbon Footprint Calculator still tells you that your kind of life needs more than four planets.

You want to do more, but any bigger changes just seem like too much of a sacrifice: you like flying for work and holidays and you like a nice temperature in your home all year around. You decide that the best way is to invest in a project in Bolivia that plants eucalyptus trees that absorb carbon from the atmosphere. You are told by the green investments fund manager that this is an ‘economically efficient’ way to deal with global carbon emissions. This is because the differences in international prices mean that you can get a lot more carbon reductions for the same money invested in a poorer country than you could achieve if you invested the same amount in reducing your own carbon emissions in a rich country. You thus decide to offset your emissions against emissions reductions in Bolivia because it seems to make economic sense, it gets rid of the guilt you feel, and, as an added bonus, it won’t require you to give up any of the things you have come to love in your own comfortable life.

Now all this sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? Many people argue that it is and during the last decade various international carbon markets have been set up to make the process of investing in emissions reductions—for all GHGs and not just carbon dioxide—easier for individuals, businesses, and entire nations. These have been accompanied by their sister mechanism called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) that generates ‘carbon credits’ for easy trading. Countries and businesses that pollute less than their fair share can sell carbon credits to countries and entities that pollute more and need to offset. And projects like the eucalyptus farm get money from those wishing to buy carbon credits that allow them to continue with their lives as they are, or simply make a profit from the transaction.

Upsetting the Offset CoverSo what could possibly go wrong with such a scheme? This is the topic of a 2009 book Upsetting the Offset: The Political Economy of Carbon Markets, a collection of essays that highlights many problems associated with carbon trading and related mechanisms. It was published in time for the 2009 United Nations Copenhagen Climate Change Conference.

The foreword and introductory sections give an overview of the debates so far, providing an up to the moment relevant analysis of the state of carbon emissions trading around the world. It makes a particularly strong case against using a market mechanism to deal with a global and nature-bound problem like emissions. Following the line of thinking of the green investment fund manager above, the entire system is built by making GHGs—essentially pollution—into an economically scarce resource, a commodity, that can, in theory, be more efficiently reduced on a global basis.

But experience has taught us that impersonal markets are open to all sorts of abuses. As Steffen Böhm and Siddhartha Dabhi outline in the introduction, turning emissions into a scarce commodity encourages hoarding and speculation, which can in fact cause more pollution and not less, similarly to what happened with the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the U.S. “The only problem is that this time we are speculating with the future of the planet, as the climate cannot be bailed out by a concerted effort of all governments put together,” they write (p. 15).

Another critique is that carbon markets do not do anything to change the structure and behavior in rich countries. Just like with our protagonist above, they allow big polluters to simply carry on, business as usual: moving emissions around is not the same as reducing them. It’s the equivalent of offsetting infidelity by cheating on a spouse, but paying someone else not to cheat on theirs: see the humorous Cheat Neutral for details.

Carbon markets are also criticized because they have been tried and tested and the results do not inspire confidence. The bulk of Upsetting the Offset presents 14 case studies of where and how things have gone wrong with projects related to the carbon markets. From human rights abuses in Brazil that have resulted from the oil giant British Petroleum (BP) trying to ‘green’ its image as going ‘Beyond Petroleum’ documented by Melissa Checker (pp. 41-56) to Rafael Flores and his colleagues sharing the story of a company called Plantar that planted water-thirsty eucalyptus monocultures—burning part of the Atlantica forest and the Cerrado in the process—causing water shortages for the local population and contaminating once fertile surrounding land with pesticides (pp. 112 – 118). From Isaac ‘Asume’ Osuoka’s account of the exploitation of CDM schemes by big oil corporations in Nigeria (pp. 102 -111) to Soumya Dutta’s story of the labeling of South Asia’s rural poor as polluters because of their use of wood to fuel family homes (pp. 163-175).

The book continues with a meaty third section giving a further critique—academic and otherwise—of carbon markets. And, having made the reader sufficiently depressed with the negatives, it goes a welcome step further by using the final section for examples of existing ideas and projects that show that an alternative way of life is possible. Patrick Bonds opens up section four by discussing the notion of climate debt and the proposal that rich countries forgive poor country debt and then transfer additional money and technology to help them mitigate and adapt to climate change, with no strings attached. Philippe Cullet continues with a rights and equity-based look at climate change and the final chapters are all dedicated to real-life, practical alternatives to the current state of affairs. Low impact (and low cost) developments that leave a light touch on the environment; permaculture “to integrate human foods and dwellings into living ecosystems” (p.318); and cycling as a courageous and subversive act finish the book on an inspiring high.

Notwithstanding somewhat frequent typos and markedly different, unedited styles from essay to essay – some are incredibly well written and accessible, others a little jargony and academic – the book is a useful synthesis, with many a practical example, for anyone interested in issues of climate change, carbon markets, and development in general. It is an absolute must read for those who want to understand why the Bolivian government and other opponents have been so vocal against the proposed United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (UN-REDD) as it stands. One of the big reasons for its rejection is the fact that payments from rich to poor countries for lowering deforestation are proposed to be linked to the carbon market. Upsetting the Offset—in particular Chris Lang’s chapter specifically on UN-REDD (pp.214-229)—is as good a critique of this as one can find.

The book is published by the independent publisher MayFly Books and is available to download for free HERE.

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