When we begin to talk about carbon credits and engaging initially with voluntary markets and later on, certified markets, the question arises as to who owns the ability of your land and plants to remove carbon from the atmosphere?
If that isn't you, then who?
And if you don't own it then not only can you not monetise carbon removals but you cannot offset your own removals against your emissions. For those who are unaware that this precise question is being debated at the moment, I have news for you - you don't own them. And the logic behind your lack of ownership has fairly serious implications when applied a little further down the line.
An Oireachtas debate in July 2019 makes for interesting reading.
The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Andrew Doyle made a number of assertions in relation to the ownership of carbon credits that should be of concern to every private property owner in the State - not just landowners:
Deputy Martin Kenny: For clarity, who owns the carbon credit? Does the State own it?
Deputy Andrew Doyle: It is State owned. There is no trade for it. It is factored in.
Deputy Martin Kenny: Can the Minister of State stand over that legally?
Deputy Andrew Doyle: I am not a lawyer.
Deputy Martin Kenny: I know.
Deputy Andrew Doyle: In the UK and New Zealand, people trade carbon credits but they are not paid in the same way as our premium is paid. I am not sure that this is a relevant point at the moment.
Deputy Martin Kenny: It is relevant to the person who has the trees.
Deputy Andrew Doyle: The person will have received a grant of 100% to establish forestry and 15 years’ premium, with tax-free income on that and a tax-free sale of the product thereafter. As I said, I firmly believe that forestry will have a role to play under the new proposals in the Common Agricultural Policy and its environmental asks. People will be rewarded, whether through payments for carbon or the environmental good they are doing. However, having ownership and participating in a trading system is a whole different ball game. If the Deputy is suggesting that the farmers should be trading in credits in a fluctuating market or a market that is not there at the moment-----
Deputy Martin Kenny: I am not suggesting anything. I am simply asking who owns the carbon credits. If my land is sequestering carbon, who owns the credits which accrue from that? I expect it is the farmer.
Deputy Andrew Doyle: The farmer is being paid to provide the land. In the case of mineral rights, the legislation provides that these rights belong to the State when one goes into the ground. I would have to get clarification on that but I would like to know the Deputy’s specific question.
Deputy Martin Kenny: The question is who owns the carbon credits.
Deputy Andrew Doyle: Who owns the carbon?
Deputy Martin Kenny: Who owns the credit?
Chairman: Maybe the Minister of State will revert to us on that.
Deputy Martin Kenny: Yes.
Deputy Andrew Doyle: The credit is factored into our mitigation targets. We are looking at measures to try to encourage people. How are they to be rewarded for taking measures, whether eco-systems or otherwise? We do that through the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, for instance, under which people are rewarded for providing biodiversity. Who owns the biodiversity? Biodiversity is also a way of improving carbon sequestration.
Chairman: Perhaps the Minister of State will provide some clarification for the committee with a note on that.
There are two specific strands to the argument presented by Deputy Andrew Doyle:
1) That because the farmer has being paid by the State to grow trees (which includes decades of labour incidentally - perhaps he views this labour as being provided for free) then a monetisable product, which carbon removals now are, belongs to the State.
My question for Deputy Andrew Doyle and other politicians and government bodies who espouse this view, how does this differ materially from a farmer receiving a grant to raise cattle and the State then claiming that the cattle belong to the State if it is considered beneficial for the State to do so?
There has not yet to date been a precedent for the allocation of public money towards a private individual that now permits the State to claim ownership over privately held property - until now. If that precedent is accepted, how far does it go? If you use your Jobseeker's Allowance to pay your mortgage, does the State acquire rights in relation to your home?
Does, and should, the receipt of public funds transfer ownership and privately held property rights to the Government of Ireland?
2) He conflates carbon removals - an active, measurable activity with benefits to the entire world with 'bio-diversity' and concludes that they are the same thing. Which is nonsensical enough to not need addressing.
Thankfully, Deputy Martin Kenny was not alone in questioning his thinking here:
Deputy Jackie Cahill: The Minister said something earlier about the ownership of carbon credits. He referred to the fact that people who own forestry get certain tax concessions. Those concessions were granted to attract people to forestry. I am baffled by the argument that these tax concessions mean they do not have rights where carbon credits are concerned. I disagree with that 100%. Tax incentives are granted on farming, leasing etc. in other areas. No conditions are attached. If a man plants his grounds, the benefit should go to the owner of that ground. Tax incentives around the planting and sale of the product were offered to incentivise afforestation. Carbon credits must belong to the man who planted the land and owns the forest. Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice: I agree with Deputies Kenny and Cahill about the carbon credits. Grants and tax breaks were given in respect of forestry because the Government could not get people to grow trees. It is not stated anywhere in the document who owns the carbon credits and there is no clause to indicate that the Government has them. I would like a response in that regard.
A response should be demanded from the State providing clarification on the position as presented by Deputy Andrew Doyle. Because at this moment, We effectively do not 'own' our carbon credits. We cannot offset them against any emissions on the farm. We cannot transfer them to another to be offset against their emissions. We have a novelty ownership only. And that's not good enough.