The Global Resource Grab

I attended the Durban climate negotiations in November/December 2011 where the corporate 1 percent takeover of the process was as evident as it is in the halls of the U.S. Congress. The World Business Council on Sustainable Development, the International Chamber of Commerce, the coal, mining, and other fossil fuel industries were all present, ensuring that negotiations would lead to polices and technologies most profitable to them, conceal their abuses within a greenwashed veneer, and create new market opportunities from which to generate profits, irrespective of the outcome for life on earth.


As if to highlight the urgency of the climate crisis, on the heels of Durban meetings, climate scientists reported a “shocking” increase in methane emissions from the Arctic sea floor, as ice is in retreat and the waters are warming. Methane is far more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 and the thawing of methane hydrates and permafrost are among the most feared “feedbacks” scientists have long warned about. In short, we are not “approaching,” we are well beyond, tipping points. And yet, in Durban, countries could not agree on much other than to postpone even a discussion of any real and concerted action.


The decision about a second commitment period for Kyoto was made at the last minute, as an empty shell—with no targets or enforcement. Canada, Japan, and Russia have refused to participate and the U.S., of course, had all along refused. Meanwhile, there was discussion of a “new roadmap,” i.e. starting all over with a brand new process, which could effectively take years. This overall lack of progress is deeply disturbing, especially as it represents a failure of countries such as the U.S., Canada, et al. to accept responsibility for the problem they created.


Having faith in Kyoto to resolve the problem was perhaps a mistake from the beginning, however, and for at least some, the “I Heart Kyoto” T-shirts worn by many in Durban rubbed a raw nerve. The first Kyoto commitment period, after all, did virtually nothing to stem the flow of emissions. The targets agreed to were minimal and entirely insufficient to begin with (5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012). Even these were not met. Emissions have risen steeply to a recent record, exceeding even the most dire predictions. Countries such as Canada failed to fulfill their commitments and yet faced no repercussions. Meanwhile, the U.S.—with by far the greatest historical responsibility and the second leading source of emissions—which never agreed to sign on to Kyoto in any case, has done far too little to address emissions domestically, and is in the grips of a congressional leadership that considers climate change a “hoax.” The U.S., nonetheless, has been present at negotiations and has consistently blocked consensus within the UNFCCC while undermining negotiations, offering watered down “alternatives” (such as the Copenhagen Accord), and insisting that the U.S. will not act unless newly developing countries like China and India are held to task.


The Bali Plan of Action was designed with special provisions devoted to engage the U.S. because it is clear, given the magnitude of emissions, current and historic, without U.S. participation, climate change cannot be addressed. In other words, the U.S. makes such a huge mess, that if it does not clean up, efforts of other nations will be moot.


Carbon Markets/Offsets


One important difference between Durban and previous negotiation sessions is that carbon markets have clearly collapsed, including the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Kyoto’s carbon offset mechanism. The CDM has funneled money into a host of dirty projects, including waste incinerators, landfill gas projects, big hydro projects, and the perverse incentives involved in HFC destruction (make more in order to get paid to destroy more). Hardly “clean” development. Even worse, these credits have allowed polluters to claim “offset” impunity and to continue polluting while checking off “reduce emissions” from their lists. The markets have also provided a playground for speculators who have defrauded and scammed to an absurd degree. Currently, the price of carbon is so low as to make trade largely irrelevant.


The European Emission Trade Scheme remains the main functioning carbon market, accounting for around 90 percent of trade and much of that is closely linked to the Clean Development Mechanism. The teetering European and global economy suggests that trade in carbon may not be as bright as once imagined. Just prior to Durban a leaked World Bank memo stated: “The value of transactions in the primary CDM market declined sharply in 2009 and further in 2010…amid chronic uncertainties about future mitigation targets and market mechanisms after 2012.” Indeed, carbon markets have attempted to generate ever more profits from trading ethereal “atmospheric carbon,” while avoiding putting any “burden” on polluters in the form of mandates to reduce emissions. Without the push of mandates to drive the trade, the price of carbon has been in freefall. The markets fell even further after the announcement of the outcomes from Durban.


