California's Carbon Game


As the world focuses on the Stockholm Climate Change Conference, how California is addressing climate change is generating conflict. In late November the California Air Resources Board (CARB) issued a draft of what are likely to be the first government regulations in the nation for carbon trading.

Two environmental justice organizations - Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and California Communities Against Toxics -  filed a lawsuit earlier this year to block the cap-and-trade option California's CARB has proposed. The groups alleges that California’s cap and trade plan will allow the most entrenched polluters, including oil refineries, to continue emitting toxic and smog-forming pollutants, which are associated with carbon emissions. Here's a link to how an anti-environmental web-site views that lawsuit.

The environmental community is split over whether or not to support California’s cap and trade climate plan. The Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council support carbon trading which seeks to use market forces to achieve reductions in carbon emissions. Many other environmental organizations think carbon trading lets polluting industries off the hook and instead advocate for a tax on carbon emissions with the proceeds used to develop green energy.

One of the most contentious issues in the California, national and international climate debate is the “off-set" issue. Under off-set schemes polluters can buy carbon off-set credits rather than reduce their own emissions. Forestry and agriculture are two industries which can generate off-sets; carbon is stored as trees grow and agricultural practices can lock-up carbon in the soil. But some experts and many climate activists believe it will prove difficult to impossible to verify that off-sets are actually occurring as claimed. They say carbon trading will not result in reduced emissions and cite Europe’s recent experience with carbon trading to prove their point. The most skeptical observes think carbon off-set schemes will prove a source of proliferating climate boondoggles.   

Closer to home, carbon off-set skeptics point to a recent deal involving Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI), California’s largest timber company, which they say illustrates what will take place if forest carbon off-set schemes are embraced.  Under the deal SPI will continue to clearcut - replacing natural forests with tree plantations.  According to Brian Nowiski of the Tuscon-based Center for Biological Diversity:
           “This looks a whole lot like a giant timber company getting paid millions of dollars to do business-as-usual, and destroying our forests, water quality, and wildlife in the process…..Giving carbon credits for logging operations is a shell game where timber companies win, and the forest, the climate, and everyone else loses.” 

For more on the forest off-set issue follow this link and this one too.

The Center for Biological Diversity has also threatened to challenge the “Forest Project Protocol” adopted by the CARB to govern forest off-sets. In November the group filed a formal letter with the air board alleging that adoption of the protocol violated the California Environmental Quality Act.

CBD lawyer Kevin Bundy alleges that the CARB failed to consider the foreseeable environmental consequences of adopting the Forest Project Protocol. The environmental group demands that the CARB revoke adoption of the protocol which it says would give carbon credits to forest projects involving clearcutting and other destructive practices. They claim the protocol would contribute to greenhouse gas emissions instead of reducing them. 

Meanwhile the forest and agricultural industries are lobbying the US Congress to designate the US Department of Agriculture rather than the Environmental Protection Agency to develop and administer carbon off-set rules. Climate activists fear this will lead to the same sort of abuses that have characterized Farm Bill conservation programs administered by USDA. Several recent Inspector General reports have focused on “waste, fraud and abuse” in USDA-administered conservation programs.   It seems the farmers are getting money for conservation that is simply not occurring.

The climate bill which passed the House of Representatives was changed to put USDA in charge of off-sets; climate legislation is still pending in the Senate where an “ag-specific” climate bill was recently introduced by Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.   

At the same time that California's CARB and the US Congress were moving forward with a cap-and-trade approach with forest off-sets that would allow or even encourage clearcutting, tree plantations and other intensive forest management techniques like fertilization, international negotiators in Copenhagen were working on rules for a proposed global scheme to preserve tropical forests.  That agreement is known as "REDD" - for "Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation." It aims to reduce carbon emissions not by cutting pollution but by locking up more carbon in forests. Climate justice and Indigenous rights activists, however, are concerned because unidentified "developed nations" succeeded in removing language from the working draft of the agreement that would have prohibited REDD payments for turning native forests into monoculture tree plantations.

In a related development, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the Obama administration would commit 1 billion dollars over the next three years toward REDD.  Ironically, these funds may end up in the hands of international timber companies as payment for turning tropical forests into monoculture tree plantations. Unless the language protecting native forests is restored, REDD deals may look a lot like Sierra Pacific Industries recent off-set deal in California.  REDD may thus prove to be the latest in the global timber industry's never-ending stream of schemes and scams to save forests by cutting them down. 

Indigenous rights organizations and activists world-wide have raised alarm over the cap and trade approach.  Traditional Indigenous leaders tell us that the air is a sacred element - the common heritage of all living things. From this perspective plans by governments and corporations to sell the air amounts to sacrilege - profound disrespect for Pachamama (Mother Earth).

Here’s a link to the “Indigenous People’s Guide: False Solutions to Climate Change.”