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California REDD: A False Solution

Posted May. 20, 2013 / Posted by: Jeff Conant

Friends of the Earth is deeply devoted to curbing both deforestation and averting catastrophic climate change. Yet FoE’s international forests campaign has been actively engaged in opposing California’s pending adoption of a program known as REDD – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. Indeed, we’ve taken the lead, along with Greenpeace, California Environmental Justice Alliance, and two dozen other groups in asking the governor of California and the California Air Resources Board to reject REDD, and have just published an Op-Ed in the Sacramento Bee asking Californians to oppose the agreement. 

So, if we care so much about forests and the climate, what gives?

Among environmental advocates, and especially forest defenders, REDD can be a complicated and divisive issue; among those a little beyond the inner circles of environmental advocacy, it’s downright baffling. FoE’s position is explained in our issue briefs here and here, and in past news releases (here and here), as well as in this cheeky breakdown of Ten Ways to Game the Carbon Market. Our position is also supported by a number of letters sent to California policymakers recently from Chiapas, Mexico, (“REDD  will legally allow the continuation of the predatory and consumerist model”), from Acre, Brazil (“REDD  represents the ‘theft’ of yet another ‘raw material’ from the territories of the peoples of the South: the ‘carbon reserves’ in their forests”), from the Corner House in the UK (“the toxic legacy of REDD would engrave the name Jerry Brown permanently in the ‘enemies of the environment roster’”), and from our sister groups in Friends of the Earth Latin America and the Caribbean (“REDD shifts responsibility for the climate crisis to the countries of the South, which do not have historical responsibility for the crisis”).

These letters are strongly worded, indicating the fierce stance that many opposing groups take to the issue. Given that proponents of REDD strongly believe that California's proposal is a win-win, I’d like to shine a little more light on our position.

REDD, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, proposes to put a price on standing forests in order to incentivize conserving them. This leads many enviros to think it’s a conservation effort. But it’s not. It’s a carbon offset scheme, and a dubious one at that. Reducing emissions from deforestation is crucial, both for climate change mitigation and simply because we need to preserve our remaining forests – but expecting carbon markets to do the job can, and does, lead to very problematic outcomes.

For years economists have promoted carbon trading as the cheapest way to cut carbon pollution – though this notion took a major body blow recently when The Economist (among many others) declared the EU emissions trading scheme both ineffective, and, to put it plainly, dead. Swiss banking giant UBS reported that the EU scheme had cost the continent's consumers $287 billion for "almost zero impact" on cutting carbon emissions. These massive failings led Carbon Trade Watch and 120 other groups to note that “The use of offset projects has resulted in an increase of emissions worldwide… and has brought severe social and environmental consequences to communities where the offset projects are implemented, together with communities living next to the industrial facilities that buy the credits” and to call on Europe to scrap the European Emissions Trading System.

And this is the morass that California is wading into. While even some of our favorite media sources buy the state’s line that California can succeed where others have failed, we believe such wishful thinking is pure hubris. With even Time Magazine seeing the carbon bubble about to burst, it seems necessary to repeat what social movements and groups like Climate Justice Now! have known for years: that drastic reductions in emissions from fossil fuel use are the only way to avert the climate crisis. Indeed, Oilwatch International sent California policymakers a statement with a pretty clear message to that effect: “Don’t let Shell roast the planet.”

What these concerns point to is that emissions trading simply subsidizes the fossil fuel industry. Interestingly, many groups deeply invested in REDD are also deeply invested in fossil fuels -- a point that should give serious pause.

But enough about fossil fuels—have I mentioned forests yet? If not, it’s because forests are secondary to REDD (it’s a carbon offset scheme), and secondary to California’s plan.

Proponents of REDD as a mechanism for saving forests assert that by putting a price on the carbon stored in trees, existing economic incentives to deforest could be reversed. However, numerous studies show that failure to address the true drivers of deforestation –  high demand for wood products, expansion of industrial agriculture, illegal and unplanned forest conversion, conflicts over land and resources, and extractive activities – will generally undermine any effort to ‘protect’ forests through “payment for ecosystem services” schemes such as REDD. In other words, expecting carbon markets to do the job of protecting forests can, and does, lead to very problematic outcomes.

Some of these outcomes are described by Tracey Osbourne of the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona, and other academics at the Public Political Ecology Lab. Osbourne, who has put in years studying carbon forestry in a Mayan community in the Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas, finds that “when the carbon market enters forest ecosystems, it targets land uses of low market value, which in many developing countries is derived from subsistence needs.” “In an early program that intended to lay the groundwork for REDD+ in Chiapas,” she writes, “subsistence activities were constrained while production of African oil palm and jatropha for biofuels received subsides from the state.”

