Air Resources Board looks to tropical deforestation for cap-and-trade offsets

California environmental regulators zeroed in on tropical deforestation Wednesday as a top cause of global climate change and looked for ways to halt the destruction of distant forests through the state’s pioneering carbon cap-and-trade program.

The California Air Resources Board said it was considering allowing companies in the state to purchase a small amount of credits in the carbon trading system when deforestation is controlled in Brazil, Mexico or other countries. The board’s meeting Wednesday drew indigenous leaders and others from such tropical forest areas, all of them stressing the importance of saving the vegetation in their regions.

Tropical forests are considered one of the world’s major carbon sinks and their destruction – often by burning – contributes up to 14 percent of global carbon emissions.

“To truly tackle climate change, we must address the issue of deforestation,” said Jason Gray, staff counsel with the air board. “This is one problem we cannot tackle alone.”

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Climate found that the total destruction of the Amazon rain forest in South America, and the carbon emitted, could heat up global temperatures enough to reduce half of California’s snowpack, a major source of the state’s water.

California’s cap-and-trade program, adopted in 2011, dovetails with other emissions reduction programs implemented under AB 32, the state's landmark greenhouse gas law. The program attaches a price on the production of greenhouse gas pollution by capping the total amount of carbon emitted in the state and allowing polluters to trade credits to emit carbon. Through such efforts, California hopes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

To date, 12 cap-and-trade auctions have brought the state $2.9 billion in proceeds, which will be invested in programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in California. Gray said tropical forests could provide additional sources for carbon offsets, especially with such offsets becoming more limited in California.

The look at tropical forests thousands of miles away for cap-and-trade programs signals a new international focus for the air board. To date, it hasn’t approved any international, sector-based offset credits under its cap-and-trade program. If the tropical forest program is approved, sector-based offset credits would be eligible to comply with 2 percent to 4 percent of business’ cap-and-trade obligations.

“No one has done it yet in a compliance or regulatory program, and by doing it, California can really figure this thing out,” said Louis Blumberg, climate change policy director with the nonprofit Nature Conservancy. “No one else has a climate regulatory program with a price on carbon other than the European Union emission trading system which decided long ago not to include forests in their program.”

Almir Surui, who was representing Surui ancestral lands in the Amazon, said he saw special urgency in controlling deforestation on ancestral lands because forests are often cleared without any apparent plan or reason.

“This issue is very important to us,” Surui said. “Deforestation is a very great risk for us who live in these forests, so we’re in favor of creating criteria for sustainable development.”

Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz