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Expanding Carbon Offsets Will Not Solve the Climate Crisis or Protect Tropical Forests

Rather than expanding California’s failing cap-and-trade program to include tropical forest offsets, the state should scrap it altogether and require polluting companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the source.

The purpose of TFS, like all colonial purposes is economic: to sell the carbon sequestered by indigenous trees. (Photo: Creative Commons)

The purpose of TFS, like all colonial purposes is economic: to sell the carbon sequestered by indigenous trees. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Wildfires raging across Brazil, Northern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa have focused attention on the importance of forests in capturing carbon emissions and preserving biodiversity. However, a flawed plan set for consideration later this month by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), would only increase the threat to these precious forests.

The proposed Tropical Forest Standard (TFS) would allow polluters to continue to pollute, paying for climate “offsets” that allegedly preserve tropical forests. In theory, these offsets—or payments in exchange for the right to emit greenhouse gases—would protect these critical habitats that serve as CO2 sinks.

A closer look reveals a less sanguine picture. Offsets are hard to verify, can be redundant to existing conservation programs, often displace indigenous communities and give a false sense that we are addressing the climate impacts of fossil fuels.

These emissions are connected to the lifecycle of the trees, absorbing carbon while they live, and releasing emissions when they decompose or burn...You can’t take back greenhouse gas emissions that we previously “offset” by the forest once it is destroyed.

Carbon offset schemes pretend that CO2 emissions from fossil fuels are permanently sequestered in trees. But these emissions are connected to the lifecycle of the trees, absorbing carbon while they live, and releasing emissions when they decompose or burn. The idea that we will permanently offset these emissions is even more absurd when we consider Brazilian President Bolsonaro’s antagonistic policies toward tropical forest preservation and the wildfires raging across Brazil. You can’t take back greenhouse gas emissions that we previously “offset” by the forest once it is destroyed.

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A study by the Accra Caucus, a network of NGOs from 38 countries, found that the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Program (FCP), a forest offset program, has failed miserably to protect forest-dwelling peoples. Not only were some forcibly displaced, others were prohibited from their age-old agricultural practices, fishing, hunting and gathering activity, thereby denying their food security. This study found that their consent, required by the program, was not sought in many cases, and even manufactured in some instances. Another FCP promise to grant land titles and secure tenure rights remains unfulfilled.

Indigenous Peoples’ spiritual practice and relationship to their lands and territories are interrupted by the capitalization of their forest. California’s proposed TFS would focus a mega-million-dollar carbon market on humble Indigenous communities. There has never been a level playing field between states, profiteers and indigenous communities—nor is there one now. The purpose of TFS, like all colonial purposes is economic: to sell the carbon sequestered by indigenous trees. It is not meant to protect indigenous peoples or forests. It is meant to promote carbon markets. Why else then should indigenous peoples need to be “safeguarded”?

Meanwhile here in California, communities located near fossil fuel operations are already burdened with toxic pollution. Offsets allow refineries, drill sites and other fossil fuel operations to continue— and even increase—greenhouse gas emissions rather than meet state environmental air quality standards. Offsets result in an increase of harmful co-pollutants associated with health impacts from asthma to higher death rates. Even after repeated requests, CARB has not done the required environmental studies on the effect of TFS offsets on these communities.

Rather than expanding California’s failing cap-and-trade program to include tropical forest offsets, the state should scrap it altogether and require polluting companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the source. If Gov. Newsom wants to take further action, he can declare a moratorium on oil and gas expansion and ban fracking in California. The climate crisis calls for ambitious solutions, not bait-and-switch market schemes that allow polluters to get away with continuing toxic emissions, while destroying communities near fossil fuel facilities and the world’s forests and indigenous peoples.

Alberto Saldamando

Alberto Saldamando

Alberto Saldamando is indigenous rights climate change counsel to the Indigenous Environmental Network, a non-profit NGO supporting indigenous front line communities defending their Sacred Water and territories against extraction and fossil fuels.


Jim Walsh

Jim currently serves as the Renewable Energy Policy Analyst for Food & Water Watch. In this capacity, Jim provides policy guidance and support to local, state, and national policy campaigns that help to ensure a just transition to 100% renewable energy by 2035.

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