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The Wrong Kind of Green: A discussion

Two weeks ago, journalist Johann Hari wrote a searing article in The Nation, raising important questions about conservation NGOs that accept funding from polluting corporations. Hari argues that the funding appears to have influenced the actions the NGOs take to address climate change.

“Sometimes the corruption is subtle; sometimes it is blatant,” Hari writes.

Johann Hari appeared on Democracy Now! last week, together with journalist Christine MacDonald who has written a book called Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad. She worked for Conservation International (CI) and her book criticises CI and other environmental groups for adopting positions apparently influenced by their corporate funders.

Hari’s article, “The Wrong Kind of Green”, raises two crucially important questions (among others):

  1. Should conservation NGOs accept funding from polluting corporations?
  2. Should polluting companies be allowed to continue polluting by buying up forest carbon offset credits?

While my answer to both questions would be a resounding “no” (and the”no” can be extended to include all carbon offsets, for the simple reason that offsetting allows emissions to continue somewhere else), clearly Hari has raised issues that are worthy of further discussion.

The Nation has now posted a series of responses to Hari’s article, some supportive others dismissive. Phil Radford, Executive Director of Greenpeace mentions the three principles in “The Wrong Kind of Green” that could make environmental advocacy groups stronger:

  • avoid the perceived or real conflicts of interest created by taking corporate money;
  • start with what must be done to save the environment, not with what we think we can eke out of an unfriendly Congress; and
  • the way forward will be bottom-up, shutting and stopping coal plants

On the Tropical Forest Group blog, John-O Niles disagrees. Having dismissed Hari’s article as “one of the most self-righteous article [sic] ever written”, Niles writes:

The key thing Democracy Now and Mr Hari miss is that REDD+ has been approved by all nations signing up to the Copenhagen Accord. If the United Nations and the UNFCCC trying to tackle climate change and deforestation is not international democracy (Now), then I don’t know what is. No one thinks the Copenhagen Accord is perfect, but it will probably have more traction than Hari’s suggestion that we all put ourselves in front of coal trains.

What Niles misses (putting aside for the moment the undemocratic process by which the Copenhagen Accord was drawn up or the fact that it is non-binding) is that the version of REDD in the Copenhagen Accord will not address climate change. It will allow the creation of vast numbers of cheap forest carbon credits, allowing polluting industry to continue polluting and effectively locking in dirty technology such as coal-fired power stations.

Kevin Koenig, the Ecuador Programme Coordinator of Amazon Watch, notes that

“A market-based offset system that equates fossil carbon with biotic carbon is little more than carbon laundering, and the BINGOs [Big International Non-Governmental Organisations] should be wielding their power to address the drivers of climate change and deforestation, as well as advocating for indigenous rights protections that reflect the traditional and current role indigenous peoples play in preserving their rainforest territories.”

Koenig argues that “Given the absence of any meaningful or substantive language referencing indigenous rights – let lone guaranteeing them – in the Copenhagen Accord, these groups should be speaking out and withdrawing their support for REDD unless basic inalienable principles like FPIC (Free, Prior, Informed, Consent), are included.”

Christine Dorsey of the National Wildlife Federation describes Hari’s article as “an irresponsible and toxic mixture of inaccurate information and uninformed analysis.” But her response fails to address any of the key issues raised by Hari. In any case, she writes, corporate partnerships for NWF’s educational work account for less that 1/2 of 1 per cent of NWF’s funding.

Carl Pope, the out-going executive director of the Sierra Club is dismissive: “While thin on solutions Hari’s story was so plump with distortions of reality that it might have been written by Lewis Carroll.” But as Hari responds, “Rather than engage with the serious issues I raised, Carl Pope sadly plays the old politician’s trick of denying charges I did not make.” Pope ignores the facts that Hari raised in his article, such as this one: “the Sierra Club vehemently opposed a lawsuit to force the US government’s policies into line with climate science by returning us to 350ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

My favourite response to Hari’s article is that from Karen Foerstel, director, climate media relations at The Nature Conservancy. Here it is, in full:

The article “The Wrong Kind of Green” offers readers in inaccurate and incomplete picture of the role deforestation plays in climate change and the way in which environmental and conservation organizations are fighting for policies to address global warming. For the full story, visit

Hari’s article cites Greenpeace’s research into the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project in Bolivia. The page on TNC’s website linked to from Foerstel’s response does not mention the Noel Kempff project. “If there are so many ‘inaccuracies’ in my description of TNC,” writes Hari, “why can’t they name a single one? Do they think the banal propaganda they link to is an answer?”

Noel Kempff was also slammed in last week’s Guardian, in Fred Pearce’s Greenwash column. Pearce repeats Greenpeace’s argument that forest carbon has to be accounted for at the national level and not just at REDD project level:

Since the start of the Noel Kempff project, deforestation rates in Bolivia have gone up. So the argument is that one-off carbon offsetting projects do not deliver real benefits to the atmosphere unless governments undertake much wider efforts to curb deforestation.

