By Chris Lang
“It’s a scam. Neither planting trees nor avoiding deforestation will make a flight carbon neutral.”
That’s Britaldo Silveira Soares-Filho, a Professor of environmental modelling at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, speaking to Unearthed, Greenpeace UK’s investigative journalism website.
The aviation industry is not covered by the UNFCCC. The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has set up a carbon trading scheme called Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). Instead of reducing emissions from flying, CORSIA allows the industry to expand and use offsets to claim that it is addressing the climate crisis.
Meanwhile, several major airline corporations have announced carbon offsetting schemes, including British Airways, EasyJet, Delta, Air France, Iberia, Qantas, and United Airlines.
Phantom credits from counterfactual baselines
Unearthed and the Guardian investigated the problem of counterfactual baselines:
Avoided deforestation schemes generate and sell carbon credits based on the amount of deforestation they claim to prevent. In order to work out these carbon savings, they try to predict how much deforestation would take place if the project didn’t exist. Although the scenario is hypothetical, offsetting schemes use deforestation rates in comparable areas of nearby forest, so-called reference regions, to come up with an estimate.
They found that satellite analysis of tree cover loss in reference regions revealed that the projects had exaggerated the rate of deforestation.
Soares-Filho told Unearthed and the Guardian that,
Aviation companies buying REDD+ credits are just postponing action. It would be more efficient investing in research on more efficient jets or alternative fuels, for example. But of course, it is always more expensive than a REDD+ project.
(Of course, the idea of massively reducing the number of flights is just not on the aviation corporations’ agenda. Offsets help to push that idea even further away.)
Alexandra Morel, an ecosystem scientist at the University of Dundee told Unearthed and the Guardian that,
It’s impossible to prove a counterfactual. Rather than just valuing what forests are actually there, which are actively providing a carbon sink or store right now, we have to surmise which forests would still be here versus which ones are the bonus forests that were spared from the theoretical axe. It is so abstract.
Deforestation modelling to fix REDD+ baselines results in phantom carbon credits.
Unearthed and the Guardian hired McKenzie Intelligence Services (MIS), a London-based company that specialises in geospatial imagery analysis and intelligence, to analyse 10 REDD projects that generate carbon credits for aviation companies.
One of these projects is the Madre de Dios Amazon REDD Project in Peru, covering almost 100,000 hectares close to the border with Brazil. EasyJet buys carbon credits from this project.
Madre de Dios Amazon REDD Project
In order to set a baseline, the project identified a reference region that is much more heavily populated than the project area. The reference region even included the town of Iberia. As a result, the baseline level of deforestation – what would happen in the absence of the REDD project – was increased.
The reference region included areas of forest on either side of the Interoceanic Highway, a 2,600 kilometre-long road linking Brazil with Peru’s Pacific Ocean coastline.
MIS found that deforestation was mainly concentrated along along the road and around settlements. In fact, 95% of deforestation takes place within 50 kilometres of a road, according to William Laurance, a Professor at James Cook University.
Including an area of forest cut in two by a recently constructed road in a reference area inevitably distorted the baseline set for the REDD project.
In a 2009 project validation report produced for the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standard, the assessor, Scientific Certification Systems, wrote that,
The “without-project” scenario is deforestation and degradation while the “with-project” scenario is sustainable forest management.
This claim is repeated in the Project Description Document produced by Greenoxx, the project developer, in 2012.
Dinamica EGO software
The project developer also used software to predict deforestation in a way that the software was specifically not designed to do.
The 2012 Madre de Dios Project Description Document states that,
The DINAMICA EGO tool (http://www.csr.ufmg.br/dinamica/) was used to determine the location of future deforestation. This software was developed by the Center of Remote Sensing from the Universidad Federal de Minas Gerais, leaded by internationally acknowledge scientist Britaldo Silveira Soares-Filho.
But Dinamica’s website includes the following statement: “We do not support the application of deforestation modeling to fix REDD baselines for crediting purpose.”
Soares-Filho explained to Unearthed and the Guardian that the Dinamica software was deisgned to monitor the potential impact of policy decisions. In 2006, Soares-Filho and colleagues wrote a paper published in Nature that modelled the impact of the expansion of cattle ranching and soy plantations in the Amazon basin. But the software cannot predict future forest loss in a specific area, because there are too many factors that can influence the deforestation.
