Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, is a remote frontier, the gateway to Mayan ruins, chilly highland forests and steamy rain forest jungle.
Americans, however, might be acquainted with it more for the ubiquitous "Chia Pet" (remember the clay pots with chia seeds?) or for the anti-globalization Zapatista uprisings that began in 1994 than for the state's rich biodiversity and cultural heritage.
You might not expect this to be a place that draws California lawmakers.
But indeed it does, as I learned recently from Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles. Last November, after the election of the new Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, the California state Senate sent a delegation to Mexico City, and the Environmental Defense Fund invited de León to visit Chiapas.
He went and was impressed, even stunned, at what he found. Community organizations, state officials and indigenous people 2,700 miles from Sacramento had an in-depth working knowledge about California's AB 32 law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. "They knew more about California's cap-and-trade system than the average citizen in California," de León told me.
So why the deep interest in California's cap-and-trade system – which is barely getting started, holding only its second auction on Feb. 16?
It goes back to the Governors' Global Climate Summit held at UC Davis in November 2010. It was there that then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state governors from across the United States and the world made it known that they would not wait for their nations to take on global climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Schwarzenegger set the tone by signing an agreement with the governors of Chiapas, Mexico and Acre, Brazil. "Protecting the world's forests is critical in the global fight against climate change," he said, noting that deforestation accounts for 10 percent to 15 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions – more than the entire global transportation sector and second only to the energy sector.
The agreement was a spur to the two tropical states to set their own statewide emissions targets and for California to figure out how its own cap-and-trade system might help.
By 2015, 350 California businesses and 600 facilities that account for 85 percent of the state's emissions will have to meet an emissions cap that declines over time. For a small 8 percent of their emissions they may meet their obligation through "offsets" – paying for reduced emissions somewhere off site. This piece is not yet operational.
Even further down the road is the possibility of international offsets, so-called "Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation" offsets that preserve and restore tropical forests. These would represent a tiny 2 percent to 4 percent of total compliance obligations under California's cap-and-trade program.
That is what Chiapas and Acre are working toward – California offsets that would provide resources for preserving and restoring tropical forests.
An 11-member working group of technical experts from the three states presented its recommendations on Jan. 28. They will take comments through mid-April, then present the draft to the three state governments.
Three California universities are doing yeoman work to make international offsets work: Stanford University on measurement and mapping of forest cover, deforestation, bio-mass and carbon stocks; UC Davis on social and environmental safeguards (with a workshop coming on March 26); and UCLA on how a legal framework might work.
The idea is for California to create an incentive for places like Chiapas and Acre to set their own plans for reducing emissions that could meet California's rigorous offset credit requirements. These tropical states would have to show public participation and consultation in program design; establish a transparent system to monitor, inventory, report, verify and maintain accounting for emission reductions; and ensure that emissions reductions are real, additional, quantifiable, permanent, verifiable and enforceable.
Acre, for example, already is seen internationally as a pioneering state that the working group says is "poised to link its innovative program with multiple pay-for-performance opportunities."
Chiapas is at an earlier stage. Its progress bears close watching – especially efforts to resolve long-standing political disputes in the Lacandón jungle, the largest rain forest in North America. Large cattle operations, palm oil plantations and other activities have pushed campesino agriculturalists and indigenous people farther into diminishing forests.
Daniel Nepstad, a member of the working group and international program director of the Amazon Institute of Environmental Research, told me that "the central importance of California's initiative is that it would send a signal that the amazing progress that states have made in lowering their deforestation is recognized." California, he says, is seen as a "beacon of hope of the first regulated market that could deliver some compensation to these states."
This view, however, is not uncontroversial. Some U.S.-based environmental groups, as well as groups in Chiapas and Acre, oppose the idea of offsets.
They believe California companies and facilities should have to meet their caps at the source of the emissions – the power plant or oil refinery, for example – and should not be allowed to use offsets.
Jeff Conant of Friends of the Earth likens offsets to "California asking Chiapas to go on a diet for us." He suggests that "if we want to authentically protect forests, let's do that job," rather than "outsourcing emissions."
The problem is that we have waited decades for such an approach to emerge and it simply hasn't.
The California Air Resources Board is extremely cautious, saying only that it has "no timeline" for acting on the working group's recommendations and is "observing" the developments in Acre and Chiapas.
As Nepstad has said, however, establishing tropical forest offsets provides an "extraordinary opportunity to secure the gains if we don't turn our backs on it." Gov. Jerry Brown, Sen. de León and his colleagues in the Legislature should follow up on the partnership California launched in 2010.