Planetary climate agreement: what does it mean for Tibet?


#1 in a blog series of 3

Around the world, everyone was relieved that the negotiations in Paris in December 2015 finally produced agreement on what, as a planet sharing a common fate, we can do to mitigate rapid climate warming. After decades of climate science, warnings, alarms, denial, failed negotiations, recriminations and fresh attempts at consensus, finally an agreement was reached. The Paris cop21 agreement was all about reducing emissions, in the hope of limiting the warming of the planet to only two degrees above preindustrial levels.

Now, climate is suddenly off the agenda, and may not return until the next major negotiation due in five years. But on the ground, and in the air we breathe, the climate continues to warm, and the Tibetan Plateau is affected.

Everyone knows about the melting glaciers of Tibet. Many know that climate warming is especially rapid in Tibet, is already drying out the many wetlands, shrinking permafrost and, for the first time in centuries (maybe millennia) lake levels are no longer dropping but rising.

What few people know is that the agreement in Paris may at last establish a global carbon market. This will also impact Tibet, in ways Tibetans have never before seen, bringing new players to Tibet, proclaiming their corporate virtue by investing in carbon capture in Tibet that, incidentally, locks pastoralists out of their pastures.

The new global agreement will be in effect for a long time, shaping policy towards planetary warming, desertification, land degradation, and much more.

But when we consider the impacts, over coming years, of these agreements on Tibet, they intersect in many ways, and are likely to generate perverse outcomes, unforeseen by the negotiators who earnestly hoped to move the world in a positive direction. There is reason to suppose that the cop21 national commitments will, ironically, be used by China  to further disempower, marginalise and depopulate the Tibetan Plateau, and further sideline or displace the Tibetan people from their own lands.



Some global treaties or conventions require all governments that have signed on to the treaty to meet regularly, to review progress in implementation and propose further steps to be agreed on. These meetings are known in UN jargon as a Conference of the Parties, or cop.  Since the first agreement that something must be done to prevent disastrous climate warming, there had been 20 such annual meetings, so the 2015 gathering in Paris was the 21st., hence COP21.


Implementation of COP21 will only gradually pick up momentum, and impact on the land and people of the Tibetan Plateau. A new architecture of key concepts and acronyms was created and formally adopted worldwide, in 2015. How does China see those new concepts will be implemented? China has long insisted that all key concepts and policies must be formulated to conform to “Chinese characteristics”, as defined by the ruling party-state. The Paris agreement creates no governing body, very little supervision, everything is up to each government to set its own targets, and implement them in its own way. Implementation is totally in the hands of China’s government. The insistence on implementing global policy with Chinese characteristics is especially true of the cop21 outcome. The cop21 did not result in a new treaty, still less any accountability of nation-states to some higher order empowered to monitor compliance and enforce emissions reductions.

The most the world system was capable of achieving in 2015, despite decades of climate science alarm, was that each nation sets its own goals, with little monitoring and no mechanism for enforcement. China did manage to announce a goal that promises no reduction in climate warming emissions at all until 2030, and this was not challenged, as everyone wanted to at last have an agreement in which, for the first time, every nation-state is a participant.

China did promise to start reducing its emissions, by unspecified amounts, starting in 2030. Between 2015 and 2030, emissions by the world’s biggest emitter, will continue to rise. In the intervening 15 years, China will continue to increase its coal consumption by at least four thousand million tons (4bn t) a year. China already consumes more coal than every other country in the world combined. Despite this, China has all along insisted this is its right: to catch up with the richest countries, by developing fast. Economic growth continues explicitly to be the number one goal of the 13th Five-Year Plan covering the years 2016 to 2020. The environment is a secondary goal. The only way China may reduce emissions earlier is if it is unable to meet its own goals, due to economic difficulties, especially excessive investment in factories that can produce more than China or the world need, and may be closed.