Nonetheless, carbon markets continue to be promoted as the only means of addressing the problem. Many new state and regional trade initiatives are being established, often enthusiastically supported by the World Bank and other finance institutions. In fact, the trend now is to “spread the joy” by incorporating all manner of new things into the markets, including agriculture and soils, biodiversity, “ecosystem services,” water resources, and even oceans (so called “blue carbon”). Turning these all into commodities to be bought, sold and speculated over in the market playgrounds of the 1 percent appears to be a broad goal and one that has generated intense opposition from climate justice activists. But there are other sources of finance besides the carbon markets, including public-private investments, mixed investments, subsidies and regulatory policies (i.e., mandates for biofuels, as an example), development bank loans, and various other forms of investment, which remain the most significant drivers.




With respect to bioenergy, the greatest driving force remains national level targets and mandates for renewable energy and their associated subsidies. However, there are many bioenergy-relevant threads within the UNFCCC (and other Rio conventions), given the links to forests, agriculture, water, and biodiversity, food, energy and human rights. Wherever carbon markets are in play, the potential exists for credits flowing to bioenergy projects. The CDM is already funding these, including many palm oil and sugar cane industry related projects (for example, burning cane residues to fuel ethanol production processes). The CDM is also funding a significant number of “waste to energy” (aka garbage incineration) and landfill gas burning projects. In fact, just down the road from the climate conference venue in Durban is the infamous Bisasar landfill, a massive toxic mess which profits from CDM credits for combustion of its gases.


Present in Durban was the Global Anti-Incineration Alliance (GAIA) wastepickers’ delegation, who have worked for years to promote the role of recycling as a key strategy for reducing emissions, rather than the incineration of waste. They point out the important role of wastepickers who live in extreme poverty and make their living doing the work of recycling in many countries. The voices of these people are marginalized to the extreme. Even in Durban, they were given a hard time by UN security officials when they attempted to stage a small protest outside of the negotiations.


The CDM has now agreed to accept proposed methodologies for carbon capture and sequestration (storage). Should those methodologies be approved, this would mean we may, in the future, see significantly more projects funded (as offsets) that employ CCS, especially bioenergy with CCS (BECCS). However, the requirements for monitoring and liability are quite significant and would likely result in very high costs. With the current poor state of carbon markets and uncertain future of CDM, there appears little chance that this will result in major support any time soon. Nonetheless, there continues to be much hype about the potential for BECCS in some circles. The claim is that bioenergy is “carbon neutral” and with CCS can become “carbon negative.” The IEA estimates that CCS applied to 20-40 percent of industrial and fuel transformation facilities could reduce emissions by 4 gigatons annually by 2050. But to bring costs down, most of the carbon captured would be used to “enhance oil recovery”—i.e. pumped into exhausted oil wells to push out the remaining bit of fossil oil. The IEA projects that bioenergy with CCS, in particular, will grow exponentially to account for about 42 percent of the total CO2 capture from CCS projects by 2050.  


The claim that burning biomass is “carbon neutral” originally derived from IPCC recommendations for emissions accounting where it was decided that bioenergy emissions should be counted under either the land use sector (at fields and forests when harvested) or the energy sector (at smokestacks and tailpipes)—but not both. This made some sense where countries are required to report emissions from all sectors. However, it does not work where—as is the case under the Kyoto Protocol and generally under legislation in many countries—emissions from the land use sector are simply not accounted for. This is the “critical accounting error” described by Searchinger et al., years ago, which remains to this day uncorrected. The incentives resulting from this false accounting are enormous and, if not addressed, will continue to result in deforestation and land use change emissions escalating, yet being ignored as subsidies for supposed emissions reductions flow to bioenergy.


Bioenergy also received a boost in the context of how countries must count and report on their emissions. The “land use land use change and forestry” sector (LULUCF) rules for a future commitment period are being hammered out. One major issue is what sort of baseline countries use to determine if their emissions have gone up or down. If that baseline is set, as some propose, on a “business as usual” projected trajectory, then countries can estimate and project large wood harvests, including for biomass, and measure increase or decrease from that projection. That approach would result in large amounts of CO2 emissions being ignored and countries would have little incentive to reduce cutting and harvesting of biomass, in fact quite the opposite. The alternative is to measure emissions relative to an historical baseline (e.g. relative to 1990 levels).


The largest bioenergy developments are in the EU and the U.S. The U.S. is not party to Kyoto accounting rules, in any case, (although some emissions accounting is done). Europe relies for the most part on imports of woodchip and pellets, hence emissions from biomass harvests would not be counted within Europe, but rather by the supplying country—often not “Annex 1” and therefore not required to report emissions in any case. As has been long advised, emissions from bioenergy are best (and most easily) accounted for at smokestacks, not under land use. Measuring stack emissions would not accurately reflect the full extent of emissions, leaving out those from harvest operations and transport, from soil disturbance and related damage to forest ecosystems, and from failing to take into account lost carbon sequestration or indirect land use change impacts. Yet, since biomass combustion releases more CO2 per unit of energy generated, it would not be favored by even such an incomplete accounting scheme (so this type of accounting would be reasonably effective in preventing bioenergy expansion).  


