Anger erupts at UN climate summit as major economies resist bold action

Question at COP25: What Role Should Carbon Markets Play in Meeting Paris Goals?

Environmental justice advocates and indigenous groups argue that emissions trading leaves the poor bearing the brunt of pollution.

Homes in El Segundo, California, sit blocks from the Chevron refinery. Credit: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
“You’re privatizing forests in our Mother Lands so you’ll be able to pollute more in our communities,” said Tere Almaguer, an environmental justice organizer whose group works with communities near California refineries that feel that they bear the brunt of poor air quality from fossil fuel emissions. Credit: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Climate justice advocates at the UN climate summit this week are focusing their frustration over global climate inaction into one highly technical debate: What role should carbon markets play in meeting the promise of the Paris climate accord?

Carbon markets started as a way to offer polluters more flexibility as they try to meet their countries’ emissions reduction targets and, in theory, lower the cost. But past international emissions trading systems have failed to reduce emissions significantly, and representatives of vulnerable and indigenous groups argue that their communities end up bearing the brunt of pollution under such systems, as industries seek to make emissions reductions where it is easiest and cheapest.

Writing the rules for future carbon market mechanisms to fulfill the Paris commitments is at the top of the agenda for the delegates of nearly 200 nations gathered in Spain through Dec. 13 at the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25). But the task has proven so difficult that it remains the last unresolved portion of the Paris treaty rulebook.

The controversy around this part of the Paris climate agreement, known as Article 6, is even more striking given the long history of international discussions over carbon markets, which nations have looked to as part of the climate solution ever since adopting the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. But to opponents in the environmental justice and indigenous people’s communities, that long experience has engendered mistrust.

“Over and over again, carbon markets have proven that they are not effective in reducing emissions,” said Tere Almaguer, environmental justice organizer for PODER in San Francisco. Her group focuses on organizing Latino communities—including those who live near California refineries and feel that they bear the brunt of poor air quality from fossil fuel emissions.

She says the state’s carbon cap-and-trade system allows the oil companies to invest in far-flung carbon mitigation projects rather than cutting emissions at home, leaving the communities to continue suffering the consequences. Referring to industry investments in forest preservation projects in the developing world to earn credit for cutting emissions, Almaguer said: “You’re privatizing forests in our Mother Lands so you’ll be able to pollute more in our communities.” MORE