Carbon Rights: A whole new ball game

When it comes to the topic of carbon rights, we are in uncharted territory. We see growing urgency in some circles, (the private sector in particular) to nail down carbon rights and who they belong to. They are given increasing airtime with the likes of UN-REDD and others claiming that they need to be clarified. Indigenous peoples and local communities are also sitting up and taking notice. But it’s messy.  And not at all clear whether for practical purposes, they are necessary at all.

The term is misleading. While proxies of carbon can be traded on global markets, short of some science fiction-type of technique in which the carbon is somehow tapped out of the tree, carbon can in no way be separated from the trees in which it is contained. Treated as a new form of property rights, it seems much closer to another source of regulatory headaches – intellectual property rights.  Intangible and, in the case of traditional knowledge, also involving indigenous peoples, the actual benefit sharing of intellectual property rights has proven notoriously hard to apply.

Robert O’Sullivan of Climate Focus made a critical distinction in his presentation at the COP16 REDD-net side event 4 December on Carbon Rights. He presented two separate modalities for benefitting from carbon. One would involve legal rights over the carbon – carbon rights. The other, and possibly more practical option, is the right to benefit from carbon. This would not have the communities as legal owners of the carbon per se, but as legally entitled to receive fair benefits accruing from carbon credit sales.

The second option may be counter intuitive for many local community and indigenous groups who associate carbon rights with a broader bundle of rights that marginalized groups are often denied. Forgoing rights over carbon in favor of rights to benefit from carbon may feel like a step in the wrong direction.  But is the tedious and abstract discussion over carbon rights the one we need to be fixated on? Or should efforts be directed at practical measures for safeguarding existing community tenure and forest use rights and determining how they can benefit most directly from the inevitable development of carbon markets?

Posted by Regan Suzuki


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