Carbon markets will not save our planet

People wait in line to attend the Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, June 6, 2023. REUTERS/Jana Rodenbusch

People wait in line to attend the Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, June 6, 2023. REUTERS/Jana Rodenbusch

As countries meet at Bonn climate talks, they must reject false solutions like carbon offsets

Hemantha Withanage is chair of Friends of the Earth International

Over recent months and years, several investigations have cast a long shadow over carbon offsets and carbon markets. The truth is, they simply don’t work. And why would they?

Why would we ever trust the oil and gas industry that caused the climate crisis – and continued to fuel it knowingly for decades – to come up with the solution?

The industry’s business model is based on profit, first and foremost, at the expense of the planet’s resources and people like you and me. It should come as no surprise that the kind of ‘solutions’ that fossil fuel corporations and rich countries put forward are designed to protect that model, and to avoid changing the status quo.

This week, negotiators from around the world continue meetings at United Nations climate talks in Bonn, Germany, where the question of offsets and carbon removals will once again be on the table under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.

From my view in Sri Lanka, where increasingly extreme weather and wealth inequality are already wreaking havoc, I’m worried about carbon markets.

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Rules for carbon markets that include removals of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – using technology or nature – could progress at these talks. They may then go on to be rubber stamped at COP28 in Dubai later this year, and could further hollow out climate action targets with loopholes that will let big polluters just keep on polluting.

So-called ‘solutions’ like geoengineering involve large-scale, deliberate manipulations of the Earth’s climate systems using man-made technologies. This means fantastical ideas like sucking carbon out of the air, spraying sulphur into the stratosphere to reflect the sun’s rays, or pumping iron into oceans to encourage carbon-absorbing plankton. These projects are risky, unproven, costly, and dangerous.

‘Nature-based solutions’ may sound good too. We all love the idea of nature flourishing to solve the climate crisis. But the drive for profits means that the reality is different – and damaging. Nature-based removals are leading to a big fight over land and seas, which we already need for producing food and restoring biodiversity.

When corporations say that we can stay below the critical threshold for global warming by planting trees on vast areas of land, I have to wonder whose land they will want to grab. Lands and communities in the Global South will be the first target. In Kenya, for example, Indigenous practices and land are being erased by soil carbon offsetting projects, according to the NGO Survival.

If they are not stopped, any ground gained by these false solutions in global climate policy will have disastrous impacts on communities, ecosystems, and our ability to keep temperature rise to the critical 1.5-degree threshold.

These dangerous distractions are the opposite of what is needed to achieve climate justice and prevent runaway climate change. We need to change the system.

Tackling the climate crisis requires an urgent and equitable shift away from fossil fuels, industrial agribusiness and large-scale deforestation.

We need to move towards a people-powered energy system, sustainable food systems, secure rights for Indigenous peoples and local communities over their territories, and support for community forest management practices.

Justice demands that those rich countries which have contributed most to the current crisis, and have the most capacity to address it, take responsibility in reducing their emissions.

These same countries must provide the finance for developing nations to transition to publicly-owned renewable sources rather than fossil fuels. There is a burgeoning movement of communities pursuing clean energy projects in places like Bangladesh and the Philippines, which would flourish if rich countries paid their fair share.

To decision-makers in Bonn, and those in charge of green-lighting carbon market schemes around the world, I reiterate this warning: carbon markets and corporate-controlled schemes won’t save the day.

The growing community energy movement provides an opportunity for transformation. In Bonn and at COP28, people will keep up the fight for climate justice.

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


  • Carbon capture and storage
  • Adaptation
  • Fossil fuels
  • Net-zero
  • Climate policy
  • Carbon offsetting

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