In other words, Osbourne’s findings show that carbon forestry requires that farmers give up producing food for themselves in exchange for ‘capturing carbon’. Proponents of a market-based logic tend to see this as “providing economic opportunity.” But proponents of indigenous rights and cultural integrity tend to see it as causing cultural erosion, with the attendant negative impacts to the ecologies that have been cared for by local cultures forever,  precisely through their subsistence activities.

Kathy MacAfee, Associate Professor of International Relations at SF State, argues thatEcosystem services have become the latest in a long history of tropical-commodity miracle crops” that “are no more likely to boost prosperity for the majority in the exporting regions than did coffee, sugar, rubber, or any such commodities in the past.”

In other words, just as in coffee, sugar, rubber, and other commodity markets, the middle-men involved in REDD and carbon trading will likely capture the greatest part of the profit, while the producers go hungry.

MacAfee’s conclusions match those of the Munden Project, a comprehensive assessment of REDD+ conducted by experts in derivatives trading, which points out, “Experience with numerous commodities markets shows a generalized pattern whereby commodity producers receive an extremely limited percentage of the final commodity cost.”

It is not only concern for misplaced project benefits that worries community-based organizations in Chiapas – it is concern that REDD will continue to exacerbate land conflicts and lead to ongoing evictions in the densely forested and hotly contested Lacandon jungle. (I’ve documented these concerns extensively here, here, and here and we’ve posted current documentation about the evictions in Chiapas here.)

And this is where the rubber tree hits the tarmac. Many REDD and PES schemes, including early efforts in Chiapas and Acre, the states where California hopes to draw its REDD offset credits from, have either caused or exacerbated social conflicts. This is what we meant when, in our open letter to the Governor and California Air Resources Board, we stated that “Based on the experiences of existing REDD mechanisms and processes, we strongly believe that subnational REDD initiatives financed primarily or wholly through offsets will be inefficient, ineffective, and will lead to perverse outcomes.”

One such perverse outcome, from the early effort to promote a REDD-type project in Chiapas was noted in a press release put out by FoE last October, where  Rosario Aguilar, a health promoter from Chiapas, said, “Even before California has established its market, the REDD project being implemented in our communities is causing conflict and displacement.  As part of their plan to move indigenous people off the land, the government cut off medical services to the village of Amador Hernández in the Lacandon Jungle. This is why we say that REDD is promoting death, not life.” 

The hope for California REDD is that it will set a high bar for social and environmental safeguards, and by submitting subnational efforts to the light of international scrutiny, will prevent any further abuses of this sort. According to the recommendations of the REDD Offsets Working Group, no state could trade emissions offsets with California unless they have strict statewide deforestation baselines and targets, ensure local communities' lives are improved, respect indigenous peoples' rights, and meet or exceed the environmental standards of California. That certainly sounds good, but the question is how it can be carried out in practice, especially in states with long histories of conflict and depredation.

Intelligent people can have different positions on REDD, as the saying goes, and support for a program such as the one proposed by California is certainly understandable among those who, justifiably, want to see money for forest protection and low-carbon development. But even in Acre, Brazil—the state touted as having the most advanced ecosystem services law in the world—a number of groups have expressed concerns about the very nature of the proposal. An open letter from groups in Acre to the state of California calls REDD “a proposal based on a limited view of the forest, aimed at benefiting business interests and a small group linked to the government, while deepening already existing environmental and social injustice.” 

A central concern expressed by the critical groups in Brazil is that REDD “is not an idea that emerged from an indigenous village or forest community in Acre." They go on to point out that:

"It emerged at the international level, through the combination of, among others: (1) the conservationist interests of big environmental NGOs in the North, (2) the interests of national and sub-national governments in the North seeking low-cost alternatives to supposedly ‘offset’ their continued and excessive emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases, (3) the interests of national and sub-national governments in the South seeking to obtain financial resources for the ‘protection’ of forests in their countries, (4) the interests of corporations that could profit from market-tradable ‘offset’ credits, including through speculation on secondary (derivatives) markets, which would allow them to continue destroying the forests for the extraction of timber, minerals or oil, the establishment of monoculture plantations, etc., thus expanding their business opportunities, and (5) the interests of consultants and other actors involved in financial capital markets who want to turn ‘unexploited’ forests into a new market for this type of capital, through the commercialization of ‘environmental services’ such as carbon sequestration, among others.”

A few years ago when cap-and-trade was in Congress, a lot of environmentalists wondered why FoE opposed it. In short, it was because, unless it's fundamentally rebuilt to maximize the cap and minimize the trade, cap-and-trade is a false solution to the climate crisis, and a bad deal for the planet. (Climate scientist James Hansen called it “the path focused on corporate greed.”)  Now, in California, where cap-and-trade is already on the books, another false solution is on the table. In case anyone’s wondering why we oppose REDD in California – it’s the same story: unless it can be fundamentally reformed to favor the forests by first and foremost protecting those who live in them, it’s a false solution, and a bad deal for the planet.

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