The CDM and Africa: Marketing a New Land Grab

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Excerpts from a briefing by the African Biodiversity Network, Biofuelwatch, Carbon Trade Watch, the Gaia Foundation and the Timberwatch Coalition.


The United Nation’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is one of the processes by which developed countries attempt to mitigate the climate change impact of their greenhouse gas emissions and meet targets for reducing emissions under the Kyoto Protocol (KP). Through the CDM, developed countries claim to “offset” their emissions, by paying to support developing country projects that are supposed to either reduce GHG emissions, or absorb carbon dioxide (CO2).

The majority of projects aiming for CDM funding so far have been in Asia and Latin America, and have largely focused on supporting industries in those countries to reduce GHG emissions. Africa, being less industrialised, should in theory be on the receiving end of CDM project funding from developed country investments, but in fact has relatively few CDM projects in place. The projects that do exist in Africa, or are currently planned, present serious challenges and negative impacts, and whether they have provided any climate or community benefits is questionable.

However there is increasing pressure for Africa to initiate more CDM projects. This is based on a widespread assumption that Africa’s large unpopulated territories make it ideal for CDM projects that use extensive areas of land. Increasingly, Africa is coming under pressure to use its territory for CDM tree plantation projects and biofuels. Within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations, there are proposals to further broaden the range of projects that are eligible for CDM, to include GM crops and addition of biochar to soils as greenhouse gas emission offset projects.

Africa is already experiencing social and environmental upheaval from land grabs motivated by a large-scale rush for biofuel crop production, even as the science shows that the CO2 reductions from biofuels are highly questionable, and the social and environmental consequences, negative. The African continent has also seen disastrous impacts from large-scale plantations of exotic tree species that particularly affect local water resources. Africa should recognize therefore, that there could be serious negative impacts if CDM projects involving large areas of land become more common, as will occur if current proposals are adopted. For example, the effects of GM crops could be highly damaging to African farmers and the continent’s food security. The new hype about Biochar, being promoted as a means of “geoengineering” the climate by burying charcoal, could lead to a colossal increase in land grabs.

Overall, new pressures for Africa to engage further with the CDM, and particularly for landuse projects, could be highly damaging to the continent’s land rights, forests, communities, water and food security. Developed countries’ efforts to mitigate climate change through the CDM would in fact threaten the resources of land, seeds and water that Africa needs in order to ensure its climate change resilience.

African governments should take careful note of the problems inherent in the CDM and carbon offset system, learn from the problems experienced with CDM projects in Africa so far, and prevent new methodologies which exacerbate land grabbing from gaining UNFCCC approval.

Carbon Offsets

Carbon trading allows industrialised countries and companies to avoid their emissions reduction targets. It takes two main forms: “cap and trade” and “carbon offsetting.”

Carbon offsets give companies, international financial institutions, governments, NGOs and individuals, the option to spend money on “emissions-saving projects,” instead of reducing their own emissions at source. Offset credits are generated from projects outside the polluting area to generate carbon credits which can also be traded within the carbon market. The UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is the largest such scheme with 2,400 registered projects in developing countries in October 2010, and almost 3,000 further projects awaiting approval. CDM projects can generate “certified emissions reductions” (CERs).

Although offsets are often presented as emissions reductions, these projects essentially move the responsibility for reducing emissions from one location to another, normally from countries in the North to countries in the South. Often the realities of these projects are less than encouraging and cause more rather than less emissions as well as social and environmental conflicts.

In addition to the inter-government schemes – most famously the CDM- there are voluntary programmes as well, undertaken largely for purchase by individual consumers in the North at the expense of communities and resources in the South. Unfortunately both systems are deeply flawed:

1. Shifting the responsibility. Offsetting does not reduce emissions at source so companies and governments in the North that have the historical responsibility to clean up the atmosphere buy credits from projects in the South. These projects often worsen existing conflicts for those living near them.

2. Technology transfer myth. Offset projects are largely restricted to big industries which already exist and do not use new technologies. Nearly two-thirds of registered CDM projects provide funding for destruction of heavy industrial gases, and construction of hydro-electric dams.

3. Silencing local peoples. Local communities engaged in historical struggles or that have been marginalised are often affected first and most. Communities with little power and voice are the most likely to be affected by land grabs, large polluting factories and extractive industries.

4. Offsets increase emissions. The net result for the climate is that offsetting tends to increase rather than reduce greenhouse gas emissions, displacing the necessity to act in one location by a theoretical claim to act differently in another. Moreover, it keeps delaying any real domestic action where a historical responsibility exists and allows the expansion of fossil fuel extraction.

5. Selling stories. Offsetting rests on “additionality” claims about what “would otherwise have happened,” offering polluting companies and financial consultancies the opportunity to turn stories of an unknowable future into bankable carbon credits.

