Social impacts of carbon offsetting schemes in the global south – Illustrative cases of forest carbon sequestration projects in Uganda and Mexico

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School of Business | Master's thesis
Degree programme
Creative Sustainability
The issue of climate change is an ever-pressing challenge that is being addressed with an increasing urgency by countries around the world. It has led to the emergence of carbon markets to measure and limit the emission of Greenhouse gas (GHG) as well as to the development of the so-called green economy. A system for carbon compensation has also been established, according to which carbon emissions, which are currently mostly produced in industrialized countries, can be offset by emission-reduction projects, usually in developing countries. Such carbon offset projects either aim at preventing emissions from taking place or bind CO2 from the atmosphere, and they are often forestry related. The logic appears sound as it makes sense to develop such projects where it is the cheapest, and in addition the purpose is to bring development to the local communities. It is in theory a triple-win solution of global conservation gains, greener economic growth, and poverty alleviation. In practice, those projects seem however to be plagued with problems, like the eviction of local peasants from their ancestral land, heightened conflicts in the local communities and the degradation of local ecosystems. This thesis aims at researching and analyzing the social impact of carbon offsetting schemes in the Global South, understanding the main root causes of those impacts and proposing ways how existing and future projects could be improved to bring the best outcomes. Since I am studying the impact of carbon markets promoted by essentially former colonizers on local populations in former colonies, the theoretical chapter deep-dives on the concepts of post- and neo-colonialism to better understand the ways of thinking and acting of both sides. Another theoretical concept which is key for this thesis is that of the commodification and neo-liberalization of nature since carbon has become a commodity in the “green” economy, implying that everything can be quantified. This notion, however, finds its limitation when faced with the eco-social systems made of natural cycles and the human realm. Since forestry projects are the most common carbon offset initiatives, I needed to also study the literature on land tenure rights as they are a key component on how local communities are impacted by carbon offset projects. In the second part of the thesis, I apply the theoretical framework to three cases selected in Uganda and Mexico where I study the contrasting perspectives brought up by project sponsors, western expats working on the ground and representatives from local communities. In doing so, and since I was not able to carry out direct field research, I am relying on the knowledge of experts who have been involved in the projects described or have done research on them. I conclude that carbon offsetting schemes, as designed and implemented so far, can bring a negative social impact on local communities, especially when they consist of industrial scale monocultures of trees. I then suggest three concrete propositions to improve the selection, planning and implementation, as well as the follow-up of carbon offset projects so as to optimize their impact on local communities.
Thesis advisor
Halme, Minna
carbon offsetting, global south, climate justice, neo-colonialism, social impacts
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