Blood carbon explained by Simon Counsell

Simon Counsell on Blood Carbon


What is a carbon offset project and how does it work?

A carbon offset project is something that is supposedly about trying to help address the problem of global climate change. This is being caused by the increase in the air of certain gases, carbon-based gases like carbon dioxide. Some of these occur naturally, but are increasing because of the burning of things like petrol and oil, wood and coal, charcoal. These all release a gas called carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and this gas serves to trap heat inside the Earth's atmosphere. 

This problem is causing changes in the weather and the climate around the world including for example in northern Kenya where droughts are becoming more frequent and more severe. In other parts of the world very damaging storms and floods are happening more frequently as well. So for nearly 30 years, governments around the world have been pledging to try and do something about this problem – because it will get much worse in the future if nothing is done about it – by reducing the amount of carbon that is being put into the atmosphere, mostly by burning fossil fuels.. However, there are other ideas about this because this presents a big threat, a big challenge to companies like oil companies, airlines and so on that produce a lot of this pollution, as it could be very expensive for them to actually cut their emissions of these kinds of carbon-based gases.

Instead of them actually reducing their own pollution, the idea is that they pay someone else, somewhere, to reduce their carbon emissions or to actually actively capture that carbon and bring it back out of the atmosphere – whilst the oil companies or the airlines, or whoever it is, carry on producing their own pollution. So this is what an offset scheme is about. It’s about a polluting company paying someone else to supposedly reduce their emissions of global greenhouse gases or to remove those existing greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, supposedly for an equivalent amount, of the pollution that these big companies are causing.

What is the NRT carbon offset project?

Since 2013, NRT has been running one of these supposed carbon offset projects and the idea behind this is that by changing the grazing patterns of cows, camels and goats and so on, it’s possible to cause more grasses and other vegetation to grow in the areas of 13 of the community conservancies. This is in an area of over 2 million hectares, areas which NRT claims have been over grazed in the past because of traditional pastoralism. So the idea is that by changing grazing patterns onto what they call a ‘planned rotational grazing’ system, where they take control of a family's animals, which are  then moved around according to some kind of careful plan, NRT say, this will  create more vegetation and this then brings down more of this carbon out of the atmosphere, which they say,  will be stored permanently in the soil underneath the lands of these conservancies. This is a very big project. They’ve created some 4 million carbon credits, claiming  that roughly 4 million tonnes of carbon has been captured through this process. They've been selling those carbon credits, as they’re called, to big companies including Netflix and Meta to enable those companies to claim that they are becoming carbon neutral.

How will this project affect the pastoralist communities?

The basis of this project is that NRT claims that the traditional forms of grazing have been causing degradation of the soil, that the communities have been overgrazing, and this has been causing reductions in the amount of carbon that’s stored in the conservancies in the soils, in the grasses and so on. In order to introduce what NRT calls this new planned rotational grazing, they have to take control essentially of everybody’s animals and they have to put them under the control of NRT-employed grazing managers that move the cattle around, very carefully from place to place, week by week and month by month. And that, they claim, helps the vegetation regenerate and more carbon to be stored in the soil. But that means that the traditional management by families, governed under the traditional grazing regimes, cannot operate anymore. So this would potentially cause a huge change in the way the people in northern Kenya, inside the NRT conservancies, are able to manage their own cattle or not be able to manage their own cattle. One of the biggest concerns is that under this NRT carbon project, all cattle are supposed to stay inside the conservancies, they are not allowed go out into other areas. It's not being enforced very much now, but it could be enforced at some point and this would obviously have a major impact if it prevented cattle being moved to areas during drought where there is still vegetation available, for example  south to Mount Kenya. So, NRT doesn't want that happening anymore and that could be extremely dangerous if the traditional movement and migration of livestock herds is prevented.

Will this project actually have an impact on climate change?

We investigated exactly how this project appears to be working and what we found is that it doesn’t seem that NRT is actually carrying out a lot of what it claims to have been doing in this so-called planned rotational grazing. It’s either very little different from what was happening in the past or it's not really happening at all. And there isn't any real solid evidence that the project is doing what it says in terms of causing more vegetation to grow or storing more carbon in the soil. So, the carbon credits that are being created from this project appear to be worthless in terms of representing any improvement for climate change. The short answer is, it appears as if the project is actually doing nothing towards climate change but what it’s doing, of course, is allowing the companies who are buying those carbon credits to claim that they are becoming carbon neutral and to not take action to reduce their own emissions. In that sense, you could say it’s actually making climate change worse and that again is a serious problem when we see the effects of this increasing climate change in places like northern Kenya with very severe droughts and lack of rainfall becoming progressively worse and more intense as the years progress.

How much, if at all, will communities benefit from the project?

These carbon credit projects can produce a lot of money basically because, over the next 20, or 30 years or so, it can sell  tens of millions of these carbon credits and each of them can go for maybe 7, 10 or even 20 dollars - something like that. We’re talking about potentially hundreds of millions of dollars being generated by this project and probably something in the region of 40 million dollars worth of credits have already been sold by NRT. This can potentially generate money for the communities and the conservancies that are originally producing these carbon credits, because each conservancy produces a proportion of the total amount being sold by the project. Unfortunately though, the way that the project has been set up, most of the profit from the credits is going to: firstly a US-based marketing organisation. They're getting 20% or 30% of all of the proceeds from the sale of these credits. NRT itself is taking something like another 20% or so, it varies a bit depending on how much the first lot get. And then the rest of it is notionally divided up amongst the 13 participating conservancies. But of that portion, which is about a half of it, most of how it actually gets spent, is determined again by NRT.  The conservancies have to apply to NRT to get some money back from the project, from the sale of the carbon credits that they are creating. Only a very, very small percentage (it’s about 1% or 1.5%) of the total benefit of these credits is being distributed to each of the 13 conservancies automatically. So it’s a very small percentage basically which is going directly to the conservancies.

Is this only happening in Kenya? Do these kinds of projects happen in other countries?

This so-called northern Kenya grasslands carbon project being run by NRT is just one of many, many hundreds that are happening around the world. I’ve looked into a number of these in the past and there are similar problems happening with many of them. People are losing their lands, they’re losing livelihoods, they’re often being cheated out of a certain amount of benefits. And in many cases the project isn't having any beneficial impact for the climate, at all. Again the carbon credits that are being sold from them, as seems to be the case with NRT’s, are essentially worthless. And very worryingly, we see these kinds of projects expanding very, very quickly in many countries, including Kenya, where there are several other projects, similar to NRT’s, in the process of being set up.

Why do you talk about Blood Carbon and what does it mean?

The reason the term Blood Carbon is used is because, potentially in the future the only way that these kinds of projects can be enforced is through armed control. NRT’s rangers have already been implicated in some serious human rights abuses and the fear is that these could intensify as NRT is forced to kind of intervene more, in the way that grazing is carried out. They already stop people and they confiscate animals if they are moving outside the conservancies. One can see that these kinds of problems could become much, much worse and we are aware that the amount of conflict that has been happening has been increasing as the number of weapons in the area increases, and often those of NRT rangers has also been increasing. So this is why this project has the potential to cause a lot more conflict in the area of the conservancies and that is of course extremely worrying.

What is NRT and what is the problem with the conservancies? This sounds like a good idea?

NRT is based on the transformation of what were formerly ranches held by British colonial families into a kind of mixture between ranches and wildlife reserves. For example, they have been developed into very high value, elite “ecotourism lodges” where people pay huge amounts of money to stay and come and watch the wildlife and so on. And from that idea, the conservancies have been expanded progressively over the last two decades or so and now cover almost 10% of Kenya, which is a very, very big area. Thirteen of these, (‘community conservancies’) are involved in this NRT carbon offset project. The problem with them as we have heard from many local people, is that although they do bring the communities limited benefits, for example, there have been some boreholes dug, some grants have been given to help students go to school and there have been some health clinics built etc, .. there are also very widespread complaints about very serious human rights abuses and also the extent to which the communities themselves are really involved in managing these projects. We have heard many very credible accusations that NRT is very much involved in manipulating and managing the governance of these conservancies through the so-called elected boards in a way that enables NRT to ensure that its own agenda, which is mostly about conserving wildlife, is what happens inside these conservancies and not necessarily what the communities living in those areas actually want. So that is a very serious concern.

If carbon credits are not the way forward, what would be an alternative?

What we have heard from the council of elders in the project area is that the project is actually undermining what they see as being the most important things to be happening, particularly the registration of land for the communities under the Community Land Act. There is an ongoing court case about that. And the resolution of that, and securing the land for the communities, should be a basis for a future for that area. If that happens and the communities have absolute rights to their land and absolute control over it then perhaps they can consider if they want to be involved in a carbon offset project. At the moment, because there isn't that security of ownership of the land, it's essentially NRT very much dictating the terms of how this project runs and the terms of how that runs is actually quite disadvantageous to local communities. How much benefit the communities are getting from this project, can also be questioned. The conservancy boards, which have signed these agreements with NRT to sell these carbon credits from each of the conservancies, should be questioned about how much money is actually coming from this. Is this a fair arrangement? How much money is NRT actually getting overall from these projects? That's hard to know because NRT never publishes its accounts, so we don’t know exactly how much these carbon credits are being sold for, how much is coming to NRT and then how much should be being distributed to the conservancies. Those are all perfectly legitimate questions for communities to be asking.

If you have more questions, please feel free to reach out to us: [email protected]


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