As we look with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation towards the 26th United Nations annual climate change negotiations – otherwise known as COP26 – coming to Glasgow in November 2020, this year’s talks in Madrid are being characterised as comparatively trivial to those of next year.

Yet one of the key issues on the table in Madrid has the potential to fatally undermine the goals of the Paris Agreement to hold global warming to well below 2ºC and aim for 1.5ºC. That is the highly controversial question of agreeing rules for carbon markets, the only part of the Paris Agreement that the UN process failed to get closure on by the end of last year’s talks in Katowice, Poland.

What are carbon markets?

Carbon markets are, as the name suggests, market-based mechanisms for reducing climate change emissions. They allow polluters to continue emitting greenhouse gases, for a price. There are two main kinds: cap and trade, and offsetting.

Cap and trade is where a limit is set at the country, state or regional level on how much pollution can be emitted, within a certain timeframe. If a party (e.g. a polluting company) emits less than their limit, they can sell what’s left of their quota to another party who doesn’t want to reduce their emissions. 

Offsetting is where a country, state or region pays another to make carbon savings, theoretically beyond what they otherwise would have done, so as to avoid making emissions reductions themselves.

No time left to trade

The most obvious problem for carbon markets under the Paris Agreement is that theoretically, even if we were in a perfect world, with perfect rules that everybody abided by, we have simply run out of time to play around with trading and offsetting.  At our current rate of emissions it is estimated that we will run out of the remaining carbon budget for 1.5ºC by 2025. That means that every country needs to urgently cut its emissions to zero: there is literally no atmospheric space left to buy and sell.

Even if we weren’t so desperately close to exploding the carbon budget, in more than two decades of experience of carbon trading and offsetting demonstrate that carbon markets simply do not work. There is no evidence to indicate that the EU Emissions Trading Scheme has had any impact in reducing emissions in its nearly 25-year lifespan, while an assessment of the Clean Development Mechanism under the Paris Agreement’s predecessor treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, found only 2% of projects were highly likely to be effective in reducing emissions.

There is no reason to think it would be any different with a new mechanism under the Paris Agreement. In fact, the very architecture of the Paris Agreement with its system of bottom up pledges from the national level, rather than top down targets set on the basis of a scientific assessment of the carbon budget means there is no effective cap in place, which is fundamental to the very idea of cap and trade.

Devastating wider impacts

What’s more, carbon offsetting projects have a track record of serious human rights abuses, particularly to Indigenous Peoples. It is Indigenous groups who are leading the struggle against carbon markets here at COP25, and around the world. One of the most infamous offsetting schemes known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) – in addition to failing to do what it is supposed to do and reduce emissions – has seen violent evictions of Indigenous people and small holder farmers in the name of conservation projects, land-grabbing that sees forests destroyed to make way for monoculture plantations, and even ‘carbon slavery’ where families are tied into decades long contracts to tend forests for next to no pay.

As if all of this weren’t bad enough, what’s on the table in Madrid is more insidious than that. Under proposals from the US and others (yes, the same US that is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and therefore won’t be bound by any of its rules by the end of next year but still wants to have a say in the rules that others play by) for what’s called ‘technology neutrality’, carbon markets under the Paris Agreement could pave the way for the use of all kinds of untried, untested, theoretical and likely devastating geo-engineering. 

Geoengineering includes a range of technologies from the dangerously distracting Carbon Capture and Storage, which the Scottish Government and the UK oil and gas industry are keenly pursuing, to the terrifyingly uncontrollable: ‘fertilisation’ of oceans with iron to cool them down, and solar radiation ‘management’ in which aerosols are sprayed into the stratosphere to block sunlight. The fundamental problem with all of these technologies is that they are impossible to test without actually putting into practice at a large scale. By the time we learned whether they worked or what their knock on adverse impacts were, it would simply be too late. 

What’s the solution?

Ultimately, carbon markets are a dangerous distraction from the just and people-centred solutions to the climate crisis that we know will cut emissions. Like putting a date on the end of oil, gas and coal extraction –  in Scotland and in all fossil fuel producing nations around the world – and planning for a rapid phase out of fossil fuels alongside a just transition for the workforce and wider communities. Like transforming the way we travel and how we produce and consume food, relying on public transport and agroecology instead of private cars and industrial farming.

It’s not surprising that fossil fuel companies, including Shell and BP, are amongst the most ardent advocates of carbon markets. These companies have free reign to lobby openly and behind closed doors in the side events and corridors of the annual UN talks on climate change. In fact Shell boasts that it wrote the Paris Agreement. The same Shell that is paying the Scottish Government £5 million towards existing tree planting and calling it carbon offsetting.

Kick polluters out of the climate talks, and stand against carbon markets

That’s why we need to kick polluters out of the UN climate talks, like the World Health Organisation eventually kicked Big Tobacco out of its processes.

While the Scottish Government doesn’t have control over corporate sponsorship within the official UN space in Glasgow next year, it can ensure that no fossil fuel companies are allowed in the Science Centre which, in partnership with the Scottish Government, will act as a base for a series of events during the UN summit.  

We also need to stand firm against carbon markets. Under Scotland’s climate change legislation, buying overseas credits through carbon trading or offsetting is permitted up to 20% of each year’s annual target. However, during the passage of the legislation, the Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change spoke strongly against using this loophole though, stating: “Carbon credits just let somebody else do the emitting for you, which does not seem to me to be a particularly moral way to approach the issue”. 

We urge the Scottish Government to live up to that sentiment, use its considerable diplomatic leverage on the world stage to encourage others to do the same, and to never repeat the mistake of facilitating greenwash for the likes of Shell. 

It is the current economic system of polluting for profit that got us into the climate crisis. Nothing short of a radical transformation of our economies that takes power away from corporations and puts it back in the hands of the people will do.

Over 160 organisations, including Friends of the Earth Scotland, have signed a petition to keep carbon markets out of COP25.

Join the Climate Talks Webinar

Mary will take part in a special online webinar from the climate talks on Tuesday 10 December from 6.30-8pm. She’ll be discussing how the negotiations are going, the last minute switch from Chile and looking ahead to Glasgow in 2020. Join the webinar’s Facebook event: