Cop26’s worst outcome would be giving the green light to carbon offsetting

From the signing of the United Nations framework convention on climate change in 1992, to the first Conference of the Parties in 1995, to this week’s Cop26, we have heard many words from world leaders, but have not seen anywhere enough action. To undo the damage caused by this lack of commitment, the world needs to sign up to some big things. For starters, that means a rapid end to the era of fossil fuels, with an immediate halt to all new fossil fuel projects. And it means ambitious emission-cutting plans from every country to halve global emissions by 2030, with rich countries moving fastest.

In 1992, all countries not only agreed to the UN framework’s objective to “protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity”, but also that developed countries “take the lead” as they bore the heaviest responsibility for historic emissions. Based on equity, richer countries should live up to the commitment to move fastest to meet the 1.5C goal, and the phasing out of fossil fuels should be accompanied by support for workers, Indigenous peoples and all affected communities. A fossil fuel phase-out would deliver energy independence and a more secure economic future, creating millions of stable, well-paid jobs in green, hi-tech renewable energy. Just witness the crisis caused by the recent hike in wholesale gas prices to see where dependence on fossil fuels takes us.

The biggest historical polluters need to show solidarity with people and countries on the frontline of the climate crisis. That’s the fair approach. So we need to see $100bn (£73bn) a year (and rising) going from rich countries to less developed countries to allow them to adapt, develop green energy systems and transition away from fossil fuels – benefiting everyone on the planet. And more money should be made available on top of that to compensate for the damage already being caused by climate impacts in those less developed countries.

Some governments and industries are aiming to use Cop26 to create a new global market in carbon offsets. Most of the “rulebook” for how the Paris agreement is implemented has now been agreed, but one of the key outstanding areas is article 6. It covers a single page but is deeply contentious. What those nine paragraphs actually mean is due to be agreed in Glasgow.

Some governments and industries want article 6 to be interpreted as a mandate for new markets in carbon offsets, endorsed by the UN. Carbon credits could, for example, be generated by planting trees or buying up existing forests, as a way to “offset” a dirty power project on the other side of the world or further oil development, such as Total in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But offsetting doesn’t stop carbon entering the atmosphere and warming our world, it just keeps it off the ledgers of the governments and companies responsible. According to the Institute for Applied Ecology, about eight out of 10 offsetting projects rich countries relied on to meet their climate targets under the Kyoto protocol were deemed unlikely to have delivered any climate benefit. Offsetting has been tried and it has failed – to pursue this as a solution now is nothing more than greenwashing and would blow a huge hole in the Paris agreement.

The world needs to make immediate, dramatic and consistent emissions reductions now – not push the global south, in particular, further to the brink with offset schemes. They have led to land-grabbing, biodiversity destruction and human rights abuses. To protect nature, and people’s futures, governments must work in partnership with local Indigenous peoples to manage the land justly.

Carbon markets should not, therefore, become a distraction at Cop26. Instead, governments need to focus on making firm rules for companies to reduce emissions directly from their activities, focus on justly ending the fossil fuel era and explore how to best embrace the energy transition in a transparent, authentic way. We need real climate action now, not greenwashing scams.

However things turn out in Glasgow, we need to be able to look back on this period in history and know we did everything we could, even if our leaders failed us. And to the big polluters: we will not be giving up on our hope of a greener, safer, fairer, healthier planet.

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