In 1988, Applied Energy Services (AES) was constructing a 183 MW coal-fired power plant in Connecticut. AES hired World Resources Institute to find a forestry project to “offset” the 14.1 million tons of carbon that would be emitted over the power plant’s 40 year life. The following year, AES signed an agreement with the NGO CARE to fund an ongoing agroforestry project in Guatemala.
It was the world’s first forestry project funded explicitly to offset greenhouse gas emissions. CARE describes the project as a “success”, generating “a wealth of direct and indirect benefits for the people of Western Guatemala”.
A recent paper “Carbon Offsets and Inequality: Social Costs and Co-Benefits in Guatemala and Sri Lanka”, by Hannah K. Wittman and Cynthia Caron, published in Society and Natural Resources looks at this project. The authors report that in the first decade, the project failed to offset the emissions from the AES coal-fired power plant. In addition, making the project into a “carbon project” has diverted project resources from poverty alleviation to carbon measuring.
AES, CARE and WRI anticipated that the forestry project would sequester between 15.5 and 16.3 million tons of carbon over 40 years. But an external evaluation carried out by Winrock International in 1999 found that only 270,000 tons of carbon had been offset by the project over the previous ten years.
The reasons for this failure include “land use conflicts, struggles for control over scarce forest, and legal changes that criminalized subsistence activities such as fuel wood gathering [which] undermined local farmer participation”. Guatemala’s 1996 forest law declared forest land off-limits to farmers. The law effectively took access to forests away from local people.
The 2006 book, “Carbon Trading: A Critical Conversation on Climate Change, Privatisation and Power,” edited by Larry Lohmann and published by the Dag Hammerskjöld Foundation and The Cornerhouse outlines the problems:
One result was that conflict grew between municipal and village authorities and individual landowners. Another was that reforestation looked less attractive. Who wants to plant trees if by doing so you deprive yourself of daily necessities? A third result was increasing distrust of government forest offices, some of which were partly funded by the CARE/AES Agroforestry Project. Not a good outcome, whether your objective was people’s welfare or long-term carbon savings.
Then, too, in the early years of the project, the tree species promoted were often inappropriate for the climate and for degraded land areas. Damage by animals and sabotage of replanted areas also limited the expansion of reforested areas.
Winrock International’s consultants made a series of recommendations to make the AES-CARE project “more acceptable as a CDM-type project”. The recommendations included developing a land-use mapping system using geographical information systems (GIS), and remote sensing technologies. They suggested that the project should find areas to act as a “without project” baseline. And they called for the design and implementation of a carbon monitoring programme in order to establish exactly how many carbon credits the project generates. Wittman and Caron note that “These recommendations compound the problem of requiring carbon sequestration in exchange for supporting ongoing poverty alleviation efforts.”
The project provides a fascinating example of what can happen when the purpose of a forestry project becomes carbon sequestration. The project started in 1974. Wittman and Caron point out that once AES got involved in 1989, the project’s emphasis on carbon sequestration meant that “scarce resources and personnel were redirected for carbon offset accounting”. In addition, CARE’s farming extension work “was broadened from focusing exclusively on small and generally poorer farmers to include better off and larger farmers.”
Wittman and Caron are not generally critical of CARE’s work in the Western Highlands. “CARE has achieved notable success in promoting the adoption of sustainable agriculture and agroforestry projects as a result of its extension programs in the project area, although reforestation programs in the Western Highlands have been less successful.” They also acknowledge that “The carbon-offset project provided important financial resources to the agroforestry project for extension and outreach activities that have shown a positive effect on local livelihoods.”
But for the second phase of the project, from 1999-2009, CARE officials told the researchers that they needed to redirect resources from farming extension to pay external consultants to develop a methodology to measure and monitor carbon in agroforestry plots and plantations established under the project.
The authors summarise the problem:
CARE, as a development organization, has prioritized rural farmers’ needs for poverty alleviation before carbon mitigation. To maintain project funding, however, it must also achieve mandated targets in establishing carbon sinks. The tension the CARE staff felt in regard to the need to attend to both carbon sequestration and poverty alleviation is manifest in the difficulties that extension agents face in reaching their targeted population – when the objective of rural poverty reduction does not overlap with that of increasing the size of carbon sinks, where do they direct their scarce resources?
After AES started to fund the project, there was no discussion about whether farmers participating in the project should receive payments from AES for the carbon offsets that they were providing. Only recently have project staff begun to discuss climate change with local people involved in the project. The AES-CARE project included 12,000 hectares of eucalyptus and pine plantations for poles and lumber. The focus of the project shifted from agroforestry to carbon offset plantations.
“Rather than reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions at the source,” Wittman and Caron write, “the advancement of forestry projects in Guatamala . . . enable[s] power producers in the United States to externalize at least part of their costs of production.” In a 2000 article, World Rainforest Movement quotes WRI’s website: “alternatives in the United States to avoid the release of carbon dioxide or sequester it at the source appeared to be considerably more expensive.”
For at least the first ten years of the AES-CARE project, emissions from the power plant vastly exceeded the carbon sequestered in the AES-CARE project. At the same time, CARE diverted resources from poverty alleviation to carbon monitoring. Given that the project had been running since the 1970s it’s is difficult to see how the project could possibily be considered to be additional. In effect AES wrote a cheque which allowed emissions to continue.