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Trees Don’t Grow on Money – or Why You Don’t Get to Rebel Against Extinction

Tim Hayword 

April 29, 2019

 

Money doesn’t go on trees, and although people can make money out of trees, they cannot make trees out of money. This much may seem platitudinous, but it is worth keeping in mind.

What is true of trees is true of the natural world as a whole, including the human beings that are part of it. Nature is real; money is an abstraction. If money seems real that is because our institutions and practices are so deeply premised on beliefs in it. There is an important sense in which those institutionalized beliefs – in crediting it with a certain value – make money real; but it is not real in the way the natural world is real. If a bank goes bust, if a whole economy crashes, the social upheaval that follows may be immense, but life goes on – people will pick themselves up and start again (and some people, meanwhile, will likely have found a way to profit from it!). By contrast, if a species goes extinct, if an ecosystem collapses, then there is no prospect – certainly not on human timescales – of a recovery. The threat of extinction to our own species is the ultimate threat.

Extinction Rebellion has given publicity to critically important concerns of our time – the ecological crises as exemplified by dangerous climate change and biodiversity loss.[1] But it also gives rise to some perplexity.

A circumstantial puzzle is how an apparently spontaneous social movement of protest comes to have the energetic backing of big business interests and even to receive notable support from influential sections of the corporate media.

On deeper reflection, what does it even mean to stage a rebellion against extinction? Rebellions usually involve a group of people rising up to protest or overthrow another group that wields unjust or illegitimate power over them. How can you ‘rebel’ against extinction? It is not as if you can choose to disobey the laws of nature.

The website that asserts the copyright © Extinction Rebellion, states certain demands directed at government.[2] The moral clarity of their seemingly simple message, however, could be deceptive.[3]

Two key demands are: “halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.”

These may sound like goals that any ethically rational person could wholeheartedly endorse, and yet, as a recent critical study by Cory Morningstar has demonstrated, what their pursuit entails does not necessarily correspond to what people might imagine.[4]

First, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero does not mean eliminating emissions, or even necessarily reducing them at all. It refers to the possibility of engaging in other activities to offset them. The offsetting may be accomplished by various means of  technological fixes and/or accounting innovations, but what these means have in common is that they will be profitable to engage in. As was made explicit some years ago in the influential Stern Review of climate economics, a policy approach allowing emissions offsetting creates great opportunities for businesses and the financial sector.

‘Capital markets, banks and other financial institutions will have a vital role in raising and allocating the trillions of dollars needed to finance investment in low-carbon technology and the companies producing the new technologies.’ (Stern 2006: 270)

‘The development of carbon trading markets also presents an important opportunity to the financial sector. Trading on global carbon markets is now worth over $10bn annually’. (Stern 2006: 270)

By attaching a price to carbon, a whole new commodity is created over which the distribution of rights represents a new income stream. So it’s good for shareholder profits, but what about nature? How confident can we be when its protection relies on a new multi-billion dollar market involving the same people responsible for the global financial crisis?

The other key goal, to halt biodiversity loss, sounds like one that should not allow wriggle room for profiteers to game it. And yet, consider for a moment how one might propose – even with the best and purest of intentions – to bring biodiversity loss to a halt. The sheer extent of activities around the world that are undermining habitats and ecological systems is so great and complex, it is hard to conceive what exactly could and should be done, even given determined political will to do it. The proposed policy in reality, therefore, is not literally to stop doing everything we are currently doing that compromises biodiversity. Instead, it once again centres on putting a price on the aspects of nature that market actors attach value to. The premise is that if we accept it is not possible to halt the destruction of biodiversity in some places, it is still possible to protect and even re-create biodiversity in others. Thus, just as with carbon emissions, the ideas of substitution and compensation play a pivotal role: biodiversity loss may not be literally halted, but it can be offset.

