Carbon Colonialism

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.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2008
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