Carbon Offsets - A New Form of Colonizing Africa?

Carbon Offsets - A New Form of Colonizing Africa?

Carbon offset projects will only work if we ensure that African communities have direct access to and control of the billions that are made from sale of carbon credits.

Deep in Voi Constituency, Taita Taveta County, Kasighau Community members are enjoying water in this otherwise dry area. Carbon credits are responsible for this water. Wildlife Works, an international NGO that operates in the county usually sells carbon credits on the international market. They use part of the proceeds on community projects like the water project. This carbon offset arrangement is an integral part of their Kasigau Corridor REDD+ project in Kenya.

Despite the tangible water benefit, most community members in this area are not able to explain to you what carbon offsetting entails and exactly how it benefits their community. These community members are not alone in their carbon offsetting ignorance. Indeed, carbon offsetting remains one of the most cryptic arenas of the environmental world.

Carbon offsetting is simply a way for individuals or organizations, to “compensate” their proportion of carbon emissions by investing in carbon reduction projects. Over the last decade, carbon offsetting has become a global, multibillion-dollar industry. It has been embraced by multinationals like airlines, oil companies and fast-food chains together with governments. They regard it as a way of claiming seemingly reducing their carbon footprints.

While the thinking behind this approach is noble, even commendable, it’s also like paying someone else to clean your mess. For instance, participating airlines can then continue with wanton emissions just because they are now paying for communities in Africa to plant trees, engage in afforestation and a host of other conservation ventures. The fact that the airline is purchasing carbon credits, doesn’t result in less emissions. How is this helpful to the environment?

Clearly, carbon offsetting can create a moral hazard by allowing companies to continue emitting greenhouse gases while relying on offsets for mitigation. Offset projects should be seen as complementary, not a substitute for emissions reduction efforts by companies.

It is against this backdrop that conservationists in Africa are now posing the question, are Carbon Offsets a new Form of Colonialism?

The perception of carbon offsetting as a form of contemporary colonialism in Africa is a complex issue that stems from various concerns and criticisms.

For starters, carbon offsets are built on unequal power dynamics. Indeed, carbon offset projects often involve multinational corporations and wealthy countries investing in projects in Africa, which further perpetuates power imbalances.

The best way for polluters to exercise accountability is to either stop polluting or drastically reduce their pollution.

As a case in point, in early September 2023, an Emirati coalition announced a $450 million commitment to buy carbon credits generated in Africa. This was revealed during the inaugural Africa Climate Summit that was held in Nairobi.

Amongst those opposed to this carbon offsetting pathway is Greenpeace.

In response to the Emirati coalition announcement, Thandile Chinyavanhu, Greenpeace Africa climate and energy campaigner said that, ‘it is regrettable that the Africa Climate Summit is becoming a bazaar for carbon credit speculators and propagandists that serve to greenwash rather than reduce harmful emissions. They are risky diversions from real climate and biodiversity action that requires ending fossil fuel expansion and industrial destruction of our ecosystems.’

Herein lies the quagmire of carbon offsetting. They give whoever is purchasing the carbon credits undue power. In so doing, they don’t foster equitable partnerships where African nations have a stronger say in project development and decision-making.

Carbon credits are sold on a free carbon market, which is at first glance, a good thing. However, carbon offset projects can result in unintended consequences like land grabbing, displacing local communities and negatively impacting their livelihoods.

In March this year, Simon Counsell and Survival International released a report that provided damning evidence on carbon offset projects in northern Kenya. According to the report, a carbon offset scheme makes millions from Indigenous land in Northern Kenya. Because the project relies on major changes to the way in which the area’s Indigenous pastoralists graze their animals, it is potentially undermining the livelihoods of thousands. This further proves the opaque nature of carbon offsets projects. 

Another factor that lends credence to the ‘new form of colonialism’ argument is the lack transparency that seems inherent in many carbon offset projects. How much money do carbon traders make on the carbon market? How determines the worth of the carbon credits they sell? Who determines the percentage of proceeds that goes to local communities? Who verifies that funded conservation projects have indeed offset respective carbon emissions?

There are simply no clear answers to these questions which further stifles transparency. As such, the opacity surrounding carbon offset projects makes it challenging to verify their true environmental impact. Further, all conservation projects, especially carbon offset projects should respect land rights and prioritize the well-being of local communities, with their informed consent. This is simply not the case in most carbon offset projects here in Africa.

For carbon offset projects to shed the colonialism tag, they must establish transparent monitoring and reporting mechanisms to track the real emissions reductions achieved. In this regard, thorough environmental impact assessments should inform the choice of projects that have minimal negative effects on local ecosystems.

Systematic monitoring should also track to what extent local communities have benefited directly from proceeds of carbon credits sold.

In many cases, the local communities hosting carbon offset projects experience few direct benefits, with profits flowing out of the region. Many community ‘benefits’ are restricted to peripheral projects like classroom construction, shallow well construction and the like. These are merely crumbs falling from the table. Real benefits should tackle critical issues like jobs. On this score, if a carbon offset project isn’t resulting decent, well-paying green jobs, then it has already failed the test of community benefits. 

On a larger scale, some projects, such as afforestation, may require significant water and land resources, potentially exacerbating resource scarcity in already vulnerable regions. Furthermore, afforestation and reforestation projects can sometimes prioritize monoculture tree plantations over diverse ecosystems. Conservation isn’t about domination of a particular species, but the flourish of biodiversity and replenishment of native ecosystems.

That’s why community consultations must be fully comprehensive, taking on board different segments of the community. They should also integrate national and county laws, ensuring that they are conducive for particular carbon offset projects.

Embedded in these community consultations should be clear safeguards from market volatility. Carbon offset projects often have limited lifespans, raising concerns about their ability to deliver lasting environmental benefits. That’s why offset projects must be developed with long-term sustainability in mind, ensuring that they continue to sequester carbon and provide other ecological benefits after initial commitments expire.

It will defeat the purpose to offer communities promises that are reliant on future carbon markets. Indeed, carbon markets’ fluctuating prices can result in unpredictable revenues for offset projects, which would adversely impact communities whose consent was pegged on definitive revenue figures. Offset projects should therefore explore options for stable, long-term financing to ensure project continuity.

Moving forward, there must be elaborate verification mechanisms for carbon offset projects. In the absence of such verification mechanisms, questions on project eligibility will abound.  That’s why African governments and stakeholders must strengthen third-party verification processes to ensure the credibility of offset projects.

To address these concerns and mitigate the perception of carbon offsetting as contemporary colonialism in Africa, it is essential to prioritize the interests and well-being of local communities, improve transparency and accountability, and select offset projects with a strong focus on sustainability and biodiversity. Additionally, promoting broader climate justice principles and equitable distribution of the benefits from offset projects can help ensure that carbon offsetting contributes positively to climate resilience, job creation and sustainable development in Africa.

Carbon offset projects will only work if we ensure that African communities have direct access to and control of the billions that are made from sale of carbon credits.

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