How exactly do climate compensation, land and human rights relate to one another? The seven most crucial questions and answers about a topic as elementary as it is complex. 

Greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere at location A is saved at location B by supporting a corresponding climate project. This ‘compensation’ can take place in two ways:

a. One less tonne of CO2 is emitted (i.e., avoided), for example, through projects that prevent deforestation or save fossil-based energy.

b. A tonne of CO2 is taken out of the atmosphere (i.e., through binding processes). This is done, for example, by afforestation or storage in the soil. Through removing CO2, equilibrium is supposed to occur, with ‘net zero’ emissions remaining in the atmosphere. This is increasingly important.

The most important definitions regarding climate compensation can be found here.

The “net zero” approach is becoming an increasingly important and indispensable element in negotiations and global action dealing with the climate crisis. Historically, binding reduction targets could not be reached, and the required reduction measures must therefore be achieved even faster. In March 2023, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that without 'deep, rapid and sustained’  cuts in emissions by 2030, we have no chance of stopping a climate catastrophe. 

Against this backdrop, there is a greater temptation to rely on the other side of the ‘net’ mechanisms that remove carbon from the atmosphere and bind it in plants and soils. Companies and States can continue more or less as usual: they continue to emit greenhouse gases and make profits, and compensate for this through offsetting mechanisms meant to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. But this needs vast amounts of land.

Removing CO2 from the air on a large scale is not (yet) possible with purely technical solutions, such as direct air capture. Currently, binding CO2 from the atmosphere heavily relies on nature-based carbon removal and this in turn requires plenty of land. To compensate for current annual global CO2 emissions of around 40 billion tonnes, 40 billion trees would have to be planted every year. This means that in 80 years, the number of trees in the world would have doubled.

Even if there are positive projects for binding CO2, every net zero target or pledge made by a company or government risks fuelling the global demand for land. To implement their own pledges by 2060, governments across the world would have to use around 1.2 billion hectares of land to bind  CO2 – an area equal to all the arable land on the planet! Even if half of this area can be used to improve depleted soils and degraded ecosystems and forests for enhanced CO2 storage, the other half– 633 million hectares – would have to be converted and reforested. At the same time, a rapidly growing number of companies are committing to net zero. To take an example, the combined commitments of the four major oil corporations– BP, Shell, TotalEnergies and Eni – would require an area the size of the entire United Kingdom by 2030.

The pledges and promises by governments and companies usually do not specify where they intend to acquire this land. Considering the scope of their requirements, they may not be able to find enough land to bring about such a significant land-use change. As a consequence, this could hamper efforts to honour their emission commitments, which could ultimately worsen the climate crisis.

When companies and governments find this land – or even while searching for it –the pressure on land increases dramatically. Given the current power structures, the land most vulnerable to such pressure is that used by indigenous communities or small farmers. The ‘net zero’ pledges can end up diverting land from food crops, hampering food security and aggravating hunger among marginalised communities. Further, this shift in land-use would lead to a loss of biodiversity and disrupt existing water resources, while posing a direct threat to the human rights of local and indigenous communities. This is already happening. 

Net zero-based efforts to plant trees on these lands rarely create species-rich forests that are important to both people and the global ecosystem. In practice, afforestation amounts to the planting of fast-growing species to ensure the quickest possible storage of CO2. These monoculture tree plantations (sometimes called ‘green deserts’) – whether established for rubber, palm oil or carbon credits – have been a disaster for local people and nature. People are driven off their lands and lose their livelihoods. With barely any land to grow food, their incomes suddenly disappear, which then prevents them from sending their children to school. Moreover, these plantations severely affect local water resources through pollution and the depletion of supplies for everyday use. HEKS/EPER works with numerous communities living around such large plantations. 

In other instances of carbon offset projects, people do not lose their land directly, but their control over it. Suddenly, corporations are making rules about how women farmers in Brazil or indigenous communities in Peru can use their own land. In a recent report,  the NGO «Survival International» details how a company took control over millions of hectares of land in northern Kenya, where herders and pastoralists live. The company claims – without any scientific basis – that its new grazing system would store millions of additional tonnes of CO2 in the soil compared to traditional grazing practices. As armed rangers patrol the area to enforce the company’s new rules, there is no discussion on whether this has the local people’s consent. The situation is aptly summed up by one affected herder: “These people have sold our air”.

