Tropical Forest (Double) Standard – Dead on Arrival?

Kathleen McAfee

Professor of International Relations

San Francisco State University

kmcafee@sfsu.edu

September 25, 2019

On September 19, after a day of intense debate, the California Air Resources Board endorsed the contentious proposal for a Tropical Forest Standard (TFS) designed to allow California companies to offshore the consequences of their greenhouse-gas emissions to communities and ecosystems in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

The resulting document may mean little in practice: the vote of 4 to 7 with one abstention was the narrowest vote in the memory of the Board. To persuade reluctant Board members, the Chairperson insisted that there is presently no intention of applying the Standard in California. Even those voting for the TFS expressed serious misgivings about it, and growing numbers of California legislators are skeptical of expanding offsetting options in the state’s climate policy.

The TFS debate was dramatic, with moving testimony against the TFS by indigenous representatives from Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, and Indonesia and a strong showing from environmental justice organizations, with the California Environmental Justice Alliance in the lead. These activists were supported by Friends of the Earth, Amazon Watch, Center for Biological Diversity, members of Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and 350.org among others, and by many academics who signed our scholars’ open letter, met with ARB members and legislators, and posted public comments.

The lead organizations promoting the TFS have been the Environmental Defense Fund and Earth Innovations Institute, along with emissions trading entrepreneurs, some indigenous and Latin American government officials, the oil industry lobby (Western States Petroleum Association), and others of the state’s biggest GHG emitters who are also the main users of offsets in California.

The TFS is a list of criteria that was meant to lay the groundwork for a Tropical Forest Sector Offset Protocol under which emitters of GHGs in California could buy offsets from rainforest regions. Under such a protocol, the ARB would allow the use of offset credits sold by national or subnational governments in developing countries that report reduced rates of deforestation if such claims of success are confirmed by technical consultants according to stipulations laid out in the TFS. Companies that buy the credits could then release more GHGs than they could otherwise legally emit under the state’s cap-and-trade system.

But the TFS may prove to be dead on arrival. It is doubtful that any jurisdiction in the global South can honestly comply with the TFS requirements in the present or near future, given their current rates of deforestation and the profitability of the forest-destroying agribusiness and mining that are the main direct drivers of tropical deforestation. It is nevertheless possible that some rainforest states may claim adherence with the TFS and request CA open its cap-and-trade system to their REDD+ credits, taking advantage of the TFS’s vague provisions for determining whether, when, and why deforestation has increased or decreased in their territories.

Similarly to other systems that have allowed trade in carbon credits, California law, restated in the TFS, requires that offsets be “real, additional, quantifiable, permanent, verifiable and enforceable”. The TFS would not be able to ensure that offset credits generated by states or provinces linked to California could meet these criteria, for reasons our researchers’ group has outlined in our submissions to the ARB.

Were a California offset protocol based on the TFS to be developed, it would need an administrative structure, procedures for monitoring implementation in the linked tropical jurisdictions, and a process for adjudication of the conflicts and grievances that would inevitably arise. No such structure exists, nor does the ARB have the mandate and capacity to develop one. But states or industry organizations might claim to be applying the California standard even apart from any formal protocol and oversight mechanism in California. In the likely event that any such offsetting schemes prove problematic, California’s claim to global climate leadership could be discredited.

Many of the TFS proponents argued that, with the Amazon on fire, “California must do something now” even if the TFS is imperfect. Those arguments obscured the fact that applying the TFS would mean doing something that allows emissions increases in exchange for reductions that might not last or might not work – instead of doing what is known to work.

We academics who have supported the “No-TFS Allies” agree with that coalition’s view that offsets are a false promise and a distraction from the real task of reducing our fossil-fuel production, importing, exporting, and consumption here in California and worldwide. 

Market-based finance of conservation is a losing strategy. Revenue from sale of offset credits – markets for which depend on cheap offset prices – cannot compete with the profits from soy, oil palm, beef, minerals, and other extractive industries that are subsidized and promoted by the same governments that seek TFS or REDD+ funding, ostensibly for forest conservation.

As action to reduce GHG emissions has become more urgent worldwide, the role of transnational trade in offset credits in global climate policy is increasingly being questioned. This is the case in California climate policy, too, where offsetting already contributes to the too-slow pace of emissions reductions, and as the environmental injustice consequences of offsetting in California have become more apparent.

Meanwhile in New York, the UN chief has reported that 77 countries so far have pledged to become ‘carbon neutral’ by 2050. That’s not ‘zero carbon’, so it is a positive step but one likely to entail a lot more offsetting. As a research community, we will need to watch any proposed TFS programs carefully and share our results. We have plenty more work ahead.

Kathleen McAfee

Professor of International Relations

San Francisco State University

kmcafee@sfsu.edu

September 25, 2019

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s