Frederic Hache questions proposals that perpetual growth can be made sustainable by planting trees.

In an article published by Le Monde in December, 2023, the President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, affirmed that he wants to “build the foundations of a bio-economy that pays for the services provided by nature” and promotes the creation of a “international carbon and biodiversity exchange”. A business opportunity estimated by the World Economic Forum at $10.1tr by 2030, of which the Paris financial centre hopes to capture a significant share. Disguised as a “technical” response to the climate and biodiversity crisis, this programme, which marks the triumph of Neoliberal ideas over the real responses to be provided, will not stop the ongoing environmental and human disaster.

In recent months, we have seen a proliferation of political and institutional discourses, promoted by the Élysée, aimed at convincing people that “green” financial markets will save capitalism from itself. The essence of this proposal is simple: we in the Global North do not need to change our way of life. To save the planet, it would be enough to replace our economic growth fuelled by coal and oil with growth based on green energies, to put a price on nature, and finally to privatise and transfer conservation policies to financial markets.

Given the appalling track record of similar schemes and their documented conceptual issues, an informed public debate is warranted before such a market is launched.

France is not alone in its push to financialise nature: the UK just launched a biodiversity unit market and both countries are working together to launch an international biodiversity market by October during the Biodiversity COP16 meeting. Given the appalling track record of similar schemes and their documented conceptual issues, an informed public debate is warranted before such a market is launched. Yet, it is not happening, not least because Neoliberal governments know how unpopular such schemes would be if their voters were aware of them.

These proposals are nothing new. This is what the proposal to create an “international carbon and biodiversity stock market” really implies: instead of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, it would be enough to plant a few trees on the other side of the world to “compensate“, which would then allow speculation on the future price of these real permits to pollute. However, these projects are a spectacular failure on an environmental level. According to a Guardian investigation, 94% of certified carbon offset projects in forest areas have no effect.

For biodiversity, the problem is the same, but infinitely worse, in the sense that this type of market involves transforming into financial instruments not six greenhouse gases, but millions of species, interdependent on each other. It is simply not possible to standardise and boil down biodiversity to a few tradable financial instruments.

Furthermore, ecological priorities are not those of the markets. These may favour a type of ecosystem that is quicker and less costly to restore, and underfunds the protection of species and ecosystem functions critical to our survival.

Academic research has amply demonstrated that conservation policies based on economic incentives are much more fragile than those based on regulations, because destroying is often more profitable than preserving. Methods for putting a price on ecosystem services are also notoriously biased, producing in most cases numbers, not value.

Furthermore, one of the most problematic aspects of the Macronian “solutions” is obviously knowing who will pay the price for this possible commodification of nature. Like what happened with rubber fever at the end of the 19th century, a new wave of land grabs is looming in the name of environmental compensation. Countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe have recently signed agreements with Blue Carbon, a company linked to the royal family of the United Arab Emirates, for carbon credit projects involving millions of hectares of land – an area equivalent to that of the UK.

The “nature” that will be put on the financial markets to compensate for our destruction is the place where other people live.

However, 80% of the planet’s biodiversity is found on the territories of indigenous peoples, a large part of which is rich in carbon. But the “nature” that will be put on the financial markets to compensate for our destruction is the place where other people live. A source of food, care, and cultural transmission. Numerous independent reports have provided overwhelming evidence that the majority of conservation projects, especially in Africa and Asia, have been carried out at the expense of the rights of indigenous peoples. Mass expulsions, torture, rape and the criminalisation of their way of life are the heavy price to pay for local communities whose territories have been transformed into parks and nature reserves.

Today, carbon offset projects generate the same human rights violations. As Survival International shows, global movement for the rights of indigenous peoples, in Kenya, nomadic herders, who have contributed the least to climate change and suffer the most from its consequences, are being evicted from their land to “compensate” for the emissions of companies like Engie, Meta and Netflix, which are among those truly responsible for the climate crisis. Added to the human and climatic massacre is the feeling of injustice and powerlessness of indigenous peoples. Emanuel, from the Renille people in Kenya testifies: “These people sold our air”.

So why continue to promote false solutions that negatively impact nature and humanity? The answer lies in what these false solutions make invisible. Indeed, the paradigm of infinite growth and the exploitation of resources for the resulting profit is never called into question. On the contrary, it is encouraged, as long as the industry that destroys, “compensates” with a forest protection project or a tree plantation, somewhere in the Global South. The government’s political priority is to protect an unsustainable way of life and to avoid public debate on changing our model of production and consumption. A class policy, aimed at protecting the interests of an elite.

Frédéric Hache

After 12 years working in investment banking, designing and selling currency derivatives, Frédéric joined NGO Finance Watch at its creation in 2011, where he managed the policy analysis team and …

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