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Clean Development Mechanism

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is one of the three market based instruments developed under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce global carbon emissions. The other instruments are emissions trading (ET), and joint implementation (JI). These mechanisms are regarded as important tools for achieving the goals of reducing global emissions of greenhouse gases increasing cost efficiency through lowering the business costs of transitioning to a post-carbon world. The CDM aims to facilitate innovative carbon-mitigation and alternative development projects by drawing in funds from northern greenhouse gas emitters in exchange for permitting their continuing pollution.

The idea is, after a cap is placed on total emissions, high-polluting corporations and governments can buy carbon permits from those which don’t need so many, or from those willing to part with the permits for a higher price than the profits they would make in production or energy-generating or transport activities. In simple words: the owner of a major polluting source in developed countries (let’s say in Europe) can pay a country in the developing world (e.g in Africa or Asia) not to pollute in some way. This is expected to be beneficial for both sides as the owner of the emitting source is allowed to continue emitting while the developing country benefits from money invested e.g. in sustainable energy projects like hydroelectric projects, re-forestation programs or similar. In theory, at the international level, sustainable development is promoted as increased assistance and financial resources are made available for developing and transitional states to develop and protect their environments. Thus national governments tend to support such measures.

Plantations are seen as especially profitable ways of mitigating climate change under the umbrella of CDM projects. Plantations grow trees for carbon storage and to harvest forestry products for sawn timber, utility poles and renewable energy. The plantation model is designed to contribute to meeting growing demand for quality wood products from well managed plantation forests, while contributing to sustainable environment management, community development and poverty alleviation. India and Indonesia, for example, plan for millions of hectares of carbon sink plantations and are large producers of CDM carbon credits.

Unfortunately however, the Clean Development Mechanism has not delivered the goods it promises. This is for a variety of reasons. Activists and locals for example point to the millions of hectares of eucalyptus plantations that benefit mainly monoculture oligarchs. The preference of the CDM for large corporations thus often overlooks and even ignores its foundational institutional mandate to ensure sustainable development. Critics also point out that the CDM is diverting scarce public resources away from directly addressing climate change, and towards projects that are often highly polluting and socially harmful. Thus the actual effectiveness of the CDM has been questioned, with evidence indicating that many such projects have had substantial negative environmental and social impacts, and have not sufficiently compensated for greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. Far from contributing to the sustainable development of less developed countries, it is argued that the CDM has actually increased the ecological deficit in the already existing climate debt. If the CDM is to successfully promote sustainable development and climate protection, it must exclude certain types of projects such as monocultural tree plantations, large hydroelectric projects (over 10 MW), and projects that do not meet the criteria of the World Commission on Dams (WCD), as well as coal energy projects.

So far the only real winners in emissions markets have been speculators, financiers, consultants (including some in the NGO scene) and energy sector hucksters who profit from the sale of notional emissions reduction credits. As the air itself becomes privatised and commodified, poor communities across the world suffer, and resources and energy are diverted away from real solutions. In this way the CDM should be seen as an avoided responsibility mechanism, which counts claimed reductions in developing countries as equivalent to actual cuts in industrialised countries. Environmental Justice Organisations suggest that instead, rich countries should face up to their ecological debts because of disproportionate emissions of carbon dioxide over many years.

For these reasons, the abbreviation CDM is often nick-named e.g. ‘Corporate Development Mechanism’, ‘Corrupt Development Machine’ or ‘Cannot Deliver Money’


This glossary entry is based the following EJOLT Reports

Bond, P., Sharife, K., Allen F., Amisi B., Brunner K, Castel-Branco, R., Dorsey D., Gambirazzio, G., Hathaway, T., Nel, A., Nham, W., 2012. The CDM cannot deliver the money to Africa. Why the Clean Development Mechanism won’t save the planet from climate change, and how African civil society is resisting, EJOLT Report No. 2, 120 p.

Overbeek W, Kröger M, Gerber J-F. 2012. An overview of industrial tree plantation conflicts in the global South. Conflicts, trends, and resistance struggles. EJOLT Report No. 3, 100 p.

Pigrau, A., Borràs, S., Cardesa-Salzmann, A., Jaria i Manzano, J. 2013. International law and ecological debt. International claims, debates and struggles for environmental justice. EJOLT Report No. 11, 128 p.


Relevant websites

Global Justice Ecology Project


EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos.


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