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Picture: 123RF/TOMAS1111
Picture: 123RF/TOMAS1111

The carbon markets have been back in the news of late, with the uninformed and unscientific anti-carbon credit perspectives, emanating from The Guardian’s Patrick Greenfield in the UK, now being echoed in two articles in the Daily Maverick.

Given that the one article covers a talk by Sally Archibald at my alma mater, the school of Animal, Plant & Environmental Sciences at Wits University, while the other is co-authored by Thabo Sibeko, a representative of Earthlife Africa where I was formally the Cape Town branch secretary, I feel it behoves me to respond.  

Whereas the critique provided by Sibeko and Neil Overy in their article is quite limited in scope, Prof Archibald’s critique, in her rather confusing 40-minute presentation, is fairly wide-ranging, so unfortunately I will have to limit my responses to the most glaring issues. 

The first point that must be clarified is that carbon markets do not proclaim or intend to be the primary mechanism for addressing the climate crisis. While the specifics of article 6 of the Paris Agreement (which deals with the structure of the global carbon market) are still under negotiation, existing carbon market mechanisms such as the SA Carbon Offset Administration System or the international Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) only allow for the incorporation of carbon credits for up to a maximum of 10% of a company’s total carbon footprint.

Under the SBTi (which accounts for a third of global economic activity), most companies may only claim a net-zero position when they can show they have established long-term emission reduction targets of at least 90% by 2050. Similarly, at the national level the primary approach to decarbonisation is through nationally determined contributions, which can be supported with carbon credit finance.

A quick review of SA projects listed in the previous carbon market system’s registry, the now defunct clean development mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol, reflects 58 clean energy, industrial gas and waste management projects that benefited from such funding. Far from trying to inhibit technological, industrial and economic development, the carbon markets aim to facilitate this.  

The second glaring issue is the conflation of carbon credits with nature-based solutions (NBS). A review of the voluntary carbon market (VCM) dashboard, which keeps track of market development indicators for leading voluntary carbon standards globally, shows that 34.7% of all carbon credits issued under the VCMs since 2002 are derived from investments in NBS projects, including reforestation, forestry conservation or agricultural projects. More importantly, of the 7,842 carbon credit projects listed under the CDM a mere 67 can be classified as NBS projects. Suggesting that NBS projects are representative of the carbon credit market is just flat-out wrong.   

Then on the topic of NBSs, Archibald refers to the Northern Kenya Rangelands Carbon Project as an example of a project that is both a “political nightmare” and inaccurately accounting for the carbon being sequestered through the project activities. I would like to know on what basis she makes these claims. While it is true that activist organisation Survival International published a scathing report on the project, I submit that validation under Verra’s Verified Carbon Standard and verifications by two independent external auditors carries more weight than many of the patently false claims made by Survival International. 

However, the more important outcome is that even with the report’s blatant inaccuracies it still triggered a Section 6 public review by Verra, which is surely what must be required in the consistent pursuit of best practice in action-based research. Of course, Archibald is correct that there is still much room for improvement when it comes to the scientific quantification of NBS outcomes, but as she says herself: “If these sorts of fundings and schemes can give these communities a little bit of support for what they are doing then I’m not against it at all.”   

• Maguire is carbon project manager at Climate Neutral Group SA. He writes in his personal capacity.

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