Reflections on Carbon Offsets

diana_5x7.lg_vert_0When we first started working on carbon offsets some years ago the arguments for and against offsets – forest and otherwise- were highly polarized for and against offsetting as a solution to reducing greenhouse gases and promoting sustainable development. With my students and colleagues [1] I drew on the tools of political ecology to explore carbon offsets theoretically and empirically – examining the political economy, materiality, discourses and governmentalities of offsetting and assessing and comparing the carbon and sustainable development impacts of carbon offset projects in various communities, especially in Latin America.

Carbon offsets proved to be a fascinating topic for academic study because of the difficulties in measuring carbon reductions, the differences between offset technologies (such as forest, woodstoves, renewable energy, or methane capture), and the complex commodity chains that linked local communities to project developers and certifiers to global carbon markets. Offsets demonstrate new cases of public-private partnerships, regulated and voluntary markets, and geographies that link those who produce the offsets in the developing world to countries, corporations and individual consumers in the developed world.

Among the insights gained from our case studies of offsets that included both CDM and voluntary projects in Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru are that:

1) Many local people do not understand that they are participating in carbon markets or REDD+ initiatives but see the projects as development projects for energy or payments for the use of land and labor.

2) Communities do perceive significant benefits from offset projects that include payments, employment, conservation, skills, and creation of social capital but also report that the benefits are unequally distributed. Depending on the technology, project design and governance those who own land, who have technical skills, or who have connections to local elites benefit more than others who do not.

3) There are considerable problems associated with defining project baselines and additionality and with the technical, financial and social challenges of monitoring and certifying projects, especially those that are small scale and where certification involves both the carbon and sustainable development benefits.

4) There is very little information on the gender dimensions of carbon offsets and some indication that men may benefit more than women

5) Communities wish to participate more in decisions about whether to accept carbon offset projects and sometimes resent or suspect the private sector, NGOs, and government officials who are promoting or opposing the projects.

6) The consumption of carbon offset credits is very sensitive to the state of climate negotiations, the price of carbon, the media and NGO critique of offsetting, and the way in which offset retailers portray the reasons for offsetting to consumers. The development of voluntary carbon certification and standards has responded to some of these concerns but there is still considerable distrust by both consumers and communities.

What does this mean in terms of REDD+ safeguards? Perhaps that local communities should be seen as complex social networks that cannot be represented by a single (male) voice from the community, let alone by an outside nongovernmental or governmental organization. Care also needs to be taken in creating monitoring and certification systems to ensure that they do not become burdensome, invasive, or meaningless metrics that have little relation to basic greenhouse gas reductions, biodiversity protections or sustainable development. Finally I am increasingly concerned at the lack of rigorous and locally informed evaluations of offset and forest projects – many assessments lack careful experimental design, input from local residents, and empirical evidence of social or ecological success or failure.

[1] E.g. Harriet Bulkeley, Emily Boyd, Adam Bumpus, John Cole, Chris Ellerman, Miriam Gay Antaki, Deborah Ley, Heather Lovell, Joel Scriven

Diana Liverman is Regents Professor of Geography and Development and Co-Director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona.


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