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Forest in Liberia: The nation has reached an agreement with a member of the UAE's royal family for 10 percent of its land

Photo: John Wessels / AFP

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), many world leaders are currently meeting to debate climate action at COP28 – or "the fate of humanity", in the pathetic words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres. It is about the progress made so far, the energy transition that needs to be mastered and the question of what fair climate protection, indeed a just coexistence in the world, actually looks like.

At the same time, negotiations have been underway for months by a UAE-based company to sell the rights to vast African forest areas in a series of comprehensive compensation deals. An area of at least 25 million hectares of forest is affected, i.e. larger than the United Kingdom, as reported by the British »Guardian«, among others. A member of Dubai's royal family is to be responsible for the business.

According to the Guardian, Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook al-Maktoum, as chairman of Blue Carbon, has made several agreements with African states on land that promises billions of dollars in potential compensation revenues. This coincides with an earlier report by »CNN« . Accordingly, the company plans to create compensation credits for the acquired regions. In the spirit of emissions trading, the company would then sell the credit to companies and governments that want to offset the climate impact they cause – while continuing to burn fossil fuels.

Exclusive rights for 30 years

Although few details about the deal have been released so far, the Guardian says it has spoken to parties involved and seen details of a draft agreement from Liberia in July. The agreement gives the UAE-based company exclusive rights to sell the credits for 30 years, it said, with Blue Carbon receiving 70 percent of the proceeds. Under the rules of the Paris Agreement, the countries that sold the credits cannot use them for their own obligations. The rule is intended to prevent the credits from being used twice. Liberia cannot therefore use sold credits to achieve its own CO2 reduction targets.

So far, according to the Guardian, the contracts cover one-fifth of Zimbabwe, 10 percent of Liberia, 10 percent of Zambia and 8 percent of Tanzania, which corresponds to a total area the size of the United Kingdom. The regions are important refuges for numerous wild animals and biodiversity hotspots. In October, Blue Carbon signed its latest agreement for "millions" of forest in Kenya. The company said it was working on an agreement with Pakistan, according to the media report. Further agreements are expected in the coming months.

The Sheikh, through his office, declined to comment to the Guardian. Blue Carbon, on the other hand, told the newspaper that its vision is "not only to accelerate global climate protection with these projects, but also to address crucial environmental challenges at the local level." This is intended to promote sustainable development in the participating countries.

Blue Carbon told CNN that it wanted to present its deals at the COP28 summit in Dubai as a "blueprint" for emissions trading. Whether this is still the case and when is unknown.

Risky trades

Critics doubt that it is a sensible model. "The details remain opaque. But what we know is alarming," writes the Rainforest Foundation UK, a non-profit NGO, in a letter addressed to parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and members of the oversight board. "These deals not only pose a serious risk to the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in these areas, but also undermine the ability of these countries to meet their own climate commitments," it added.

If the issue comes up at the COP, there is only one appropriate response, according to Alexandra Benjamin, an activist with the NGO Fern who focuses on Liberia and Ghana: "Negotiators should call these deals what they are: land grabbing," she told the Guardian.

In addition to emissions trading, land rights pose another problem. In previous cases, indigenous and traditional landowners have been evicted to make way for such projects. They have seen their homeland, once considered almost worthless, suddenly become a highly profitable area for polluting companies and countries.