Jeff Conant is International Forests Campaigner for Friends of the Earth.

Viewpoints: Should California cap and trade use forestry offsets? No

Plan won’t stop actual emissions

Published: Sunday, May. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Tuesday, May. 21, 2013 - 7:52 am

When Californians passed AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, we committed to one of the most forward-thinking pieces of climate legislation in the country, with comprehensive strategies to reduce carbon emissions from nearly all sectors of the economy. Unfortunately, the California Air Resources Board is considering a move that will undermine the best intent of this law by linking it to a benign-sounding yet dubious and untried scheme to protect rain forests in Mexico and Brazil.

Many peasant farmers and indigenous people who live in those forests oppose the proposal, fearing it will repeat an all-too-familiar pattern of land-grabbing, without actually stopping deforestation. Californians should oppose it, too.

The rigorous standards set by AB 32 have already been undermined by ARB's decision to allow the industrial facilities like power plants and refineries that account for 85 percent of the state's emissions to meet their pollution reduction targets by buying carbon offset credits. Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and the California Environmental Justice Alliance, among others, opposed the use of offsets when it was proposed – and we still do.

Now, through an agreement that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed in 2010 with the governors of Acre, Brazil, and Chiapas, Mexico, ARB is poised to further weaken AB 32 by allowing up to half of the offsets to be met by a scheme to reduce deforestation in two of the poorest and most remote states in Latin America.

The scheme is known as REDD, for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. Under this proposal, instead of reducing their own emissions, California polluters could instead pay the governments of Acre and Chiapas to protect their tropical forests, thus capturing and "offsetting" industrial emissions.

A win-win, right? Not so fast.

In Chiapas, Schwarzenegger's agreement set in motion a dynamic that has increased social conflict and led several peasant farmer and indigenous organizations to rise up in protest. In 2011, in an effort to fast-track the scheme, Chiapas' then-governor began making payments to one group of jungle-dwelling indigenous people on the condition that they stop growing crops in the forest and guard the forest against "invaders" – usually other poor indigenous farmers. Pending funds from California, the money came from Chiapas' public coffers for the time being. The deal threw fuel on the fire of an already simmering agrarian conflict and angered Chiapas citizens, who hadn't been consulted.

Two years later, the fund has dried up, that governor is out of office, and Chiapas is literally bankrupt. But rural conflict continues – and deforestation has not been reduced.

Californians should want no part of this mess.

Proponents of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation scheme have more hope in Acre, in Brazil's western Amazon, which is often touted as a model of how to protect the rain forest. But many groups there – among them the Union of Rural Workers of Xapuri (which environmental martyr Chico Mendes once led), academics and indigenous peoples' organizations – tell a different story.

They charge that, since the state's Payments for Environmental Services Law went into effect, logging has more than doubled and the number of cattle has tripled. How could this be? With money flowing from the state to landholders for the carbon they sequester, land prices are going up, leading to concentration of land in the hands of ranchers who can profit by protecting token bits of forest while grazing and logging the rest.

Some payments are also being made to poorer forest dwellers on condition that they refrain from impacting the forest through cutting, burning or planting. But this has the perverse effect of shutting them out of their lands, reducing them to welfare recipients without offering support for longer-term solutions.

Until and unless California has the ability to guard against such perverse effects, Californians shouldn't want any part of this, either.

Let's not forget that offsets don't reduce pollution. They merely displace emissions reductions from one place (in this case, California), to others (Chiapas and Acre). This means that emissions will continue here in the state. Further, California's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation program – to be taken up by the Air Resources Board this summer – will not only displace emission reductions – it could also displace real people in Acre and Chiapas.

Let's not shirk our responsibilities by allowing California to accept offsets from the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation program, when it's more effective – and more just – to cut actual carbon emissions here at home.

Jeff Conant is International Forests Campaigner for Friends of the Earth.

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