Security for the Big Polluters: Plantation forestry for carbon offset delays action on climate

Security for the Big Polluters: Plantation forestry for carbon offset delays action on climate

There is now growing acceptance – even amongst some of the most ardent of once anti-environmentalists – on the need for urgent action to curb global greenhouse gas emissions, stabilise the earth’s atmosphere, and limit the worst effects of global climate chaos. At the United Nations climate negotiations, a disparate group of nation states, First Nations, civil society, and along with the corporate sector have even managed to reach some consensus, at least on the need to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C; though a number of heavy emitting countries were led kicking and screaming to this point. These negotiations, however, continue to be marred by conflict and controversy. This is surely no surprise, given the fossil fuel lobby yields substantial influence over both global negotiation processes and national-level climate and energy politics, and given targets fail to uphold the rights and interests of many – despite internationally recognised responsibilities to do so – including those of First Nations and young people. Nor have the Conference of Parties’ (COP) negotiations reached consensus about how any reduction targets might be realised.

These global climate politics are writ large in Australia; where Marianne Wilkinson (2020) describes ‘The Carbon Club’ – a swarm of climate sceptics, politicians and business leaders – as curtailing action on climate for decades. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s silence at US President Biden’s recent Leaders’ Summit on Climate, held in advance of COP26 in Glasgow later this year, exemplifies this interia. The Federal LNP Governments’ failure to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions or to provide a pathway for reaching zero net emissions, alongside its opposition to renewables or a transition away from coal and gas, each demonstrate this recalcitrance. Similarly, pinning its hopes on a wide-ranging suite of ‘magic bullets’ – from carbon offset, geoengineering to nuclear power – has been used as an excuse for delaying emissions reductions. All the while, the Prime Minister has spun a series of lies and falsehoods in an effort to create a smokescreen for his government’s negligence on climate.  

Through the sustained inaction on climate over successive governments – destruction is driven across the country and culture of the “biggest estate on earth”, with recent devastating fires that scorched large swathes of the continent (alongside many other countries) part of the climate chaos that has now established as the new normal. This political inaction, and the destruction it unleashes, disavows internationally-recognised Indigenous rights, amongst many other abuses of human and nature rights. A case currently before the UN Human Rights Commission that is being led by claimants from the Torres Strait has exposed this. In this landmark case, a group of 8 Torres Strait Islanders on the frontline of climate chaos – with rising seas threatening their homes, destroying burial grounds and cultural sites, as well as damaging water and food crops – are demanding the Federal Government take urgent action to reduce emissions and fund urgently needed adaptations.

Similarly, the Federal Governments’ negation of responsibilities to young people is driving youth-led movements – including the School Strike 4 Climate – as well as a number of youth-led human rights and climate litigation cases that seek to hold governments, states and corporations to account for the impacts of climate change on both current and future generations. Youth Verdict’s legal challenge against mining giant Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal project on the basis that it infringes upon a number of their rights as set out in the Queensland Human Rights Act, is a landmark case in this space. 

In this context of highly contested global and national climate politics, just what hopes might be realised from some of the ‘solutions’ to the climate crisis that are touted? For the last decade or more I have been engaged in research that critically explores the opportunities and challenges of carbon offset initiatives. These are one of a number of popular mitigation climate policy responses being championed by governments around the world, including in Australia. 

But does carbon offset provide the ‘magic bullet’ that can enable the rapid de-carbonisation that is so urgently required? And are international carbon markets able to ensure a just and fair energy transition in an era of climate constraint? Or, do they provide security for big polluters to keep doing what they do; pollute big? 

Taking the case of plantation forestry for carbon offset – one of a number of popular international carbon market initiatives – this article exposes how carbon offset secures an on-going unfettered pathway for economic growth and expansionism for heavy polluters. To do this, these projects rely on a violent ‘climate border force’ – to play on Australia’s immigration policy rhetoric – to defend the boundaries of these projects. This border security stops the movement of people – and non-human animals – into sites where plantation forestry takes place. In so doing, the lives and livelihood activities that once defined these landscapes become ‘locked out’; with carbon offset projects directly implicated in water, food and other security struggles, alongside other devastating impacts, for displaced local communities. 

Instead, carbon offset provides security for the big polluters, including protection for heavy emitting countries and corporations. In so doing, it also delays the urgent and effective action required in the face of the climate crisis, and no climate justice, including for those most vulnerable in the face of a changing climate.

