Black Gold Negative: The value of Carbon in landscape

The above graphic shows implemented or scheduled carbon tax and emission trading schemes worldwide. Source: World Bank (“State and Trends of Carbon Pricing, 2016”).

It is immediately obvious that more developed and industrialized nations, the ones that pollute the most, also have made the most progress in implementing carbon tax regulations. This is hopeful sign, and means the trend towards pollution taxes, cap and trade mechanisms and environmental offsets is likely to continue worldwide.

The Carbon Tax Center calls carbon taxing the fairest, most effective and most efficient single policy tool in the fight for a habitable climate.

The 2016 World Bank report showed a reduction for some carbon emissions in countries where carbon taxing has been in place the longest, but it is not clear whether this was not causing more emissions elsewhere by the importation of dirty energy and other carbon heavy products.

It seems that carbon taxing as a means of regulating industry change to force reduced emissions is far from perfect, and it is unclear where that specific strategy may be headed in the future as technologies change.

The fact that an economic value is being placed on carbon not burned into the atmosphere, however, opens the door to direct payment for ecosystem services in the form of carbon sequestration in biomass and fertile soil. This is essentially the idea behind carbon offsets, although implementation of this concept has been clumsy and problematic.

In terms of net positive impact, payment for carbon storage as biomass in healthy landscapes may hold more long term promise than a carbon tax on pollution, especially as the inevitable (although sadly delayed), shift towards renewable energy and clean transportation continues.

The concept of carbon offsets was introduced as a way to mitigate economic impact for industry, allowing for sustained high carbon emission levels as long as money is invested in conservation and mitigation efforts elsewhere, although it is not very clear whether payments made though mechanisms like the “Clean Development Mechanism” (CDM) and “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation” (REDD) actually impact global emissions positively. The current system is just too easy to fudge, the metrics are not clear, and the economic stakes are obviously high.

There is also a sustainability factor, as a community or land owning individual can be paid one year for not cutting down a forest, but clear cut it the very next. The priority is simply balancing the offset and carbon-washing the industry on paper.

Nonetheless, specific legal recognition of the economic value in preserving and restoring biodiverse landscapes is an opportunity that must not be missed, and may hold the key to bringing Nature into the balance of our global capitalist market. It represents the most tangible initiative for quantifying in financial terms the importance of natural environments, and creates much needed bridges between stakeholders, landscape stewards, conservationists and capital investors who have historically been mostly deaf to environmental or local concerns.

It should never be forgotten that 80% of our planet’s biodiversity is in territories inhabited by Indigenous people and traditional communities. As economic and development pressures mount on these populations and the ecosystems that they form an integral part of, we must develop language and policy to allow for their ongoing stewardship of the land. Evolving and broadening the concept of carbon offsets is a good starting point.

Published by ecosocialdesign

I am a graduate of Gaia University's action learning program where I developed a number of experimental techniques on rooftop gardening and the use of bamboo in the construction of human powered machines. I later focused on ways to use action learning to bring higher education recognition to Indigenous holders of traditional knowledge. I currently collaborate with my family in Chiapas, Mexico to promote agroecology and alternative markets with Indigenous communities there. My interest is in the burgeoning field of integrative eco-social design, specifically as applicable to landscape and habitat restoration. I am interested in the nexus between productive human activity and biodiversity conservation as I believe there can be no sustainable conservation that does not directly address and resolve the needs of human populations. Other areas of interest for me include traditional Indigenous knowledge around habitat management and food production. I am specifically interest in creating business opportunities for landscape and forest restoration specialists to engage with industry and community stakeholders in long term management contracts, as I believe this will become an essential part of all projects from their inception and design moving forward. This blog is a repository for my ideas on conservation and human productivity in the post-natural age.

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