- Indigenous leaders, environmental justice campaigners, academics, and left-leaning green groups have raised vocal opposition to an updated version of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) now known in California policy circles as the Tropical Forest Standard.
- The argument behind the TFS is that jurisdiction-wide policies to reduce deforestation implemented by state and provincial authorities will be different from scattershot private-sector-led REDD projects. But proponents leave out a key fact: the failures of REDD+ have often been driven by weak governance — that is to say, corruption, graft, neglect, and abuse of power — in tropical states.
- Intractable problems like these are why no state or country in the world accepts tropical forest carbon offsets into their cap and trade systems. Building long-term political infrastructure to lock in contracts in tropical forested countries puts Indigenous and forest dwelling peoples’ livelihoods at risk, while guaranteeing continued pollution that impacts communities of color in California.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
On the morning of November 16 in Sacramento, California, amidst choking haze from the worst wildfires in the history of California, indigenous leaders from Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Nigeria, and the US donned pollution masks and rallied against a state proposal to save tropical forests.
Yes, you read that right.
It was not the first time this group, accompanied by environmental justice campaigners, academics, and left-leaning green groups, raised vocal opposition to the plan — an updated version of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) now known in California policy circles as the Tropical Forest Standard.
Two months earlier, on the morning of September 10, Indigenous peoples from the global south and north and their allies had gathered outside a hotel in downtown San Francisco to protest decisions being taken by the Governors’ Climate and Forests (GCF) Task Force — a “high-level” meeting that took place during the Global Climate Action Summit, a series of events designed to “take climate ambition to the next level.” The GCF is a key architect of the Tropical Forest Standard.
Protests like this have beset the GCF for years; previous meetings in Aceh, Indonesia and Chiapas, Mexico drew the ire of local forest communities. And in California, refinery communities have confronted Governor Jerry Brown and the state’s Air Resources Board multiple times over the state’s misguided efforts to use tropical forests to “offset” the pollution that continues to directly impact communities of color.
To be clear, no one protesting the GCF Task Force believes tropical forest preservation isn’t critical to protecting our global climate. Of course it is. But California’s approach — to create a fiendishly complex market mechanism rather than focus on demand-side emissions reductions — is deeply problematic.
Many highly reputable veteran conservationists have staked everything on the promise of REDD+, a hotly debated policy mechanism of which the TFS is the latest “gold standard.” EDF’s Steve Schwarztman and Christina McCain argue in a Mongabay commentary on November 14 that protecting tropical forests is key to mitigating climate change. Again, on this we are all in deep agreement.
However, their article is a fine example of lying by omission — in 700 words lauding the Tropical Forest Standard as the best action California can take to mitigate climate change, they assiduously fail to mention the Standard’s primary objective: to produce carbon offsets for sale to industrial polluters. The TFS proposes to allow polluters to continue emitting carbon dioxide by purchasing forest carbon credits from tropical states to “offset,” or neutralize, their own emissions. This is what makes the TFS and similar schemes both misguided and dangerous.
When polluters such as the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California are allowed to continue pumping out greenhouse gases, they also emit noxious co-pollutants — particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, and other carcinogens. The result: neighboring communities — largely working-class people of color — continue suffering from asthma and other health impacts. Worse, state regulators, goaded on by market-friendly conservation groups, have bent over backwards to ensure that the state’s cap and trade system, with its unique and highly problematic offsets provisions, is the only regulatory framework that regulates industrial emissions in the world’s fifth largest economy.
But the problems don’t stop there — they extend to places like Acre, Brazil and Chiapas, Mexico. Tropical forest carbon offset projects have a now well-documented history of contributing to conflict and human rights abuses for many Indigenous Peoples and forest-dwelling people around the globe. Many REDD projects have followed a strategy that combines bait-and-switch with divide-and-rule: proponents usually don’t inform communities they are in the business of generating pollution credits for faraway industries.
Legally-binding carbon offset contracts often subject communities to restrictions on their livelihood activities and burden them with carbon accounting duties for 100 years or more, generating impact on future generations. Meanwhile, the money promised for offset projects is rarely forthcoming, and the resulting tension can frustrate and divide communities. In the worst cases, forest carbon offset projects can result in overt land grabs, evictions and criminalization of forest communities’ traditional livelihoods. From Indonesia to Cambodia to Bolivia to Kenya to Uganda, there is no shortage of such cases.
The argument behind the TFS is that jurisdiction-wide policies to reduce deforestation implemented by state and provincial authorities will be different from scattershot private-sector-led REDD projects. But proponents again leave out a key fact: the failures of REDD+ have often been driven by weak governance — that is to say, corruption, graft, neglect, and abuse of power — in tropical states. When governments have very dramatically failed to serve Indigenous Peoples and their forests for centuries, what is there to suggest that an added cash incentive will drive behavior change among political elites?
Finally, like emissions reductions promised by earlier trading schemes, like the UN Clean Development Mechanism and the EU Emissions Trading System, tropical forest carbon offsets simply don’t work. In fact, a recent study published in Science found that instead of absorbing carbon dioxide, tropical forests are now releasing more greenhouse gases than all the cars in the U.S. How can using these forests to absorb industrial emissions possibly be “permanent, additional, verifiable, and real,” as the TFS hopes?
Intractable problems like these are why no state or country in the world accepts tropical forest carbon offsets into their cap and trade systems. Building long-term political infrastructure to lock in contracts in tropical forested countries puts Indigenous and forest dwelling peoples’ livelihoods at risk, while guaranteeing continued pollution that impacts communities of color in California.
As a new governor takes on the mantle of climate leadership for California, the state should support tropical forests by keeping fossil fuels in the ground and stopping greenhouse gas emissions at their source — not by continuing to pollute with the hope that tropical forests will offset this damage.
• Baccini, A., Walker, W., Carvalho, L., Farina, M., Sulla-Menashe, D., & Houghton, R. A. (2017). Tropical forests are a net carbon source based on aboveground measurements of gain and loss. Science, 358(6360), 230-234. doi:10.1126/science.aam5962
Tom Goldtooth is the executive director of Indigenous Environmental Network.
Michelle Chan is vice president of Programs at Friends of the Earth and lives in Richmond, CA.