Environmental protection vs environmental justice – 02 Sep 2022

Pakistan has also been toying with the idea of tapping into carbon markets

The fact that the global economy is trying to avoid burning fossil fuels and instead turn to decarbonised sources for energy production seems like good news for all people and our planet. Yet, the quest for renewables is not as benevolent as it may seem. People with an eye on ground realities have termed the unfolding process of aiming to green the global economy as ‘dispossession by decarbonisation’.

Transitioning to green energy aims to mitigate the unfolding climate crisis, but the way in which this transition is taking place seems to be adding to the woes of the marginalised, already feeling the brunt of climate changes.

The so-called dispossession by decarbonisation is taking place via different means. It is happening via land dispossessions in the global South, which is driving poor people off land being acquired to ‘offset’ carbon emissions, to establish conservation reserves, or else, to mine raw materials needed to build green technology.

Big multinational corporations have begun investing in emission offsets. This allows them to pay poorer countries for absorbing CO2 produced by their not so eco-friendly production processes, till a seamless transition to greener energy becomes feasible.

The bulk of land being allocated to enable carbon offsetting is mostly in poorer countries, which is triggering mass evictions of pastoralists and small farmers to clear up land for forestation schemes. Many instances of these occurrences have come to the fore in Uganda and other East African countries. Not much attention has been paid to this problem under Pakistan’s tree tsunami drive, where resistance to forestation was primarily described as being instigated by the timer mafia.

Spurred by nationally determined carbon emission targets set during the Climate Summit in Paris in 2015, many countries want to switch to the use of renewables to help curb global temperatures. Several new technologies are being propagated to enable this goal, such as use of lithium batteries to store energy created via solar panels. However, the process of making these renewable technologies is very resource intensive, and it has triggered a race to acquire cobalt, lithium, copper, cadmium and other rare earth elements.

There are varied adverse impacts associated with the process of extraction, processing, transportation, and disposal of raw materials used for renewable energy. The invisible costs of producing renewable energy include land dispossession, increasing pollution and worsening land and water degradation.

The abysmal conditions within cobalt and copper mining in DRC provides a glaring example of an ‘environmental resource curse’. The DRC produces about half of the world’s cobalt, and more copper than any other African nation. Yet it is experiencing worsening water contamination, air pollution, diminishing land access for farming, illegal mining and violent conflict due to these mining operations.

The situation in the so-called ‘Lithium Triangle’ (Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile) is also precarious. Over 50% of the known deposits of lithium there is located on territories inhabited by indigenous people. Given past precedents of exploitation, it is unlikely that indigenous people will be able to benefit from the resources located on their lands.

Legitimate fears were triggered when news broke of $1 trillion worth of lithium deposits potentially lying under Afghan soil. What further conflicts and tussles the extraction of these resources will trigger within Afghanistan remains to be seen.

Pakistan has also been toying with the idea of tapping into carbon markets and developing an emissions trading mechanism. One wonders if our policymakers are familiar with the emergent problems with carbon trading outlined above, and what they aim to do to contend with these challenges.

Climate mitigation efforts should not cause further harm to poor people who bear little to no responsibility for causing climate change. To minimise such harm, it is vital that mitigation solutions go beyond top-heavy efficiency imperatives and think in terms of equity. The world not only needs environmental protection, but environmental justice also.

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