On-going extractivism offers us no security 

Anthropocentric climate change is part and parcel of the increasing burden that has been placed on the environment since colonisation. As Potawatomi scholar and activist Professor Kyle Whyte explains, climate change is tied to forms of power that sit at the intersection of colonialism, capitalism and industrialism, all of which must be addressed if we are to support a climate justice agenda. Until the predatory forces of coloniality and conquest that drive unsustainable carbon intensive economic expansion are curtailed, life and livelihoods will remain under threat, including for those least responsible for global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Carbon offset initiatives are situated within this historical and political setting, and represent the continuity of a colonial and extractivist logic. They are premised upon the assumption that industrial pollution can be offset elsewhere – including on the lands of Indigenous people and subsistence farming communities. They also assume that those least responsible for emissions should carry the disproportionate burden in attempts to clean them up. Rather than presenting a viable climate solution, carbon offset also lets heavy polluters off the hook. 

Carbon offset, too, fails to accept ecological limits, or international human rights responsibilities. At the same time, they ignore that some of us have already accrued an ecological debt that we have even less chance of paying back than does the Morrison Government after announcing their 2021-22 (win an election at any cost) Budget. 

Such problems are not unique to plantation forestry and other carbon offset initiatives. They also sit alongside a broad range mitigation and adaptation initiatives, including those often championed by heavy polluting countries and corporations.  

Turning to adaptation, this includes a broad suite of activities that are intended to support natural and human systems in adjusting to a changing climate. These may include the construction of physical structures such as seawalls and wind breaks, as well as planting native species to revegetate coastlines. As leading climate researcher Associate Professor Karen McNamara and her colleagues explain, adaptation activities are most likely to be effective when they are community-based, including when grounded in local knowledges, needs and understandings, as well as when they are locally owned and controlled. 

While First Nations – and alongside other local communities – have systematically observed, recorded and responded to changes in the environment – in other words, adapted – for millennia, community-based approaches, including those grounded in Indigenous knowledges, are frequently overlooked in global climate governance. Rather, First Nations are frequently positioned as victims of climate change, rather than – as Kombumerri person and Associate Professor Mary Graham explains – always in dynamic and responsive relations with place and Country. 

The failure to situate climate adaptations in local Indigenous cultural and biophysical knowledges – including taking up the ethical obligations that come with understanding our relations to the more than human, and along with internationally recognised Indigenous rights obligations – is, quite simply, incongruent with climate justice

Security for those invested in ‘business as usual’ means defence against nature

Climate adaptation interventions are also frequently couched in terms that further entrench coloniality and conquest of life forms. This plays out – for example – in the ways climate adaptation and mitigation strategies are described as defending people against nature, as well as separating humans from the rest of nature. Adaptations – including building structures or changing landscape formations – to contain, to hold back or restrain nature, reflect a reductive worldview that sees humans as somehow distinct from – and separate to – the rest of nature. While adaptations are obviously vital local-level responses to the continuities in environmental disruptions that have occurred since colonisation, to be meaningful, adaptation as a contemporary response to the climate crisis must be situated in relation with, not opposition to, the rest of nature. 

Similarly, descriptions of climate mitigation interventions frequently position nature as part of the arsenal being deployed in the fight against climate change. Forests, forestry, as well as wetlands and mangroves are amongst the range of nature-based interventions described as “humanity’s first line of defence” against climate chaos. These climate mitigation activities aim to reduce emissions by enhancing carbon stores – including in oceans and agriculture, as well as in forests and forestry, such as the now notorious Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+)

Such initiatives, however, prop up an extractivist logic that assumes economic growth and expansionism can be offset elsewhere in the system. Rather than disrupting unequal and unjust economic, social and political systems, these initiatives often further entrench them. 

Plantation forestry for global carbon offset and the climate border force

Carbon offset projects often take place on lands and in waters that are also First Nations’ territories, which are in turn overlaid with a set of complex and often contested colonial and settler colonial land laws. In my research on plantation forestry for carbon offset, I have been interested in how the territories upon which these projects are operationalised often end up becoming conflict zones and sites of territorial dispute

While plantation forestry might evoke images of clean, green, and biodiverse landscapes, the reality is far less idyllic. Plantation forestry is often large-scale, and mostly monoculture-based. It also often replaces biodiverse habitats and food growing landscapes with massive single species tree factories. These are often controlled by ‘corporate forestry empires’ who dictate forestry management regimes that are implicated in biodiversity loss, soil degradation and depletion of water tables. This model of industrial scale plantation forestry has expanded rapidly over the last two decades, including in countries of the so-called global south, and frequently on the territories of First Nations’. 

