Why the climate movement needs integrity

29, August 2022
Regan Pairojmahakij
Clear and compelling communication is essential to galvanizing commitment and the drastic actions needed to prevent the worst consequences of climate change.
Practitioner's Insights
RECOFTC

Humanity’s response to the climate change crisis has largely not been guided by science but rather influenced by communication campaigns conducted by well-funded, vested interest groups. 

Evidence is mounting on how corporations have systematically undermined efforts to raise awareness about climate change by framing it as a controversial ‘theory’. 

Recent research published in Nature Climate Change and led by researchers at the Yale School of the Environment details systematic efforts by industry-backed lobbyists to derail climate action in the United States. Despite solid science backing human-caused climate change over the past decades, corporations have seeded widespread public doubt through highly effective marketing and lobbying. Sadly for the planet, marketing of misinformation has trumped science.

However, we are becoming familiar with the growing refrain that all is not lost—yet. There is still a window in which drastic actions can avert the worst consequences of climate change.

But how to rally those actions? And how to do it in time?

Steve Zwick of Ecosystem Marketplace says we are at a second crossroad on climate change, and in particular, Natural Climate Solutions. At this crossroad, our ability to address climate change is determined by public perceptions and how the problem, and the solutions, are framed and communicated.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports are becoming more strident. Scientists are taking to the streets and engaging in policy activism, leaving behind their stances of scientific impartiality. Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs) are now engaged in ways we have never seen before, profiled in ways that have emboldened and empowered the movement. We are at an inflection point where communication is key. 

Carbon markets and placing a price on carbon offer a powerful tool, the full potential of which has yet to be realized. For those denouncing market-based approaches, the crux of the current problem is that these solutions are incomplete. Carbon emissions are externalized. That means that firms that emit carbon harm the environment, but they do not pay a penalty or cost. Rather, the cost is borne by humans and all other species in the form of a changing climate. 

Short of dispensing with the current socio-economic architecture that underlays our global economy, our only viable option is to urgently ensure that all adverse impacts on our ecosystems, on IPLCs and vulnerable groups, are internalized and accounted for. Paid for by the emitters. 

But markets by definition are driven by demand, and imperfect factors drive consumer demand and preferences. Whether there is sufficient demand for purchased carbon offsets at the scale, price and quality required to transform land use and forestry sectors will be determined to a large degree by public perceptions.

[...] the value of initiatives to establish minimum standards and begin to rein in the medley of methodologies and approaches is becoming clearer and more urgent.

Whether or not the voluntary carbon markets are seen as robust, legitimate reductions in emissions leading to concrete and positive impacts will determine the demand, the pricing and thus the overall success of carbon markets. It is here that the value of initiatives to establish minimum standards and begin to rein in the medley of methodologies and approaches is becoming clearer and more urgent. 

To some degree, the success of carbon markets relies on easily understood assurances of the quality of the carbon product being purchased. The Integrity Council for Voluntary Carbon Market (ICVCM), an offshoot of the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets, aims to do just this. The ICVCM Core Carbon Principles and its associated Assessment Framework are a quasi-regulatory system for the multiplicity of standards currently populating the voluntary carbon market. 

RECOFTC welcomes the initiative and the draft Core Carbon Principles which are open for public comment for 60 days until 30 September. The Core Carbon Principles are a work in progress and there remain areas for improvement. 

RECOFTC would like to see, for example, more clarity on the circumstances in which Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) is considered mandatory, a requirement in all land-use sector projects and programs. This would include periodic reviews to ensure that baseline stakeholder consultations remain valid through the duration of the project or program. As part of a robust stakeholder engagement process, FPIC and similar safeguards need to be clear throughout the Assessment Framework that communities are heterogeneous and that consultations, consent and engagement are inclusive and disaggregated according to gender and other marginalized groups. It is also important to ensure that evidence is provided on who is representing communities in decision-making processes and that they are genuine, legitimate community-recognized representatives. 

Finally, more thinking is required in the tagged ‘attributes’ component of the Assessment Framework. At RECOFTC, we believe that the highest standards for IPLC engagement must be upheld throughout the entire assessment process. However, there may be value in developing an IPLC specific ‘tag’ under the Core Carbon Principles to identify projects and programs that aim to deliver transformational impacts and empowerment, over and above ‘do no harm’ principles. This would embolden and empower communities in ways that climate finance hasn’t been able to deliver up until now. We look forward to seeing how this evolves over time and have profound ambition to be a part of the solutions.

But in the long-term ensuring integrity of carbon crediting programs will be a vital step in bringing the various disparate crediting initiatives under the same big tent.

RECOFTC supports the effort to establish baseline assessment tools for the integrity of carbon crediting programs. Inevitably this will lead to some short-term growing pains as project developers and carbon crediting standards seek to understand the implications and what alignment will look like. The integrity baselines will also raise the level of scrutiny on projects and may have implications for transaction and other costs associated with achieving certification and endorsement from initiatives such as the ICVCM. But in the long-term ensuring integrity will be a vital step in bringing the various disparate crediting initiatives under the same big tent, and advancing the all-important objective of assuring the public that not only is climate change real, but so too are the carbon offsets needed to protect and restore forests.

Integrity is essential to public perceptions, action and success. The baseline assessment tools and coordinated strategies suggested here will prove to be successful in the long-run—not only for turning the tide on the critical issue of climate change action, but also to prevent any future cases of large-scale public manipulation from undermining carbon crediting programs. 

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Regan Pairojmahakij is a senior program officer on landscapes in a changing climate at RECOFTC.

RECOFTC's work is made possible with the continuous support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).