Instead of committing to actual emissions reductions, China got away with promising only to reduce the energy intensity of its economy, rather than committing to actual emissions reductions. Since China is fast growing its services sector, it can reduce energy intensity per unit of gdp without reducing emissions at all. As services become a bigger percentage of the Chinese economy, as Chinese do more banking, retail, wealth management, property speculation, gambling, entertainment, sport, education and health care spending, manufacturing becomes a smaller portion of the total economy, and China will achieve its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (indcs), UN jargon for each country’s pledge for what it promises to do to save the planet from overheating. China has succeeded in promising the world nothing by way of actual reduction in emissions.

A major aspect of China’s pledge to the cop21 was that, while coal use will continue to increase, China will also invest heavily in hydro power. Nearly all the dams due to be built in the near future are on Tibetan rivers, especially at the edges of the Tibetan Plateau, where the great rivers of Asia plunge into deep gorges, their wild mountain flows tempting China’s state-owned dam builders and electricity generators. An intensification of dam construction, in remote areas of Tibet previously left alone by the Chinese state, will have major impacts, both social and environmental.

The cascades of hydro dams have long been announced, and many are scheduled for construction during the 2016 to 2020 period of the 13th Five-Year Plan. But on the horizon are other players entering Tibet for the first time, among them the world’s biggest brand names,  attracted by the prospect of becoming pioneers in saving the land of Tibet from the  grazing practices of the Tibetans, thus saving the planet from climate warming.



While China has not yet enlisted new corporate allies to invest in carbon capture in Tibet, the emerging global carbon market already has  a full suite of fashionable concepts that make Tibet attractive, and which obscure the impact of single-minded carbon capture, to the exclusion of all else, on Tibetan livelihoods. Not only are there fashionable concepts, familiar to environmentalists worldwide, they are packaged as acronyms, a new jargon language that Tibetans will need to learn, if they are to unpack what at first looks positive, and without downsides.

Such schemes are still in their infancy, but momentum is growing and cop21 gave corporate investors greater confidence that all the world’s governments are now more serious and determined to create a price for carbon emitted. At cop21 in Paris many big corporations played major roles, because they can see the day coming soon when  the cost of carbon emitted must be included routinely in calculating the total costs of their production, and they are now pro-actively planning to build those costs into their internal accounting process.

Key concepts which may magnetise global brands to come to Tibet are PES, REDD+ and LDN: payment for environmental services, reducing emissions from degradation and deforestation, and land degradation neutrality. A detailed guide to these new jargons, and other environment policy jargon in use in China, is no. 2 in this blog series.

Their impact on Tibet will depend on how new, more distant financial partners working with China to finance REDD+ and PES and China’s continued insistence that global policies be applied with “Chinese characteristics” will change the implementation of the new policies. The new players who will emerge in the next few years will be not only rich countries directing their aid budget to implementing redd+, ldn and pes in Tibet, but also the major corporations of the developed world, using in Tibet ways to offset greenhouse gas emissions by buying up and locking away Tibetan opportunities for development and growth.

These new mechanisms have the potential to disempower Tibetans in many ways. These new acronyms, unfamiliar to Tibetans, have been embraced by new players, attracted by the prospect of corporate reputational marketing opportunities to be achieved by advertising how they are “saving” Tibet. A new dynamic will gradually emerge, as some of the biggest corporations worldwide look to Tibet as a cheap way of repairing corporate reputations damaged over many years by their record as polluters, including massive emissions of greenhouse gases that heat the entire planet.

Because they are “market-based”, PES and REDD+ projects tend to be amazingly complex, and hard to understand. They are complex contracts for several reasons. First, there are many parties to such a contract, whose responsibilities have to be specified. For example, an oil palm plantation owner and commodity trader based in Singapore can now offset the emissions caused by chopping down tropical rainforest in Indonesia for oil palm tree plantations by investing in growing grass in Tibet. The investor in Singapore is primarily concerned with the offset rather than the actual impact on Tibetans and the Tibetan environment. As such, questions about who will do the actual work of growing more grass; who receives the payment; how to prove that the removal of grazing, and the growing of grass has succeeded in capturing carbon; and how long must the captured carbon, now in the soil, remain in the soil, before Tibetans can return with their yaks, sheep and goats and start grazing again are unanswered and considered irrelevant.

