Why California should not be allowed to outsource hot air

by Daniel Brindis

May 3, 2013

A stream flows through the mossy floor of a forest in southeast Alaska on the 2006 Greenpeace Musicwood Tour.

© Bob Taylor

This week Greenpeace and other leading environmental groups including Sierra Club California, California Environmental Justice Alliance, Asia Pacific Environmental Network, and Friends of the Earth sent a letterto California Governor Jerry Brown in which we urge him to stop a proposal that would allow companies to keep polluting in California in exchange for some highly controversial forest projects abroad. Not only could this have devastating social and environmental consequences in developing countries but it would also allow for higher emissions in California.

In January California created the worlds second largest carbon market, aiming to reduce the states greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. In designing the market, California claims to have learned from mistakes others have made elsewhere. By enacting a carbon price floor, for example, the government has tried to ensure the market will not face the same problem as its European equivalent did when its carbon prices collapsed in April. Now, however, California is considering to open a Pandoras Box: The state is thinking about allowing companies that otherwise would have to cut their emissions at home to forgo those requirements by using forests in Mexico or Brazil to offset their pollution. The use of those so-called REDD-credits (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) would set an international precedent. So far all major cap-and-trade schemes have explicitly ruled out the use of tropical forests as an offset option because of environmental and social concerns.

While trading subnational REDD-offsets would be a dream come true for bankers and project developers (who are already lining up to make a killing on such projects), allowing this to happen would wreak havoc on the environment. Science tells us that if we want to get serious about stopping catastrophic climate change, we need to curb emissions and bring down deforestation rates around the world. We do not have the luxury to choose between the two. We cannot simply replace one with the other. The numbers just dont add up. They dont add up in California and they dont add up elsewhere. Which is why experts like Natalie Unterstell, Brazils chief negotiator on forests at the international United Nations climate talks said last year: We do not want REDD to generate more emissions. We are not going to sell emissions reductions titles to someone who will increase emissions on the other side. It might be good for California to keep this in mind as Brazil is one of the countries the state wants to source their offsets from.

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.

Daniel Brindis

By Daniel Brindis

Daniel is the Forests Campaign Director, based in San Francisco. His portfolio includes the Amazon, the Canadian Boreal, and environmental certification schemes like the Forest Stewardship Council. He splits his time between the San Francisco and Manaus offices.

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