With the failure of Copenhagen to produce a binding treaty to reduce global carbon emissions, market solutions based on the trade of carbon emissions credits (known as Certified Emission Reductions (CERs)) remain the dominant frame of reference for international negotiations to address the drivers of climate change. Little formal assessment has been conducted, however, on the social and environmental outcomes of carbon trading projects. In this context, where the causes of and solutions for the climate crisis are unequally distributed between nations, and between actors within those nations, the carbon/climate trading strategy is analyzed here as an example of “unequal ecological exchange”, where the environmental and social costs of resource extraction are borne by other populations, often in the global South, rather than by those who actually engage in the greatest levels of resource consumption. This paper examines the specific environmental and social implications of carbon offset strategies and carbon trading for agriculture in Latin America using an analysis of agriculture-related projects registered in the Clean Development Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Additional data is drawn from primary fieldwork with carbon offset projects in Brazil and Guatemala and from existing case studies and evaluations of other agriculture-related carbon offset initiatives including REDD and voluntary carbon market projects.
Preliminary data analysis shows that the environmental benefits of carbon offset agriculture are often overstated, with failures in the areas of additionality, accuracy of carbon science, and project accountability, while social costs are often hidden from view. The data also indicates that despite the rhetoric of the Clean Development Mechanism, industrial agriculture, already a major driver of climate change, stands to benefit from carbon markets to a much greater extent than smallholder agriculture. Evidence suggests that an increase in carbon trading will further displace diversified, family-based, and agro-ecological production in favor of an expansion of biofuel monocultures and industrial tree plantations.