How we use our land and who benefits from it must be at the centre of a Just Transition and a green economy. Market incentives for green investments should be enough for the private sector.
In the 90’s game show The Moment of Truth, a veritable treasure trove was laid out in front of a working-class family. Gameboys, bikes, footballs, the lot. All there to be won. The bounty was tantalisingly close. All that had to happen was for one family member to complete the challenge at the centre of that night’s show. Fail, and it was all gone. Similarly, the 80’s TV show Bullseye often ended with the phrase “look what you would have won” as a caravan or speed boat spun in and then out of view. As the opening credits of the UK’s Just Transition fade from the screen, it looks like the heartless game show is back.
A Just Transition is based on the three pillars of sustainable development; the environment, the economy, and society. Policies underpinning a Just Transition tend to have a job, environmental or society focus (1). A Just Transition promises much. The opportunity for better, fairer, and greener jobs. More secure and long-term employment as we muster to develop and support the nation’s natural capital. Reduced environmental damage and a halt to the biodiversity crises. Support for workers and their communities, and finally, a framework for system transformation.
Overall the idea of a Just Transition is an international acknowledgement that inequality between and within states must be reduced. The carbon-based economy of the 20th century left too many choking and spluttering on its fumes. A Just Transition sees an end to that. Or does it? As Cilla Black, the host of The Moment of Truth, would say: this is what you “could” win.
A major study: How Do We Manage a Just Transition? A Comparative Review of National and Regional Just Transition Initiatives (1) included the countries in the UK and all their regions. It found that the society-focused framing was often missing in government strategies for a Just Transition. There was a focus on jobs and business but not the community. The study criticised policymakers for rarely considering land use as a critical policy lever for managing a just transition.
So let’s look at some land. There is nothing remarkably different or unique about this piece of land, and it has been chosen for no reason other than it will be home to a new commercial forest that will also generate carbon credits. This makes it an excellent example of what is happening now in our economy.
The Euston Estate in Thetford is a private estate of over 10,000 acres that sits between Norwich and Cambridge. Home to the Dukes of Grafton for over 350 years. It is a multi-purpose property. These sizeable tracks of land will play a vital role in a just transition to a green economy across the UK.
Carbon Plantations Ltd has recently rented a parcel of land on the Euston Estate for a 35-year lease to create a commercial forestry business. They plan to plant 2 million trees and harvest them for commercial timber and for ‘credits’ for sequestering carbon. So the company has two strands. Let’s look at the timber.
There’s no such thing as a guaranteed bet in business but investing in a commercial forest is one of the best bets you can make. Wood is the ultimate sustainable building material. Compared to steel, glass, or concrete, it has very low Greenhouse gas emissions, and it will be a mainstay of a green economy for at least the rest of the century.
Source: Timber Price Index: IBIS World (2)
The second part of Carbon Plantations Ltd is earning from carbon credits.
Very basically, when a business like Carbon Plantations Ltd can prove that its trees and the soil surrounding them can capture carbon, effectively drawing it down from the atmosphere and storing it, it can sell this wonder of nature as a carbon credit, equal to one tonne of carbon sequestered from the atmosphere.
The unit is bought by companies who emit carbon in what is called the regulated market to allow them to stay within a set band of net emissions or is available on the voluntary market so that companies, governments, or people like you and me can net out our emissions (3). Here is another growing market likely to play a significant role in a green economy. A global move to net-zero will involve the transfer of millions of carbon credits. The price of a tonne of carbon has already reached over £50 in the UK (4).
It is no surprise that the person behind Aether Energy, the company behind Carbon Plantations Ltd, is a former banker. Like any good Banker, he knows where the money is to be made.
So there we have it. The incentives to invest in a commercial forest are powerful; low risk, high reward, and in our capitalist economy, that should be all the incentives a profit-seeking business and its investors would need to invest. But like “our Cilla” guiding the eyes of the family on her show, there’s more on offer. A lot more.
According to Carbon Plantations Ltd prospectus (5), an estimated 8% return on the capital invested by individuals. So if you invest £10,000, you get your capital back plus £10,000 that has been taxed (depending on your situation and accountant, of course, you can claim some of this back). So not a bad deal. An excellent old double your money in ten years.
Now, let’s look at the company.
