Hands off our ‘green gold’: Why government shouldn’t control carbon

Carbon is becoming our country’s newest resource, our green gold.

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Shall we allow the government to control who benefits from it and on what terms? Our history suggests doing so may not bode well for us.

Carbon is an essential building block of life. It bonds with hydrogen, oxygen and other elements to form sugars, amino acids, hormones, and carbon dioxide (CO2) to steer several life processes. 

CO2

For example, CO2 is essential for plants to photosynthesise, produce, and store food while liberating oxygen to support humans and other organisms.

CO2 is also a greenhouse gas (GHG). It traps heat energy from the sun in the earth’s atmosphere. Without CO2 and other GHGs, the Earth would be bone-chilling at minus 18°C.

Despite its usefulness, having excessive CO2 in the atmosphere raises global temperatures, disrupting the climate, life cycles, and food production systems, with many being evident in our daily lives.

It is possible to stem this trend, firstly, by reducing our consumption of resources, and secondly, by capturing more CO2 from the atmosphere. One way to do this is by maintaining forests and planting trees.

Trees are a carbon-capturing phenomenon. They can store carbon in their wood for centuries if not burned or decaying. 

Scheme

Recognising this, world leaders have established carbon offsetting schemes through international agreements. Carbon offsetting enables high CO2 emitters (companies, countries, etc.) to pay other actors to build or maintain their carbon sinks. Carbon markets are not very reliable.

Yet they are pursued by various actors with different interests within asymmetrical power relations. This precipitates questions about who is empowered to make decisions or exercise control over carbon.

Legal

Ghana has no coherent legal framework on carbon. This complicates questions regarding control over carbon further. Our laws vest all naturally regenerated trees to the state (Concession Act 1961).

Essentially, the state has control over any tree that germinates by itself. It does not matter where; whether it is on your farm, fallow land, or bedroom, the state controls it. But when you plant a tree and furnish the state with the requisite evidence, you own it. In practice, it is extremely challenging to register all planted trees.

Throughout my professional career, I am baffled by why various governments have, after decades of advocacy, refused to relinquish control over all trees outside forest reserves to those who nurture them.

Programme

Over the last decade, our governments have embarked on emissions reduction programmes in the country’s cocoa and shea landscapes. Our REDD+ strategy suggests the government intends to cover other areas as well.

The cocoa and shea landscape REDD+ programmes are creditable. However, they are legitimising problematic precedence by facilitating forms of centralisation that empower the government to exclusively transact and benefit from carbon sequestered by local communities disproportionately.

This approach, for one, imperils local communities’ ability to find alternative, more viable markets, or rewards for their contributions to carbon sequestration. International rules on carbon trading do not allow for multiple carbon projects within the same geographical location.

Moreover, by centralising control over carbon within a jurisdictional approach, the government risks stifling private sector innovation through scalar politics and “masom-masom politics”.

In order words, by forcing itself to mediate transactions on our green gold, the government has become the irritating middle-women (“masom-masomfoɔ”) that prevents farmers from selling their crops directly to consumers in our markets in order to exploit them.

Local

Local communities must have total control over their carbon resources, working with diverse actors at different scales to benefit from their green gold profoundly. 

Our government’s role should primarily be light-touch facilitation, not aggregating and transaction carbon on behalf of local communities without their genuine democratic, free, prior, and informed consent through the façade of scalar politics.

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It is long overdue for our government to relinquish control over ALL trees outside forest reserves to farmers. On our burgeoning green gold, hands-off government!

The writer is a researcher, Land, Society and Governance Group, Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery, Environmental Change Institute, University o­Partnership for Agriculture, Conservation and Transformation (PACT), Ghana.

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