Our Burning Planet


Licence to pollute — carbon offsets are a disaster in the making for Africa

Licence to pollute — carbon offsets are a disaster in the making for Africa
The authors argue that the African Carbon Markets Initiative is a multi-pronged disaster for Africa, exploiting the continent's underdevelopment to enable richer countries to continue polluting the planet. (Image: iStock)

The whole concept of carbon offsetting is simply another frontier of capital accumulation and profit-seeking based on yet more exploitation and the externalising of environmental costs. We cannot sell nature to save it.

Those who believe that “the market” offers us our best route out of the climate crisis celebrated the launch of the African Carbon Markets Initiative (ACMI) during COP27 in Egypt late last year.

Speaking during the launch of the ACMI, the Vice President of Nigeria and ACMI steering committee member, Yemi Osinbajo, said, “Carbon markets can deliver tremendous benefits for Nigeria and Africa, creating jobs, driving green investment and reducing emissions.” 

The idea behind the ACMI is simple — it is a carbon offsetting scheme whereby rich Northern countries will pay poorer African countries for the right to continue releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

Rich Northern countries can do so without worrying about these emissions because they will be “offset” by African countries, which will protect their natural carbon sinks — such as forests, wetlands and grasslands — from development while allocating new land for the development of new plantations to also act as carbon sinks. 

For doing so, African countries will be paid for each “carbon credit” that is purchased by richer countries. 

At its launch, the ACMI set out to sell 300 million carbon credits every year by 2030. By 2050, they hope to sell over 1.5 billion carbon credits every year. The revenue from these credits will then be used by participating African countries to decarbonise their economies and preserve their natural carbon sinks. 

What an astonishing outcome — a win for all concerned! 

Except, of course, it is a disaster in the making for Africa, and one that is entirely premised on a colonial mentality of exploitation and externalisation.

Underdevelopment exploitation

Let’s consider for a moment the thinking behind this project. 

It goes something like this: Africa’s underdevelopment can be exploited by rich countries – which carry a historic burden for largely causing this underdevelopment — to enable them to continue to maintain their climate-change-inducing lifestyles.

So, in effect, the fact that Africa only produces 4% of the world’s emissions of carbon dioxide is a cause for celebration among the richer nations of the world because it gives them a continued licence to pollute. 

This continued licence to pollute is an example of what Adrienne Buller recently described in her book, The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism, where she wrote of the “externalising machine” of capitalism which is always looking for ways to evade its true costs.

The ACMI is just another mechanism by which these true costs can be evaded because the ability to balance emissions in one part of the world, or one sector of an economy, with the alleged ability to capture these emissions in other parts of the world, is a theoretical fantasy which does not relate to reality in all its complexity. 

It is this complexity which makes the whole idea of carbon offsetting complete nonsense. 

The first problem is that the process of estimating and counting carbon credits to be offset is entirely voluntary and is therefore open to abuse. 

There are countless examples from all over the world where carbon credits being offered are simply fake.

For example, recent research has shown that 90% of rainforest carbon offsets issued by the world’s largest certifier of carbon credits were “phantom credits”. In addition, the amount of carbon any area offsets is guesswork, and yet carbon credits will be offset against these guesses.

Another problem relates to how timebound carbon credits are — they may be issued against the 30-year growth of a plantation, but who will monitor this growth for 30 years? What happens if there is a fire which destroys the plantation, for instance?

Credits are also issued against carbon sinks like forests which are allegedly under threat from development, when there is often no evidence to suggest that these threats are real. 

Also, given the prevalence of corruption in Africa caused by weak governance, is it possible to say the money that comes from the selling of carbon credits will contribute to greening the continent’s economies? 

ACMI a multi-pronged disaster for Africa 

First, it is leading to land grabs on the continent, where people are being forced off their land so that plantations can be grown in the interest of producing carbon credits. This process of dispossession is having a dramatic impact on food security and rural livelihoods.

Last month it emerged that Liberia was to cede up to 10% of its territory — one million hectares of forest — to a private company from the United Arab Emirates to allow polluters to “offset” their emissions. The deal looks set to terminate the customary land rights of thousands of Liberians. 

Second, by offering the rich countries a means by which to continue to emit carbon dioxide, with no hope that it will be properly mitigated by the carbon credit scheme, the climate crisis deepens.

This is a chilling reality for Africa where the rate of temperature increase has accelerated in recent years and where the negative impacts of the climate crisis are already being disproportionately felt. 

In 2022 alone, 110 million Africans were directly affected by weather, climate and water-related hazards. 

The stark reality is that we cannot trust the market to solve the climate crisis. You cannot expect the institution that is largely responsible for it to offer the solutions. To quote Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

The whole concept of carbon offsetting is simply another frontier of capital accumulation and profit-seeking based on yet more exploitation and the externalising of environmental costs. We cannot sell nature to save it. 

News has recently emerged that the Turkish company, Karpowership, had purchased and donated a 1,784-hectare hunting ranch to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the provincial wildlife authority in KwaZulu-Natal. 

According to a statement issued by Karpowership, in doing so it had gained an assurance from Ezemvelo that it would not formally object to the company’s plan to moor a floating 450MW gas-powered power station in Richard’s Bay harbour. 

The statement continued by noting that the donation of the land was a “biodiversity offsetting” designed to “mitigate” the impact of the power station. 

It is precisely this kind of crass and nonsensical reasoning that is at the very heart of all such offsetting schemes, including carbon offsetting. 

It’s a crass and nonsensical reasoning which should be opposed by all interested in finding genuine people and nature-centred solutions to the ongoing climate crisis. DM

Dr Neil Overy is an environmental researcher, writer, and photographer. He has worked in the non-profit sector for more than 20 years and recently completed an MPhil in Environmental Humanities South at the University of Cape Town. 

Thabo Sibeko is a Programmes Officer at Earthlife Africa Johannesburg. He has 20+ years’ experience working with communities towards the realisation of clean, affordable electricity in South Africa, and currently works with coal-affected communities in Limpopo to discourage new and existing coal projects from development.

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • andmcd says:

    David Wallace-Wells makes a similar argument in a NYT opinion piece on 6 Sep 2023, but goes even further: not only are carbon credits a sham, but poorly managed forests are now no longer not just less effective carbon sinks, but in the setting of global warming, (due to increased forest fires) have now become net carbon emitters. Forests are no longer our friends.

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