The fallacy of forest ‘offsets’

Banana trees in the forest at Agua Azul waterfall, Chiapas, Mexico. (Photo: Elisa Loco)

When it comes to reducing California’s climate emissions, should we allow companies to pollute our local communities, while paying our neighbors in Mexico to clean up the carbon? Should we gamble our climate policies on saving trees in other countries that can easily be destroyed by forest fires, just so that we can indulge in our own emissions instead of reducing them responsibly? These are questions that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) will need to answer when it votes on whether international forestry projects will be allowed as a way for businesses in California to offset local pollution later this year.

If protecting trees in Mexico so that companies can pollute more here sounds dubious, that’s because it is.

The current proposal before the CARB is for companies that pollute in California to pay for forests to be protected in places like Chiapas Mexico, since forests are able to absorb carbon dioxide and convert it back to clean breathable oxygen. At face value that logic seems to make sense. If this were simply a numbers game, the forests in other parts of the world could offset the pollution here. That’s not how it works in reality.

Using international forestry projects to “cut” California’s emissions is a lose-lose scenario for local communities here and indigenous communities in Mexico, that offers no long-term guarantees for the forest itself.

Shell purchased 500,000 so-called carbon offset credits last year from a forest project outside of California in order to allow its refinery here in Martinez to keep polluting. For each of those credits, Shell’s refinery released an additional ton of carbon dioxide, which causes global warming, into the air. If CARB blesses this kind of work-around as a part of California’s new emissions trading scheme, companies like Shell will have little reason to invest in cleaner technologies that not only bring down the emissions causing global warming, but also cause asthma and respiratory illnesses right here in our local communities.

If protecting trees in Mexico so that companies can pollute more here sounds dubious, that’s because it is. In reality, it’s impossible to guarantee that the forests used as offsets would remain standing over thousands of years. Tropical forests face the same threat as those in California, which has lost large tracts of forest to fires and other causes. Yet CARB has identified projects in Chiapas Mexico, and Acre in the Amazon as potential first suppliers of credits.

Fires, droughts and illegal activities are not the only problems that make forests unsuitable as part of carbon offset schemes. Tropical forests are home to millions of people. In recent years offset projects have repeatedly led to serious human rights violations and threatened the livelihoods of local communities and indigenous people living there. In Chiapas, for example, the promise of payment from the offset scheme has already threatened to fuel conflict over control of local land. In other areas, offset schemes are violating indigenous people’s rights to free, prior and informed consent over changes to the land they customarily own.

None of these problems are new, which is why virtually all other emissions trading schemes around the world have explicitly ruled out the use of forest offsets. California risks becoming the only place pushing for a scheme that everyone else has abandoned because of its social and environmental risks. Greenpeace applauds all efforts to find innovative ways to finance the protection of the world’s forests. But CARB needs to vote against this particular proposal, and push for clean air and real emissions reductions at home instead.

Ed’s Note:  Dr. Amy Moas, a Senior Forest Campaigner for Greenpeace, holds a doctorate in Environmental Science from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a Masters Degree in environmental policy from Oxford University.

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