Climate costs cannot be spirited away abroad

On the atoll Tarawa, which belongs to the Pacific island state Kiribati, mangroves are planted against the rising sea level.
9.12.2019
Political article
Switzerland wants to offset its much too large per capita carbon footprint abroad. That is morally questionable, economically short-sighted and as little sustainable as the often advocated large-scale afforestation in the South.

The facts are clear: in its special autumn 2018 report, the International Panel on Climate Change IPCC stated that if global warming of more than 1.5°C is to be avoided, then at most we can put only 420 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2 eq) into the atmosphere. If this "residual budget" is exhausted, then every additional ton of CO2 eq emitted must again be extracted from the atmosphere. In purely mathematical terms this would require a 5% annual reduction in emissions compared to today. In this way, global greenhouse gas emissions could be halved by 2030 and reduced to "net zero" by 2040.

In August 2019, Switzerland joined the countries aiming to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to "net zero". This means that by 2050 at the latest, no more greenhouse gases should be entering the atmosphere. The Federal Council left open the measures through which Switzerland is to become climate neutral, in particular how it plans to offset irreducible emissions for example from agriculture. Instead, it continues to opt for CO2 offsets abroad. Should the Parliament continue to support this approach, Switzerland would be headed for a series of major self-inflicted problems.

International law still offers no clarity as to how cross-border compensation projects are to be regulated after the entry into force of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2021. Article 6 of the Agreement does indeed envisage the possibility for contracting States to exchange or trade certificates among themselves representing their effective emission reductions. The details regarding the manner in which the so-called Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes (ITMO) are to come about and properly calculated are the subject of the last chapter of the Paris rulebook, which is still pending approval. It must be ensured that from the standpoint of the atmosphere, each traded tonne in fact represents a one-tonne CO2 eq reduction and cannot be calculated twice – once in the purchasing country and again in the selling country.

Economic fallacy

According to the Federal Council and Parliament, only three-fifths of the desired halving of Switzerland's domestic emissions by 2030 will actually take place here at home. Switzerland, like a handful of other rich countries by the way, wishes to "offset" the remainder by purchasing ITMOs. Switzerland is therefore a leading advocate for the early conclusion of offset the arrangements under the Paris agreement on climate change.

It seems appealing at first glance to offset emissions abroad, for it is cheaper, at least for now. A second look however raises the question of why increasing amounts should be spent each year to buy foreign emission reduction certificates, instead of those millions being used locally to convert domestic structures to emission-free technologies. It is simple logic that the strategy of outsourcing is destined to fail over the short or long term. Because all countries must reduce their emissions to net zero, foreign emission certificates will quickly become scarce. After the low-hanging fruit has been picked, there will soon be no more countries prepared to cheaply sell off the increasingly hard-won progress they have made towards climate neutrality. Switzerland will thus no longer be able to avoid having to eliminate its own emissions, and this irrespective of whether we have already paid for reductions abroad.

"Negative emissions" and afforestation

There is still the possibility to use "negative emissions" to offset greenhouse emissions where there has been no reduction, in other words, capturing and removing excess greenhouse gases (especially CO2) from the atmosphere and returning it to the soil or biomass for long-term storage. Very high-tech methods are already being tested for this purpose, though their practicability, economic efficiency and scalability are yet to be clarified. A more forward-looking solution, on the other hand, would seem to be the production of plant coal as a by-product of energy production from wood or biomass waste. Plant coal can in fact be absorbed into agricultural land over the decades, with proven positive effects.

At the heart of the debate are the "green" approaches to CO2 storage in the biomass or the soil. This ranges from (re)forestation of cleared land to the build-up of CO2 in the form of humus in agricultural soils. Reforestation is extolled largely uncritically as a key approach to solving the climate crisis. While even the experts themselves disagree as to the true absorption potential of newly replanted forests, some developmental objections should also be considered. The question arises, from a moral standpoint, as to the justification of rich countries with far above-average per capita carbon footprints for targeting developing countries as alternative locations for climate measures that they themselves have neglected to take. It cannot be that we are unwilling to seriously reconsider our lifestyle, while simultaneously demanding that the emissions it generates are economized far away from home. And there are still the complex issues surrounding the question of where exactly this massive reforestation is to take place. How can we justify displacing people for reforestation purposes even if the land they are currently using for agriculture had originally been forested? It is clear that these "green" climate projects themselves must stand up to the sustainability criteria of the 2030 Agenda; respect for the democratic participation and human rights of the affected people must be guaranteed.

The Alliance Sud point of view

To avoid misunderstanding, there is no objection whatsoever to the conduct of effective climate projects outside of Switzerland in keeping with the principles of good international cooperation. On the contrary, the Paris Climate Agreement expressly calls for support to developing countries in combating the climate crisis. But besides emission reduction, this also entails measures to adapt to climate change, which began a long time ago.

This is precisely the rationale of international climate funding, in which Switzerland must participate to the tune of at least one billion francs annually. Instead of supposedly "offsetting" the climate protection measures that we ourselves have failed to take, there should be additional international climate funding projects designed to benefit the local people directly.

Alliance Sud deems it an aberration to spend millions outside our national borders to purchase cheap reduction certificates. Instead, these funds should be available to protect the people in the South from progressive climate change through disinterested, effective reduction measures. This does not of course release us from the duty of simultaneously reducing our own carbon footprint.

The net effect of relying on negative emissions and purely mathematical "climate neutrality" is inevitably to postpone climate measures here at home. Not only is the outsourcing strategy unsafe, it is also morally dubious and economically short-sighted. But more than anything else, it cements a selfish climate policy that fails to challenge our lifestyle and its disastrous impacts on people in the global South who are already suffering.