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The leader of an Indigenous grassroots movement has denounced carbon offsetting, dubbing it “part of a system that privatizes the air that we breathe”.
“It allows polluters to buy and sell permits to pollute instead of cutting emissions at the source,” Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, told The Independent at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow. “It lets governments and corporations pretend they are doing something about climate change, when they are not.
“In our traditional knowledge we know that we cannot own the sky, we cannot trade Mother Earth in a market system.”
Mr Goldtooth, who is Diné and Dakota, has organized around Indigenous issues for the past 40 years. He won the 2015 Gandhi Award and 2016 John Muir Award for his decades of defending Indigenous rights to a healthy environment and combatting fossil fuel projects.
He travelled to Glasgow with a delegation representing 15 different Indigenous Nations from Canada, the US including Alaska and Brazil.
Some of the group are staying in Cambuslang, a former industrial hub on the southside of the River Clyde. “I love Glasgow, it seems to have a heart to it. I’ve met so many people here and they are so friendly,” he said. “But I ask questions and many of them don’t know what this meeting is all about.”
He also noted he had picked up some important local knowledge. “I learned not to get involved with picking what [football] team I support. That can cause warfare,” he joked.
Mr Goldtooth has attended Cop summits for two decades and says Indigenous peoples still remain at the fringes.
“We’re here and we still don’t have a seat at the table,” he said. “In some areas [of the venue] we don’t have access, and they’re very critical in terms of negotiations. So we’re forced to try to grab people in the hallways.”
IEN had joined other activist groups in calling for Cop26 to be postponed over the lack of access for those from countries in the Global South who are already facing extreme impacts from the climate crisis. They are “the very people that need to be here,” he said.
On a chilly but sunny Wednesday morning, Indigenous protesters gathered outside the main turnstiles into the Cop26 venue. The group held up copies of the Financial Times, where they had secured a full-page ad which read: “Carbon offsetting is tearing us apart.”
Carbon offsets are a set of schemes which allows companies, but also individuals, to buy credits from different environmental projects - such as tree-planting, or solar and wind farms - to substitute for their own carbon footprints.
These schemes can often involve large carbon sinks, such as tropical rainforests, in developing countries.
“We need real reduction, and to keep fossil fuels in the ground,” Mr Goldtooth said. “Carbon offsetting perpetuates the theft of Indigenous people’s land and our territories. Our brothers and sisters have been protecting their lands and forests for thousands of years. Carbon offsets are a new form of colonialism.”
Indigenous groups are not alone in these concerns. On Wednesday, activist Greta Thunberg and members of Greenpeace interrupted a finance panel on carbon offsets at Cop26, calling it “greenwashing”.
Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, also wrote in theThe Guardianthat “Cop26’s worst outcome would be giving the green light to carbon offsetting” adding that it would “blow a huge hole in the Paris agreement”.
Mr Goldtooth said that the focus on net-zero emissions was “false and clearly dangerous” compared to absolute zero emissions.
“It’s very vague. it hasn’t been clearly defined. It’s got too much risk to it,” he said.
He said national governments and corporations continue to push “false solutions” such as carbon capture and storage and solar engineering.
“These technical fixes violate the natural laws of the atmosphere, of the sky, of the Mother Earth, all that delicate, harmonious structure,” he said.
He compared the world, particularly the industrialized countries in the North, to a drug addict, and said they were “addicted to the combustion of fossil fuels”.
“I think the world is addicted to energy. It can’t wean itself from this addiction to consumption and also the creation of waste. My fear is that they will continue to burn to the end of the earth,” he added.
Mr Goldtooth pointed to impacts of climate change that were already affecting Indigenous traditions.
“Our state of Minnesota prides itself on being the land of 10,000 lakes but this past year, we’ve been experiencing severe drought conditions. We didn’t get rain for about six months,” he said.
“The Anishinaabe and Ojibwe people in the north still practice traditional harvesting of the natural rice that grows from Mother Earth. They go out on the lakes and winnow the rice but this year some rice didn’t get any water, or the water was so shallow that you couldn’t maneuver a canoe. It’s important to get to your rice before the winds change or you will lose the harvest for the season. I think that was a reality check for many of our tribes that maintain their ricing culture.”
He said changes to climate had also affected certain medicine plants and berries used in traditional ceremonies. “My mom’s people, the Navajo in Arizona and New Mexico in the Southwest also feel the severe impacts of climate change when it comes to water,” he said.
US president Joe Biden attended Cop26 earlier this week with fellow world leaders, announcing a slew of climate proposals from ending deforestation by 2030 to a pact to cut global emissions of methane, a potent, short-term greenhouse gas.
In the US, expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure continues despite Mr Biden promising to ban new federal oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters during the election.
Days after Cop26 ends, the Biden administration is slated to hold a sale of oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr Goldtooth also pointed to the Dakota Access pipeline which cuts through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota and the 1,000-mile Line 3 pipeline which also crossed tribal land and has seen mass protests organized by Indigenous women in Minnesota.
Recent analysis from Oil Change International found that if Mr Biden used executive action to halt two dozen fossil fuel projects, it would cut 1.6 gigatons of emissions, equivalent to approximately 20 per cent of 2019 US emissions.
“I was hopeful that maybe with this Democratic president, we might be able to get some things going for ourselves as Indigenous peoples, economically as well,” Mr Goldtooth said.
“Around climate policy, I was hoping for something better. He made so many promises on his road to presidency that he was going to tackle climate change and end fossil fuel investments on public lands. He’s lying.
“He said that he was going to recognize Indigenous rights [but] he’s continued to perpetuate a legacy of broken treaties. Many members of our network that are here don’t trust this person.”