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Is The Africa Carbon Markets Initiative a Promise or Peril?

Across Africa, senior political leaders, philanthropic groups, major private companies, and multilateral organizations are converging to support the new Africa Carbon Markets Initiative (ACMI). Touted as a transformative venture, ACMI aims to harness carbon markets for Africa, promoting it as a significant opportunity to accelerate economic development while curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Proponents claim the initiative will generate $6 billion in revenue by 2030 and over $120 billion by 2050 through the voluntary carbon market (VCM), potentially creating up to 100 million desperately needed jobs.


The Promise of Carbon Markets

ACMI is designed to target energy, agriculture, ecosystems, and waste management projects across the continent. The concept of carbon markets, originally framed within a system of enforced capped markets with reducing caps to push up the price of carbon, incentivizes carbon reductions by polluting companies. This approach, in theory, should promote cleaner development and sustainable growth in Africa.

Historical Disappointments and Current Skepticism

However, Africa’s previous experience with carbon markets during the United Nations Framework Convention (UNFCCC) Kyoto Protocol negotiations has left a legacy of unmet promises. The bottom-up system of the Paris Agreement further exacerbates the likelihood of repeating past disappointments, as it lacks a global cap on pollution, relying instead on national contributions.

Critics argue that the current framework of carbon markets is fundamentally flawed. Multiple attempts to create both mandatory and voluntary carbon trading schemes have failed. The main proponents of carbon markets within the United Nations climate negotiations are often developed countries and polluting corporations, who stand to benefit at the expense of the Global South and its people. The lived experiences in low- and middle-income countries have not borne out the promised benefits of carbon markets.

Accounting Confusions and Integrity Concerns

The voluntary carbon market faces significant challenges, including confusion over the accounting of carbon credits within the UNFCCC system. The ongoing negotiations under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement highlight the strong potential for double counting of emissions reductions. This issue arises when a carbon reduction is counted twice, once in the selling country and again in the purchasing country, undermining the integrity of the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C goal.

A Distracting Mechanism

For over two decades, academics, civil society, think tanks, and various public institutions have pointed out the failings of carbon markets. They argue that these markets divert responsibility, distracting wealthy countries and corporations from reducing their own emissions. Instead, they lock in high-emission levels in the Global North while shifting the burden onto the Global South.

ACMI, critics claim, represents the financialization and commodification of the climate crisis and nature. It allows rich countries and companies to dodge their carbon mitigation responsibilities, crowding out more effective solutions that involve regulating industries and rapidly shifting to new technologies and approaches. This creates an illusion of emissions reduction while passing the responsibility onto the poorest and most vulnerable countries and people, often at the lowest cost possible. Such an approach counts tonnes of carbon ‘saved’ over sustainable development outcomes for African people, representing a form of neo-colonialism.

Voices of Resistance

At COP26, representatives of Indigenous Peoples voiced strong opposition to carbon markets. They stated that these markets enable capitalist economies to continue polluting while commodifying and colonizing nature and people in the Global South. Their statement called carbon markets “an illusion constructed to salvage capitalist economies rooted in resource extraction and colonialism,” emphasizing that colonialism caused climate change, and solutions should not come from colonizers.

The Risk of Commodification

The development of pan-African carbon markets risks further commodifying land and resources in Africa. This process could enable wealthy elites and polluting corporations in the Global North to maintain high levels of climate pollution, which is already devastating Africa. The continent should be wary of creating initiatives that actively support this process, as they may ultimately serve the interests of external actors rather than fostering genuine sustainable development for African communities.


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