As international efforts to crack down on bogus carbon credits intensify, the Thai government ought to reconsider its highly problematic forest carbon offset projects which grant corporations control over community forests.
Under the Paris Agreement, Thailand aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2065. To achieve these goals, the government plans to increase green areas to 55 per cent of the country and to use terrestrial and mangrove forests to generate carbon credits to offset carbon emissions. Thailand’s Voluntary Emission Reduction Programme (T-VER) was established in 2014 and many large Thai companies, including those in the fossil fuel industry, have joined the government’s forest carbon offset schemes. The imposition of carbon tariffs from the European Union’s (EU) Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) and the U.S.’ Clean Competition Act has also increased Thai exporters’ interests in carbon offsets.
Carbon credits are widely promoted as an important market-based tool to tackle climate change and to channel additional funds to environmental projects. However, climate scientists have warned that carbon offsets should be used to complement real reductions in GHG emissions, rather than to justify the continuation of high-carbon economic activities. Carbon offsetting of one tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) through tree plantings, for example, cannot completely substitute for releasing one tonne of CO2 through the burning of fossil fuels. This is because the released fossil carbon, assumed to be captured by trees, now becomes part of the active carbon cycle that can easily be re-released into the atmosphere, such as when the trees are destroyed by forest fires.
To effectively tackle climate change, a drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels is required and the use of the dirtiest form of fossil fuels – coal – must be phased out. Thailand, however, plans to phase out coal power only by 2040. It is also repeating many of the common mistakes found in carbon offset projects around the world.
The Guardian’s investigative pieces in 2023 have put a spotlight on voluntary carbon markets (VCM) by revealing that the majority of carbon credits from top VCM projects are of low environmental integrity and should be considered “worthless”. There is thus increased global interest in imposing more stringent standards on the international VCM to ensure that carbon credits come from “additional” emission reductions from actual projects, that the calculations for carbon credits are realistic, and that the carbon sequestered is unlikely to be released back into the atmosphere (such as through illegal logging).
Globally, many investors are now entertaining the possibility that large chunks of carbon credits in the VCM might have become “stranded assets” that lose most (if not all) of their value. Large multinational companies, such as Shell and Nestle, are also reportedly reconsidering their plans to purchase large amounts of carbon credits. Although some investors might have hoped that the UN’s upcoming climate conference in December will settle on rules that allow them to sell forest carbon credits to governments, many countries including the EU remain strongly opposed to this.
With the support of the private sector, the Thai government has established many forest carbon offset projects in the past few years. However, many of these projects are in pre-existing community forests that are maintained by local communities. If these projects take place in well-preserved productive forestlands, as the locals often claim, then the projects are unlikely to yield significant “additional” emission reductions and the carbon credits generated will risk being classified as low quality or even worthless. Other concerns include whether carbon credit calculations will be inflated and whether the corporations will promote biodiversity by planting a diverse range of trees.
Civil society groups in Thailand have also raised questions about fairness. Although the locals have been working for the conservation of community forests for years, their usage rights will now be restricted while corporations that received the rights to manage these forestlands for the next 30 years will gain the most benefits from the sales of carbon credits.
What is happening in Thailand can be seen as part of a global trend where large plots of land are being captured for carbon offset projects, often at the expense of dispossessed indigenous people in developing countries. Under the previous Prayut administration, forest reclamation policy forced the evictions of tens of thousands of indigenous and vulnerable peoples after the government declared forest conservation areas over lands where these people lived. Activists estimated that Prayut’s government had filed over 46,600 land-related legal cases against the local populations since the policy started in 2014.
Many Thais had hoped for a new policy direction regarding forest carbon offsets under the Srettha Thavisin government but his coalition seems set on following its predecessor’s policy. If the government refuses to change course, the forest carbon offset policy is likely to alienate many Thais not only from the government but also from supporting the “green” economy generally. In the long run, this could undermine the country’s efforts to effectively tackle climate change.