Foerstel’s reluctance to talk about Noel Kempff in The Nation is strange. When Natasha Loder, a journalist with The Economist, asked Foerstel some questions about Noel Kempff, she answered at length. Loder recently posted the response on her blog. Foerstel’s response can be summed as follows: Noel Kempff is a pilot project, TNC is learning by doing and “no certified offsets (credits) have yet been issued to any of the partners”.

Loder asks “So given that no carbon offsets have been created, where exactly is the scam?”

Here’s the scam. TNC created the project with “the intent of testing and refining the science of forest carbon accounting and monitoring, and developing best practices for future REDD activities,” according to Foerstal’s reply to Loder. To TNC, of course, REDD activities means trading forest carbon. Trading forest carbon allows the polluting companies (American Electric Power (AEP) BP-Amoco (BP) and Pacificorp) which fund Noel Kempff to continue business as usual.

Here’s how AEP describes its involvement in REDD-type projects:

AEP has also sequestered substantial amounts of CO2 emissions through forestry projects. We invested in a project to save an ecologically diverse forest region in Bolivia – the world’s largest such project – and have facilitated similar projects in Brazil.

In an interview with Time magazine in 2008, Diane Fitzgerald, AEP’s managing director of environment and safety explained “We’ll compare forestry offsets to projects like renewable energy, and we have to make the best financial decision.”

Michael G. Morris, chief executive of AEP is more blunt. He told the Washington Post that

“When Greenpeace says the only reason American Electric Power wants to do this is because it doesn’t want to shut down its coal plants, my answer is, ‘You bet, because our coal plants serve our customers very cost-effectively,'”

Meanwhile TNC is lobbying on behalf of its corporate sugar daddies – polluting companies like AEP – to ensure that forest carbon trading is included in an international agreement on REDD.

The frustration in Johann Hari’s final comment on The Nation website is clear. He has attempted to open up an urgently needed discussion about corporate funding to conservation NGOs, but the biggest offenders appear not to want a meaningful discussion.

“Do none of these people feel any concern that the leading environmental groups in America are hoovering up cash from the worst polluters and advocating policies that fall far short of what scientists say we need to safely survive the climate crisis? Do they really think there is nothing to discuss here?”


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  1. Elsewhere on this website, Jeffrey Horowitz of the so-called Avoided Deforestation Partners is quoted as saying that ““Neither we nor any other credible environmental group would endorse a carbon market that wasn’t subject to rigorous oversight and the highest standards for transparency and integrity”. But all I see is that these ‘credible (sic) environmental groups’ are just trying to get their snouts in the trough, and making sure that the trough is as big as it possibly can be – see here, for example –

    I don’t see any of them actually saying “we need rigorous oversight and the highest standards for transparency and integrity before there can be effective REDD programmes”. Given that the internal governance of organisations like TNC has been far from operating to the highest standards of transparency and integrity, perhaps we should not expect them to behave like ‘credible’ environmental groups.

  2. If the mandate of the United Nations confines UN policy to nation states – as distinct from regions within those states – then, presumably, REDD projects at “subnational level” have no place in UN discussions, and are a (mischievous) REDD-herring.

  3. James,
    UN-REDD offices in developing countries are facing a big dilemma. Get involved at the subnational and local level or just keep pushing papers. UN-REDD have the mandate to promote REDD implementation at national and “subnational” level but avoiding to address all complexities of transparency, human rights, leakages forest-dependant and community land rights at the minor scale of social organization. Most of them have not experience in forest governance in developing countries but only in project management. These gaps of real involvement will be need to be filled by grassroots and experts working at local level. The rest will be just a waste of resources from tax papers of developed countries.

  4. Great post. It’s amazing how these representatives from corporate-friendly NGO’s simply evade all the difficult but important questions raised by Hari. In my view, these NGOs are closer to PR companies than to civil society representatives. They take money from big polluters to clean up their image and defend the policies they prefer (like emissions trading). It’s depressing, really.

  5. Did you know we are killing ourselves slowly? Everyday we dump tons of plastic bags into our be loving Mother Earth. The conscious is like Karma. We did something bad to the earth and we will get it back. Look at the lakes, rivers and underground water near the dumping areas. The toxics of these plastic bags are leaking out. There are no way to stop the toxic leakage unless we stop dumping more in the ground. Stop using plastic bags and start using green supply bags. Cheap and last a long time.

  6. @Clarine Irwin – Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry, but taking meaningful action to address climate change means a little more than stopping using plastic bags. Did you know that on average people in Britain use 134 plastic bags every year, but plastic bags account for two kilos of CO2 emissions? That’s about one five thousandth of the 11 tons of CO2 emissions that the average British person emits each year. Plastic bags are horrible, I agree – and we should stop using them. But this has nothing to do with preventing climate change and nothing to do with reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.