Soares-Filho told Unearthed and the Guardian that,
Models are used to avert an undesirable future, not predict the future. Models are not crystal balls. Models are a sign to help devise policy and evaluate policy choices.
The Madre de Dios project document is dated September 2012. In March 2012, Soares-Filho gave a presentation at a CIFOR workshop in Brazil. “Delusional REDD baselines,” was the title.
Madre de Dios Amazon REDD Project is run by Maderacre and Maderyja: Two logging companies
The Madre de Dios REDD project is run by two logging companies: Maderera Río Acre S.A.C. (Maderacre); and Maderera Río Yaverija S.A.C. (Maderyja).
The companies are certified under the Forest Stewardship Council system, and the companies argue that “sustainable logging” increases carbon absorption of the forest.
Data from Peru’s forest inspection agency OSINFOR reveals that the two logging companies, Maderacre and Maderyja, have cut down shihuahuaco trees. These are slow growing trees that can reach heights of 60 metres over a life of 1,000 years. Old trees such as shihuahuaco play a crucial role in the Amazon ecosystem. They are keystone species, sustaining a huge amount of life, including bats, spider monkeys, agoutis, possums, squirrels, spiny rats harpy eagles and macaws. Shihuahuaco trees are being pushed to the brink of extinction by the demands of the timber industry.
Maderacre and Maderyja have also cut down rare species such as Spanish cedar and mahogany, both of which are listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN red list of threatened species.
Julia Urrunaga, director of Peru programmes at the Environmental Investigation Agency told Unearthed and the Guardian that “it’s absurd” that a logging company should get paid for carbon credits while it cuts down old shihuahuaco trees that can take 1,000 years to reach full maturity.
The logging companies replied that they follow international rules on endangered species.
The Mashco Piro: An uncontacted Indigenous tribe
Unearthed reports having seen minutes of a meeting showing that in 2017 Maderacre and Maderyja opposed a government proposal to expand an Indigenous reserve bordering their logging concessions. The government proposed expanding the Indigenous Reserve because the uncontacted Mashco Piro tribe were being threatened by encroachment from outsiders.
A representative from the Madre de Dios project told Unearthed that existing reserves were “more than sufficient”, and added the Orwellian comment that logging concessions were a “productive conservation model”.
The 2012 Project Description Document says pretty much the same thing:
From a social point of view, the project will contribute to the sustainable development of rural producers and indigenous communities (Yine and Huitoto tribes, indigenous people in voluntary isolation of Mashco Piro, Yora and Amahuaca tribes and other tribes not yet identified) living in the nearby areas.
Of course the Project Description Document does not attempt to explain how Indigenous Peoples living in voluntary isolation could possibly benefit from logging operations taking place in the forests neighbouring the Indigenous Reserve.
The Project Description Document also states that,
The Madre de Dios Amazon REDD Project on the border of the Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve, established to protect local indigenous populations in voluntary isolation conditions of the Mashco Piro tribe and other tribes not yet identified, whose population is estimated in 600 people. Given the ignorance of the characteristics of these communities, the initiation of contact should be decided by themselves and according to the rules established for their defense. This REDD project will be crucial to maintaining their isolation conditions, protect the integrity of the reserve until they themselves decide to join the society of the region. Likewise, contact protocols are developed for the case these tribes enter the project area, since they know no geographic boundaries, taking into account their particular vulnerability to disease.
The project developer, Greenoxx, told Unearthed and the Guardian that it would welcome any decision by the Peruvian government about the area of the Indigenous Reseve, and pointed out that Greenoxx had no formal power over the decision. “Our project is effectively contributing to the protection of their territory,” the NGO claimed.
Clearly, an expansion of the Indigenous Reserve would benefit the Mashco Piro. And equally clearly, logging the forests neighbouring the reserve will sooner or later have serious impacts on the Mashco Piro’s livelihoods.
This post is part of a series of posts on REDD-Monitor looking at REDD and environmental injustice in the Andes Amazon.