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CLIMATE CHANGE: Carbon Trading Welcomed, Criticised

NIASSA PROVINCE, Mozambique, Nov 5 2009 (IPS) - A visit from Dutch contractors to Niassa Province, in northwestern Mozambique has got communities excited about the prospect of a carbon credit scheme in the area.

Gathered under a large mango tree in a lakeside village, a community is deep in discussion. We have many problems here, says an elder. We have no health centre, says another. There is a lack of employment.

Everyone has their say: Water is a problem. The wood and fish supplies are shrinking. Transport is very difficult. Animals, insects and disease destroying our crops… the list goes on.

The village is one of many spread across the undeveloped shoreline of Lake Niassa. Each community speaks of the same problems; some more, some less, each wanting development, each wanting change.

So when representatives of Silvestrum, a Dutch company working on sustainable management and carbon assets in the agriculture, forestry and land-use sector (AFOLU), came to Niassa Province in September to study the viability of a carbon credit scheme in the area, villagers’ ears pricked up.

Silver Bullet or Fools' Gold?

In June this year Friends of the Earth UK put out a damning report against offsetting in the developing world titled "A Dangerous Distraction; Why Offsetting is Failing the Climate and People: The Evidence".

The report claims that offsetting does not lead to the promised additional emissions cuts in developing countries and it delays essential structural change in developed country economies.

According to the report, big businesses are not actually encouraged to switch to cleaner technologies; they are merely allowed to find loop-holes in which they discover new ways to count as carbon credits.

The report states that offsetting is fundamentally unequal; that rich countries are allowed to carry on polluting whilst developing countries are required to unfairly reduce their emissions.

Eveline Trines, is a director of Silvestrum, a contracting company for sustainable management and carbon assets in the agriculture, forestry and land-use sector (AFOLU) in the Netherlands. Asked if she thought the criticisms of carbon trading were valid, she said yes, in the sense that these programmes are simply offsetting emissions of business.

But, she went on, these companies "have to continue to buy offsets to continue with their traditional business. That is more complex and more expensive than cleaning up their own act in due course.

"What it is doing is it is buying them time to switch over to cleaner technologies and at their own pace whilst contributing to sustainable development in developing countries (that is a prerequisite for each project). The fact that developing countries actually like these kinds of project should count for something as well," she said.

After visiting Niassa Province, Trines believed an offsetting project in the area could work if developed sustainably; meaning that communities would need to have viable alternatives to replace their current sources of income.

"The project case would need to guarantee that the same quantities of goods and services remain available to the land owners. Otherwise, the whole project is not sustainable," she said.

Silvestrum has been involved as an advisor on forest management and carbon certification in a variety of projects in Asia, Latin America and Africa, including biofuel projects in Malawi and Tanzania and developing community-based systems for measuring and monitoring forests for carbon trading in Papua New Guinea.

Details of the project proposed for Niassa are not yet defined, but Silvestrum director Eveline Trines told IPS it would likely include a combination of improved agriculture, forest management and firewood plantations.

A successful scheme could bring additional income into one of the poorest areas of Mozambique, prompt development, and help protect the local environment from current deforestation and burning, and future mining developments planned in the area.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) regulates and supports the Clean Development Mechanism, which allows polluters in developed countries to invest in projects that reduce emissions in developing countries rather than reducing emissions in their own countries.

The UNFCCC claims that 4,200 CDM projects have been approved to date; over 300 million carbon credits – each equivalent to a tonne of CO2 – are issued annually. The UNFCCC expects that by 2012, 8,000 CDM projects could be running, generating more than $30 billion for developing countries.

There is a separate voluntary market for carbon offsetting, in which individuals and companies invest in projects to offset their emissions.

According to the environmental group Friends of the Earth UK (FoE UK), by 2007 the voluntary offsetting market accounted for 65 million tonnes of CO2 and CDM accounted for 791 million tonnes.

But offset schemes have been criticised by NGOs, environmentalists and individuals, who see it as distracting from a larger picture of over-consumption, pollution and climate change. FoE UK published a sharply critical report on carbon offsetting in June, titled “A Dangerous Distraction; Why Offsetting is Failing the Climate and People: The Evidence” arguing that offsetting does not guarantee emission reductions and may do more harm than good.

However, the Umoji Association, a representative voice for conservation, resources and development issues for 300,000 hectares of the northwest Niassa Province, is enthusiastic about the benefits an offsetting scheme could bring, and are waiting willingly for the next step.

“We are very poor in these communities,” said Dinis Joal Manda, a member of the Umoji Association in Cobue. “We have nothing. The community want (development), they want hospitals, clinics, schools, roads and these things…”

With burning and deforestation taking place at an alarming rate in the area, Manda recognised the need for conservation. “There is also no guard in the area, so everyone is burning and chopping down trees, we want to stop that,” he said.

Although he wasn’t sure as to how carbon offsetting works or exactly how much money the scheme could bring, Manda was eager to start.

“Umoji has nothing now, we need someone to help us, so we think the money we will receive for the carbon project will help us in making these (conservation) projects,” he said.

From the perspective of reducing carbon emissions overall, Friends of the Earth is sceptical, believing carbon trading does not actually encourage polluters to switch to cleaner technologies, thus delaying the overall reductions in emissions needed to avert catastrophic climate change. In the worst cases, offsetting projects may even do considerable harm to local economies.

The report gives the example of a CDM project in India where a hydro plant on the Bhilangana river is threatening to destroy a low-carbon system of agriculture when it displaces local farmers run a successful terraced irrigation system to produce rise, wheat, mustard, fruit and vegetables.

“We don’t agree with offsetting outside Northern nations at this point because there are many well-documented instances of offset programs negatively impacting on people and communities in the South,” said Cam Walker, the campaigns coordinator for FoE Australia.

“We believe emissions reductions should be made at domestic level only,” said Walker. “However, we do trust community organisations, and if they believe they can work a good deal for themselves and their community on a specific carbon credit programme, then we would support their choice in getting involved in that.”

The FoE UK report says that developing nations will need at least $200 billion a year for mitigation, and $67 billion a year for adaptation by 2020. Developing countries simply do not have the capacity to address poverty and human development while simultaneously adapting to and mitigating climate change, it said.

Silvestrum director Trines says that carbon trading allows polluters in developed countries to adopt cleaner technologies at their own pace while contributing to sustainable development in developing countries.

Is carbon trading the appropriate mechanism to fund all or part of this need? The answers to that question are part of what is at stake both at the level of global climate change negotiations to be held in Copenhagen in December, and in working out the fine details of thousands of projects in places like Niassa.

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