For the oil palm plantation owner, such a contract is attractive. For a modest investment, far less than he would have to spend on directly curtailing his carbon footprint, he gets to offset his pollution by locking up pasture land in distant Tibet, and gets to advertise to the world what a good job of saving Tibet, and the planet, he is doing.

But such a contract will always have “Chinese characteristics,” and China will almost certainly be among the contracting parties. It will not be a simple agreement negotiated directly by a Tibetan community and an oil palm factory owner. China may argue that it is already saving in Tibet from the Tibetans by removing much pasture from grazing, and has been paying the cost of their relocation, and subsistence rations. If the oil palm plantation owner wants to use Tibet as an offset, China may demand that he bear those costs and excuse China from further responsibility. Already we have three contracting parties: a Tibetan community unable to provide free, prior and informed consent; China, and a Singapore entrepreneur. There may well be more contracting parties complicating things further. For example, the biggest environmental ngos working in Tibetan areas in recent years, such as the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International may wish to be partners to such contracts, as it may enhance their reputations as well as the reputation (and share price) of the oil palm magnate. It is also quite likely that a European government’s aid agency might join in, perhaps to finance those aspects that China has usually neglected, such as paying for vocational education for the Tibetan community to train them to enter China’s urban labour market and get off welfare.

So there could be five or six parties to such a contract, each with their own agenda, acronyms, reporting regimes, all proclaiming themselves saviours of Tibet. In such circumstances, will Tibetan communities have time and opportunity to understand that they are signing away their right to development, their economic right to growth?  Will they realise that new parties will now have a big say, not only in this generation, but, because some of these contracts can last for 100 years, their children and grandchildren as well, in how Tibetan land is used, and what may be done with that land?

These are complex negotiations, which should happen between parties equal in power, in access to information, and time to consider carefully the consequences of such a long term binding contract. In theory, according to China’s Constitution, rural land is owned by collectives, but in Tibet do those collectives function in any way outside the control of the local Communist Party apparatus? Will the village chief, or county cadres or prefectural head of the State Forestry Administration speak for and on behalf of the Tibetans, who will effectively have no say, nor even realise that their land has been designated as non-productive for the coming century? These are probable scenarios given the disempowerment of the Tibetans and the concentration of power in official hands.

The example of the oil palm plantation operator is not exactly hypothetical. If one looks at major events at the Paris cop21, one of the biggest was the Global Landscapes Forum,[1] a high-profile event over two days giving corporate partners opportunity to improve their reputations. One such corporation is Wilmar,[2] hardly a household name but big in providing the ingredients used in a thousand consumer products, notably palm oil. Another corporation promoting itself as a backer of COP21 is Mars,[3] the manufacturer of big brand chocolate sweets and packaged pet foods. Mars, under pressure for selling junk foods and for the global obesity epidemic, needs green credentials, and knows it. Other sponsors of the Global landscapes Forum include the big Swiss bank Credit Suisse, and the global food commodity trader Cargill. Both face reputational risk problems, finding themselves caught in controversies about secretive banks enabling the rich to avoid taxes, or grabbing the lands of the poor for cash crops, lands no longer useful to poor peasants displaced by corporate power. Another corporation with a questionable environmental record,[4] Asia Pulp and Paper, is also keen to invest in landscapes that will compensate for its record in its base, in the forests of Indonesia.

As a global carbon market gradually develops momentum, as a direct outcome of the Paris cop21, it is not hard to imagine such corporations investing in saving the land of Tibet from degradation by growing more grass or forest. The publicity will be good for the investors, the world’s biggest environmental organisations will applaud, and no one will notice that growing more grass with “Chinese characteristics” means displacing pastoral nomads from their pastures, to lead wasted lives as fringe dwellers. In May 2015, TCHRD published a detailed report on the disempowering impacts China’s grassland policies on nomads.[5] Corporate investors will be credited with creating the global carbon market, pioneers in implementing ldn, redd+ and pes.

