Manufacturing Consent on Carbon Trading

“No one raised their hand to object to a single word in the declaration text. In an email distributing the document, Dodd states that, “The Declaration was accepted unanimously by the 1500 NGOs and other stakeholders present.”

By Chris Lang, 26th October 2011


In September 2011, the 64th Annual UN DPI/NGO Conference took place in Bonn, Germany. About 1,500 people from 70 countries turned up. On the third day of the meeting, a remarkable thing happened. Not a single participant at the conference put up their hand to disagree with a declaration which promotes REDD as a carbon trading mechanism.

DPI, by the way, stands for Department of Public Information. Every year since 1946, UN DPI has held an NGO conference. Speakers at this year’s conference included Vandana Shiva of Navdanya International, Daniel Mittler of Greenpeace International, Achim Steiner of UNEP, Victoria Tauli Corpuz of Tebtebba and many others. Some of these speakers may be in favour of carbon trading, others are not.

The presentations are available here. In her speech, Vandana Shiva talked about two important principles that “have been used by every local community across the world: the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle.” She talked of the derailing of the World Trade Organisation in 1999 and the slogan “Our world is not for sale”. Which sounds a lot like the slogans that opponents of carbon trading use.

She talked about the economic crisis and the US$16 trillion bailout. She asked, “Can you imagine what US$16 trillion would have done for the earth and the poor people of this planet, if spent in an appropriate way?”

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz spoke on the topic of “sustainable consumption”. She explained that,

“Many indigenous peoples can claim they are the practitioners of sustainable consumption and production and I can say that from my own perspective and experience. I am an Igorot, indigenous peoples from the Philippines. In my community, in my culture, we have very strict customary laws that define how we relate with everybody and of course with the environment.”

She mentioned several of these laws, including what she called the golden rule: “Don’t do to others what you don’t like others to do to you.” This presumably prohibits carbon trading. Just as Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines do not want their air to be polluted, communities living near polluting power plants in California or Glasgow do not want the companies running these plants to be allowed to continue polluting by buying carbon credits.

The UN DPI/NGO Conference declaration (pdf file 147.4 KB) is an outline of “sustainable development goals discussed and identified as key objectives” at the conference, according to the NGO blog of the conference. Delegates got a copy of the draft in their conference bags when they arrived at the meeting.

On the third day of the conference, Felix Dodds of the Stakeholder Forum and chair of this year’s conference asked the meeting to approve the declaration. It took him 49 seconds:

“We’re, I think, very pleased with the quality of the document we have prepared for you over the last two days and I’m going to ask the meeting to show by a show of hands those people who would like to make their support for this being a chair’s text that I should hand on to the German government and the UN. For those people show, by show of hands in favour of me handing this over as your chair to the government. Thank you very much. Is there anyone against? Is there anyone asleep? Thank you, the chair is very happy.”

No one raised their hand to object to a single word in the declaration text. In an email distributing the document, Dodd states that, “The Declaration was accepted unanimously by the 1500 NGOs and other stakeholders present.” The only possible explanation is that when Dodd asked the meeting to support the document, many of those present had not read the text. That’s perfectly understandable, considering that they were busy attending a conference, which in addition to the speakers, featured a series of side events, workshops and exhibits. No doubt that didn’t leave much time to read a long draft declaration written in a mind-numbing UN style.

The German government will present the conference declaration in the UN General Assembly in November 2011. “You have a great opportunity with the declaration,” Dodds said in his presentation. “You have an opportunity through that declaration to suggest to the Rio+20 process what you think are the critical issues that summit should address.”

The declaration makes several references to REDD. The first is part of the “institutional framework for sustainable development”, the second two are part of the “sustainable development goals” or SDGs (the numbers refer to the line numbers in the declaration):

310 We call upon governments to ensure that Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) is implemented with regard to development decisions, and other decisions such as REDD+, that impact indigenous peoples, indigenous groups and tribal and local communities.

