Africa, Europe, and carbon credits: a proposal

Richard Burge
28 June 2005

Do you agree with Richard Burge that carbon credits are a good way to address climate change? Caspar Henderson, editor of openDemocracy's "politics of climate change" debate does not. Read his critique in our debate forum, which suggests two further links for exploring the issue of climate change and Africa:

  • The Ashden awards for sustainable energy
  • The Working Group on Climate Change and Development's Up in Smoke report
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    A concern with poverty and development in Africa is at the centre of political and media discussion in the approach to the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland on 6-8 July. The host of the summit, Tony Blair, has also made intense efforts to put the question of global climate change at the conference’s heart. The combination of these two headline issues at the top of the meeting’s agenda is a perfect opportunity for the world’s leaders to implement a major policy initiative – one that combines technology, mechanism, and commodity in a way that can help Africa’s poorest people and provide a benefit that Europe itself needs.

    The technology is to grow forests; the mechanism is trade; the commodity is the ability to remove greenhouse gases (principally carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere. Together, these elements constitute an alternative model of social and economic organisation that represents a huge opportunity to open a genuinely new market.

    Africa produces very low emissions of greenhouse gases, yet (as Camilla Toulmin writes in openDemocracy’s debate on the politics of climate change) it is one of the most vulnerable continents to global climate shifts. Africa’s current level of development means that it has little opportunity to benefit from technology-based emission reductions – except through the use of geothermal or hydroelectric power that can substitute for electricity generated using fossil fuels or the use of fuel oil in cooking. Yet Africa could use its capacities to reforest in ways that capture carbon in natural “sinks”, thus helping to ensure that future emissions from its rapidly growing populations are minimised.

    It could happen, but it is being prevented – and the European Union is a big part of the obstacle. At the same time as the G8 summiteers gather in Gleneagles, a meeting in Bonn of the executive board of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) will take place in Bonn. The board will be re-examining the rules for the sorts of carbon trading permitted under European Union rules. At present, these permit only trading in credits that originate from reducing emissions, and certificates of carbon storage in vegetation and soils in projects from developing countries are excluded from the EU Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS) until at least 2008.

    The result is that the sort of carbon credits African countries (and particularly the poorest rural communities in Africa) could produce are banned – those arising from sustainable policies that increase vegetation cover and avoid continued destruction of natural landscapes. The Kyoto Protocol acknowledges that such environmental measures are vitally important to reducing global greenhouse-gas levels, and the CDM’s responsibilities (under Article 12 of the protocol) include helping developing countries to achieve sustainable development; but Europe does not permit the carbon credits they produce to be traded.

    The sale of such carbon credits is a fresh, legitimate source of income for the poorest of the poor, and can reverse a clear and present environment danger. It can also prevent the almost certain increase in emissions from Africa that will otherwise ensue if large-scale agriculture, land degradation, and destructive forms of fuel consumption continue. Carbon credit sales can engage a large number of countries in the fight against climate change and hence prepare the world for the more demanding efforts required beyond the 2012 targets set by the Kyoto Protocol.

    The generation of carbon credits through “sequestration” and “offset” will not be enough to solve the problems of high greenhouse-gas levels in the atmosphere. The solution will be a mixture of credits that rewards the initial reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, but also enables the projects that absorb them to continue.

    The current European exclusion of carbon credits that result from forestry activities in Africa (and elsewhere in the global south) means that Europe will continue to have a free ride on African resourcefulness: benefiting from forest conservation by the poor, maintaining high trade barriers against a legitimate product needed by European markets, and supporting a high-cost, high-technology, western-based solution rather than one that African countries and their citizens can support.

    Four arguments for reform

    Why does the European Union ban this trade with Africa? The arguments that the science is “uncertain” and the risks too great are familiar. More substantially, some proponents of the ban contend that if it were implemented, the amount of deforestation avoided would simply allow countries that have large standing forests and high emissions to reap a national benefit by balancing one against the other, with no overall benefit to greenhouse-gas reduction in the atmosphere.

    There is also a perception that by permitting trade in these credits, emitters would simply opt for cheaper offsets through carbon sinks rather than cleaning up their own emissions of greenhouse gases.

    But the arguments for openness and reform have science, the environment and economics, as well as justice on their side. First, globally high oil prices – which seem likely to continue for years, perhaps decades – are already stimulating the search for greater efficiencies in energy production which will bring associated research and development advantages. A change in European policy would go with the grain of this historic shift.

    Second, many risks have already been factored in to existing Clean Development Mechanism rules, and are easily manageable through regulation.

    Third, the benefits to Africa of reversing deforestation and allowing temporary carbon sinks in the form of reforestation are huge. Communities across the continent can profit financially from a legitimate resource, and this will help fund and stimulate poverty-alleviation initiatives. These include economic development in rural areas based on sustainable use of their natural resources, increasing food security through expanded forestry, creating sustainable trade and sustainable income, and protecting some of the most biologically diverse and spectacular places on earth.

    Fourth, when millions of people in Africa continue to be mired in poverty, and the economic opportunities available to them are predominantly of a kind that favour environmental and social decline, the argument for equity and solidarity from the rich world of the kind represented by carbon credits is compelling.

    An opening of the carbon market in Europe to Africa is central to extending fair trade, benefiting climate change targets, assisting Africa’s poorest areas and people to move from aid to trade, and contributing sustainably to community development and environmental conservation.

    A new policy in this area will not solve Africa’s problems on its own but it has the potential to impact significantly and permanently on poverty in the continent’s most remote areas. The first week of July 2005 – when Britain convenes the G8 summit and assumes the presidency of the European Union – is a good time to start.

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