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Carbon credits potentially linked to Uyghur forced labour

The largest carbon consultancy, South Pole, has sold carbon credits from the Bachu Carbon Project to huge companies like BP and Spotify for years. Alarmingly, a recent investigation has exposed its potential link to coercive labour involving the Uyghur community.

The ambiguous mechanics and overall effectiveness of carbon credit schemes often come into question, but ethical misgivings are creating an even greater headache.

One such project located in Xinjiang, China, claimed to lower global emissions using waste cotton stalks from surrounding farmland to generate electricity. BP and Spotify are among several global entities that offset carbon emissions using its carbon credits.

Owned by South Pole, the world’s largest carbon consultancy firm, it’s said in promotional materials that this project is a boon for the local economy, creates additional income for the region’s farmers, and obviously generates power sustainably. Sounds good on paper, right?

The potential reality discovered by The Guardian and Dutch investigative news outlet Follow The Money, however, paints a vastly different picture.

Through analysing project documentation, satellite imagery of the area, and speaking to political experts, the duo appears to have uncovered a link to forced labour and the Uyghur community.

Specifically, it found huge worker transfers involving hundreds of people at two locations within the radius of the project’s cotton stalk fields. Prospective clients reportedly raised concerns about forced labour in 2021, but South Pole failed to broach the subject with the certification body Gold Standard.

Though it is not possible to unequivocally ratify that this was a coercive scheme, the transfer of up to 930 workers at any one time – and in an area already deemed extremely high risk for Uyghur exploitation – raised red flags that the operation likely extended beyond local farmers.

‘There’s probably no way you find a more risky spot for state-imposed forced labour in the world than this location,’ forced labour expert Adrian Zenz told The Guardian.

Revealing that cotton and textiles is one of the primary industries where coercive schemes thrive in China, American researcher Darren Bayler added:

‘There’s no means of resisting, especially in this context, where any sort of resistance to government intervention or management – when it comes to what they call poverty alleviation – is a sign of resistance and can result in you being detained.’

With coercion rife, discerning between voluntary and involuntary workers is obviously extremely difficult. Especially when the UN estimates that around one million Uyghurs have been detained since 2017.

Looking at the Bachu data, analysis of South Pole’s sales figures shows that credits were purchased from the Chinese partner for an average of €0.39 and sold for an average of €4.28 to companies including BP, WWF, Spotify, and Hilton Hotels, among many others.

With South Pole having halted the credit’s sale as of 2021, the company responded to the recent inquests in a statement reading: ‘We have never owned or managed this project on the ground so our ability to gather real-time and granular information was relatively limited.’

Therein lies the very problem with the carbon credit system and offsets. Not only does it feel like the companies buying credits are kicking the can down the road, but those distributing them aren’t doing their due diligence. Everything is questionable, nothing is truly tangible.

At the time of writing, South Pole is under scrutiny having recently cut ties from another scheme in Zimbabwe called Kariba, which generated $100m but failed to back-up its reforestation claims.

Surely the carbon credit as an entity is on borrowed time, if you’ll excuse the pun?