Another organisation strongly promoting redd+ is cifor,[6] which as a result of Paris COP21, hopes for a scaling up of the many small-scale REDD+ projects around the world. Technically, REDD+ is limited to forests, but can readily be extended to the growing of grass on the vast rangelands of the world.

All these market-based schemes promise that everyone will benefit. In reality, such a universally beneficial outcome is extremely hard to achieve. The most powerful participants with the loudest voices can see how they will benefit and will use their power to ensure they do. In Tibet these actors are international investors and China. The key question is whether Tibetans will also benefit, or be sidelined and largely ignored or even excluded, in the name of carbon capture and remediating land degradation. There is no reason why Tibetans need to be disempowered or marginalised by such projects, but their criminalisation, whenever they speak up for local landscapes, puts them at enormous disadvantage.



All such schemes begin by turning Tibet into numbers, which become objective truths that take on a life of their own, no longer under Tibetan control. The numbers initially are scientific estimates of the amount of carbon sequestered by ceasing grazing, or planting grass, or planting trees, in specific landscapes, measurement work Chinese scientists have been done intensively in Tibet.  Those numbers, for extra carbon in the soil, or in the roots and leaves of ungrazed plants, are then formulaically converted into dollar numbers, part of the growing financialisation of nature, the translation of nature into capital.[7] All of this is done without Tibetan input. If anything, Tibetans pastoralists start at a disadvantage, as livestock production is regarded as a substantial source of greenhouse gases, due to the methane belched by cattle as they digest the grasses.

Despite much scientific research, there is very little evidence that traditional pastoralism is a net source of carbon emissions, but among scientists and policy makers, there is an inbuilt assumption that all pastoral livestock production is a heavy source of methane, a climate warming gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. The scientific evidence actually suggests that the Tibetan Plateau is in danger of sending huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere as temperatures rise, because permafrost locks up much carbon, and so do the many wetlands of Tibet, and now the permafrost is shrinking fast, and also the wetlands are drying out, partly due to China’s program of deliberately draining the water meadows, partly due to earlier arrival of spring which melts away subsoil water, leaving plants at the start of the growing season without water. As the Tibetan wetlands dry, they become dry peatland, releasing methane to the air.

These are among the reasons why Tibetans may welcome international investment, if it can restore wetlands, or assist Tibetans to improve their pastures, sow more native grasses and be paid to work as stewards of recovery from degradation. These could all have positive results, both for landscapes and people of Tibet. But this would require Tibetans to be free to make their own decisions about how to best achieve outcomes that actually cut carbon emissions, capture carbon, and enhance Tibetan livelihoods. Under the current situation, with ccp officials speaking for all Tibetans in all public spheres, it is hard to imagine how Tibetans might be allowed a speaking position.

Meanwhile, China is not a spectator, but an active participant in the growing financialisation of nature. China has many well-established avenues to connect and participate in these new steps towards a global carbon market that provides finance to remote, under-developed areas such as Tibet, in the name of mitigating climate change. Included in the many consortia of promoters of the new market based “solutions” to climate warming, are many government aid agencies, international organisations with global reach on environmental issues, major ngos, scientific research organisations, academics specialising in different disciplines, universities, charities and advocacy groups; many of which have strong connections with their Chinese colleagues, who are now part of these coalitions clustered around their common cause.

As a result of China’s embrace of cop21, with Chinese characteristics added, these trends are rapidly intensifying. In the name of carbon capture, the provision of environmental services to downriver lowland China, net land degradation neutrality and reducing emissions from degradation, Tibet is being emptied of its people, always on scientific grounds that seem entirely plausible to the architects of cop21, lnd, pes, redd+ and other fashionable concepts now at the forefront of environmental and developmental governance.


Note: this blog series is based on the Environment chapter of the 2015 Annual Report of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights & Democracy.











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