- It will receive a £330,000 grant from the UK Government via the Forestry Commission’s Woodland Creation Planning Grant (WCPG) to plant the trees.
- There is 0% corporation tax on all operations, no matter the profit it makes
- There is a government-guaranteed floor of £20.16 for each eligible tonne of carbon, but if the private market offers more, it is under no obligation to sell to the Government (as noted above, £50 is a more realistic price in the private market)
Now how about the Duke of Grafton. After the 35-year lease, the land will be returned in a much healthier state than he lent it as well-managed trees replenish the soil of its nutrients. He will be paid 5% of all of the money raised plus payments for water to irrigate the trees in the first few years of their growth. He is also entitled to an unspecified amount of profit. A no-lose situation for the landowner.
So, in summary, a private piece of land has moved from active agriculture to creating wood and carbon credits. The enrichment of investors, shareholders, and the land owner is guaranteed (well, as good a bet as you could make). So, in essence, the use of the land has just transitioned to make money in a slightly different way for the same people. Is this what the green economy is all about? Market incentives for green investments should clearly be enough in these types of transactions.
So what is the cost to the UK exchequer?
- £330,000 upfront grant
- The project is expected to generate sales of £30 million in total. So let’s work to a profit margin of 25%. That would generate profits of £7.5million. With corporation tax at 19%, this would lead to a loss to the exchequer of £1,425,000
So in total, the public subsidy for this project is close to £2,000,000.
You could also add to this the difference between the floor price of £20 that the Government is offering to pay now and the price it is likely to pay later if Carbon Plantations Limited decides not to sell (the Government would still have to buy credits from somewhere at a higher price). The scheme would “purchase” 53,000 carbon credits at that lower price. The difference is over £1,750,000.
But of course, there are other costs. There is a vast regulatory system behind carbon trading and the enforcement and, of course, the bureaucracy to make this all work. Plus, of course, all the public infrastructure to transport tonnes of trees. Public money and resources pay for all of this.
Is this enormous transfer of wealth from the public to private individuals what you think about when you think about a just transition? The public is the loser in this transaction—public money funding the private sector with little gain.
The final piece in our puzzle is the local community. When a piece of green infrastructure, for example, wind turbines, is created, payment is supposed to be paid to the local community of £5000/MW installed capacity per year (6). In part for the ‘eyesore’ and in part to attempt to create sustainable development of the project. There are huge issues with this scheme that we will no doubt return to in a later post. Still, for the moment, we want to highlight that there are no government recommendations to involve or compensate the community when creating commercial forestry projects like this.
It is easy to argue that this is private land and Duke Grafton can do what he likes, but that approach goes against the sustainable development of a just transition. As the economy transitions, it does so sustainably, and to do that, society, including the local community, has to see some benefit. As outlined above, society’s only role is to fund the project and underpin the institutions that make it all possible.
This is, of course, but one simple mundane example, and it poses one obvious question: if the just transition is supposed to be designed to create more social justice and system transformation, where is the evidence that it is even part of the process?
As Noam Chomsky writes in Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal (7)
“moral principles demand that a special responsibility falls on those who have been primarily responsible for creating crisis over centuries, enriching themselves while creating a grim fate for humanity”
If you are one of the winners from the economy we are trying to transition out of, the new economy will likely make sure you are still a winner. The Green game show appears to be rigged.
- Krawchenko, T. A., & Gordon, M. (2021). How do we manage a just transition? A comparative review of national and regional just transition initiatives. Sustainability, 13(11), 6070. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/su13116070
- IBIS World. 2022. [online] IBIS World. https://www.ibisworld.com/uk/bed/timber-price-index/44235
- Corporate Finance Institute, 2022. Carbon Credit [online] https://corporatefinanceinstitute.com/resources/knowledge/other/carbon-credit
- Reuters. 2021. [online] Britain’s carbon market begins trading higher than EU prices. https://www.reuters.com/business/sustainable-business/britains-carbon-market-begins-trading-higher-than-eu-prices-2021-05-19/#:~:text=The%20benchmark%20December%202021%20UK,per%20tonne%20by%201430%20GMT
- Carbon Plantations Prospectus Limited. 2022 02 08
- Sandy Kerr, Kate Johnson, Stephanie Weir. 2017. Understanding community benefit payments from renewable energy development, Energy Policy, Volume 105.
- Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal. First edition. 2020. Verso Publishing: London.