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The 2009 Climate Conference: poverty reduction and human rights implications

July 23, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Geoff Bugbee for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps' local partner Proyecto Aldea Global works with poor communities that adjoin an important cloudforest, helping marginalized groups maintain their livelihoods while protecting natural resources. Photo: Geoff Bugbee for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    In La Merced, Nicaragua, Mercy Corps' local partner promotes erosion control, reforestation, and creation of water reserves, for the more efficient organic farming of coffee. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, December 2009, is a critical meeting for our planet. Commonly called the COP, it's where the world's governments will decide the planet’s course of action to deal with climate change after the Kyoto protocol, which runs out in 2012. There is increasing recognition and pressure to help the developing world, especially those at the “bottom of the pyramid.” These countries have done the least to cause climate change, yet suffer its effects the most.

A critical part of the equation will be to enhance market-based incentives for climate-friendly behavior. These are currently available through the carbon markets, which are mechanisms that encourage the reduction or capture of the greenhouse gasses that cause global warming — especially CO2. These carbon markets were worth US$32 billion in 2006 and US$64 billion in 2007. In late 2008 and early 2009 values fell with the global stock market, but their previous trajectory should recover.

The carbon markets are based on carbon credits. Some are generated by projects that capture carbon, such as tree planting. Most involve projects that reduce CO2 emissions and vary tremendously, from an industrial-scale project that reduces emissions from a big power plant's smoke-towers, to a community project involving switching thousands of people from incandescent to compact florescent light bulbs.

While the carbon market is typically more suited for industrial projects, it is increasingly opening in ways that can work with vulnerable and poverty-stricken populations in development programming. Unfortunately, in practice, successful carbon projects have tended to be large existing or potential emitters at single or localized sites such as large factories. That is, they are “a centimeter wide, a kilometer deep” — for example, the smoke stack of a single power plant. In these types of project monitoring and verification are easy.

In contrast, projects benefiting the poor are “a kilometer wide, a centimeter deep,” covering several square kilometers of territories where families reside, with each family individually producing a small emissions reduction that contributes to a larger, community based project. Monitoring and tracking of these communities is usually cost prohibitive.

There is widespread worry over a relatively new, UN-backed initiative known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). Set against the deforestation that causes about 20 percent of the greenhouse emissions that contribute to climate change, REDD sets out to compensate countries with large forest resources for protecting forests or regenerating those degraded by over-exploitation and illegal logging.

Whereas it will be a major discussion point at the COP, there remain dangers that it may further erode the human rights of forest-dependent people. Tropical forests have been logged ‘legally’ and illegally by state, para-statal and private industry for decades. Indigenous forest communities and other forest-dependent peoples have had no voice in how resources were taken, or how revenues from their exploitation were distributed. In many cases, they were displaced or worse. Forest areas in many forested developing countries are owned by the state, with indigenous populations living without secure land tenure.

The question therefore arises — if countries can generate carbon revenues through REDD — to whom do the revenues belong, and how will they be allocated? This question is set against the backdrop of many government forestry ministries having a long history of corruption and mismanagement. In many countries, there are signs of inter-agency rivalry over which ministry will have the biggest part of putative REDD funds. And in only very few countries are there high-level discussions about the role of communities and civil society in REDD implementation and revenue distribution. The human rights of marginalized peoples may erode further.

The COP meeting is a critical milestone in how to address climate change. Yet with it come significant and far reaching questions concerning economic development and human rights. It is a meeting that demands our closest attention.