Our Burning Planet


Balancing activism and science, Wits prof speaks out against carbon offsets as a climate crisis solution

Balancing activism and science, Wits prof speaks out against carbon offsets as a climate crisis solution
Ecologist Professor Sally Archibald. (Photo: Supplied)

Scientists’ public silence on highly touted but contentious solutions for carbon capture do not serve climate action or the science. A professor in ecology makes her case.

Science does “staying in its lane” pretty well. But the lines are getting blurrier and it’s about time too for ecologist Professor Sally Archibald, from Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences (APES) at the University of the Witwatersrand. 

Archibald presented a talk on “The ethical challenges of balancing climate advocacy and science” at Wits University’s Pro VC Seminar this spring. The topic is contentious but Archibald, speaking out publicly for the first time, rooted her position of why she needs to be both scientist and activist and why there should be room for both. 

Her stance mirrors the global movement that has seen more scientists come to a reckoning that as the people who know the science best, they should also be at the forefront of climate activism. 

Science activism divides the room though. It pits scientific objectivity against personal moral values. Scientist-activists have faced a backlash, had their professional affiliations revoked and some have been fired. 

But history has shown the value and impact when scientists choose activism. In this country it helped purge Aids denialism and forced the government to finally make treatment publicly available. More recently it’s been to fight for life-saving Covid-19 vaccine programmes. Activist scientists have over the decades used science to campaign against dangers like leaded gas, the impacts of the synthetic insecticide DDT and the atomic bomb. 

“I can’t play along anymore,” Archibald said of the consequences of ignoring that scientists’ public neutrality and public disengagement has had the effect of dulling the alarm bell for climate action. It’s also led to bits of science and research being cherry-picked or cobbled together then amplified as solutions.

Climate colonialism

As an ecologist Archibald singled out nature-based solutions (NbS) for carbon offset as particularly problematic. The International Union for Conservation of Nature describes NbS as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural and modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously benefiting people and nature”.

Examples of NbS from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) include greening cities through green roofs and constructing wetlands to absorb stormwater run-off to reduce flood risks. Other examples are the restoration of coral reefs and efforts to keep forests standing. The WWF though cautions that NbS are only part of the solution. For example non-native trees planted as carbon offset have detrimental consequences for biodiversity. “The potential climate benefits don’t outweigh the cost. It’s important to make science-driven decisions,” the organisation states.

Nature-based solutions are most dangerous because they are a divergence and distraction from facing up to the need to end fossil fuel dependence and to reduce emissions.

“The problem is that true ‘nature-based solutions’ are very rare and depend on the perspectives and values of the people involved. With the current time and financial pressures people are often pushed into supporting interventions where the costs are not fully accounted for. And the idea of using African ecosystems to store carbon and telling African people how to use their land resources amounts to climate colonialism,” Archibald told Maverick Citizen.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Commodification of carbon provides fertile ground for agrarian injustice, conference is told

Archibald said the absence of critical interrogation means limits, pitfalls and the inevitable trade-offs are downplayed or ignored. Issues of social equity and indigenous communities’ rights aren’t adequately factored in, neither are financing, scale, accurate data collection, and transparency and monitoring of these deals and projects are not dealt with. 

Ultimately nature-based solutions are most dangerous, she said, because they are a divergence and distraction from facing up to the need to end fossil fuel dependence and to reduce emissions. It means business models need to change and the idea of perpetual growth as a model of success needs resetting. 

“To me as an ecologist, a healthy ecosystem is one where all the interacting components interact, and there’s circulating resources. But a system that constantly grows is either recovering from a disturbance or is perturbed,” she said.

In her talk, Archibald said she “exited” many public debates when the outcome of the Paris Accord in 2015 adopted a market-based approach of carbon credits and carbon capture in ecosystems. 

You can live by your principles or you can try to speak about your principles and change how other people are acting; these are two different things.

Carbon markets, according to the United Nations Development Programme, are trading systems for carbon credits to be sold and bought. “Companies or individuals can use carbon markets to compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing carbon credits from entities that remove or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One tradable carbon credit equals one tonne of carbon dioxide.”

Critics though say carbon trading is not sufficient for environmental impact. The compensation and investment model also lacks transparency and governance. 

Vocalising principles

Archibald called in window dressing. And at her crossroads, she said: “The approach of ‘exit’ is no longer tenable for me so I’m trying to use my voice to influence the process. You can live by your principles or you can try to speak about your principles and change how other people are acting; these are two different things. Up until now I have been trying to live by my principles, but it’s not enough.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Hundreds of millions pledged for african carbon credits at inaugural climate summit

Archibald also addressed the thorny issue of funding models and corporate partnerships. “Scientists use science to push a certain agenda, so we need to be honest and transparent about what values we are pushing; and society must be able to challenge us,” she said. 

