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Climate denial, California style

On 16 November 2018, a public meeting will take place to discuss the California Tropical Forest Standard. The debate so far about the proposal to include REDD offsets in California’s cap and trade scheme reveals that the California Air Resources Board is heavily biased in favour of carbon trading and is not interested in addressing climate change.

On 5 September 2018, the California Air Resources Board released draft versions of the Tropical Forest Standard and a Draft Environmental Analysis. Comments were accepted until 29 October 2018.

More than 80 comments were received, several of which were signed onto by thousands of people. Some of the comments were in favour of including REDD offsets and others were opposed. Several of the comments are from Governors of states in Mexico and Brazil – all of whom wrote the same letters, presumably coordinated by the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force.

The California Air Resources Board has produced a document titled, “Responses to Comments on the Draft Environmental Analysis Prepared for the Endorsement of the California Tropical Forestry Standard”.

California likes polluters

According to CARB, only 11 of the comments raised issues that required a response. Three of the comments requiring a response came from supporters of carbon trading. CARB’s responses to these three comments included statements welcoming the comments: “CARB appreciates the comment’s assessment”, “CARB appreciates the comment’s support”, and “CARB thanks the commenter for the information”.

Andreas Dahl-Jørgensen, the Acting Director of Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative (NICFI), wrote to support the inclusion of REDD carbon credits in California’s cap and trade scheme. That’s no surprise, considering the fact that Norway has been pouring large sums of money into US-based think tanks to promote carbon trading and REDD for several years.

Meanwhile, Norway has been busy pushing ahead with its plans to extract oil from the Arctic.

And Shell Energy North America wrote in support of California’s carbon trading plans – but asking that carbon credits be made available for massively polluting companies like Shell as quickly as possible. REDD might take too long, according to Shell.

Critical comments not welcome

But when it comes to comments that are critical of carbon trading, CARB invariably disagreed with the comment. CARB states that it “strongly disagrees with the comment” several times. One of these is particularly revealing.

In his comment, Larry Lohmann, of The Corner House, suggests, more or less diplomatically, that CARB staff and consultants should go back to school to educate themselves.

One of the topics he suggests they should study is the difference climatically between the carbon stored below ground as fossil fuels and the carbon stored in forests.

Lohmann explains this point by referring to,

The well-established climatological incommensurability of fossil and biotic carbon, (Falkowski et al. 2000; Dooley 2014), which precludes the possibility of a scientific defense of the equivalences on which the exchange system mooted by the TFS would have to be founded. In practical terms, this incommensurability makes it inevitable that endorsement of the TFS and its application of to the California carbon trading system would worsen climate change, with effects in California itself as elsewhere – an outcome contrary to, and unacknowledged by, the conclusions of the draft EA.

REDD-Monitor has repeated this argument many times over the past ten years, for example here:

Carbon stored underground as fossil fuels is stable and will only enter the atmosphere if it is dug out and burned. Carbon stored in forests is inherently unstable. Forests burn. Forests are destroyed by pests. Forests are logged, flooded to created reservoirs, and cleared to make way for mines, cattle ranches, or industrial plantations of soy, palm oil, or pulpwood.

Keep the oil in the soil

The obvious conclusion from this is that to address climate change we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Stopping deforestation is, of course, also important, but we cannot pretend that we can offset continued emissions of fossil fuels against the carbon stored in forests.

The argument for forest offsets makes even less sense when forest fires are taken into account. As the climate warms, forests fires are becoming more frequent and more intense. When forests burn, the carbon stored in the forest is released to the atmosphere.

Forest fires are something that people in California are only too aware of. By August this year, the area of forest burned was already five times the five-year average. And that’s in a decade that has seen fires way above historical levels.

But the California Air Resources Board is not interested in listening to any arguments that might put carbon offsets in question. CARB writes in its response to Lohmann that,

The recent IPCC Special Report (2018) identified reduced deforestation and afforestation as critical to limiting global mean warming to 1.5oC or less. Pathways to limit global warming identify forests as a key carbon dioxide removal method to compensate for emissions from other sources. Reduced emissions from biological sources such as avoided deforestation are completely fungible with fossil fuel emissions as they have the same climate forcing impact.

True, the IPCC relied in its scenarios for addressing climate change on sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere. But as Professor Kevin Anderson from Manchester University points out, this amounts to little more than “intergenerational buck-passing” and a way of avoiding the desperately needed reductions in emissions from fossil fuels now.

Brown and Trump have the same goal

As Lohmann points out, CARB’s promotion of carbon trading is being legitimised by comparing California’s action on climate change to Donald Trump’s denial of climate change.

The reality though is that California’s position on climate change is actually remarkably similar to Trump’s position. The key word in both positions is “delay”.

Trump denies climate change and pursues policies to keep the fossil fuel industry going as long as possible. In July 2018, US oil production hit 11 million barrels per day for the first time.

The following month, the US overtook Russia to become the world’s largest oil producer. (And if you’ve not seen Hasan Minhaj’s brilliant analysis of the US government’s obsession with oil yet, just click on the image below.)

CARB does not deny climate change. But it does pursue climate policies that have the same goal as Trump.

California’s climate policy was written with the help of the oil industry. Under governor Jerry Brown, California saw a huge expansion in offshore oil drilling. The Tropical Forest Standard is just another means of keeping the fossil fuel industry going for as long as possible.

Ultimately there is no meaningful difference between Brown’s and Trump’s climate policies. Both have the same goal: Allowing fossil fuel industries to avoid structural change for as long as possible.

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  1. Hassan Minhaj’s performance is brilliant and apart from some of the USA jokes needs spreading around; very effective…