Civic leaders are gathered in Madrid for the international climate talks known as COP25. And they’re entering the crucial final five days of negotiations.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for COP25. The United Nation’s (UN) own recent reports show that the only way we can avert climate disaster will be rapidly cutting greenhouse gas emissions and phasing out the use of fossil fuels. But the fossil fuel industry say they’ve got another solution to the climate crisis: carbon markets that allow companies to offset pollution by buying credits. Big Oil has had outsize influence on UN climate talks, particularly as an industry that caused the crisis we’re in.
And their idea—which is enshrined in the Paris Agreement—to let markets work their magic has a huge catch. The carbon markets already in existence have so far failed to deliver meaningful cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, they’ve also screwed people. Now the next five days have set up a tense struggle between major emitters and the people forced to contend with pollution and displacement.
The largest problem with the markets discussion in international climate talks centers around human rights protections. Or more accurately, lack thereof.
The portion of the Paris Accord that outlines the role of carbon markets is Article 6. It’s widely regarded as the most controversial part of the whole agreement—nations didn’t even agree to include it until the final morning of 2015’s negotiations. And at last years climate talks, it was the only major segment that negotiators didn’t finalize. That’s why it’s at the top of this year’s agenda.
Traditionally, carbon markets allow nations and corporations that have big carbon footprints to purchase credits from those that with smaller ones or to offset them by investing in decarbonizing projects like sustainable energy or reforestation, instead of by polluting less. So perhaps it’s not surprising that oil companies are pushing for them. But their role in getting them on the agenda is still striking. Last year, the Intercept revealed that an executive from Shell said his company helped write Article 6. Oil companies and their trade associations have since gone all in pushing carbon markets, and they’ve been all over COP25.
“The moment you really get off the metro stop by the conference, you start seeing advertisements from some of the corporate sponsors of the COP, which include some of Spain’s biggest polluters,” Sriram Madhusoodnan, Deputy Campaigns Manager for Corporate Accountability, told Earther in an interview from Madrid. “And within the COP itself, as you walk through, you see these massive pavilions from polluters and their trade associations... who are pushing their false solutions through the talks.”
The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), which represents oil and gas majors such as Shell Oil, BP, and Chevron, is rolling deep at the UN climate talks. They have 140 representatives at the conference, which is bigger than the EU’s entire delegation. And they’re holding an average of seven events every day at the conference. This year, they’re pushing a new initiative called “Markets for Nature Based Solutions” to trade carbon credits based on sustainable agriculture and forestation.
More nature sounds nice, but the impacts on communities where local projects get underway can cause widespread displacement. A World Bank and UN carbon offsetting program, for instance, was complicit in land grabs in Kenya where the government forced thousands of Sengwar indigenous people from their ancestral homes. The same program also forced locals away from their villages to make space for reforestation projects in Acre, Brazil. Both groups, it should be noted, had tiny carbon footprints.
And it’s not just forest offsets programs that have created these horrors: In one case under the Kyoto Protocol, the creation of a hydro electric dam in Panama resulted in homes and agricultural lands being destroyed, and the ensuing protests and police brutality left three indigenous people dead.
Offset programs also do nothing to undo environmental racism at the source of pollution. A 2018 study, for instance, showed that since California’s cap-and-trade system began in 2013, over half of the facilities involved emitted more greenhouse gases. Those polluting facilities, such as fossil fuel producers and power plants, were disproportionately located in low-income areas and communities of color. That exposed the people living there to more air pollution and risk of health problems that comes with it.
“What does it mean for me if someone’s polluting really bad in my neighborhood, but then they can just go off and plant some trees in another country?” Cynthia Mellon, a representative of the Climate Justice Alliance, told Earther on the phone from Madrid.
In finalizing Article 6, advocates have pushed nations to include human rights protections. But the latest drafts show they haven’t done so yet.
“That there is no explicit language on human rights and indigenous rights, just placeholders in brackets for ‘elements of Paris Agreement preamble,’” Madhusoodnan said. “That’s really concerning, because we know that over the second week, we’re going to see these negotiations really move into much more closed door sessions, where it’s going to be really hard to follow what’s happening.”
Despite IETA’s optimistic language about carbon markets, in practice, these schemes have been rife with problems. When the European Union established a carbon market in 2005, it doled out so many free credits to polluters that it drove down the price of carbon and failed to make a dent in emissions. The global carbon market developed under the Kyoto Protocol—the precursor to the Paris Agreement—was no better. The so-called Clean Development Mechanism ended up funneling billions of dollars into projects that failed to reduce emissions 85 percent of the time.
With study after study showing the urgency of the climate crisis, wasting time on unproven solutions is a dangerous proposition. Climate organizers have suggested world leaders should be paying more attention regulating fossil fuels until they’re phased out. But real climate action—phasing out of using fossil fuels altogether—would hurt the oil industry’s bottom line, and IETA’s members, including some of the world’s largest polluters, are dues-paying members.
“That’s who they’re there to represent,” Madhusoodnan said. “And the less regulation, the less accountability that they have, the more free rein... they have to deploy these market based mechanisms.”
That means the big question for COP25 is whether the UN and Paris Agreement signatories are willing to take on the fossil fuel industry. If they don’t it looks like we’re headed for up to 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming above preindustrial levels, which the UN itself says would be “destructive.”
That same report warns that emissions have to come down roughly 7 percent a year for the next decade to avert catastrophic climate change. The history of carbon markets shows they’re unlikely to steer us down that road but could end up being a huge financial boon for the oil industry looking to keep fossil fuels (and profits) flowing.
“I think when the corporations and trade associations who are all over the space of that look at [carbon markets], they really see dollar signs in their eyes,” said Madhusoondan. “A big part of what’s at stake for the rules for implementing the Paris Agreement... is are they really going center giveaways to huge corporations, the ones that have most knowingly fueled this crisis? Or are they going to center real solutions?”