She added: “Some people would argue that you shouldn’t just cut your ties with organisations and companies that make money out of fossil fuels, because if you work with them then you can enable them to transition more rapidly. And if you reject them entirely you’re not helping.”

Archibald has previously walked away from working with fossil fuel companies. But she’s shifted on this too, but with conditions. “As a scientist I will work with them but I will also be saying publicly that they need to be held accountable, they need new business models and we need structural change,” she said. 

Since Archibald’s presentation she’s had three main responses, she said. First are those who believe technologies on the horizon will save humankind from climate doom. Then there are those who are disheartened by how she’s dispelled the promise of NbS as an effective carbon capture fix. And third, she said, are colleagues saying to her, “I’ve been feeling this way too and I think we should engage”.

The latter two responses affirm the place for context, data and deeper engagement because the science evidence is shallowly understood. The last response shows the need for solidarity. Even as scientists have supported the recommendations for the global temperature rise to stay 1.5°C below pre-industrial levels, year after year, the targets have been missed. It amounts to a middle finger to science.

Archibald says the current inertia and limbo cannot be separated from political will and vested interests. “Climate change can be stopped. What precipitated this for me was watching how when the Global North thought it was a crisis they could make huge changes to economies and society in order to solve the crisis. And they were quite happy to leave the Global South behind.”

Scientist Rebellion, which launched in September 2021, is a movement of scientists taking their fight out of the labs and onto the streets. They have chosen nonviolent civil disobedience to campaign for climate justice, effective climate change mitigation and degrowth. In May 2023, scientists from 32 countries demonstrated on the streets under the banner “The Science in Clear”. This September they joined protests in Times Square, New York, for “Climate Week” timed with the sitting of the UN General Assembly. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Justice groups and communities showcase a pathway to burst the bubble of exclusive climate crisis activism

Scientists stepping out of their labs – out of their lanes – is unsettling and uncomfortable, but for Archibald it’s as it should be. She said: “No one wants to argue for revolution because revolutions can be dangerous, scary and bad. But the alternative of keeping silent is also dangerous, scary and bad.” DM

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Eugene Moll says:

    At long last a current South Africa ecologists speaking out. I applaud you Professor Sally Archibald. As a retired but still active ecologist I battle the same issues here in the Western Cape where my own students from 50 years ago say I should be quiet and hold my peace. But I will be outspoken to the end. The contemporary truth must be trumpeted. Eugene Moll

  • Susan Keegan says:

    Time too for scientist activists to speak out about the media’s cherry picking, selective reporting and fear-mongering. There are scientists who don’t buy the ‘climate change will destroy the world’ narrative. We should respect the specialist viewpoint of an ecologist on the topic of ecology, but for information about climate we need to hear from climate scientists.

    The climate data does not ‘clearly’ support the doomsday scenario that sells news. What is called ‘the science’ is often only scientific modeling. In a system as complex as the earth’s climate those models are far from exact. The potential risks of relying on these speculative models should be obvious after our recent experience with Covid-19. The decisions to lock down entire countries, impose vaccine mandates worldwide and cause catastrophic harm to millions of people who are still dealing with the financial, relational, physical and mental consequences of those decisions were backed up by the flawed statistical models generated by Prof Neil Ferguson of Imperial College of London.

    • Michele Rivarola says:

      The only ones who will suffer are those with investments in fossil fuel companies. Unless you believe that companies such as Shell, Total and the like are ethical businesses who as part of the business principles should be allowed to start civil wars and order hits on climate activists then it is time to accept that we are either going to change our ways or that the end is nigh. Time and again it has been shown that eco balances are finely tuned and that we can do so much but once we have reached the limit of what the natural world can tolerate the proverbial straw will break the camel’s back. If you believe we are far from reaching that point then that is your choice but the majority of the science world believes that we are about to reach it. Accepting it and predicting it are two different things but my own experience and that of many others has taught that preventative measures are better than reactive measures. Overfishing of certain fish stocks is a case in point where huge biomasses disappeared from one year to the next in more than one country whereas where controls were enforced the biomass eventually recovered. Don’t be fooled by the oil and gas lobby all they are interested in continuing making super-profits whilst denying the consequences and effects of their dirty industry

