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UAE to lease millions of hectares of land in Africa to generate carbon credits

The bridge connecting Zambia and Zimbabwe at Victoria falls, Livingstone
Experts fear project could spark ‘new scramble for Africa’ among polluting nations eager to ‘greenwash’ public image - Simon Townsley

The United Arab Emirates, host of COP28, is poised to lease millions of hectares of land across Africa in a bid to offset its pollution.

A combined area the size of the UK is being leased to a company run by a member of Dubai’s royal family, in a series of deals that some have termed a “new scramble for Africa”.

Under the proposals, some 25 million hectares of land in Zambia, Tanzania, Liberia and Zimbabwe will be leased out. Existing forests will allegedly be preserved, while some land will be used for planting more trees to help absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and slow global warming.

The ‘carbon credits’ generated by the scheme will be primarily sold to governments who want to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. Blue Carbon – the company behind the initiative – says it will also sell a number of the carbon credits to the UAE itself.

The Middle Eastern country is one of the world’s biggest oil producers and has one of the largest carbon footprints on the planet.

Last month, it announced plans to increase oil production from 4.5 to 5 million barrels a day by 2027.

A child in a forest in Guinea
The initiatives are likely to focus on protecting forests or planting trees to help absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere - Simon Townsley

Africa is home to some of the biggest ‘carbon sinks’ on the planet. Its forests absorb billions of tons of carbon dioxide each year and are thought to be crucial in the fight against global warming. Protecting such forests has long been said to be essential.

However, some scientists are skeptical about the use of these forests in the so-called ‘carbon offset market’. Offsetting projects rely on hypothetical estimates of how many trees would be cut down if they were not protected, which critics say are often exaggerated.

They are also wary about generating credits through planting new trees because the new forests often cover large areas with a single species, with negative consequences for biodiversity. There are concerns, too, about local people being pushed off their land to make way for new forests.

“The scale of the land that Blue Carbon is set to take control of is truly staggering,” said Alexandra Benjamin, an expert from the campaign group Fern, which has been dedicated to protecting forests and the rights of people who live in them since 1995.

Forest carbon offsets are “pure and simple greenwashing,” Jutta Kill, a biologist and carbon offsetting expert from World Rainforest Movement, told The Telegraph and its reporting partner, SourceMaterial.

“These credits will be used by UAE and other rich polluting countries to increase their fossil fuel production,” Benjamin added. “It will further increase the climate crisis.”

Blue Carbon has yet to sign the proposed deals. But under Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs), it has agreed with the governments of Zambia, Tanzania and Liberia to lease 10 per cent each of their landmasses. It will meanwhile lease 20 per cent of Zimbabwe’s landmass.

The deals, which have not yet been finalised, could generate carbon credits worth $2.5 billion a year, according to Axel Michaelowa, a scientist at the University of Zurich.

Dubai summit

Founded only 13 months ago and run by the private office of Ahmed Al Maktoum, an Emirati sheikh, Blue Carbon aims to sell credits from its African projects to several nations.

How exactly this will work will be ironed out at COP28, the UN climate change conference that opens in Dubai on November 30.

Earlier this month, Blue Carbon’s chief executive Josiane Sadaka told Quantum Commodity Intelligence that the company plans to announce further deals and is “eagerly awaiting” announcements at the summit.

“The UAE is trying to further the general concept and acceptability of offsets,” said Souparna Lahiri, a climate policy specialist at the Global Forest Coalition.

Concerns have been raised over what the proposed leasing deals will mean for communities in Zambia, Tanzania, Liberia and Zimbabwe who rely on the land for income.

In August, the United Nations wrote to the Liberian government to raise concerns that it was circumventing proper procedures and planned to hand over vast areas of land without properly consulting people who lived there.

“Liberians and international civil society organisations have raised serious and credible concerns that the concessions arrangement conflicts with existing community and individual land rights,” UN resident coordinator Christine Umutoni wrote in a letter obtained by SourceMaterial.

“Proceeding without thorough public consultation all but guarantees legal conflict, continued negative perception of the project, and devaluation of the very credits you are hoping to bring to market.”

Blue Carbon’s spokeswoman said: “We are conducting our due diligence studies and undertaking the long and thorough process of feasibility analyses to identify best practices and eligible activities in all our projects.

“We understand the concerns that have been raised about Liberia and we fully recognise the involvement of local communities throughout the project lifecycle to ensure that the consent of affected communities is genuinely sought and respected.”

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