The current system is creating circumstances that ultimately compel small farmers, herders and indigenous communities in the Global South to change their way of life and community practices for managing forests and lands. Astonishingly, practices like shifting cultivation are now quite often seen as major reasons for deforestation, when, in fact, these community practices have been known to sustain forests and ensure the vitality of lands. 

Land belonging to communities in the Global South continues to be misrepresented as ‘unused’, and even if used, becomes cheaply available. Weak land rights regimes permit existing laws to be circumvented, making it easier to violate peoples’ rights. Additionally, global inequalities make their governments more vulnerable to this land grabbing. All of this ultimately affects those people who have contributed the least to the global climate crisis.

In contrast, agricultural corporations even manage to ‘greenwash’ their violent system of industrial tree plantations, such as eucalyptus plantations, and sell it as a model with which to sequester carbon and fight the climate crisis. These corporations and rich governments, by far the largest emitters, continue to make profits – also through large-scale corporate deforestation – and to fuel the climate crisis. In 2022, Shell, which is also invested in the net zero approach, recorded its highest profit since its founding 115 years ago.

Tradable carbon certificates facilitate this system, allowing emitters to continue to emit while paying to reduce emissions or bind carbon elsewhere. Besides, this global carbon market – a growing business worth an estimated $7.7 billion  – has so far been dominated by actors from the Global North who sell and verify these certificates. The experience of recent decades shows that, too often, the local communities, on whose land these projects operate, hardly benefit. This ends up perpetuating the very legacy of the colonialist, profit-oriented economic system that caused the climate crisis in the first place, and is also called carbon colonialism.

To directly compare one tonne of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere with one tonne of CO2 stored in a tree is very problematic. There is a substantial risk that the amount of CO2 permanently stored is much smaller than what is claimed by the respective carbon credits. It is therefore not surprising that a recent investigation by journalists from the Guardian, ZEIT and SourceMaterial found that more than 90% of a major certifier’s rainforest offset credits (also called REDD+ for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) have done nothing to reduce carbon in the air.

The biggest concern is permanence – CO2 in underground fossil deposits remains stored there in a long-term and stable manner, whereas the storage of CO2 in plants and soils is temporary and fluctuating. Once emitted, CO2 affects the atmosphere for thousands of years, while a tree, on the other hand, only binds it until it decomposes. How does one ensure that the tree is cared for over the centuries, is not cut down, and is protected from forest fires and droughts? Who bears this responsibility?

Further, CO2 offsetting can only work if the CO2 is additionally bound because of the specific project, and would never have been saved without it. However, this is an exercise in speculation, and is difficult to prove or establish. To have more credits, the threat of deforestation, for example, is often portrayed as too great, or current practices of local communities as too harmful and inflexible. Finally, it can happen that if a particular piece of forest is protected and forests restored, deforestation practices are shifted to an adjacent piece of land, and the overall situation therefore stays the same.

First and foremost, we must do everything to reduce CO2 emissions in an equitable manner. At the same time, we need to use and develop methods to capture CO2 from the atmosphere. Restoring forests and ecosystems and maintaining and creating agroecological and sustainable food systems are all important steps in this direction. Many of these solutions already exist and are practiced all around the world by small farmers, indigenous peoples, and scientists. Such emancipatory, effective and sustainable climate projects must be supported.

However, the idea of compensation or net zero on a grand scale, and traded by governments and companies as a substitute for drastic reductions, does not work. The demand for land being generated by these schemes could have drastic consequences for biodiversity and food security, and more importantly, for the rights and incomes of people in the Global South.

If net zero practices are used as an excuse to delay emission reductions or to stop fossil fuel extraction now, they worsen the climate crisis. And in turn, the catastrophic consequences of the climate crisis again end up affecting people who are at the frontline in this intensified struggle for land. It is these communities with whom people in the Global North must stand in solidarity.