  • The problem with eccofreaks is they don’t put their money where their mouths are.
    They try to shame and blame and try to make us feel guilty of using a vehicle that runs on fuel that emits carbon but they themselves won’t us alternative powered vehicles like human powered vehicles or only solar powered vehicles, Ahh yes a Electric vehicle have just as great carbon emissions as any other vehicle at the end of their life of another fuel based vehicle at their end and best of all most was just to manufacture the dam electric vehicle and that’s only when it was charged with renewables like solar and wind.
    But wait there is a better way of doing this but OPEC oil companies suppress it as these eccofreaks are on their dam payrolls and squash any company or individual trying to make this.
    How long have we not know of H alternative.
    So you want to know what is H?
    H is Hydrogen and a vehicle running on hydrogen Gass only emits H2O ,yes water ,is way more efficient and is easily produced, yes even a child can make it so easy it is.
    But until governments and OPEC can cash in this won’t happen.

    • David Edwards says:

      I thought DM had a process to vet comments, how do people use aliases qualify to make comments?

      • Julian Chandler says:

        What in his comment do you take offense to?
        I, personally, agree with him. HFCs are the most logical choice, but there is no massive short term profit to be made from the strip-mining of rare eath minerals needed in the EV production market.
        Sea water can be desalinated, and Hydrogen produced, using solar power. Israel and Saudi Arabia already do it.
        Also, check the news. An EV bus went off a bridge, BURST INTO FLAMES, and killed 21 people, just yesterday. Now Google how dangerous Lithium fires are, and what happens when you spray water on them.

  • Father of Sharjah says:

    Good on you Prof. I am starting a farming new Co. called Tomorrow Farm. My advising economist tells me he chatted to his Prof from the late 70’s and they agree that what he was taught up to getting his Bsc masters degree was wrong. So we are working to create Tomorrow Farm using the principals you espouse in this article. We believe we can prosper with no chemical farming and improving our soil structure as the guiding principle.
    I will endeavour to keep in contact with you. I am hoping to have an open house for students to be able to experiment on a working regenerative farm and through their work to have my farm open to their ideas.

    • Michele Rivarola says:

      Widely practiced already in the WC they refer to it as regenerative farming

      • Julian Chandler says:

        Hence the last sentence in the post…

        • Alastair Stalker says:

          Regenerative farming (No till farming including grazing animals) is a big deal in North America. Read Gabe Brown’s excellent book “Dirt to Soil”. He has proved conclusively that more profit/ha is possible using this methodology with minimal use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Using this method there is substantial C sequestration and much better utilisation and retention of water. Also, the Netflix documentary, “Kiss the Soil” gives a good overview.
          Unfortunately, in South Africa, we have some of the most conservative farmers on Earth who would rather continue to farm conventionally and destroy the soil microbiome every year, moan about diminishing yields and watch their topsoil disappear into the Indian Ocean.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    Such an important piece – thank you

  • sl0m0 za says:

    More climate BS – the only part she got right is that Carbon tax/trading is a scam. There are now over 1600 scientists who agree that CO2 and man made climate change is a scam – all the evidence contradicts this. Yes, the earth is warming slightly due to natural cycles. Do a search for “clintel” – Climate Intelligence Group – you will be amazed at what lies have been pushed by mainstream media.

    • Stephanie Cookson says:

      “There are now over 1600 scientists who agree that CO2 and man made climate change is a scam – all the evidence contradicts this. ” This is, simply, not true.

      Perhaps your alleged 1600 scientists claim that climate change & global warming are not the result of human activities, but the scientific community constituted by the +66’000 peer-reviewed studies analysed by the IPCC conclude – without a doubt – that global warming is anthropogenic. So, no, “all evidence” does not contradict this article. A starting point is the IPCC’s AR6 WG1 resources available online.

      And here are a few peer-reviewed studies on the scientific consensus on the IPCC’s findings. “1600 scientists” does not scientific-consensus make!

      Cook et al. (2016) “Consensus on consensus: a synthesis of consensus estimates on human-caused global warming”. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/11/4/048002.
      Powell (2019). “Scientists Reach 100% Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming”. doi:10.1177/0270467619886266
      Lynas et al (2021) “Greater than 99% consensus on human caused climate change in the peer-reviewed scientific literature” doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ac2966
      Myers et a (2021). “Consensus revisited: quantifying scientific agreement on climate change and climate expertise among Earth scientists 10 years later”. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ac2774

      Lastly, never forget to check if one of these 1600 scientists is linked to fossil fuel money (desmog.com’s disinformation database)

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