Food for Thought: Do carbon credits help or harm the environment — can we put a price on pollution?  

Pictured left to right Colette Pichon Battle, Levi Sucre Romero, Jesse Coates, and Jones Thomas along with James Mwangi (not pictured) debating the efficacy of carbon markets at the 2023 Skoll World Forum. Credit:

By Saul Myhre, Alliance Intern from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities

A ferocious debate is taking place as to whether carbon markets contribute to global warming or are a solution. The April 20 Skoll World Forum at Oxford University debated if carbon markets have a place in an equitable future. Polluting companies “compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing carbon credits from entities that remove or reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” according to the UN. Both sides agree that there are serious challenges to the existing market that must be addressed but the pro-market side did point to some positives.

Participants agree that institutions must be held in check regarding the chokehold carbon pollution has on our planet, but opposers argue carbon markets perpetuate systems that plunged civilization into a state of overwhelming eco-anxiety.

Do carbon markets only serve to encourage the pollution of our earth?

Colette Pichon Battle, the Vision and Initiatives Partner for Taproot Earth from Bayou Liberty, Louisiana, expressed deep concern, emphasizing urgency. Battle argued that carbon markets incentivize the continual use of fossil fuels and are innately corrupt due to the market system. She believes “market-based solutions require division” where intrinsically there will be “winners and losers” and stated that losers will be in poor, underprivileged communities in which oppressed groups will be exploited by the powerful, continuing our unjust systems.

Battle said the solution lies in stopping carbon pollutant production at the source instead of scheming to maintain a system from which carbon is profited. She elaborated that we shouldn’t be supporting a market in which indigenous and underprivileged communities are essentially paid to take in corporate trash. Battle articulated that the present is “the unprecedented moment for innovation, for imagination, and for something other than the markets that got us into this situation in the first place.” 

Must we work with the system in place in order to undo its ecological destruction?

On the other hand, Kenya-based James Mwangi, a member of the Global Entrepreneurs Council of the UN Foundation, stated that in order to turn the “50 billion ton freight train” of yearly carbon emissions around we must use “every single tool in the toolbox,” including carbon markets. He argued that we must work within our cemented systems by incentivizing those who are restoring our ecosystems and punishing those that destroy them, expressing that in our world, money and resources are needed to spur the healing of our planet.

Mwangi said any solution to this problem is going to have flaws, but we must implement the principle actions in order to improve on them. He acknowledged the detriments of our current capitalist system but stated that “in adopting practices that are better for the earth, you are creating a benefit” and should be rewarded for it, elaborating that “the people who emit” pollution should pay for the rewards. Instead of working against institutions opposing systemic change, we should punish them within their own system with a “high carbon price.”

Should we continue to trust inherently corrupt institutions with the future of our planet?

Levi Sucre Romero, coming from the Bribri Talamanca indigenous community in Costa Rica, is the coordinator of the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests. He asserted carbon markets are another vessel in which exploitative governments can continue to greenwash and get away with it in the form of capitalism. Romero contested that the governments who overlook the “253 billion tons of carbon” within our planet’s rainforests historically never considered indigenous voices and rights, and asked if we “think that justice with the carbon market will now be served when history has told us otherwise?” 

Romero believes that rainforests will be traded like “blood carbon credits” in which governments “who kill are also the ones who buy and trade for the credit.” He maintained carbon markets “push back [indigenous] battles for legal recognition of our lands” because greedy governments “seek to sell carbon credits in the forests and refuse to grant these land rights to our people…The carbon market undermines the original goal of tackling climate change,” because “many companies use the carbon market to atone for their climate sins.”  

Do the successes and potential innovations of Carbon Markets outweigh its flaws?

Jones Thomas, Director at Capricorn Investment Group in NYC, didn’t defend the flaws of carbon markets nor the companies that exploit the flaws. But he highlighted how carbon markets brought innovations, such as Climeworks direct air capture, cook stoves and conversion from conventional to sustainable agriculture due to carbon sequestration. He shared how these practical solutions can be easily implemented now and help break through the “noise within the system.”

He emphasized that “voluntary markets are the most scalable solution.” The carbon credit financial incentives farmers receive for converting to regenerative or sustainable agriculture can make all the difference in their survival and families’ well-being. Thomas argued the credits also work to give rights back to indigenous communities by supporting their traditions and knowledge of how to work with the earth’s natural processes and financing their climate success for a better future.

Thomas emphasized that carbon markets support local communities by “putting value beyond philanthropic dollars…and bring the true capitalistic tools that can drive hundreds of millions of dollars” to the “stewards of the land.” He asserted that every market in our past has had exploitable loopholes, but the possible benefits outweigh the troubleshooting process of a solution that is here now. Carbon markets are not a “silver bullet” but instead are a means of significant wealth distribution and a force for world-saving innovation that we desperately need.  

Is there a future where Carbon Markets are a force for healing our damaged ecosystems?

Have the arguments of the Skoll World Forum’s broadened your perspective on the carbon market debate? Mwangi pondered if carbon market dissenters are only attacking flaws without coming forth with solutions. Romero asked who is going to ensure our institutions change and don’t repeat history. Thomas questioned whether it makes sense to abandon breakthrough carbon credit systems and ignore their positive impact. Battle argued that carbon markets only perpetuate corrupt systems by “incentivizing harm” and that it’s better to directly fund underprivileged groups.

When the dust settles, pro-sustainability individuals on either side of the carbon market debate agree that we need to act now. If we want to flow with our current systems we must insure carbon credit trade impacts the bottom line of polluting entities and refines the ways in which we monitor governments and corporations alike. If we want to undermine the systems that have created this carbon dependance, we must act swiftly and quickly bring solutions to the table. Either way, we must work with the entirety of humanity to save the only earth we have. Tell us what you think.

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