Africa: The Global North Should Focus on Climate Accountability, Not Just Compensation

Arusha — Vast swathes of ancient forest are cut for timber. Oil is endlessly extracted from wells cut deep in the ground. And as countless species are irrecoverably driven to extinction, factories continue to belch pollution, clouding our once-clear skies.

For this destruction, the Global North has historically held the most responsibility – their insatiable demand for resources is driving near-constant extraction from the Global South. Equipped with wood, oil and metals, the Global North has advanced economically, leaving many in the Global South unable to keep pace.

Although this dynamic undoubtedly continues, the Global North is learning. As more people look to make amends, some have suggested compensation to be the answer. But in response, I ask, “How?”

Is the destruction not already too severe? Can any amount of financial assistance really compensate for the damage inflicted upon people and nature in the Global South?

Time is not infinite. The climate crisis is moving fast and we have commitments to fulfill by 2030 – a short seven years from now. Faced with so little time, I urge the North to look beyond compensation and instead help the Global South to advance economically without repeating their own calamitous, climate mistakes.

So little time is left to avert worse climate disasters than Africa already is experiencing.

There’s no question that to develop economically, the Global South must use its resources; the challenge will be to do so sustainably. Here in Tanzania, multiple groups are reliant upon our country’s natural assets. Hunter gatherer communities count on trees and bushes, pastoral communities need space for their grazing livestock and our growing urban population depends on rural areas to provide them with food and fuel.

While every community differs in their use and valuation of land, something each has in common is a need to survive. In Tanzania, meeting the costs of healthcare and education can be challenging, leaving people little choice but to tap into their most accessible natural asset – trees. Forests are cleared to make way for subsistence agriculture and are also cut to produce charcoal to supply the urban market.

While the Global North would call this deforestation, to many in the Global South it is simply a means to an end. But although tree clearance helps to meet immediate household expenses, it is only a short-term solution. Once a tree is cut, it is cut. That’s it; it is gone.

Efforts have been made to curb deforestation in Tanzania, but something is clearly lacking. Perhaps due to the scale of the challenge, Global North aid and Official Development Assistance have so far left the local drivers of deforestation – that is meeting an individual’s daily needs for food, fuel and income – relatively unaddressed. Therefore, even when the environmental value of forests is theoretically understood by local people, in daily life, their worth continues to lie in the tangible, financial support they can provide a family.

The wealthy countries most responsible for climate change must support sustainable revenues to meet human needs in countries least responsible for global warming. 

To fulfil our 2030 climate commitments, Tanzania and the Global South need solutions that create real-life, financial incentives to leave trees standing. Only then do I believe we can address the entrenched, local drivers of deforestation.

Despite its use for advocacy and research work, Global North aid has so far proved ineffective for building value in standing trees. This is not to say it is an unsuitable mechanism. Done well, aid can effectively transfer finance from North to South and if developed, could certainly incentivise the protection of forests. However, aid often remains vulnerable to the changing winds of political priority. It can arrive wrapped in complex conditions that limit its ability to reach the hands of local people. This is problematic – unless the benefits of aid are felt in a person’s daily life, the need to cut trees will continue to persist.

Given the limitations of currently available Global North aid, the Global South is ready to embrace and scale additional solutions. One promising option is carbon finance – a market-based model that helps companies in the Global North achieve ambitious emission reduction targets while supporting conservation and restoration projects in the Global South.

While still working with the economies of the Global North, carbon finance differs from aid. In Tanzania, project developers work from the ground up to conserve and restore the country’s forests. As a form of natural climate mitigation, these projects work to prevent greenhouse gas emissions and to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. From here, a number of carbon credits – equivalent to the volume of avoided or removed CO2 – can be traded via the voluntary carbon market. Sold to predominantly Global North companies, revenues from credit sales are returned to the forest communities. Not only does this support individuals with their daily living expenses, but it can radically alter their relationships with nature. In experiencing first-hand lasting improvements to their livelihoods, people understand that trees provide greater benefit if left standing.

In the places I work, carbon finance is currently directed to health and education schemes. Why would you convert land to increase income for school fees if your children received scholarships? What would be your incentive to produce charcoal if you could cover your healthcare costs by just leaving your local trees intact? You want people to think, “if I clear it, I get less.” When communities understand that this additional revenue comes from their standing trees, then you are making progress on deforestation.

The Global North certainly has a responsibility to cut its emissions and curb its demands, but this is not all. In addition, these countries must support the Global South as we seek to advance economically, socially and environmentally.

Yes, aid can be beneficial, but it is not the only answer to the climate crisis. With the right support, aid and carbon finance can complement each other, creating blended finance opportunities for the Global South. Aid alone is not enough, we need the voluntary carbon market to mobilise private finance too. Carbon finance can break down the historically entrenched imbalances that ensure finance remains held, seemingly permanently, by those in the Global North. It can transfer corporate capital straight to the hands of Global South citizens to incentivise forest conservation, provide greater agency and alleviate everyday financial challenges. I can see no alternative but to scale the carbon market in support the Global South. And on this, the Global North must be held accountable.

Azaria Kilimba works extensively with Tanzania’s forest communities through Carbon Tanzania, an impact-driven social enterprise that generates value for Tanzania’s economy and its people by producing carbon credits that enable local people to earn revenues from the protection of their landscape and allow global businesses with credible decarbonisation strategies to invest in locally produced solutions that serve climate, communities and wildlife. While working for WWF and other NGOs in rural Tanzania, he saw communities benefit from innovative enterprises that valued forests through tourism and non-timber products. In search of a mechanism that would scale investment in community forest conservation, generate greater levels of finance, and further boost the value of community-owned natural resources, he joined Carbon Tanzania as Operations Manager.   

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