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California approves the Tropical Forest Standard. Good news for the fossil fuel industry. Bad news for the climate crisis

On 19 September 2019, the California Air Resources Board voted 7-4 to approve the Tropical Forest Standard. CARB is determined to convince us that this is not an approval of REDD offsets in California’s cap-and-trade scheme. In a presentation about the Tropical Forest Standard CARB staff point out that, “Endorsement of the Standard Does Not … Establish tropical forest offset credits for use in the California Cap-and-Trade Program”.

But that statement has a lot more to do with CARB’s enthusiasm for avoiding any discussion of offsets and the disastrous impact they will have on the climate crisis. That enthusiasm is shared by REDD proponents generally.

Offsets are counterproductive

Several organisations sent letters to CARB pointing out that offsets allow fossil fuel pollution to continue and therefore make the climate crisis worse.

Greenpeace USA, for example, wrote:

Offsets of any kind are counterproductive to the urgent action needed on climate change

The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, released on October 8, 2018, establishes that urgent, dramatic and unprecedented changes to all aspects of our society is needed now, if the planet has any hope of avoiding the catastrophic impacts of climate change. This level of urgency is fundamentally noncompliant with the concept of carbon emission offsets of any kind, but especially to jurisdictional international forest offsets. The best scientists in the world are telling us in no uncertain terms that we need to dramatically curb greenhouse gas emissions AND immediately bring down deforestation rates around the world. We do not have the luxury to choose between the two. We cannot simply allow polluters to keep on polluting and hope that forests in a far away place will make that ok. The numbers just do not add up. They don’t add up for California and they don’t add up globally.

Here is CARB’s response (in full) to Greenpeace’s letter:

When we turn to “Master Response 2”, we find it carefully avoids discussing the impact of offsets on the climate crisis.

Instead, CARB focusses on the argument that offsets would allow continued air pollution in California and lists the range of legislation in place in California to address air quality: State Implementation Plans; Diesel Risk Reduction Plan; Sustainable Freight Action Plan; AB 32 Scoping Plan; AB 1807; AB 2588 Air Toxics “Hot Spots” Program; and SB 605 Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Plan.

The Tropical Forest Standard is all about offsets

In fact, CARB denies that the Tropical Forest Standard has anything to do with offsets. CARB’s “Master Response 2” is full of statements like this:

[T]he TFS is not proposing, nor would it result in, any new offset credits being eligible for use in the California Cap-and-Trade Program.

Compare this to the first sentence of the Tropical Forest Standard:

The purpose of the California Tropical Forest Standard is to establish robust criteria against which to assess jurisdictions seeking to link their sector-based crediting programs that reduce emissions from tropical deforestation with an emissions trading system (ETS), such as California’s Cap-and-Trade Program.

So the purpose of the Tropical Forest Standard is to be part of an offsetting scheme. It will therefore make the climate crisis worse.

Offsets make global warming worse

Before yesterday’s CARB decision to approve the Tropical Forest Standard, REDD-Monitor spoke to Larry Lohmann of The Corner House. Lohmann summed up the argument against offsets in two sentences:

“Even if offset theory were correct, the most offsets could do would be to have zero effect on climate. No one denies this. But because that outcome would be possible only on the assumption of a number of scientific falsehoods (e.g. counterfactual history = actual history, fossil CO2 = biotic CO2 and all the rest), it follows that offsets make global warming worse.”

Lohmann talked about how offset proponents avoid talking about offsets:

“Pro-offset tacticians just loooooove to change the subject to how very very terrible climate change is for all of us precisely because to do so eats up time that could be spent discussing the central fact, namely that offsets make climate change worse. Offset proponents need to keep diverting the discussion away from this fact, because as soon as that topic is raised, they have lost the debate. Indeed, in my experience, when the topic does come up, no offset proponent has ever even bothered trying to deny that offsets make climate change worse, because it is undeniable.

“Accordingly, the only recourse that offset proponents have when critics do succeed in getting that fact on the agenda is (a) to say that, OK, from now on offsets will not be offsets but will be “retired” before they can be used, and (b) to jive about building in “margins for error” into offset calculations that might bring the efficacy of offsets verifiably up to the level of being “climate-neutral” or better.

“(a) is of course unavailable in the California case, while (b) depends on the same specious science as offset theory itself. Meaning that if the discussion gets this far, it’s a lost cause for offset fans.

