You’ve heard of blood diamonds – extracted by violence, slavery, and displacement then processed through accounting magic and slick marketing until the finished product appears clean. Like the carbon atoms that make up these diamonds, under extreme pressure and buried far out of sight, the ravaged lives of millions of people are transformed into a sparkling symbol of eternal love for purchase. The ghoulishness of the irony is surpassed only by the profit margins.
The story of blood diamonds is a cautionary tale of what happens when injustice is allowed to be washed clean by tricks of words and numbers, when something as sacred and fundamental to humanity as love can be hijacked and commodified into products of untold suffering. Our deepest desires, it turns out, can be excellent leverage for increasing demand. The dark side of the market is a realm of manipulation, of industries that work tirelessly and unscrupulously to generate and even invent their own demand, and of accounting that allows the “externalization” of real costs, including lives.
If this is starting to sound familiar, it is. In the age of fossil fuel-capitalism, our troubled relationship with other forms of pressurized carbon – coal, oil, and gas – is experiencing similar forces at work. Our desire for life itself, for a habitable planet, is being hijacked, manipulated, and commodified for profit and paid for in blood.
Between the inaugural African Climate Summit in September and the final gavel closing out COP28 this week, there have been quiet, yet swift machinations paving the way for what could become the biggest land grabs and mass displacements in human history, all in the name of carbon, yet all in the service of profit.
The proliferation of words around sustainability, transition, nature-based solutions, and mitigation are amounting to nothing more than the same old tricks of accounting and marketing that make dirty business look clean. This time it’s not only dangerous greenwashing, but is in fact the full diamond-treatment. Welcome to the age of blood carbon.
Land grabs and mass evictions
The UAE’s hunger for carbon credits is causing the violent eviction of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in Kenya. With the support of a US consultancy firm, UAE carbon trading companies pledged to invest $450 million in carbon credits at the recent African Climate Summit in Nairobi. A stipulation of their agreement with the Kenyan government was to reduce emissions from any forests covered by the scheme. Immediately after the deal was signed, Kenyan President Ruto ordered the eviction of all people living in these forests, the 10 Water Towers of Kenya, to “protect forests from encroachment”.
Countless people, mostly indigenous, may lose everything. According to the International Criminal Court, mass evictions are a crime against humanity: one that is now being funded by carbon credits. The destruction of homes has already started in the Mau Forest, despite court orders that ruled the indigenous Ogiek people have community rights over their land and cannot be evicted.
“We are calling for an immediate cessation of ongoing demolitions and the evictions,” said Cyrus Maweu, deputy director of Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.
“We are living in absolute fear,” said Daniel Kobei, the executive director of the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program. “The first day they started bringing down houses using axes, hammers and pangas [machetes]. They brought down the school, and on the second day they even started burning some houses. Now, they have gone back with heavy machines to bring down houses that were not completely destroyed. They are really bringing down everything.”
President Ruto claims that indigenous people are degrading forests, yet there is scientific consensus that indigenous communities are fundamental to conservation. In reality, it is the corporations, governments, and their eco-guards, including the Kenya Forest Service, that are cutting trees illegally.
There is also no guarantee that any long term environmental protection will be achieved via selling off Kenya’s forests. Two months before the African Climate Summit, the Kenyan government rammed through legislation overriding customary land laws, stating that the land covered by a carbon trading permit “includes any area either above or below the land and airspace of the Republic of Kenya including forests, internal and territorial waters and the seabed underlying these waters”. Such language could just as easily be used to protect a permit owner’s right to extract as it could their obligation to protect – what is abundantly clear is that it protects ownership by corporations and governments, not the rights of local communities.
What is the carbon market? Theory vs practice
If only we could financially incentivize behavior that reduces emissions, like leaving carbon in the ground, and protecting forests, mangroves, and other natural carbon sinks, we could perhaps make gains towards preventing the worst of the climate crisis. Perhaps doing so could even channel desperately needed funding for adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable development from wealthy nations to the indebted Global South, who are disproportionately less responsible for emissions yet suffering more from climate crises.
This is the supposed (though terrifyingly misapplied) positive premise behind the theoretical carbon market. It has never functioned as such to date. Looked at in practice, it is an outright manipulation by fossil-capitalists that pretends to champion the desires of most of humanity in order to carry on polluting and profiting, externalizing deadly costs, while strategically accumulating more power and resources.
The ice cream problem
One basic yet fundamental problem, among many, is that an effective emissions reductions strategy is not an ala carte menu with free choice about which actions to pick. Rather, it is a science-backed prescription that must be followed in full to achieve results.
A popular analogy imagines that you are trying to lose weight. You continue your habit of eating a tub of ice cream with every meal but try to offset it by also eating a big salad. You can call it a salad credit and enter it into your accounts as a balance to your ice cream deposit, but off the books, in real life your strategy is flawed. To lose weight, you must stop eating so much ice cream, no matter how much additional salad you eat.
Julia Jones, a conservation scientist at Bangor University in Wales explains: “Globally, we need to both stop further loss of forests and drastically cut emissions. Using one to offset the other, without very substantial investment in reducing emissions, is problematic.” To reign in greenhouse gas emissions and other surpassed boundaries down to safe levels, it is necessary to reduce emissions AND to protect carbon sinks like forests.
Carbon credits fund violent displacement
Land rights are a major issue that is overlooked and misrepresented in the carbon market scheme. In many cases, indigenous and customary landowners have been evicted to clear the way for carbon credit projects, as they witness their homes, once deemed nearly valueless, transformed into cash cows for polluting companies and countries.
