At dawn, Peter Mudenda sets off in search of elephants in this remote Zimbabwean reserve near Lake Kariba. But here, wildlife conservation coexists with the sale of carbon credits.
The 49-year-old former farmer hung up his pickaxes and plough when this northern region of the country embarked on a vast forest protection project: “I was making a good living,” he tells AFP, “but I soon realized that there was more to be gained from a protected area.
The Kariba project, which covers 785,000 hectares of forest, has generated over 100 million euros from the sale of carbon credits since 2011. Now part of this windfall, unexpected in a dying economy, is likely to land in the coffers of the state, which wants to impose a 50% levy on revenues from carbon offset projects.
In recent years, carbon neutrality has become a global market on which companies and individuals can buy carbon credits from entities that eliminate or reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, by investing in renewable energies, mangroves or tree planting.
In the reserve, the program born of a partnership between a local company (Carbon green investment, CGI) and a Swiss-based carbon credit developer (South Pole) includes not only tree protection, but also beekeeping and ecotourism, involving local communities. Multinationals such as Nestlé and even Gucci have invested.
One credit is equivalent to one tonne of CO2. And this booming market, worth $2 billion today, could reach $10 billion by 2030, according to a report published this year by oil giant Shell and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).
But recent scandals have shown that the world of carbon credits remains a far-west open to numerous possibilities of “greenwashing”, with some companies wishing to claim to be “carbon neutral” being accused of not following through on their commitments or announced investments.
– Radical approach” –
Many countries are seeking to regulate the sector, where exchanges take place directly between companies. A global trading system is also under discussion as part of the UN-sponsored climate negotiations.
But in Zimbabwe, “the approach taken is quite radical”, says Gilles Dufrasne of Carbon Market Watch, a rights group.
The southern African country, which has been plunged into a deep economic crisis for the past twenty years, announced in May that 50% of these revenues would have to be paid back to the state. At least a further 20% must go to local investors, with foreign partners allowed to pocket no more than 30%.
In addition, carbon credit contracts will have to be submitted to the government for approval, and existing agreements will be declared “null and void”.
No concrete regulations or timetable have yet been agreed. But the announcement has sown uncertainty and spooked investors and project beneficiary communities alike.”The government must ensure that it proposes favorable policies to avoid communities reverting to a way of thinking in which they don’t value forest conservation”, stressed Elmon Mudenda, a local elected official.
Today, 20% of the project’s revenues are dedicated to environmental protection. The rest is divided between communities and landowners, according to South Pole.”Speculation and political rhetoric are creating uncertainty (…) and will slow or even halt investment,” fears the South Pole spokeswoman.
For Mr. Dufrasne, a state takeover of these revenues also sows suspicion about “what they’re going to do with the money”.With Zimbabwe’s “bad reputation” for corruption and mismanagement, foreign companies may be reluctant to buy credit, fears CGI director Stephen Wentzel.