How Carbon Financing is Repeating the Mistakes of Environmental Conservation

Authored by Professor Scott Freeman, American University

Prepared for the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy

Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and carbon financing policies are drawing unprecedented sums from country governments and private corporations. Proposed projects encompass a variety of strategies, a large portion of which involve land use change that will directly affect the lives of those living on or near the land in question. 

Early evidence of displacement or infractions of sovereignty associated with the development of carbon management projects, have alarmed frontline defenders and environmental justice advocates. Researchers are increasingly concerned with the equity and justice of carbon removal and carbon financing.  Even ‘engineered’ carbon removal technologies that require minimal space raise critical questions about who makes land use decisions and who benefits most from carbon removal.

These concerns about the impacts of environmental policies that appeal to a “broader good” are not new. So as we collectively try and work through the ethics of ostensibly novel interventions, it actually may be useful to think through the ethics and impacts of previous interventions similarly undertaken for broader environmental well-being. 

Environmental conservation initiatives, particularly the history of parks and protected areas, have long aligned with concerns of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation by targeting and conserving specific areas. But their history is not one without conflict and problems. 

The history of conservation raises very concerning flags that carbon removal advocates should pay close attention to.

Historical legacies

Throughout the 20th century, biodiversity and forest conservation often resulted in negative effects for residents proximate to the areas of intervention. Interventions have historically imagined a “wilderness” without people, a perspective that has sidelined the individuals who live in or near conservation areas. Those who do live most proximate to conservation areas can be marginalized in the design and implementation of conservation areas, which has resulted in displacement or economic and social hardship.

Premised on the notion that human interaction with forests was the principal cause of their destruction, parks and protected areas often followed policies of “fortress conservation.” Fueled by global concerns for the loss of biodiversity, fortress conservation built upon the model of national parks in the United States which imagined keeping certain people (often indigenous) out of conservation areas while regulating other more “acceptable” activities like tourism. As a result, similar to parks in the United States, parks and protected areas globally have brought about the displacement of indigenous people and those living close to the resources in question. Displacement not only implies loss of land, but the undermining of livelihoods, and the disruption of existing systems of environmental management. Altering the economies and environmental management strategies of people proximate to resources have also negatively impacted the effectiveness of protected areas. These negative effects of conservation and development projects occurred in remarkably unjust ways: few if any rich or elite households have been displaced by the creation of protected areas. 

Even for individuals who are permitted to continue living in conservation areas, the limitations put on those areas have also impacted their lives and livelihoods. By restricting agricultural activities and other customary practices, conservation areas can result in increased economic hardship and decreased ecological outcomes. Prioritizing conservation goals without sensitivity to the social lives in and around conservation has led to a long series of problematic engagements. Even interventions that prioritize participation and the inclusion of local stakeholders, like community-based conservation, have neglected to fully consider the political and social contexts that exist prior to the entrance of conservation initiatives. 

Many of the issues of conservation interventions have come about because of thinking– and actions– that attempt to separate humans from the environment. Protecting areas from the threat of deforestation has often meant removing people who live in that area. Protecting the seas from overfishing has meant halting the activities of fishers. And yet, the activities of forest dwellers or artisanal farmers may be marginal to the deeper causes of environmental destruction. 

Imagining that forest spaces are absent of humans, and can easily be set apart or repurposed, is a deeply problematic assumption. This, in combination with the tendency for policies to be designed outside of the areas of interest and implemented top-down, creates a perfect possibility for the continual sidelining and marginalization of forest dwellers, indigenous people, and other groups closest to areas of intervention.

The surprising issues of climate financing and CDR 

CDR, in either protecting forested areas or altering existing uses of land, represents a potential continuity of these impacts. While some CDR interventions may focus on reforestation, others may incentivize forest preservation. Still others may involve focused engineering technologies such as biomass carbon removal and storage. Across these diverse interventions are similar concerns for either conservation of lands or land-use change. Like conservation interventions, decisions are being made about land from the top-down. Designed far from the contexts of implementation, the politics and sociality in areas of implementation are distant from the authors of interventions. Also like conservation interventions, the social contexts of areas of intervention are not principal factors in the design of CDR schemes, taking second seat to efficacy in the removal of carbon.

The potential for displacement of people and livelihoods is one principle concern of CDR projects. A review of industrial tree plantations, one strategy of carbon sequestration, found that forest plantations often occurred on state lands, which affects local inhabitants who may live in or use forests with insecure tenure, and often causes displacement with little or no compensation, sometimes through the use of force. The REDD+ program has argued for participation and pro-poor policies, and yet the requirements of land and the enclosure and use change of common lands has led to conflict and risks of economic and physical displacement

When occurring on private land, carbon removal schemes can contribute to land consolidation in the hands of wealthier individuals, which can lead to displacement and migration of smallholders.  For example, an estimated 15,000 agriculturalists with insecure tenure in Kenya were displaced in order to make way for large forest plantations financed by carbon credits; they never received compensation for their removal. A study in Cambodia found that lands dedicated to shifting cultivation cleared forested areas in favor of mono-cropped trees, both diminishing primary and secondary forests and halting economic activities by agriculturalists in the area. Such policies have comprised a growing number of land grabs. Referred to as “green grabs” in these cases, these displacements fulfill carbon commitments but do so while valuing the land, and not necessarily the people living on or dependent on that land. 

Whether focusing on afforestation or other land uses, widespread land-use changes in CDR raises other concerns. In particular, researchers are concerned about carbon removal’s effect on food production. As land becomes newly valued and focused on the production of non-food crops, it raises concern about the ability of indigenous groups and local populations to produce food, but also raises issues with the amount of total land dedicated to food production in contrast to the amount of land dedicated to carbon removal.

The top-down dynamics fueled by private investors and facilitated by state governments also poses issues as decisions about land are made without the explicit involvement of individuals who live in and around that land. This has threatened indigenous sovereignty: in Guyana indigenous lands have been promised through climate financing, making decisions on indigenous lands without consultation. As powerful actors forge agreements about the land of less powerful actors, the dynamics of CDR policies can be remarkably unjust, consolidating power and moving decisions away from those who are already marginalized. 

As an industry, conservation has attempted to distance itself from pasts ensnared in displacement, attempting to engage social science and indigenous critiques of conservation. Yet for those working in the industry, the inclusion of the human dimensions of conservation is a steep uphill battle. Even recently, guards in protected areas used violent repression in implementing conservation. 

Reassessing Carbon Removal 

The goal of establishing new land use areas dedicated to forestation seems noble; potentially protecting areas and fostering new ones that will serve to sequester carbon. Yet the history of similar interventions that have sought to designate land use and restrictions have been remarkably unjust and in many ways damaging to forest dwellers and local residents. 

Moving towards a more just carbon removal strategy will mean a radical reconsideration of how decisions are made about land, and who benefits from those decisions. This would mean altering policies and priorities so that forest dwellers, small farmers, and indigenous people design, benefit from, and have decision-making power over carbon removal. As it stands, current redress mechanisms in conservation have failed to compensate individuals for loss as a result of the negative impacts of conservation. 

Those interested in seeing carbon removal scale must reckon with the histories of conservation. Rethinking fundamentally who benefits from carbon removal and the large potential for displacement and negative outcomes should be a principal concern of whether or not carbon removal policies are on track to contribute to the creation of a more just and sustainable world.