6. Making things the same. The value of CDM projects is premised on constructing a whole series of dubious “equivalences” between very different economic and industrial practices, with the uncertainties of comparison overlooked to ensure that a single abstract commodity can be constructed and exchanged. This does not alter the fact that burning more coal and oil is in no way eliminated by building more hydro-electric dams, planting monoculture tree plantations or capturing the methane in coal mines.

7. Offsets burst the cap. While cap and trade in theory limits the availability of pollution permits, “offset” projects are a license to print new ones. When the two systems are brought together, they tend to undermine each other – since one applies a cap and the other lifts it. An offset is essentially a permit to pollute beyond the cap. Most current and proposed “cap and trade” schemes allow offset credits to be traded within them – including the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) and the US cap and trade scheme (proposed in the 2009 American Clean Energy and Security Act, ACES).

Offsetting with Dirty Development in Africa

The CDM has raised the expectations of developing nations, creating the hope that it will bring wealth and development. But the reality is proving very different. The use of “development” rhetoric masks the fundamental injustice of offsetting, which hands a new revenue stream to some of the most highly polluting industries in the South, while simultaneously offering companies and governments in the North a means to delay changing their own industrial practices and energy usage. In practice, carbon offset projects often result in land grabs, local environmental and social conflicts, as well as the repression of local communities and movements.

Although to date the CDM has not been implemented actively in Africa, compared to Latin America or Asia, it is likely that offset projects, both CDM and voluntary, will be implemented more aggressively in the future. Until now, only two percent of CDM projects have been located in Africa. The majority of these projects are located in South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Morocco, Uganda and Nigeria. Looking ahead, however, 95 new African projects are seeking approval to join the CDM (compared to the 43 already registered).

Technology transfer is an argument often used to promote CDM in Africa but if the existing projects generating credits shed any light on the type of technology it becomes clear that CDM is not for the benefit of the people. Only 6 million of the 424 million CERs
(CDM credits) issued by August 2010 have gone to African projects, and 80 per cent of these have gone to a single industrial gas plant in Egypt.

To date, only a handful of large industrial gas projects such as the Egyptian plant, which convert the potent greenhouse gases HFC-23 and N2O, account for almost three quarters of all credits issued globally. Few such gases are produced in Africa, but large-scale subsidies can be derived from the CDM in other ways. Most notably, a series of new ‘gas utilisation’ projects are under way in the Niger Delta. The first of these, at Kwale, a site run by the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (a joint venture between the Italian state oil company Eni and its Nigerian counterpart), expects to receive about 15 million credits by end 2016. The Pan Ocean Gas Utilisation Project, the second such scheme to be registered, is the largest registered CDM project in Africa, and expects to receive more than
26 million CERs by 2020. Shell and Chevron are developing similar projects.


Biofuel plantations – fuelling the African land grab

Since October 2009, large-scale biofuel plantations have been eligible as CDM projects. Accreditation came as a surprise to many, in the context of widespread concern about the disastrous social, environmental and climate impact of biofuels. The unregulated rush by foreign investors to convert Africa’s land to biofuel production saw farmers, indigenous peoples, ecosystems and food crops displaced and forests cut down, culminating in the 2008 global food crisis. In addition to the widely-recognised social and environmental costs, scientific data5 conclusively shows that the increased carbon emissions from land conversion and fuel processing mean that biofuel production releases more CO2 than burning conventional fossil fuels.

The rush for biofuels in Africa has been largely driven by the widely-held belief in the developed world, that Africa’s vast territories are largely unused and awaiting development. Talk of developing Africa’s so-called “marginal” lands fails to recognise that there is already intense pressure on land in Africa, and that very few areas could justifiably be termed “marginal”. Such land is in fact already in use by small-scale farmers, pastoralists, hunter-gatherers and other indigenous communities, and they are critical forests and ecosystems important for the continent’s biodiversity and water cycles. In addition, policy has largely been developed based on the widespread assumption that biofuels can grow on Africa’s “marginal” dry lands, driven by the hype about the biodiesel crop Jatropha curcas.

As the 2009 report “Jatropha Reality Check” by the World Agroforestry Centre, the Kenya Forestry Research Institute and GTZ demonstrated, many claims about Jatropha are unfounded. The crop, while able to survive in dry conditions, is not able to produce the oilseed yields required for an efficient industry. Farmers across Africa have been persuaded grow these crops, often taking loans for the 3 years that they take to reach maturity, only to make losses when they realise that jatropha requires fertile and well-watered land in order to grow successfully.

In spite of this, the CDM is still forging ahead with jatropha biofuel projects in Africa. A project currently seeking approval in Ghana will replace existing grasslands with large-scale jatropha and moringa plantations. The project has been initiated by Natural African Diesel, a South African company, which expects to receive more than 40 million Certified Emissions Reductions (CERs) by 2030, and hopes it will continue to receive credits for its plantations at rates of two to three million a year until 2058. However, the biodiesel industry in Ghana has been widely criticised for engaging in land grabs which displace local populations, undermine food security, and fail to assess the threat that jatropha poses to water supplies. Large-scale projects such as the Ghana plantations are likely to dominate the issuance of credits.

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