There were times during the Cop26 climate summit when the jargon of the negotiations fell away, and the underlying human connections came to the fore. One such moment occurred in a bar near Glasgow city centre, when a local man came over to offer a can of Irn-Bru to Chief Ninawa Huni Kui, spokesperson for one of the largest groups of indigenous people in Brazil.
The chief, who is a delegate at Cop26 and had been filming an interview with the New Statesman via a translator, graciously accepted the offering, giving it the thumbs-up.
It was an exchange made in the spirit of mutual support and, in an ideal world, is akin to the logic behind “carbon offsetting”. By establishing environmental protection projects that sequester carbon – such as planting trees or ring-fencing existing forests – and then selling the absorbed emissions to nations or companies that will find it difficult to reduce emissions overnight, carbon offsets could theoretically benefit all sides.
But this win-win scenario has not emerged in practice. And many smaller developing nations, NGOs and indigenous peoples fear that further development of carbon markets, even with the new rules agreed at Cop26, will instead jeopardise local livelihoods and create loopholes for further emissions.
So how has this mistrust in offsetting – a green solution favoured by former Bank of England governor Mark Carney – come about?
Do offset schemes actually capture the carbon that they claim to?
In order to act as a reliable clearing-house for carbon emissions, each credit must equate to one tonne of carbon removed from the atmosphere by an approved scheme. However, carbon sequestration is extremely difficult to calculate and monitor.
Given that conditions can vary from acre to acre, it is hard to accurately determine how much carbon a new forest will absorb. And while new rules put in place during the Glasgow summit, under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, have excluded legacy credits generated through even harder-to-measure claims of “avoided deforestation”, a full decision on creating new offsets from “emissions avoidance” has been postponed until Cop27.
Other loopholes also remain. Since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol first established the principle of carbon markets, billions of credits with low environmental integrity have been produced. Yet negotiations in Glasgow only managed to exclude credits generated before 2013 from being counted towards new carbon markets.
Furthermore, many offsetting projects registered under Kyoto can also now be carried forward, potentially creating up to 2.8 billion new credits by 2030, including from schemes such as wind and hydro plants that would have continued to operate regardless of whether they were included. The emissions reductions generated from these credits will not be a new addition to the total.
Will offsets help the world stay within a “safe” 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming?
Numerous companies, such as energy giant Shell and airline Easyjet, have made purchasing carbon offsets integral to their target of meeting net zero by 2050. Yet many analysts fear that expanding carbon markets will simply let companies off the hook and not compel them to reduce emissions at source. In California, emissions from oil and gas companies have risen since the state introduced its cap and trade scheme.
According to Erika Lennon, a senior attorney at the Centre for International Environmental Law, offsets “are unlikely to lead to the ambition needed to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius”. This will be especially true, she says, without stronger safeguards against double counting. For example, a loophole in the new rules could allow emissions reductions to be counted towards both the country of origin’s climate target and towards that of the buyer’s – via “unauthorised credits” sold through new voluntary markets.
Furthermore, it can take a newly planted tree 20 years to grow to a size where it’s capable of capturing the amount of carbon that offset schemes promise. In the crucial next decade to 2030, during which science shows that global emissions must reach their peak, this time-lag could allow offset credits to become a smokescreen for an increase in emissions.
Why is planting more trees not a sure route to emissions reduction?
As trees grow, they absorb carbon and store it in their roots and trunks. This makes forestry a particularly attractive prospect for carbon credit creation schemes. However, not all trees are created equal. Not only are older trees better at storing carbon (strengthening the case for protecting existing forests), but the species of tree also makes a difference.
Corporate schemes aimed at capturing carbon have typically chosen to plant fast-growing, monoculture forests. Yet not only has research shown that mixed, native forests capture as much, if not more, carbon, they are also better for supporting wildlife and a healthy ecosystem.
In addition, wildfires and disease have wiped out large swathes of forests in recent years – releasing vast amounts of carbon and casting doubt over the reliability of using trees to underwrite future credits.
Why are many indigenous peoples so opposed to offsetting schemes?
Planting new forests requires land, as does flooding valleys for new hydro-power projects. And those already living and using that land fear that scaled-up “land-grabs” will put the security of their livelihoods and cultures at risk.
“These carbon markets are trying to use our unceded land to allow companies to continue to pollute,” says Thomas Joseph of the Hoopa Valley Tribe in California, a delegate at Cop26 with the Indigenous Environmental Network. “Just like the US government has taken land from us and colonised us, now companies are trying to do the same thing: carbon markets are a further act of colonisation.”
Chief Ninawa comments that, “People in Europe need to know that the products they consume that come from Brazil are products of destruction, of murders, of indigenous families that got pushed out from their territory.”
How might climate negotiations ensure nature and people are properly protected?
The flow of finance to nature protection could play a major role in tackling the climate and biodiversity crises, provided it is set up in a way that respects the rights of local and indigenous peoples, and ensures conservation schemes are not an excuse for further emissions.
But human rights must be prioritised in any such agreements, says Chief Ninawa. “A central solution is to allow indigenous territories to self-govern, so we can recuperate the land that was stolen from us: we know how to protect.”
The Glasgow summit did signal that carbon-offsetting schemes will now be subject to an independent body that will answer grievances raised about their impact. Yet this has not assuaged all fears.
“Safeguards have failed in the past and they will continue to fail,” says the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s Thomas Joseph. “The UNFCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] has no authority or power to protect human rights in nations that are perpetrators of abuse and have always turned a blind eye to indigenous peoples.”
“The UN secretary-general announced that a group of experts will bring vital scrutiny to offset markets,” says Louisa Casson from Greenpeace International. “But much work still needs to be done to stop the greenwashing, cheating and loopholes giving big emitters and corporations a free pass.”