Beware The Climate Cowboy


The folks at the website Cheat Neutral have come up with an ingenious plan to reduce the pain and heartbreak caused by cheating partners. It’s called "cheat offsetting".

Those who seek carnal pleasures outside their established relationship pay a tax for their infidelity to Cheat Neutral, who in turn pay subscribing couples to remain monogamous.

The payment — which encourages others to be faithful even if you can’t — apparently absolves the cheating and everyone can be happy and get on with their lives.

Sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? Well it has a lot in common with our efforts to tackle climate change.

Julia Gillard’s recently announced carbon tax is a shimmy in the right direction of addressing the problem of our polluting industries, but how much behavioural change are we really going to see?

Of course the carbon tax is being derided variously for being too soft, too hard, too green and too coal friendly. But amid the media feedback loop there is very little concern that relying heavily on other countries to atone for Australian polluters, as this scheme does, is problematic in the extreme — especially when those countries are developing ones.

Our close neighbour PNG — like Indonesia, Guyana and Democratic Republic of Congo — has massive tracts of virgin forest. These countries are the ones that are targeted by the UN’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) policy — which seeks to offset developed world pollution by preserving forests elsewhere.

But the REDD scheme is the 21st Century equivalent of the noble savage.

It neglects the reality on the ground in these countries, which is often corruption, poor governance, and a lack of infrastructure and political will. It assumes villagers would prefer to save their pristine habitats than receive a Toyota Landcruiser from a Malaysian logging company. This is not always the case.

It also fails to address realities such as: how do you get payments to remote villagers who live in the most hostile of environments?

One of the unresolved issues, unique to PNG, is that the country has 97 per cent customary land ownership. This raises all sorts of dilemmas regarding who actually owns the carbon rights. It’s a relevant legal tangle for Australia as Native Title laws will mean Indigenous groups will also have to investigate where their sovereignty is in relation to carbon trade and emissions.

I was in PNG in 2009 when the "carbon cowboys" began to arrive. Like venture capitalists, they traipsed around the country offering ill-informed villagers "sky money" for rights to use their land for carbon trade deals.

Despite there being no relevant national legislation in PNG, these fearless environmental warriors snapped up large areas of forest for their wonderful carbon trade projects that would not only save the planet but make billions in revenue.

One boozy lunch I attended in Port Moresby ended with a carbon trader pulling out a Glock pistol and shouting we would all be rich beyond our wildest dreams. Another of the vanguard was related to Prime Minister Michael Somare. He promoted an intricate web of shelf companies that used cut-and-pasted Wikipedia entries as its promotional information about carbon trading.

This background is relevant to Australian consumers or those companies who want to do the right thing and will now have to find legitimate carbon trading schemes to offset their pollution. Where exactly are these schemes?

If they turn to PNG they might be able to one day use a system set up by a former disqualified horse trainer who in the Philippines ran a cock-fighting business. He has gone quiet lately and I think didn’t get his project approved, but he left a trail of controversy and spent millions of Adelaide company Carbon Planet’s money*. Don’t worry, he assured me his intentions were good.

Another PNG carbon trade project being spruiked by a Queensland boiler-maker included him forging the prime minister’s signature and letters saying he had the PNG Government’s full support.

And it got much worse.

In PNG it was not just the carbon cowboys but politicians who salivated over the UN and Norwegian funds. Political feuds began over control of the money — money that still has not come due to UN fears it would be stolen, wasted or conveniently lost.

Reports into the malfeasance of PNG’s carbon trade effort saw the Office of Climate Change director sacked. He himself forged documents that approved non-existant carbon credits. And now, for an unrelated matter, he languishes in jail on remand for allegedly murdering a popular former national rugby league star.

Another senior PNG environment official had to be physically restrained so as not to announce to an international conference that climate change was God’s wrath on a sinful earth.

So murky was PNG’s world of carbon trade that the Macquarie Bank closed down their efforts because, as one senior bank official told me, too many people wanted too many brown paper bags. Fair enough, when a convicted bank robber was also working in PNG’s office of climate change.

But it’s not just the crooks or carbon chancers on the ground who are bending the rules. Green groups such as Greenpeace and the Rainforest Foundation UK have raised concerns about global consultancy company McKinsey, who has played a major role in countries like PNG, Indonesia and DRC in creating their cost-curve analysis for REDD. These groups say McKinsey has all the numbers wrong so countries can participate in REDD while maintaining their logging industry. It just adds another layer of complexity to an already confused conundrum.

Australia’s love affair with the Gillard-led government certainly is on the rocks and it’s going to take more than a commitment to a carbon tax to make a real difference in our relationship with the environment. Cheaters never prosper.

*This article originally stated that Carbon Planet was "now bankrupt". New Matilda apologises for the error.


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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.