Rich countries push false climate solutions in Africa

Najman Mohammed, 6, Kenya
Has he paid enough yet?
Photo: Piers Benatar/Panos Pictures

This year we saw the worst drought in some parts of the Horn of Africa in 60 years. It is a shocking reminder of the catastrophic impacts that climate change can and will have on poor communities and countries.

The weather is becoming more erratic and unpredictable than ever before. Climate change is threatening food security around the world.  Poor communities which did not cause the climate crisis are being hit the hardest, and have little power or capacity to adapt to these changes.

The emissions responsible for climate change continue to rise. In 2010, energy-related carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions were the highest in history and governments around the world are still ‘negotiating’ to reach a deal that can slow the momentum toward climate catastrophe.  The rich countries that are historically responsible for causing climate change have shown very little political will to reduce their own emissions, and even less willingness to meet their obligations (under UN agreements) to provide finance and technology to developing countries to adapt to the difficult circumstances under which they now must struggle to develop.  Instead, they seek ways to push not only the adaptation burden back onto poor communities in developing countries but also, through “offsets,” their obligations to mitigate their own emissions.

Rich countries are dodging their responsibilities and promoting false solutions to poor countries. 

Rich countries, along with the World Bank, are promoting soil carbon sequestration as one of the key ways to offset their emissions. Soil carbon sequestration is the process of transferring carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the soil through crop residues and other organic materials. Markets are being established to trade credits earned through soil-based sequestration of carbon. But instead of transforming the industrial-style agriculture practiced in rich countries to a more responsible model, they are trying to create incentives for farmers in poor countries to do the work for them.

The World Bank is working hard to sell soil carbon sequestration in the garb of “Climate Smart Agriculture,” which is being presented as a “triple win”: a solution to the global warming crisis, a way for African farmers to adapt to climate change, and a means to increase resources for African farmers. But far from a triple win, soil carbon markets could actually become a triple injustice for poor smallholders, particularly women, in Africa:

  • Apart from adapting to climate change, smallholder farmers would now have to also bear the mitigation burden of the climate crisis caused by rich countries who are simply avoiding urgent decisions to reduce carbon emissions in their own countries.
  • Insecurity of land tenure of poor farmers will be exacerbated, as people with more money and power will try to control opportunities and acquire more land for making money through the new markets.
  • Smallholders may have to depend on an unpredictable and volatile source of funding through carbon markets, instead of receiving sustainable, adequate and compensatory public finance from rich countries for the costs of adapting to climate change. The money that comes through these markets – which may be very small amounts – is being made to serve two purposes: compensation for taking on rich countries’ mitigation burden, and a pool of funds to support adaptation, despite the UN commitment to provide those separately and with no conditionality. 

In the recent round of talks in Panama, 1-7 October, I witnessed how a group of rich countries led by the USA, was pushing their agenda into agriculture negotiations and ignoring poor countries’ concerns on food security and the protection of the livelihoods of millions. Rich countries, through the World Bank, are also pressuring African governments to accept soil carbon market mechanisms as part of Durban agreement.

We are concerned that without critical examination of the potential impacts of soil carbon markets on the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of smallholders, we could be stumbling blindly into “false solutions” that will raise false hopes among both African farmers and governments.  Promoting soil carbon markets therefore is a major distraction from providing the public finance needed to help poor countries tackle climate change.

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