In 1987, Sheryl Sturges was Director of Strategic Planning at AES Corporation, the US-based energy company. AES was planning to build a new 181 MW coal-fired power plant in Connecticut. But the company’s CEO, Roger W. Sant, was worried about climate change.
In an interview with NPR, Sturges explains that Sant said to her:
“Sheryl, I’m concerned that global warming may be a real thing, and I’m concerned that AES is contributing to it, and can you find a way of helping AES minimise or avoid our emissions in that area?”
Sturges came up with four possible ways forward – including promoting energy conservation, carbon capture and storage, or that AES Corporation should stop burning coal to produce energy. She rejected these options as too impractical.
Instead, Sturges went for the fourth option: planting trees to absorb carbon emissions. Her first though was to plant trees around the AES coal plant. Sturges got in touch with Paul Faeth at the World Resources Institute to ask whether her idea was feasible.
WRI’s scientists told her that her idea could work. She asked Faeth how many trees would be needed. “It was 52 million trees,” Sturges tells NPR. “That was the estimate of how many trees it would take to offset the carbon that the plant would emit in its 40-year lifetime.”
At this point, Sturges was still thinking of planting trees around the coal plant. A quick look on Google maps reveals that there just isn’t room for 52 million trees in Uncasville, Connecticut where AES Corporation’s Thames Plant was built:
Sturges came up with what she calls a “crazy idea”. She could plant the trees anywhere and they would still suck up AES Corporation’s carbon emissions. “That freed me up,” she tells NPR.
Faeth and Sturges started looking for somewhere they could plant 52 million trees. They found a project run by CARE in the mountains of Guatemala. A US$2 million grant from AES would allow farmers to plant trees. Paul Faeth explains that,
“The reason this particular project was chosen was because it had the dual benefit of helping poor farmers and sequestering carbon.”
Sturges is clear that she was creating a commodity out of carbon:
“It is a commodity. We were trying to commoditise carbon so that you could trade it and conserve it and, like, sell the non-production of it.”
But what happened in Guatemala? Hannah Wittman a Professor at the department of Sociology and Anthropology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia has studied the impacts of tree planting on farmers livelihoods in Guatemala.
Wittman found frequent land use conflicts. The project had actually offset far less than AES had initially anticipated. When farmers in the region started planting trees, less land was available for growing food. The result was food shortages in the area.
Faeth argues that CARE’s project was about to close before AES stepped in because of lack of funding:
Many poor people in Guatemala benefitted from CARE’s on-going work only because the project had the ability to offset carbon, bringing to bear an entirely new source of funding for poverty alleviation.
Here’s how Adam Ma’anit wrote about the Guatemala project in a 2006 New Internationalist article about the problems with carbon offsets:
According to Hannah Wittman of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, the project was a dismal failure. ‘What it did first and foremost was to take access to the trees out of the hands of ordinary people.’ An external evaluation revealed that subsistence activities undertaken by the largely indigenous population, such as gathering fuelwood for cooking, were now criminalized and conflicts erupted over rights to the trees, excarcerbating existing tensions over access to resources and local decision-making. Initially the tree species used were largely inappropriate for the area and resulted in land degradation. The evaluators, Winrock International, concluded in 1999 – 10 years after the project began – that AES’s offset target was falling far below the expected level. By 2001, farmers were still not receiving direct payments for the trees they planted and looked after and many were not aware that these trees were being used for storing carbon for AES. These problems, however, did not prevent the company from getting approval for its coal-fired power plant.
In her research, Wittman found that the money from AES created a problem for CARE in the way it implemented its project. Previously, CARE had focussed on poverty alleviation. With the AES money came a new focus on carbon sequestration. CARE had to redirect resources to pay consultants to develop a methodology to measure and monitor carbon in agroforestry plots and forests.
Wittman writes that,
“This redirection of financial resources demonstrates how carbon sequestration has displaced financial resources and personnel toward satisfying donor objectives for carbon sequestration.”
The coal-fired power plant in Uncasville stopped operation in 2011 after AES Thames filed for bankrupcy. And at the end of 2013, Interstate Construction Services started demolishing the power plant.
This post is part of a series based on a report I wrote in 2017 for the German NGO Stiftung Asienhaus. Download the report here: “REDDheads: The people behind REDD and the climate scam in Southeast Asia”.