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Imperial Offsetting à la Macron
What the French President's Pacific visit reveals about climate politics
“I’m not lecturing people. I’m trying to help people to reconcile development and climate change,” said Emmanuel Macron at a press conference in Papua New Guinea on July 28. The French President’s inaugural visit to the nation was part of his Indo-Pacific tour, as he jetted around the resource-rich and cash-poor nations to talk of “a third way” France could offer to countries stuck between global superpowers. After signing bilateral agreements with PNG promoting economic and cultural exchange between the two nations, Macron spoke of sustainable development “brother to brother” in his speech at an event to promote the Managalas Plateau, a conservation project France is allegedly investing €100 million in.
Upstairs from the conservation event, the main room in Port Moresby’s Apec House was filled to the brim with politicians, state officials—and fossil fuel executives. Macron had timed his visit to coincide with TotalEnergies final investment decision on a Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) project they’ve been exploring in Papua New Guinea for the past 5 years. TotalEnergies, the French energy giant, is pouring no less than $10 billion into the joint venture, of which they own 41% and will develop. France’s purported conservation pledge pales in comparison. Indeed, a TotalEnergies’ executive, unaware he was speaking to a journalist, told me the company was irritated that Macron had decided to gatecrash their decision day: “Coinciding it with a conservation event? It doesn’t look very good for us.”
I asked him whether or not the carbon credits from the conservation project would be used to offset the emissions from the LNG project. He said yes. Later, when I asked him to go on the record, he denied any knowledge of the conservation project whatsoever.
I had sidled into the state luncheon held in Macron’s honour whilst the President was signing agreements with PNG’s Prime Minister, James Marape. Fortunately for me, everyone was kindly wearing pins denoting their country or corporate allegiance. China, Japan, Israel—apparently a representative of each embassy had been invited, along with every French national living in PNG. Showing off his knowledge of the LNG deal, one Frenchman told me that Japan has bought 2% of the project because they will be the biggest buyers. Why? Asia is looking to transition away from coal.
The USA is the world’s largest producer and exporter of LNG. Is Macron—who foolishly called gas a “transition fuel” later that day—looking to weaken America’s gassed-up grip on the world?
The Americans seem to think so. Their Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, suddenly arrived in PNG the day before Macron’s visit. A Defence Cooperation Agreement was signed, whereby the USA promised naval support to “tackle illegal fishing and trafficking in your country’s exclusive economic zone”. Funnily enough, the following day, Macron also offered naval support in the same stretch of water against illegal fishing.
The USA’s move sparked the national paper to assure citizens that the “DCA [is] not about war preparations”, referring to increasing tensions between the USA and China. China has tightened its grip on the Indo-Pacific region in the past decade, buying up much of the mineral sites. PNG in particular, with its large land mass, has been a huge target. Local politicians say they are “sitting on a mountain of gold, on top of a lake of oil”. But without the infrastructure to use their own resources, the nation has been forced to sell it off to the highest bidder. With the threat of resource scarcity on the horizon, military control of waterways may provide access to precious material in the near future.
And thus when Macron began lamenting climate change at the conservation event, and how we must all collaborate to overcome it—just minutes after dining with fossil fuel executives, who remained upstairs—it sounded like he plans on using the Managalas Plateau to greenwash France’s image as its largest energy company bores into Papuan soil, emitting 220 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over the next twenty years. Such carbon bombs exact a high price on people, planet and pocket. But offsetting them costs peanuts. It’s a win-win for imperial powers who depend on developing nations being unable to extract their own resources, and who want to promote “net zero” as a solution to the damage they’ve wrought over 200 years. Even better, they can now use a bastardised version of “woke” politics to decry that past imperialism by refusing to direct the course of the energy transition in nations who still have oil and gas in the ground to be profited from: “I am not here to lecture people,” declared the President of a nation whose political weapon of choice in Africa has been deposing democratically-elected leaders of former colonies.
This, however, may be their best coup yet.
TotalEnergies’ profits in 2022 were $32 billion. I asked Macron how much of this would be invested in Papua New Guinea’s renewable energy and conservation. “Look, I am not the CEO of TotalEnergies,” he quipped, smiling, as the people around me giggled—perhaps unaware of his ties to the energy company’s CEO who he decorated with France’s highest honour not a fortnight previously. Macron went on to explain that the project is part of “the strategy of the country and for the region” as they transition from coal to gas and then, eventually, to renewables: “This is the right way to proceed. I’m not here to lecture people, neither company nor country, you should not make gas project because it is bad. I’m not lecturing people. I’m trying to help people to reconcile development and climate change.”
This begs the question, of course, why developing nations need to take a whistle stop tour through all of the available fossil fuels before going green? Why is the strategy not financing renewable energy in developing nations and using those to offset historical emissions in the West? We could call them imperial credits—or reparations. Surely that would be the way to reconcile development with climate change, rather than triggering a carbon bomb and pretending that throwing money at an existing forest will somehow change how much CO2 ends up in our atmosphere? The science is out on the carbon credit scam—the only people who can make it make sense are economists.
World “leaders” would like us to believe that carbon accounting—not accountability—will solve the crisis. Rather than putting their money where their mouth is, their fossil fuel investments divest us from the future; the only green they’re committed to is that stamped with a currency sign. Perhaps they feel as disempowered as their citizens, compelled to play a game of Russian roulette in which all the chambers are loaded. Certainly, that’s what the fossil fuel executives suggested, as they wondered out loud whether we’ve run out of time for a transition. Yet, the cunning on Macron’s face as he leveraged climate change to greenwash political relationships with resource-rich nations, decrying their dependence on “old hegemonies”, suggested he really does think he can out-strategise both science and nature—or at least offset both cost and responsibility.
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