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Debate heats up over California’s plan to reduce emissions via rainforest protection

As the public comment period for California’s cap-and-trade program draws to a close, an alliance of environmental activists have stepped up a heated campaign to keep carbon credits generated by forest conservation initiatives in tropical countries out of the scheme. These groups say that offsets generated under the so-called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) mechanism, will undermine efforts to cut emissions as home, while potentially leading to abuses abroad. However supporters of forest conservation-based credits say the program may offer the best hope for saving the world’s beleaguered rainforests, which continue to fall at a rate of more than 8 million hectares per year.

At the heart of the debate is whether California should allow businesses to buy carbon credits to “offset” some of their greenhouse gas emissions. Some environmentalists call offsets of any kind a “false solution” to climate change, since they effectively let polluters partly off the hook for some of their emissions. Supporters of cap-and-trade argue that offsets buy companies time to shift toward less-polluting practices, while offering real emissions reductions elsewhere. Cap-and-trade programs are usually time-bound, meaning that the amount of emissions that can be offset, ratchets down over time.

In the case of REDD+ credits, there are layers of additional concerns being raised by some activists, including concerns over land rights, the approaches used for measuring reductions in emissions, the fate of forests becoming inexorably linked to the price of carbon in the international market, the ability to maintain forests nominally set aside as carbon storehouses, and a proliferation of dubious forest carbon projects that claim to be officially sanctioned. Opponents paint a picture of a doomsday scenario where REDD+ credits could both fail to protect forests and result in real greenhouse gas reductions, while simultaneously allowing companies to continue polluting.

The scale of REDD credits in California’s carbon market

REDD+ credits will not affect the total volume of offsets under California’s cap-and-trade program, which limits companies to offsetting up to 8 percent of their emissions.

“California companies will only be able to use REDD+ for 2% of their total compliance obligation,” says Stephan Schwartzman of the Environmental Defense Fund. “In practical terms, REDD+ jurisdictions are already investing far more in forest monitoring, law enforcement and forest protection than California’s offset purchases will cover.”

“REDD looks like a forest protection program,” said Jeff Conant, international forests campaigner with Friends of the Earth U.S., in a press release. “But it’s not. It’s a carbon offset scheme. It fails to address the real causes of both deforestation and the climate crisis.”

“We need to reduce both deforestation and industrial emissions,” added Roman Czebiniak of Greenpeace International. “Allowing major industries to merely replace one with the other not only puts the climate at great risk but also exposes Californians to greater pollution here at home.”

However supporters of including REDD+ credits in California’s cap-and-trade program strongly disagree, pointing to long-running consultative process involving some of the world’s top scientists as well as a range of stakeholders. The process aims to establish safeguards to avoid the problems being highlighted by activists, including tropical forest conversion for plantations, measurement and verification of emissions reductions, and seizure of lands for REDD+ projects. Supporters view California’s cap-and-trade program as “an opportunity to get REDD right,” as Dan Nepstad, a scientists who sits on the REDD+ Offset Working Group for the program.

“These recommendations are a pathway for states and provinces to provide leadership in reducing deforestation and reducing GHGs while benefitting local communities,” Nepstad said in January. “We think these recommendations continue California’s leadership role in global climate policy”.

The potential impact on local communities is a particularly contentious issue. Opponents claim that forest-dependent communities — as well as local communities most directly impacted by fossil fuels use like those living near coal plants, refineries, and ports — are widely opposed to REDD+. Supporters argue the opposite — that communities will benefit from a well-designed REDD+ mechanism. Both sides offer up letters of support for their viewpoint from communities living in the two states that would be the site of the first REDD+ projects that sell credits to California: Acre, Brazil and Chiapas, Mexico.

For example, a letter sent to the California Air Resources Board and California Governor Brown asserts that REDD+ is merely a neocolonialist scheme to further impoverish the people of Acre to the benefit of Western NGOs, oil companies, consultants, and carbon traders. Meanwhile a letter from another group of indigenous individuals and organizations took a markedly different stand, calling into question claims that they are being played by outsiders in the name of REDD.

