With just weeks to go before COP26 in Glasgow, a group of leading environmental and human rights NGOs have written to the UK Presidency of the crucial climate talks warning that one of its flagship policies, so-called ‘nature-based solutions’ to climate change, risks greenwashing some of the biggest polluters on earth.
With the world experiencing increased drought, wildfires, and storms, COP26 is considered one of the last chances to get the global climate and humanitarian crisis under control. Central to the negotiations will be how to achieve global ‘net-zero’ emissions by 2050, and mobilise at least 100 billion USD in climate finance per year for countries most vulnerable to climate change. Nature-based solutions (NbS) are being talked up as a major pillar of climate action by the UK government, which it has earmarked £3bn pounds for.
However, the letter signatories, from both the global North and South, warn that the concept is being hijacked by the oil and gas industry and other heavy polluters to avoid reducing their emissions at source by nominally ‘offsetting’ their emissions elsewhere.
For example, Shell plans to partially offset a 20 percent expansion of its gas business with NbS, which includes the option of planting trees over an as yet unidentified area the size of Spain. Total has created a 40,000 hectare tree plantation in the Republic of Congo whilst simultaneously securing the rights to an oil block in the country’s Cuvette Central peatlands - one of the biggest carbon sinks on earth.
Offsetting has long been controversial. Tree plantations, for example, can take decades to sequester carbon (far too slow in relation to the diminishing carbon budget) and any potential emissions savings can be lost if these trees are later harvested for timber or lost due to wildfires in an increasingly warming climate. Despite the well-documented failings, Mark Carney, the UN Special Envoy on Climate Action and Finance, is leading a Taskforce to create a 100 billion USD voluntary carbon market (TSVCM).
In the letter, the NGOs further warn that the often-repeated claims that NbS can account for up to 37 percent of climate mitigation potential by the end of the decade are misleading and could divert essential efforts and resources away from decarbonising our economies. They highlight that NbS schemes could trigger huge demand for land, leading to ‘green grabs’, food insecurity and human rights violations of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, those least responsible for the climate and biodiversity crises.
The NGOs call on the UK government and other parties to the UN Climate and Biodiversity negotiations to rigorously review the science underpinning these schemes, to move away from reliance on offsetting to meet targets, and to prioritise the reduction of emissions in the near term and investment in rights-based approaches to the protection and restoration of nature.
Joe Eisen, Executive Director of the Rainforest Foundation UK, said, “Terms like ‘net-zero’ and ‘nature-based solutions’ make for nice soundbites but net-zero is not zero and nature-based solutions are no substitute to reducing emissions at source. We simply cannot afford to rely on yet more corporate schemes that have brought us to the brink of environmental breakdown. The UK government, which has a good track record of supporting rights-based environmental protection, must ensure that valuable climate funding goes to those on the frontline of tropical deforestation, not in the back pockets of city traders.”