479 SDG – CLIMATE SUSTAINABILITY: By 2050, governments should have reached clear pathways towards climate sustainability that regulates the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees C. Emissions of greenhouse gases should be reduced to 25% of 1990 levels by 2020, 40% by 2030, 60% by 2040 and 80% by 2050. Carbon taxes and tariffs should be in place to provide incentives for low-carbon development and manufacturing, finance GHG emissions reduction projects, REDD+ and other offset mechanisms, and green infrastructure solutions to help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change.

534 SDG – HEALTHY FORESTS: By 2020, all remaining frontier forests are protected from conversion and degradation, consistent with the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity adopted at COP10, with a well-resourced and equably [sic] governed REDD+ mechanism in place, which respects the rights and knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities and other environmental and governance safeguards, to reward developing countries for protection and sustainable management of their forests, not only for carbon capture and storage but for their wider ecological services. A policy of no net loss of forestland, globally and nationally, is also achieved by 2020.

At that time, all new forest areas cleared will be offset by ecologically sound restoration of forests in nearby areas. Restoration of over 150 million hectares of cleared or degraded forest landscapes is achieved by 2020, with the creation of millions of new jobs and enhanced livelihoods, improved security and adaptation to climate change.

Reduce deforestation emissions by key corporations and their supply chains committing to avoid the purchase of products that cause deforestation, such as soy or cattle from deforested lands in the Brazilian Amazon, palm oil from deforested agricultural land in Indonesia, or illegal wood and wood products throughout the world.

Additionally, for stakeholders everywhere to undertake and/or participate in large-scale, environmentally and socially responsible reforestation efforts.
[ . . . ] At Rio+20, we call on governments to pledge concrete and systematic support and promotion of multi-stakeholder managed forest certification systems, in all parts of the world, with particular emphasis on tropical rainforests.

If you’re still awake after reading that, congratulations. The first statement is a reasonably straightforward demand for free, prior and informed consent. Except that without a reference to the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples, this runs the risk of FPIC becoming a rushed process carried out by governments and corporations in order to tick the FPIC box.

The second statement on REDD describes it as an offset mechanism, a carbon trading mechanism. While this accurately reflects the way REDD is developing, it is surprising (to say the least) that none of the NGOs present objected to this acceptance of a trade in forest carbon.

(The sentence at the start of this statement is ridiculous. Requesting that “governments should have reached clear pathways towards climate sustainability”, by 2050 makes no sense whatsoever. If, by 2050, we have not found a way of leaving fossil fuels in the ground, there is a very high probability that the climate will have dramatically changed. This talk by Kevin Anderson of the Tyndale Centre clearly explains why: Climate Change: going beyond dangerous. “Things are getting worse, and they are getting worse at an incredibly fast rate,” Anderson says early on in his presentation. “We are accelerating towards a cliff that we know is there.”)

The third statement is perhaps even more problematic. Protecting frontier forests is mixed with REDD, which the declaration has already stated will be a carbon trading mechanism. The carbon stored in these forests is apparently to be offset against continued pollution elsewhere.

But the declaration does not envisage that deforestation will be stopped by 2020. Only that “no net loss of forestland” will take place. Forest can be cleared as long as other areas are planted with trees. Of course, the declaration insists that this has to be “ecologically sound restoration of forests”. But in its definition of “forests”, the UN does not differentiate between industrial tree plantations and native forests. There is no mention of the UN’s disastrous definition in the conference declaration.

The statement ends with the call for governments to support forest certification. The “gold standard” of forest certification is the Forest Stewardship Council. Yet FSC has certified vast areas of monoculture tree plantations. FSC also certifies industrial logging in primary forests.

But none of the 1,500 people in the meeting objected to any of this – or any of the other statements in the more than 9,000-word declaration. The only possible explanation is that they had not read it. Funnily enough, Stakeholder Forum, the organisation that Felix Dodds works for, claims to be “working to advance sustainable development and promote democracy at a global level”. Dodds, as chair of the meeting, should quietly tear up the document and recycle the paper, as his contribution to sustainable development.