“In addition to the lost-cause, last-ditch tactics (a) and (b) that offset proponents try to fall back on when critics do succeed in getting the climatic effectiveness of offsets onto the agenda, there is also:

“(c) to say that, OK, yeah, you’re right, offsets do indeed make climate change worse, but never mind that, because offsets will be a part of a larger program that will compensate for that fact by introducing unrelated policies that maybe might have some positive effect on climate change. So let’s change the subject and talk about that larger program rather than asking why offsets are a part of it.”


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  1. Chris, I genuinely do not understand why the principle of offsets does not work. As a simplified illustration, say a carbon emitter (company, country) currently emits 1,000 units per year and tropical deforestation is 2000 units per year. Then current normal emissions are 1000 + 2000 = 3000 units per year. If the emitter pledges (better ‘is finally obliged’) to reduce its emissions to 400 units (say, representing 45% less than his 2005 level, i.e. ‘what is needed for 1.5 °C’), it can achieve this by continuing to emit 1,000 units at home while funding 600 units reduction through REDD+ (annually). The 400-cap means ‘global’ emissions have become: 1000 (home) + [2000 – 600] (in the tropics) = 2,400 units/yr. The emitter now on balance emits at 45% under his 2005 level, his contribution to 1.5 °C. This needs to be repeated every year.

    The caveat is that these 600 credits can then not also be used for any Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of REDD-credit producing countries (high resolution remote sensing of annual forest emissions, by third parties, will prevent a country from doing that). And obviously, REDD+ offset credits should not be allowed to be used to increase a company’s current level (in our example, from current 1000 units to 1600). He has pledged / is obliged to emit at 400 units from now on (and to net zero units by 2050).

    In fact, without offsetting through REDD+, the ~10% of global emissions from forested developing countries will continue, as they’d have no incentive to / financial compensation for reducing forest emissions which is (allegedly—Overman et al 2019, ) developing their country.

    Note, by the way, that this ‘10%’ from tropical forests implies that, even if deforestation would miraculously stop competely, this 10% is much less than the needed 45% reduction (of 2005 level) needed for 1.5C. A lot more than forest offsets will need to be done. (But since REDD+ credits still are neo-colonially low at $5 per ton, there’s quite a bit of interest…).

    In addition, we’re apparently entering the Decade of Reforestation. Yet it does not sound very smart to try reforest (capturing ~1 tC/ha/yr, under increasingly erratic weather… ), against deforestation (emitting 150-300 tC/ha). Please don’t respond with a link but to the example. Thanks.

  2. @Hm – Thanks for this. You’ve illustrated exactly what’s wrong with offsets.

    To address the climate crisis we have to reduce emissions from fossil fuels. There is no way around this. Anything that distracts from the urgent need to reduce emissions from fossil fuels is part of the problem. Carbon trading is a dangerous distraction.

    Your “carbon emitter” simply cannot continue to emit 1,000 units per year. Yet that’s precisely what carbon offsets allow to happen – in the example that you gave.

    Your example, by the way, is exactly what the aviation industry is currently setting up with its carbon trading mechanism, CORSIA. The aviation industry is planning to continue increasing its emissions and claiming that offsets will somehow make that OK. CORSIA is cap-and-trade without the cap. It is an attempt to fool nature, as Prof. Kevin Anderson puts it.

    If that wasn’t bad enough, there are the two scientific falsehoods that Larry Lohmann highlights in the post above:

    1. counterfactual history = actual history: In order to set a baseline, the REDD project developers have to pretend that they know what would have happened in the absence of the REDD project. The concept of counterfactual baselines is inherently problematic – there is no possible way of knowing whether the baseline is accurate or not, and there are huge incentives to make up a baseline, in order to generate more carbon credits.

    2. fossil CO2 = biotic CO2: The carbon stored below ground as fossil fuels can only interact with the atmosphere if corporations or governments dig it out and burn it. The carbon stored in forests is stored temporarily. Trees die. Forests burn. Cattle ranchers and loggers clear the forest. As the climate warms, the forests are more and more at risk of going up in smoke – particularly when the forests are degraded by logging and clearing leaving every smaller patches of intact forest.

    If the forest burns at some point in the future, or if it is cleared to make way for a soy plantation, the carbon is returned to the atmosphere.