These (and alongside an array of other) carbon offset initiatives, promise to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions via the absorption and storage of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in carbon sinks, including soil and trees. To work, they rely upon the controversial and vexed world of carbon accounting. At its core, carbon accounting relies upon the assumption that complex landscapes can be reduced into a single commodity – carbon. The volume that may be held in plantation forestry as carbon sink is calculated, and this volume is then priced and sold to a polluting industry, company, or country. That such calculations fail to measure the emissions associated with the disruptions to previous land use to make way for plantation forestry, or the displacement of environmental damages and emissions outside plantation forestry sites, is just the beginning of the problems with carbon accounting.  

Global carbon accounting also relies upon a ‘climate border force’ to ensure carbon offset projects remain viable. This includes staking out the territories and defending the borders of carbon offset projects. The ‘efficiency’ of large-scale monoculture plantation forestry in sequestering carbon relies upon the removal of people, who are frequently seen as a threat to these projects. Various livelihood activities – growing and collecting food, grazing animals, collecting firewood and more – are often seen as incompatible with carbon sequestration. In my research with one of the largest plantation forestry operators on the African continent – Norwegian owned Green Resources – diverse forms of violence were deployed in defence of its plantation borders. This, and alongside the myriad of other ways it has driven devastating impacts for local communities, eventually resulted in its sole carbon credit buyer – the Swedish Energy Agency – terminating its contract in 2020.  

The false promise of carbon offset

Not all carbon offset projects are the same, and nor do they all give rise to the same issues and impacts. Industrial scale plantation forestry is one of a number of highly problematic and unjust climate response initiatives. The concern is that such initiatives have captured the imagination of so many, including some of the worlds’ biggest polluters, donors, as well as the global finance sector. Given that plantation forestry and other carbon offset initiatives promise to pave the way for an on-going ‘business as usual’ model of economic expansion, there’s no surprise it has picked the interest of the big end of town. The carbon economy, it turns out, is also a highly lucrative burgeoning industry. 

President Biden’s Leaders’ Summit on Climate recently announced a $1 billion carbon credit initiative. The Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance (LEAF) Coalition will bring together public and private interests to establish carbon credits based upon avoided deforestation. This includes, amongst others, companies who hold dubious track records in relation to public health and labour relations, as well as poor environmental credentials, such as Amazon, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Nestle and Unilever. 

The finance sector is also excited about the profit potential of carbon offset, with HSBC Global Asset Management and the Pollination group recently establishing a $6 billion project targeting ‘natural capital’. Their website promoting this project explains ‘Nature is capital’. Quite simply, carbon has become one of a number of global commodities in which huge profits are now being extracted. Mark Carney – Boris Johnson’s financial advisor to COP 26 and card carrying member of the global financial elite – has recently been appointed to lead a new Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets that is intended to ensure the profit potential of expanding carbon markets is realised. 

Large-scale corporate and finance sector-led carbon offset initiatives provide a pathway for continuing economic security for the already rich, and create the conditions for extractivist and ecologically un-viable economies to endure. Given this, it’s no surprise the ‘The Carbon Club’ includes those who champion carbon offset in response to a changing climate. Quite simply, carbon offsetting is able to support a ‘business as usual’ model that relies upon resource extractivism and high levels of pollution. This model provides economic security to a cabal of elite interests, who are now lining up to profit from the climate crisis. That various corporate-captured governments – including the Federal LNP Government in Australia – have shown support for carbon offset, alongside carbon markets and financing, only further signals whose interests such initiatives serve. 

The case of large-scale plantation forestry for carbon offset also demonstrates how carbon offset initiatives come to depend upon the demarcation of borders that must then be defended. This drives the forced and often violent removal of people. These are often Indigenous and First Nations’ communities whose life and livelihoods are grounded in, and defined by, connections to these territories. Securing territory for carbon offset, then, must be seen as directly tied to insecurity for locally affected communities, including those least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. In the case of Norwegian-owned Green Resources, local communities faced water and food insecurity, alongside rising rates of poverty, disconnection from cultural sites and more, all directly tied to the arrival of a carbon offset project on their territories. 

Carbon offset, then, must also be seen as providing security to the big polluters, and the political interests that serve them. In doing so, it offers no ‘magic bullet’ in response to climate chaos. Nor does it present a pathway for climate justice, which requires upholding internationally recognised Indigenous rights’, alongside the rights of future generations, and Earth Rights. Rather, it is in those movements – including legal, political and related campaigns – that are being led by Indigenous communities, as well as young people, where the hope lies. It is here that a just climate future – ground in human / nature relations that are ground in responsibility for, and understanding of, our interconnections – lies.