Offset Bullying in Bonn

The UNFCCC discussed rules for offsets in Bonn, Germany last week

No matter how hard you try, shoving carbon emissions back into the earth is no easy task. But at recent UN climate talks in Bonn, the carbon-shovers were once again vying to prove why their methods are most deserving of carbon offset money from developed (Annex I) countries.

Most controversially, the United Arab Emirates (a non-Annex I country) pushed a proposal to receive carbon offset money for its nationwide carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) plan. Masdar, a major clean tech company based in Abu Dhabi, one of the emirates, describes the project as “a network of pipelines…to pump carbon from emitting sites to oilfields, where it would be injected into reservoirs to maintain pressure and increase oil recovery.”

Under the proposal, offset money would come to the UAE through the Clean Development Mechanism, a UN-reviewed instrument that allows Annex I countries to reduce their emissions by funding emissions-cutting projects in non-Annex I countries. In addition to reducing emissions, these projects must contribute to economic development by providing some added value in areas such as electricity access or jobs. For example, the CDM Bazaar lists an offset project that promises to reforest degraded areas of Nicaragua, “provid[ing] jobs for these communities, reducing poverty, [and] creating opportunities for social development.”

The UAE’s carbon capture and sequestration plan seems to fit the bill of a fundable project. It reduces carbon emissions, would require massive infrastructure development and thus jobs, and, under the current plan, non-CDM financing is not enough to make the project happen on its own. A true offset must be “additional,” meaning it would not happen without additional funds from the offsetter.  However, the Brazil negotiating team in Bonn stated that it would veto any proposal to allow CDM funding of CCS projects, labeling them “subsidies to enhance fossil fuel production.” Brazil also wrote, “[Carbon capture and storage] technologies have implications which are incompatible with the nature and characteristics of CDM project activities.”

Brazil’s point is that the CDM should not help countries like the UAE—with its current economy dependent on fossil fuel exports—develop new fossil fuel-centric technologies. Doing so doesn’t help re-orient their economies toward renewable fuels, and it also maintains the notion that fossil energy could someday be zero emissions.

On the other hand, it’s easy for Brazil, a country whose main offset resource is not CCS but trees, to criticize the oil-dependent Middle East. On that front, Brazil and other would-be offsetters are not exactly saints. Several journalists have recently investigated the problems with offset markets, especially in forested areas. A PBS Frontline episode entitled “The Carbon Hunters” identified forest managers in the Amazon—eyeing funds from the CDM or other offset generators—who are creating “carbon reserves,” or areas of forest to be left untouched in return for carbon offset credits. These reserves are set up by logging companies or large conservation organizations, but they at times overlap with indigenous territories where people have lived in a more sustainable exchange with the forest.

In these areas, indigenous peoples may be prevented from pursuing their traditional ways of life by the hands-off requirements of the carbon reserve. The Accra Caucus on Forests and Climate Change, a network of NGOs representing some 100 civil society and indigenous peoples’ organizations, warned in a report last week that “the full and effective participation of forest communities is a key condition for tackling the economic forces and institutional biases which lead to deforestation.”

Without proper “safeguards,” the caucus fears that such carbon offset projects may deny rights to the forests’ most faithful stewards. Whether it’s using trees or pipes to shove carbon emissions back underground, the business of climate mitigation offsets can be a messy one—focused on quick fixes rather than resolute attempts at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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