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OPINION: Carbon markets headed for insanity at Madrid climate talks

Monday, 9 December 2019 06:30 GMT

A view of Alto Maipo hydroelectric project, close to the town of El Alfalfal, is seen in a pre-mountain range area on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile August 9, 2017. Picture taken August 9, 2017. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Are lessons from the past set to be repeated under new rules due to be decided for Paris Agreement?

Sara Lickel is an advocacy officer on the right to food and climate with Caritas - France (Secours Catholique), and Erika Lennon is a senior attorney for the climate and energy programme with the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL).

The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. In Madrid, governments meeting for the U.N. climate negotiations are negotiating new rules for carbon markets.

Yet they seem remarkably unwilling to learn from past mistakes - of which there are plenty. In so doing, they risk creating a new set of rules that include the same fatal flaws as the ones they are designed to replace.

In many ways, 2019 was a year of extremes. The youth took to the streets in unprecedented numbers, striking and marching to demand climate action. This injection of energy into an environmental movement led by frontline communities and indigenous peoples for centuries shows escalating concern and outrage, and it is being channelled with renewed vigour to hold decision-makers and other actors accountable for their role in the climate crisis.

Yet this passion was fuelled by another year of climate disasters, including deadly hurricanes in the Pacific, heat waves and record temperatures in Europe, cyclone and floods in Mozambique, and wildfires in the United States, Australia, and Brazil. The human impacts are real and immense as people see their houses, lands, and belongings devastated by climate change. And this is only the beginning. 

As country representatives meet in Madrid, one of their primary tasks is to decide rules to govern future carbon markets, an issue that easily becomes overwhelmingly technical. But the world should not be blinded by the technicalities. These discussions are crucial, highly political, and will have impacts far beyond the conference halls. If done poorly, the rules will have disastrous impacts on human rights. 

Firstly, weak rules for carbon markets will undermine efforts to limit global temperature rise below 1.5°C. Last year, the world’s leading climate scientists delivered a report detailing that global warming over 1.5°C would have severe human rights impacts: millions of people would suffer food insecurity because of their land becoming unsuitable for cultivation; up to 200 million people might be forced to migrate by 2050. Making every possible effort to stay below 1.5°C is therefore a legal obligation of states under a variety of international treaties.

Weak carbon market rules would allow states to cheat on their emissions reporting, but you can’t cheat the atmosphere. Emissions are growing, and allowing states to double count their emissions “credits” or transfer old junk credits into the new system does not reduce overall emissions. Failing to answer this demand of science and from millions of people in the streets is extremely dangerous.

The new rules must also learn from the real procedural mistakes of the past that have led to serious human rights violations and further climate destruction. The old system, created under the Kyoto Protocol, resulted in projects that harmed local communities and indigenous peoples.

 In Chile, the Alto Maipo Hydroelectric Project threatens the water supply of over 7 million inhabitants. Despite ongoing citizen opposition and severe environmental impacts for communities across the Maipo Valley and the inhabitants of Santiago, the project is a verified Clean Development Mechanism project for which Chile will be able to receive carbon credits.

In Panama, the Barro Blanco dam violated the rights of communities and faced strong opposition from indigenous communities, leading to violent repression which led to the killing of three people. Climate action that harms communities and destroys the environment is simply unacceptable. 

Any carbon markets agreed upon in Madrid must have strong rules that learn from, and aim to avoid past mistakes. Anything short of that risks undermining the Paris Climate Agreement.

Agreeing to bad rules in Madrid would be worse than delaying rules, as the former would lock us into a new carbon market system that will knowingly repeat the problems of the past. Thus, success in Madrid is not measured by merely reaching an agreement, but by reaching an agreement that ensures human rights and environmental integrity are at the centre of climate action. 

Several organisations contributed to this article: Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente (AIDA), Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), Carbon Market Watch, CARE International, Caritas Internationalis and Secours Catholique (Caritas France), Coordinadora Ciudadana No Alto Maipo, and Ecosistemas.