According to Survival International, “selling carbon credits from Protected Areas will be a disaster for people and the climate. It unites all the human rights abuses caused by fortress conservation, with all the environmental problems linked to greenwashing.”
The Forest Peoples Programme says that such evictions have become more common in Kenya since it began allocating land for carbon credits. “Those in control of Africa’s forests stand to earn a lot of money, and corporations appear to be pursuing a new ‘scramble for Africa,’” says Justin Kenrick, a senior policy advisor at the Forest Peoples Programme. “Meanwhile such ‘conservation’ in Kenya persists with a failed colonial approach of evicting the very communities who know best how to conserve their forests.”
Judith Nguliso is an Ogiek community member whose home has been burned down, together with the granary where her family stored food: “They are treating us like animals. Children are suffering and don’t have shelter in this rainy season. If the government who should be taking care of us are against us, then who will?”
Human rights organizations, independent investigations, and governmental inquiries have clearly documented over many years how the creation of Protected Areas, especially in Africa and Asia, are accompanied by increased militarization and violence. They are imposed without the consent of the original inhabitants, Indigenous or local communities, who lose their ancestral lands and are tortured, raped, or killed if they try to access them. Protected Areas destroy the best guardians of the natural world, Indigenous peoples, in whose lands 80% of biodiversity is found.
The final theory promoted by the carbon market is that it will generate desperately needed funds to help precarious communities deal with climate crises. As evidenced by past projects, in practice the profits made from carbon credits don’t go to the communities in whose lands that carbon is being absorbed or stored. Developing carbon projects in Protected Areas increases conservation industry funding, likely to fuel a huge expansion and militarization of Protected Areas. In practice, money supposedly going to “climate mitigation” will be used to cover the expensive work of evicting people from their lands – funding rangers’ salaries and military equipment used to commit human rights violations against Indigenous people.
A license to pollute
The UAE is leading industry and petrostate attempts to sell the lie that carbon credits are the solution to the climate crisis. The oft repeated myth that one-third of greenhouse gas emission reductions can be met through “nature-based solutions” and traded as carbon credits is based on a series of extraordinary assumptions that do not stand up to critical analysis.
Corporations, governments, and individuals can claim they’re offsetting pollution without actually cutting emissions by purchasing control over land and evicting indigenous communities to “protect forests”. “They’re not reducing their emissions. But now they’re buying a license to pollute. And that license to pollute is called the carbon market,” says Fadhel Kaboub, a senior adviser with Power Shift Africa. It is a crime against humanity and blatant greenwashing.
The offsets sold in carbon trading schemes are created through fraudulent ‘carbon accounting’, for example by claiming that an area would have been very rapidly destroyed without the carbon-saving project, whereas in fact it was not really under threat. In other cases, projects supposedly preventing deforestation in one area simply resulted in trees being cut down and carbon released elsewhere instead, with zero benefit for the climate.
Recent investigations have revealed that more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by the biggest private certifier are worthless. These ‘phantom credits’ worsen global heating, allowing corporations to falsely offer carbon neutral products and governments to claim to have reduced net emissions. The public are told the problem is solved, that continued overconsumption can be climate friendly and no change is necessary.
Barbara Haya, the director of the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project, has been researching carbon credits for 20 years, hoping to find a way to make the system function. She admits, “companies are using credits to make claims of reducing emissions when most of these credits don’t represent emissions reductions at all. Rainforest protection credits are the most common type on the market at the moment. And it’s exploding, so these findings really matter. But these problems are not just limited to this credit type. These problems exist with nearly every kind of credit. We need an alternative process. The offset market is broken.”
A pivotal moment
Carbon land grabs are not new, but the size, scope, and speed of the UAE’s recent land grabs are unprecedented. Blue Carbon, a carbon brokerage firm run by a member of the Emirati royal family and founded only a year ago with no experience managing carbon offset projects, has already signed deals for 24.5 million hectares in five African countries as well as in Suriname. Local communities have not been consulted in these dealings, in violation of local and national land laws.
The scale is enormous: the negotiations involve potential deals for about a tenth of Liberia’s land mass, a fifth of Zimbabwe’s, and swaths of Kenya, Zambia, and Tanzania. Blue Carbon’s goal is to generate vast numbers of cheap carbon credits that can be bought by the UAE to “offset” their ballooning fossil fuel emissions planned over the coming decades.
In the process, Blue Carbon aimed to steer negotiations at COP28 towards developing “suitable market infrastructure” so the UAE can use carbon credits to sustain business as usual for as long as possible. At COP28, the rules of how to buy and sell these very carbon credits were being decided. Blue Carbon and its fossil fuel clients are using these deals to promote the magic-wand of carbon credits as a bigger part of the climate solution.
We face a pivotal moment where carbon land grabs could sweep the Global South. If the UAE succeeds, money meant for environmental protection will instead fund and legitimize mass displacement, and the erasure of indigenous people.
Stripped down from all the manipulative framing and accounting, carbon credits are merely reputation in money form. Their price and popularity has crashed before, in part thanks to activist and investigative outcry, and they can be crashed again.
People in Kenya and communities around the world are resisting this massive fraud and speaking out in solidarity with the Ogiek and other forest communities. A growing alliance of organizations are fighting against incorporation of carbon offsetting schemes. The Blood Carbon Scam can be stopped – but only if we spread the truth.
Sign this petition to stop the eviction of the Ogiek community in Kenya.