Mitigating global climate change and achieving sustainable livelihoods for the rural poor are both key international concerns. Carbon sinks, where forests and vegetation are used to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it as carbon, offer one potential route to link these.
Increased forest and tree cover can bring major social, economic and environmental benefits to rural areas, as well as reducing net emissions of carbon dioxide. Yet sinks are also contentious, strongly opposed – especially by major environmental nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) – as both ineffective in mitigation, distracting from its real challenges and as promoting styles of large plantation forestry that “carbonise landscapes” in ways that work against the interests of the poor.
How does this debate look if we start from the perspective of rural people’s own uses, values and priorities around trees and forest landscapes? Longstanding work and experience around social aspects of forestry reveal the multiple roles of trees and forests in rural livelihoods, key dynamics in people–forest relations and a range of pre-conditions and issues which shape whether forestry interventions are genuinely pro-poor. In line with a recent review by Smith and Scherr (2002), it is suggested in this article that if such insights shape the selection and design of sink interventions, then they have the potential to bring huge benefits to rural people and their basic land, water and biomass resources, using new sources of carbon finance to improve rural livelihoods, climate change mitigation and resilience to the impacts of global warming.
But do the formal mechanisms available to promote carbon sinks – primarily the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol – encourage such positive interactions between climate change and livelihoods? This article reflects on what the CDM as currently designed can do, what it cannot do and where it fails completely. Although the limitations are severe, we suggest that they do not provide grounds for abandoning carbon sinks and their potential poverty links. Rather there is scope both for re-writing key aspects of the CDM – of particular pertinence just now, as its rules governing small-scale projects for poor people and communities are being drawn up in time for the 10th Conference of the Parties (COP 10) in December 2004 – and for a more realistic look at the circumstances in which the carbon route to enhancing forest livelihoods, among many other possibilities, is really appropriate.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 35.3 (2004) Carbonising Forest Landscapes? Linking Climate Change Mitigation and Rural Livelihoods