“To say that the Indigenous Peoples of Acre are being manipulated and induced to accept a project imposed by third parties is, at a minimum, to doubt our capacity to interact with government agencies and civil society and to formulate plans that can consolidate our territorial rights, the management of our territories, and the economic self-sufficiency and the well-being of our communities,” said the letter. “We do not need tutelage; we seek serious partnerships that recognize and respect our autonomy.”

Stephan Schwartzman, Director for Tropical Forest Policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, a big Western NGO, added that while there are indeed voices against REDD, there are also “a large number” of people who support it.

“State and nation-wide deforestation reduction programs, of the kind that could sell part of their reductions to California companies, are engaging forest communities in extensive consultations and discussions,” Schwartzman said via email. “Programs that are achieving real, additional verifiable emissions, such as Acre’s, benefit indigenous and forest peoples, since they have historically suffered more than anyone from uncontrolled deforestation, illegal logging and land grabs.”

“The major civil society groups and networks of the Brazilian Amazon, including the Amazon Working Group (600+ Amazon environmental organizations and social movements), the National Council of Rubber Tappers (CNS) and the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) among others, conducted a region-wide, broadly representative, multi-stakeholder consultation process over two years to produce Socioenvironmental Principles and Criteria for REDD+ (English translation attached). The principles detail how to develop REDD+ safeguards in a transparent public process, and have been adopted into Acre state’s System of Incentives for Environmental Services law.”

But that process isn’t good enough for some, who argue that REDD+ is just another form of land-grabbing.

“In Africa, REDD+ is not just a false solution to climate change but is emerging as a new form of colonialism, economic subjugation and a driver of land grabs so massive that they may constitute a continent grab,” wrote the “No REDD in Africa Network” in a letter to California officials. “REDD-type initiatives to try and grab [sic] 30% of the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo and almost 20% of the total surface area of Mozambique have been detected.”

In response, Steve Zwick, senior editor of Ecosystem Marketplace, which covers emerging payments for environmental services (PES) markets, says that hyperbole is reaching new heights during the comment period.

“Instead of referencing REDD projects that actually exist, like the Kasigau Corridor REDD+ Project in Kenya, they go on about projects that don’t exist or never will,” Zwick wrote. “The [Congo claim] actually referred to an off-the cuff remark by Lars Ekman, who was red-flagging a particularly sleazy pseudo-REDD proposal that was kicking around the DRC. Ekman … was speaking to REDD advocates about what could happen if REDD moves forward without proper safeguards. No one argues against this, because such safeguards are a cornerstone of REDD. The proposal never caught traction among REDD practitioners, and proposals like that never will, because they violate the basic principles of free, prior, and informed consent in which REDD is built. Ekman clarified his position on this site, and anyone who continues to cite his original out-of-context remark is being intellectually dishonest – and intentionally, unforgivably so.”

“The same paragraph mentions something about ‘almost 20% of the total surface area of Mozambique’, but actually links to an editorial – not a research paper nor even a piece of news, but an editorial – that cites what appear to be real abuses by sugar growers and soybean producers, and then extrapolates this to REDD,” he continued. “Indeed, every one of these links in this piece that I followed brings us to a social ill with which REDD has nothing to do, or to which REDD can provide a solution.”

California has become a battleground in the debate over REDD+ because it is one of the only places where the concept is moving forward. International climate negotiations have been largely stalled since 2009

But as the debate has seemed to take an increasingly acrimonious tone, forests continue to fall. Yesterday the Brazilian government released data showing that at least 2,300 square kilometers of Amazon forest has been cleared over the past year in Brazil. Yet Acre only accounted for 8 square kilometers of that area. Unless the underlying drivers of deforestation are addressed, there will be less forest left to argue over. That’s one point both side can agree on. It’s also a point that has become almost an after-thought in the discussion, as noted by the letter submitted by activist alliance.

“To really tackle tropical deforestation at its root, California policymakers should consider examining how the state’s existing policies, including those related to procurement, public investment, fuels, and other issues, may enable rainforest destruction through contributing to demand for petroleum, timber, soy, paper, palm oil, and other commodities.”

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