Why California should not be allowed to outsource hot air
by Daniel Brindis
© Bob Taylor
Last year, Greenpeace released the report Outsourcing Hot Air explaining why using forests to offset industrial emissions will not save the climate and why California should steer clear of including this option in their carbon market.
We showed that while many problems exist with offsets in general, there are significant problems unique to tropical forests which make them broadly unfit to offset industrial emissions. There is, for example, the issue of permanence: a substantial part of end-of-pipe emissions from factories stays in the atmosphere for centuries where they contribute to climate change. Reductions in forests emissions on the other hand cannot be easily guaranteed for such a period of time given how quickly forests can be degraded by companies, pests, and even the impacts of climate change. Then there is the question of real additionality. Every offset project ultimately hinges on the assumption that without the project there would have been more emissions or in the case of forests, more deforestation. In other words: It has to be proven that the trees used to offset the emissions from Californian companies would not have remained standing if it wasnt for the offset project. This, of course, is something we can never know for sure but independent investigations have found project after project where this was demonstrably not true. Finally there is the substantial risk of leakage. Leakage occurs when due to the protection of one area, deforestation just shifts to another area. This can largely be prevented by implementing anti-deforestation schemes such as REDD on a national level because if deforestation is tackled nationwide, timber companies or others who are cutting down trees cannot simply move their destructive operations to another part of the country. California, however, is considering a sub-national approach to REDD which would dramatically increase this risk because it wouldnt put entire forest landscapes under protection but create a fragmented patchwork where the drivers of deforestation could just move from one place to another. For the climate it makes no difference where a tree is being cut down so Californias proposal, if implemented, would likely not curb emissions from deforestation.Our report did not only show how forest offsets risk to make the climate crisis worse but also highlighted how they could lead to dramatic social problems and human rights violations in developing countries. Tropical forests have unique social, economic and cultural significance to those who live in and depend on them for their livelihoods. Independent investigations into the promotion of international forest offsets have raised serious concerns related to human rights violations and there is major opposition to Californias plans from indigenous peoples and local communities around the world. Since we released Outsourcing Hot Air academics and scientists from around the United States have weighed in to share their concerns with Californias proposal. They all point to substantial problems with international forest carbon offsets. Tracey Osborne from the University of Arizona who has been working on the issue for more than a decade points out that [f]rom Indonesia to Mexico, members of indigenous and forest communities have marched in protest against market-based strategies for climate change mitigation in forests. In particular, they have expressed concern about how forest-based carbon offsets associated with REDD+ may affect their land rights and access to resources. Kathleen McAfee, Associate Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University, adds that landed elites and well-connected investors with influence in the courts, police, military, and other federal agencies, commonly defy or bypass environmental restrictions in their pursuit of profitable but environmentally destructive logging, ranching, and expanded cultivation of export crops. It is time for California to become a real leader on climate and public health issues rather than one seeking to provide its most polluting industries with yet another loophole that will allow them to avoid reducing their emissions at home. California has a long track record at pioneering innovative solutions to tackle environmental challenges. To keep that legacy California needs to ban subnational offsets from tropical forests and demand real emission cuts at home that will benefit both people and the climate.