Carbon credits critiqued

Carbon trading is unsustainable and requires the developing world to stay poor while turning the atmosphere into a commodity, and provides a useful tool for those seeking to profit from climate change.

This was the position taken by Oxford academic Adam Bumpus in his paper The political ecology of carbon offsets delivered on the fringes of the Royal Geographical Society’s annual conference this week.

He drew a distinction between the tightly regulated credits authorised under the Clean Development Mechanism which came out of Kyoto – which count towards legal compliance – and voluntary carbon offsets offered by unregulated companies to those who wish to boost their environmental credentials, be they corporations or individuals.

While the plan had been to provide a cheap an effective way to stem emissions, he said, carbon trading had become ‘free market environmentalism’ and an attractive proposition for big business.

“This is about making money,” he said.

“The theory goes that you can take a tonne of carbon from the atmosphere, assign it a value and the market will find the most efficient way to reduce emissions.

“It’s cheaper to reduce your emissions in a developing country than it is to reduce them in a developed country because on the whole their systems are less efficient [and so easier to improve].

“That was why it was created initially but it is not a neutral market, there is profit to be made and there are companies that have grown up purely on the basis that people are making a lot of money off these credits.”

Few people could complain if profit was being made whilst the climate was being saved but Bumpus claimed there was compelling evidence to show that plans to tackle carbon emissions would be considerably more effective if carbon offsets were not an option and nations were obliged to find ways to cut their own emissions.

“There are some serious big questions over carbon offsets and whether they have any net value whatsoever,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s a sustainable strategy for a stable climate – it’s a quick fix and it’s not something you can do indefinitely.

“I believe this regulation is ultimately there to facilitate the markets – it’s not about making cheap reductions, it’s about making a lot of money.”

He argued that prevention is better than the cure – a unit of carbon that is not released in the first place will never have an impact, but trees get cut down and the carbon gets released and renewable energy projects eventually break down.

The waters were also muddied by the fact that it became difficult to determine whether a project would not have existed even if trading were not in place as schemes were supposed to be on top of what was already likely to happen, he said.

Planned tree planting or a hydro project don’t count, for example, and it can be hard to prove something would not have gone ahead without the additional funding from carbon credits.

But perhaps most worrying is the fact that carbon trading could actually discourage the developed world from supporting its less wealthy neighbours.

As Bumpus put it: “Carbon offsets are premised on North-South inequity, you have to have a developing world if you’re going to get your cheap carbon offsets.”

Sam Bond

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