The Common Good
July 2008

Carbon Colonialism

by Trusha Reddy | July 2008

Real conservation is sidelined by carbon trading's bad math.

Real conservation is sidelined by carbon trading’s bad math.

“Recently a woman was buried alive. She died on the site [picking rubbish, killed by a dump truck offloading]. I could have saved her life.” —Sajida Khan

Sajida Khan spent her life advocating for the closure of the notorious Bisasar dump in South Africa. Opened during the apartheid era in the Indian residential area where she lived, the dump emitted toxins that devastated the community with malignant cancers, one of which tragically claimed Khan’s life in 2007.

The government agreed on numerous occasions to close the dump, but reneged on all its promises. Instead, it planned to set up a project to capture methane emitted from the dump and convert it to electricity—and to get foreign capital from the World Bank for the government’s coffers, to the tune of $15 million, by billing this as a “Clean Development Mechanism” (CDM) that would reduce emissions of gases that cause climate change.

This billing is questionable. The whole rationale for CDM projects, also called “carbon offsets,” is to fund something additional to what would otherwise happen—but, for environmental and health reasons, the municipality should really capture the harmful methane effluent anyway. And the carbon offset calculations are suspicious because other harmful gases will be flared into the atmosphere during the capturing and conversion process.

It’s alarming that we have chosen carbon trading, a “flexible market mechanism,” as the solution to combating the monumental challenge of climate change. The Kyoto Protocol, which came into effect in 2005, artificially allots carbon credits to developed countries, effectively giving them the right to pollute and allowing them to buy and sell that right to each other. But they can also, instead, buy carbon offsets, in which Kyoto member countries earn credits by investing in what are supposed to be sustainable development projects in the global South.

This means that wealthy polluter nations do not have to stop polluting but simply transfer the responsibility elsewhere. Carbon trading and offsets, rather than across-the-board conservation by wealthy nations, became the defining element of the Kyoto Protocol—despite the fact that the U.S., a big polluter which pushed carbon trading as the headliner on the international climate talks agenda, did not sign on to Kyoto.

CARBON TRADING—via Kyoto or voluntary offsets bought by well-intentioned individuals—is a big and profitable business. When Kyoto came into force in 2005, there were already 400,000 companies in place to support the trade. In 2006, the global voluntary offset market was estimated at nearly $120 million, and this figure is rapidly escalating.

But there is controversy about these programs. Both CDM projects like the Bisasar plan and voluntary offset projects, like the one that delivered 10,000 energy-efficient light bulbs to a poor black township in South Africa, are designed to salve consciences of people in the North, but they deliver a negligible benefit to the atmosphere and to the communities they are meant to serve.

One of the most important arguments against carbon trading is that the system is tantamount to carbon colonialism. Larry Lohmann of the Durban Group for Climate Justice argues that “the distribution of carbon allowances [the prerequisite for trading] constitutes one of the largest, if not the largest, projects for creation and regressive distribution of property rights in human history.”

On a local level, the Bisasar dump exacerbated racial and socio-economic tensions between middle-class Indian residents such as Khan and the black families who survive by scavenging off the dump and selling the scraps as recycled material. In exchange for the latter community’s support of the methane-to-electricity project, the World Bank offered a couple of dozen university scholarships for the children in the shack community, polarizing communities even further and continuing the life of the dump, whose toxins devastated the community’s health.

Eventually, the World Bank backed out of the deal due to the community’s vigorous opposition (with eco-warrior Khan’s leadership). But the dump survived Khan’s death, and the municipality is looking for new funders for the offset project.

Even proponents of carbon trading will now admit that it has been unable to stop the aggressive exploration of oil in the Middle East or in ecologically rich, vulnerable regions in Latin America and the Arctic. In fact, carbon trading has helped legitimize the operations of the most notorious corporations, greenwashing their images while they continue to plunder. Ultimately, it has taken the focus away from real structural changes that need to be made: changes that promote the transition away from our addiction to fossil fuels and toward low-carbon economies.

Trusha Reddy is a political researcher in the Corruption & Governance Programme at the Institute for Security Studies, an NGO based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her report on African case studies on carbon trading will be published later this year.

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