How the pursuit of carbon and fossil fuels harms vulnerable communities

The Niger Delta, where the rights of humans have been violated in the pursuit of oil. Flickr/Sosialistisk Ungdom (SU)

2016 is set to be the hottest year on record. Global temperatures are already 1,2°C above pre-industrial levels, and total reductions in emissions, committed by individual countries, far exceed globally agreed targets. This puts us on track for dangerous climate change.

At a time when the transition to a low carbon future has never been more urgent, developed countries appear locked into ongoing support for the dirty fossil fuel industries. In championing fossil fuels, indigenous peoples – First Nations and Aboriginal people – whose lives and territories have been affected by the destructive forces of colonisation, now face the violence of resource extractivism. Indigenous peoples are defined as people with specific rights and law, bound by historical ties to a location.

Indigenous peoples from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Americas, Northern Europe and the African continent, for example, face disproportionate discrimination, intimidation and violence compared to non-indigenous people. Their traditional lands are directly threatened by resource extractivism and its pollution.

The rich and poor divide

Developing countries and low lying island states are among the most defenceless in the context of a changing climate. African nations are among the most vulnerable. The cost of adapting to climate change on the African continent is estimated at $10.6 billion each year. The most precarious nations are also least responsible for climate change. Africa contributes less than 4% to global emissions.

Human induced climate change is significantly tied to the activities of developed countries. But the Paris Agreement fails to distinguish, or call out, developed countries’ distinct responsibilities. Global adaptation finance is delayed –- including funding for the Africa Adaptation Initiative –- by developed countries, who frequently cry poor.

Funding for adaptation projects languishes, but G7 countries and Australia pay around $67 billion in subsidies to the oil, coal and gas industries.. This is almost 20 times as much as they contribute to adaptation projects in developing countries. This is not surprising, given the ever increasing role of fossil fuel lobbyists in climate negotiations.

Many developed and some developing countries remain strong backers for the fossil fuel industries –- including enabling new coal mines. This is despite growing calls for 80% of remaining coal to stay in the ground and for every coal power plant to close by 2050 according Paris Agreement commitments.

Fossil fuels are also championed as a panacea for energy poverty. Not too long ago, an Australian Prime Minister boldly declared that coal is ‘good for humanity’.

Indigenous communities carry the costs

Competing visions regarding energy futures in a climate constrained world is driving conflict. And indigenous communities are frequently at the forefront of this violence and intimidation. This is well reported on the African continent. Examples include the convergence of state and corporate interests in driving petro violence in Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and elsewhere.

State based violence against the current campaign of North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is an example. They are looking to defend their water, land and way of life against the North Dakota access oil pipeline.

Protesters standing with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the North Dakota Oil Pipeline. Shutterstock

In Australia there is a similar case. Indigenous people are defending their land against Indian industrial conglomerate Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine. The mine would be Australia’s largest ever coal mine, and the third largest in the world. A UN Special Rapporteur recently reported that Indigenous people opposing the mine face severe social costs upon their lives. Despite this, the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Council stand resolute in their opposition, describing that the proposed mine would “tear the heart out” of their ancestral lands.

Yet, instead of phasing out heavy polluting fossil fuels’ industries, carbon markets have been widely championed as a magic bullet to address climate change.

Carbon markets

Carbon markets, through the trade in carbon credits, are understood to enable high emitting countries and sectors to offset their pollution – rather than curb it.

This is done through support for activities that absorb greenhouse gases elsewhere. The aviation sector, one of the highest emitting sectors globally, widely champion carbon offset as a key strategy in becoming carbon neutral. Their emissions doubled between 1990 and 2006, and with predictions this could increase a further 70% by 2020.

Carbon market projects, including Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation type projects, carbon capture and forestry schemes, are concentrated in developing countries. They have mixed outcomes for people on the ground.

An uncertain future

In some cases, communities and civil society have effectively negotiated to deliver some benefits, including local employment, access to timber and other forest products. In many other cases, however, local communities are excluded from land – often after being forcibly and violently removed – as well as being denied access to natural assets like water and forest resources.

The case of Green Resources , one of the largest industrial plantation forestry operations on the African continent, powerfully demonstrates this impact. The cessation of payment by its carbon credit buyer, the Swedish Energy Agency, has been a direct outcome of exposure of the companies’ environmental and human rights abuses.

Local ecology is also often destroyed, as the Green Resources case shows. Engaging civil society to reform carbon markets that deliver benefits to local communities are also often severely constrained.

Despite on-going questions about the impact of REDD type projects at the local level, many countries have invested time and resources to lock in their participation. This has occurred at the same time as the future of carbon markets becomes increasingly uncertain.

The future of carbon markets remains uncertain, but the need for urgent action to avert catastrophic climate change is clear. Ambitious action to address climate change remains constrained, especially with the developed world continuing to play handmaiden to the fossil fuel industries, and climate talks corrupted by fossil fuel interests.

Global Indigenous and human rights movements – like those opposing the oil, coal and gas industries – are charting a path for a fair and just transition to a low carbon energy future. It is these rights, articulated by the United Nations, not fossil fuels and markets, that must be at the heart of responses to the climate crisis.