UN sets safeguards for carbon markets to prevent green land grabs

The establishment of a mechanism allowing local communities to formally challenge UN-registered carbon credit projects represents a significant step forward in ensuring accountability and protection for vulnerable populations. Under this framework, communities will have the opportunity to voice concerns both prior to the commencement of projects and during their operation.

This initiative is particularly crucial within the context of the global carbon market being shaped by the Paris Agreement. As carbon credit developers seek to implement projects aimed at reducing emissions, there is a risk of unintended consequences such as land or water grabbing, air pollution, and other forms of exploitation. By implementing safeguards, the aim is to mitigate these risks and uphold the rights and well-being of local inhabitants.

The mechanism not only empowers communities to challenge potential abuses but also underscores the importance of inclusive and participatory decision-making in climate action. It reflects a commitment to environmental justice and recognizes the interconnectedness between climate mitigation efforts and social equity.

Ultimately, by integrating these safeguards into the structure of the carbon market, there is potential to foster more sustainable and equitable development pathways, aligning with the broader goals of the Paris Agreement and the pursuit of a more just and resilient future for all.

At a meeting in the German city of Bonn last week, government negotiators and experts from around the world approved an appeals and grievance procedure for the UN’s proposed Article 6.4 carbon crediting mechanism.

Maria AlJishi, chair of the body in charge of establishing the market, said in a statement that by introducing the procedure, “we’re establishing new avenues to empower vulnerable communities and individuals, ensuring their voices are heard and their rights are upheld.”

Isa Mulder, a researcher with campaign group Carbon Market Watch, told Climate Home the agreement on policies to challenge carbon credit projects before and after they are implemented was “quite a historic moment”. “This is pretty big,” she added.

The previous UN carbon market – called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – did not have any such procedures. It, and other carbon markets, have been plagued by allegations they have harmed local people and their livelihoods, as well as often not delivering the emissions reductions claimed.

Negative local impacts
In one CDM project in Uganda, Carbon Market Watch said villagers were being denied access to a tree plantation’s land which they used to grow food, graze livestock and gather firewood. In another CDM project in India, the National Green Tribunal found a waste incineration plant was releasing cancer-causing toxic chemicals into Delhi.

A hydro-electric plant in Guatemala, financed using the CDM, stopped local people reaching water to fish, wash coffee and bathe, while another plant in Chile diverted rivers, endangering the water supply to the country’s capital Santiago.

To prevent such abuses, governments have agreed that the CDM’s replacement – under Article 6.4 of the Paris pact – will have processes to make appeals and raise grievances. The appeals procedure is to challenge projects before they begin, and the grievance procedure will apply once they are in place.

Retribution risk
Only people directly affected by a carbon credit project can file a grievance – and only if they have suffered “adverse effects of a social, economic or environmental nature” caused by it.

After a grievance form has been filled in and published on the UN climate change website, an independent panel will have two weeks to put together recommendations to the Article 6.4 supervisory body, which makes the final decision on actions to be taken “as it deems appropriate”.

There will be no cost to filing a grievance, despite the supervisory body previously discussing fees of up to $5,000.

Complaints must, however, be submitted in one of the UN’s six official languages – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish – a requirement which Mulder called “a big problem” that “will specifically hit people who are most in need of protection”.

She added that the new procedures will not do enough to protect complainants from retribution from carbon credit sellers. “Sometimes it can be very sensitive if you file a grievance, but then there’s local tensions – and there’s also the project proponent who is right there and of course doesn’t want you to file a grievance,” she said.

Although negotiators have now agreed the appeals and grievance procedure, they were unable to approve a full set of rules for the Article 6.4 carbon market at the COP27 or COP28 summits in the past two years. They will try again at COP29 in November, and hope to have the market up and running by early 2025. (Reporting by Joe Lo; editing by Megan Rowling)

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