Carbon Offsets, a New Form of Neocolonialism

Reducing carbon emissions by simply planting more trees in developing countries might sound like a good idea. However, carbon offset projects can easily turn into another form of neocolonialism.

Jess Wang
May 03, 2021

Many companies have pledged to achieve net-zero emissions. To achieve this ambitious goal, more of them are turning to carbon credits. According to McKinsey, the market for voluntary carbon credits could be worth upward of $50 billion by 2030.

Carbon offset refers to the carbon dioxide equivalent that is reduced, avoided, or sequestered to compensate for emissions occurring elsewhere. Most carbon offsets projects come in the form of reforestation. Reducing carbon emissions by simply planting more trees in developing countries might sound like a good idea. However, carbon offset projects can easily turn into another form of neocolonialism. 

Neocolonialism is the practice of using economics, globalization, cultural imperialism, and conditional aid to influence a country. Georgetown philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò argues that richer countries are dominating less powerful countries and people through these initiatives meant to slow the pace of climate breakdown, and it creates a new form of neocolonialism—climate colonialism. Rich countries are investing in the Global South and dictating how to maintain land and forests to people who have lived there for, in some cases, thousands of years.

 When the new norm that people with power want Indigenous people to adopt conflicts with how Indigenous groups usually interact with their own land, it can potentially lead to displacement and even violence. In 2014, the Oakland Institute uncovered that the Kenya Forest Service, funded by the World Bank, beat, threatened, and even arrested Sengwer community members to acquire land for carbon offset forestry. At a 2016 United Nations meeting, an Indigenous leader of Turtle Island accused developed countries of privatizing and selling the sacred forest and soil they own. 

In other cases, carbon offset projects are harming people by changing the economic system that they rely on. Many developing countries are still suffering from poor infrastructure, political volatility, and poverty. Changing the way people interact with the land that they live on can impact their economic condition without a sufficient backup plan. Reforestation carbon offset projects often cooperate with local governments to introduce policies such as fines that stop people from cutting the trees. The implementation can be rushed sometimes and have a negative impact on local people’s daily lives. For example, farmers in Brazil complained that they don’t have enough lumber to build their homes. Some loggers were fined $2400 that they can never afford. “People want us to starve to reduce carbon emissions,” the former president of the rubber tappers’ union told ProPublica in a 2019 report.

In fact, most carbon offset projects are located in the Global South while most are bought by the Global North. Instead of holding governments accountable and changing the existing production and consumption patterns, people in developed countries are using carbon offset as a form of indulgences. They make the Global South change their economic patterns to offsets the emissions from the Global North, all while vulnerable developing countries endure the impacts of climate change.

Carbon offsets do not need to be “canceled,” but they do need to be regulated. So far, a lot of carbon credits are exchanged through uncertified schemes such as those offered at South African-based Promoting Access to Carbon Equity Centre, according to the ProPublica story. It’s time for governments, NGOs, and industry coalitions to step in the voluntary carbon market to monitor and regularly verify the carbon offset programs. Regulating carbon markets and the social justice issues tied up in them also need to be considered in order to construct a decolonial Green New Deal.