In Durban the aviation industry presented their vision for biofueling jetliners. The amount of land that will be required to grow enough crops to produce sufficient quantities to satisfy that demand will be astronomical, but the industry continues to toe the line about using “marginal lands” and ensuring “sustainability.” In conjunction with the UN negotiations, a simultaneous World Climate Summit was held, sponsored by Virgin Group’s Richard Branson and the Carbon War Room. The program featured such mind numbing offerings as “My Waste Is Your Resource” and “Valuing Natural Capital: Driving Business Success and Economic Prosperity.” Participants from industries were invited to “generate business, create new partnerships, and promote solutions.” Branson, longtime aviation biofuel advocate, argued that the aviation industry should convert to at least 50 percent biofuels. He made a case for this by arguing that the number of fuelling stations for airplanes is far fewer than for road transport, hence converting fuel handling infrastructure is less of an obstacle.


Incorporating Agriculture


Big agriculture and agroforestry continue to envision profiting not only from growing trees (carbon sequestration), but also, and again, for cutting them (biomass for bioenergy). The potential profits are massive—one must only look at the projections for bioenergy growth. Currently, near 80 percent of renewable energy generation (non hydro) is bioenergy, so assuming this proportion is constant and investment in renewables increases dramatically, we can assume very dramatic growth. Estimates are that woody biomass demand in Europe, for example, will increase 44 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to RISI industry analysts.


In Durban and elsewhere, there is now a strong push to incorporate agriculture and soils into the carbon markets and to direct agriculture policy and funding towards so-called “climate smart” agriculture (CSA). The World Bank and UN FAO, along with the UK, Brazil, and South Africa, are pushing this formula under the guise of reducing emissions from agriculture and providing supports to smallholder farmers. The CSA proposal is couched in terms of the need to link agriculture and forest policies—since agriculture is a major driver of deforestation—under a “landscape” approach. Hence, the push for CSA mirrors, to some extent, the discussion to expand REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) into REDD-plus, which would apply to forests and agriculture. REDD has come under fire, however, and linking agriculture with REDD may no longer be viewed as strategically optimal.


CSA is also couched in terms of “sustainable development” and poverty alleviation. The “win win” framing of climate smart is very craftily presented, but should sound alarms for those familiar with the jargon. They speak about improving food “security,” (not “sovereignty”; the latter term is used by peasant farmers and progressive groups to refer to self-determination, not just enough to eat—be it from foreign aid or locally produced) and focus on “sustainable intensification,” which sounds troublingly similar to many other “sustainable management” conceptions, and which favor large-scale industrial monocultures over small-scale agroecological and diverse practices. There is much more to be said about the climate smart formula, but suffice it to say that there are reasons to be concerned that it will turn into yet another way to commodify agriculture to the advantage of industry. Economies of scale will require that finance from carbon markets and elsewhere goes to large-scale projects and practices.


In Durban the push was to establish a “program of work” on agriculture for the Subsidiary Body on Scientific and Technical Advice (SBSSTA), though this was not quite achieved. As has happened with REDD, however, the push for climate smart agriculture has already begun, with pilot projects and funds administered largely by the World Bank to develop test projects and “readiness” capacity. Various bilateral and multilateral initiatives on agriculture, development aid, public finance of all sorts, and the funds associated with payments to developing countries for adaptation, and more, will potentially be pulled under the climate smart umbrella. This sleight of hand makes the decisions within the UN negotiations less relevant by jumpstarting projects and finance ahead of any actual decision—with the support of World Bank funds and country pledges. In effect, bypassing the need for international consensus.


The climate smart push is troubling in part because it is so enthusiastically backed not only by the World Bank, but also by the large industrial agriculture lobbies, fertilizer manufacturers, FANRPAN (the industrial agriculture friendly food and agriculture policy research network), and Kofi Annan, CEO of the Gates-funded “Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa” (which promotes GMOs, agrichemicals, etc. for Africa).


