Can land as carbon sink save us?

Aerial view of resource extraction in Texas. 

Keeping peoples on their land is our responsibility if we want to succeed in building a world for climate justice.

If a green new deal is to succeed it must go beyond a Northern mindset and learn from historical movements in the global south.

Land-based climate mitigation and adaptation is fast becoming a central theme in the response to the climate crisis.

Corporations and governments are hoping land can sequester millions of tonnes of carbon, to offset their still rising emissions and help us reach ‘net zero’ climate targets.

The UK Committee on Climate Change suggested last year 40 percent of the country’s mitigation targets could be met by carbon sequestration - or so called ‘negative emissions technologies’ (NETs).

This series of articles has been published in partnership with Dalia Gebrial and Harpreet Kaur Paul and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in London. It first appeared in a collection titled Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal.


Shell, ENI and Heathrow airport have all made big commitments to achieving net zero via land based carbon offsets.

This increasing reliance on carbon sequestration is itself a result of the major failure of industrialised country governments for more than three decades to put in place the structural changes needed to reduce emissions in all sectors - fossil fuels and the industrial food system which contributes anywhere between 30 percent and 50 percent of GHGs with its huge fertiliser use, contribution to deforestation and international trade.

Carbon offsets are a major red herring, but even just the large scale use of land for climate mitigation can be problematic.

How land is used, by whom and for what purpose are deeply political, not technical issues that movements for food sovereignty and land justice especially in the global south have been grappling with for decades.


These movements have made important gains in getting recognition of their collective rights to land and territories via international Human Rights instruments such as the UN Declaration on the Right of Peasants, UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and historical agreements such as the International Conference on Agrarian Reform.

But now land based climate policies imposed from above can pose grave threats to these rights by unleashing a new wave of land grabbing through enclosures for conservation projects but also via the commodification and integration of nature into financial markets – what we call the financialization of nature.

Almost all of the plans for ‘net zero’ not only deflect action further but also require eye watering areas of land.

Estimates of the land required globally to deploy bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) range from 100 million to 3,000 million hectares.

If a green new deal is to succeed it must go beyond a Northern mindset and learn from historical movements in the global south.


Even the more benign sounding ‘Nature Based Solutions’ for climate change estimate 14 million hectares of destructive monoculture tree plantations and a whopping 678 million hectares of land for reforestation.

It’s not clear who will claim ownership of these areas of land or where they will come from, but we can guess based on recent announcements by fossil fuel corporations.

ENI is involved in a gas extraction project in Mozambique and has been implicated in kicking 550 families off their land and blocking fisherfolk from the sea. At the same time ENI has committed to planting 20 million hectares of forest in Africa to achieve net zero by 2030.


For the communities living on the land and forest this is essentially a double land grab – once for gas extraction and again to offset it.

On the other hand decentralised solutions to the climate crisis based on ecological, autonomous management, traditional knowledge and governance by Indigenous people, forest peoples, small scale food producers of their own land and territories such as agroecology and community forest management (CFM) already exist and are gaining importance.

CFM is the best way to protect forests and ecosystems that naturally store carbon, and agroecology can reduce the use of fossil fuels, increase yields and store carbon in soils.

We just need political will to support them and scale them up.


Many of the worlds 600 million peasants and over a billion forest dependant people have practiced agroecology and CFM for millenia.

Yet many of the most prominent environmental schemes do not envision decentralised solutions with truly local autonomy and governance or justice but aim to keep the status quo in power relations and may even enable corporations to grab more natural resources.

If a green new deal is to succeed it must go beyond a Northern mindset and learn from historical movements in the global south.

It must recognise that the link between the climate crisis and land rights are not new.


The structural causes of the climate crises and land rights violations are the same – an economic system based on endless (neo) colonial patterns of natural resource extraction and accumulation.

Communities on the land – peasants, indigenous peoples, pastoralists, fishers especially women have always been the first line of defence against extractive projects and climate change.

This is why mining corporations and agribusiness are the sectors most responsible for the documented killings of land and environmental human rights defenders.

 If we want to succeed in building a world for climate justice keeping peoples on the land is our responsibility.

This Author

Kirtana Chandrasekaran works for Friends of the Earth International and is based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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