African Nations Propose Growing Profits With Carbon Trading

At a meeting of 50 African nations held in Algeria in November, an agreement was reached that Africa should "speak with one voice" to pursue a larger influence in shaping the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, set to expire in 2012.    If these countries prevail, future carbon trading programs will resemble three-cornered stools, with Africa, previously left out of reaping most of the benefits of such programs, sitting pretty.

According to the agreement, the Sub-Saharan region especially will benefit from increased revenues and alleviation of the effects of climate change, industrialized nations will have more options for purchasing carbon credits, and there will be a potential net reduction in the levels of CO2 emissions overall.

Presently, just four countries:  Brazil, China, India and the Republic of Korea, account for 90 percent of all the credits sold today.  This is largely due to the structure of the program, which allows industrialized countries to "buy" carbon credits in order to "offset" the amount of CO2 they produce in excess of their allowed levels from countries which produce less.  The European Union's emission trading program allows European firms to purchase carbon credits from industrial sources, but not from forestry or agriculture projects - projects which would thrive on the African continent.

As a result, although the continent has been disproportionately affected by the consequences of climate change, African countries have so far received only about two percent of investments under the so-called Clean Development Mechanism, which allows businesses in developed countries to offset carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by investing in "green" projects in developing countries, such as renewable energy or reforestation strategies.

The justification for this exclusion was that there was no means to reliably measure carbon stored in trees or soil, particularly on small parcels of land, such as the farms typical of sub-Saharan Africa.  However, it is now feasible and relatively inexpensive to use satellite imagery and infrared spectroscopy to determine the amount of carbon captured by very small segments of land.

Using such technology to expand the scope of the Clean Development Mechanism has the potential to benefit all parties concerned.  African farmers could be encouraged to adopt sustainable farming practices which could counteract the damaging effects of agriculture in the oftentimes fragile ecosystems of the Sub-Saharan continent.  In Kenya and Malawi, for instance, farmers and policymakers are beginning to view sustainable agro forestry as a means to boost both income and production on small farms.

Many of the most common types of foliage employed for agro forestry are also highly efficient means to trap and store carbon:  fodder trees for dairy cows, plus fruit and nut trees and gardens which produce food for humans.  As a further bonus, many of the trees and shrubs cultivated produce gums and resins with significant medicinal value,  including the anti-malaria drug artemisinin. Although such investments have vast potential, it can take several years to see any profit - years which subsistence level farmers do not have.  However, receiving a carbon credit could provide these farmers with much needed revenue while they waited for their crops to literally bear fruit.

Such ventures could have a net benefit beyond financial gain.  Some estimates claim that farmland in Africa and other developing regions of the world could reliably store up to a quarter of all the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Even if these estimates are overly optimistic (which is entirely likely), it is apparent that the African continent represents a largely untapped resource for reducing CO2 emissions.

Detractors of carbon offset programs claim that such initiatives discourage industrialized countries from working to reduce their own levels of emissions.  They have a point.  It is clear that carbon offset programs are not the silver bullet to reverse the effects of climate change, any more than programs under investigation in Europe designed to trap and store CO2 emissions underground.  The solution will most certainly be drawn from many sources.  Nonetheless, it seems that the African proposal is worthy of serious consideration as one of these potential solutions.