When agriculture practices are determined on the basis of carbon accounting, we can be certain that bioenergy forces will be busily coming up with means to ensure that growing bioenergy crops and tree monocultures will profit as both “forests” and “energy.” Already, where agriculture carbon marketing has been tried (under the Chicago Exchange) and considered (under failed U.S. climate legislation), supports have flowed to practices like “no till”—involving GMO soya and maize, with weeds controlled by increased applications of Roundup and other herbicides, and towards tree plantations, including on formerly food producing lands. If agriculture and soils are put into carbon markets, biochar will also likely benefit. The biochar lobby has long sought such supports and submitted methodologies to some carbon trade initiatives—for example to the Alberta offset scheme, which aims to offset emissions from tar sand extraction. A new report from Biofuelwatch on Biochar Fund trials in Cameroon, found that farmers’ hopes are already being raised with promised income from carbon finance, irrespective of the fact that biochar has not yet been approved under any trade schemes (but is now being increasingly featured in discussions about climate geoengineering).


Forests are poised in the climate crosshairs. While the negotiations are focussed intently on REDD with the left hand, the right hand is busily putting in place further incentives to cut and burn forests for energy. The paradox is lost on all but a small handful of negotiators—even environmental groups do not appear aware. Sadly, where many forest protection campaigns used to be focused on the drivers of deforestation, they are now largely distracted by the complex political and policy landscape of REDD. Meanwhile the sound of chainsaws prevails.


REDD, climate smart agriculture, and the like are all sold to the public as a means to provide financial support to poor people. REDD has won support from some indigenous forest-dependent people who imagine they may profit and from big NGOs like Nature Conservancy, EDF, WWF and CI who view it as funding for forest conservation (the sort that excludes people). Similarly, CSA is sold as a means to direct climate finance to poor rural smallholder farmers. But there is good reason to be suspicious about that claim. In their eagerness to see agriculture incorporated into carbon markets, the World Bank has established a pilot soil carbon study in Kenya. IATP calculations indicate that the carbon finance flows would result in a grand total of about $1 per year in the hands of participating farmers, while the remainder would be gobbled up by project development and transaction costs—not unlike the situation with REDD pilot projects. The international peasant movement, La Via Campesina, well aware of the dangers of putting agriculture at the whim of markets and speculative investment, has clearly stated that farming is not about carbon accounting and trade, but rather about food sovereignty and human rights. The indigenous peoples caucus in Durban, fed up with the scamming involved in REDD projects already underway, has called for a moratorium on REDD.


The growing incentives for bioenergy, the embrace of forests and agriculture into carbon markets, and the overall push to turn carbon—a fundamental component of all living things—into dollar values, is driving a commodification scheme of enormous proportion. This is key for the Green Economy being promoted for RioPlus20, which looks like it will be the setting where all the many tentacles of the resource grab will join together—the grab on forests under REDD, the grab on agriculture and soils and landscapes, the links to technology transfer, funding for adaptation and “sustainable development,” and more.


It is already the case that biofuel crops have diverted large amounts of cropland and increased speculative investment in farm land with the perception that bioenergy crops can provide good returns. Estimates are that more than half of the at least 50 million hectares of land that has been grabbed up by such investments to date have been for the purpose of establishing bioenergy crops, generally in the richest areas with best access to water and infrastructure, displacing those living there who are often peasant farmers with tenuous rights who are viewed as expendable impediments to globalized, export/import commodity trade.


With the push to fuel an entire “green economy” from bioenergy, we can expect to see more land grabs and more conflicts of land, water, and the right to food. Sadly, wherever we look, agreements that are intended to reduce emissions end up providing yet more incentives to convert from fossil fuels to biomass-based substitutes. Clearly, we need to move rapidly away from fossil fuel burning—but burning trees and plant biomass is not a viable alternative. Getting that message across will require monumental unity and effort on behalf of grassroots social movements, especially since bioenergy is being pushed forward by a massive convergence of interests among most of the superpower corporate interests—and even with the blessings of misguided environmental groups. Currently bioenergy is subsidized as renewable energy alongside wind, solar, geothermal etc. as if it had zero net emissions. This fatal flaw has enormous consequences, given current and projected growth of bioenergy. If we do not pull our collective heads out of the sand and look the realities of bioenergy squarely in the eye, we will send ourselves hurtling over the climate catastrophe “edge” even more quickly than we are already.


Rachel Smolker is codirector of Biofuelwatch, an organizer with Energy Justice Network, and a participant in the Climate Justice Movement. She has worked as a field biologist prior to turning to the impacts of biofuels on climate, food, agriculture, forests, and biodiversity.