And how is biodiversity loss to be offset?[5] Here comes the familiar move: in order to weigh the loss in one place against a putative gain in another they must be subjected to a common scheme of measurement. Biodiversity being something of value, the way to record how much value any instance of it has is taken to be by reference to monetary price. Hence we learn that ‘biodiversity conservation and the related concept of “natural capital” are becoming mainstream. For instance, the Natural Capital Coalition is developing the economic case for valuing natural ecosystems and includes buy-in from some of the biggest players in business, accountancy and consulting. And the financial industry is moving toward more responsible investing.’[6]

Yet this unidimensional quantification of value completely disregards the point that biodiversity is a complex and quintessentially qualitative phenomenon. It is of the essence of biodiversity that its biotic components and their environments are diverse. Being diverse means being different in ways that cannot be reduced to the measure of a single common denominator. Hence the essence of biodiversity is an irreducible plurality of incommensurables. The idea of ‘compensating’ for loss of biodiversity of one kind by the protection or enhancement of biodiversity of another kind elsewhere means disregarding the very meaning of biodiversity.[7]

The idea of biodiversity offsets, then, does not have its rational basis in ecological concern but in the expansionary logic of capitalist profit seeking.

A rebellion that really has any prospect of fending off disaster for our biosphere and ourselves needs to be based on a proper understanding of who and what needs to be rebelled against.

Extinction Rebellion publicity material says that it is apolitical. Yet there is nothing apolitical about the real struggle that is required for people to seize the power currently concentrated in the hands of plutocrats. And to those who say – rightly – that ecological issues are greater than mere politics, it may be responded that this is why we cannot let it be “dealt with” by those who currently so misuse their political power.

Asking governments to enact policies that corporate and financial backers are lining up to draw massive profits from is not what the people protesting against impending ecological disaster have in mind. It needs therefore to be clear that you can’t actually protest against disaster. You need to take on those who are driving us towards it. So you need to know who they are and how they are doing it. It’s a good idea to look carefully at who is shaping the demands you are being enlisted to make, and what exactly they entail.

land-savings

[1] For other, less discussed but no less significant problems, see Rockström et al. (2009).

[2] Why they are directed at government without reference to the central role of powerful corporations is not completely obvious, and nor is the reason why the site also says the protest is ‘apolitical’, a question to be returned to.

[3] We humans, especially the worst off – and not even to mention members of other species we share the planet with – certainly have powerful reasons for concern at the ecological crises being provoked by our collective global exploitation of the biosphere. But what “we” can do about that is nothing like as clear.

In fact, there is no “we” that can act as a collective. There are multifarious different people, groups, tribes, classes, and nations that have competing interests. “We” are not organized to respond in a concerted, ethical and rational manner.

On the other hand, a very small group of people – who alone command as much of the world’s aggregate resources as half the rest of the world’s population put together – is very well coordinated. At the highest levels of corporations and financial institutions they hold great power. With their immense wealth comes control over those – including politicians, journalists and various “thought leaders” – who exercise greatest influence over publics. Their power to manipulate public perceptions vastly exceeds most people’s awareness of it.

So we – ordinary members of the public, whether old or young – can protest and engage in symbolic actions and go green in aspects of our lifestyle, yet to real little effect. In our heart of hearts we may know this, and yet we may still believe it important to try and to act as we think all should. So when the makings of a real social movement appear, we energetically embrace the opportunity it appears to present for making some more noticeable impact. Hence the enthusiastic welcome of Extinction Rebellion, in which school kids and pensioners have united around the moral and existential cause.

But what sort of ‘rebellion’ is it that is conjured into action by a consortium of corporate-backed organizations and given extensive positive coverage in the corporate media? The commitments and beliefs of the multifarious individuals and groups on the ground are various and sincerely held, and they do tend to converge around something like the headline goals stated in the publicity material ©Extinction Rebellion. But the exact goals being endorsed focus on two very specific demands: “halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.” And in this post I am arguing that it is very easy to be misled into thinking these capture what we really want to achieve, whereas in reality they may in fact capture our acquiescence in the further extension of corporate power over the natural world and our own lives.

[4] Morningstar’s set of six articles makes for somewhat demanding reading, and her purposes have sometimes been misunderstood or misrepresented on the basis of apparently rather casual perusal. Certainly, this has been noticeable in comments on Twitter, so I tried to distil some of her key points, without her detail or her critics’ distractions, in a Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/Tim_Hayward_/status/1120748645069021185

[5] Some useful introductory sources are World Rainforest Movement: http://www.wrongkindofgreen.org/tag/green-economy/; Clive Spash 25 minute talk: https://vimeo.com/33921592; and the collection of material here: http://naturenotforsale.org/author/berberv/

[6] Richard Pearson, ‘We have 15 years to halt biodiversity loss, can it be done?’, The Conversation, 26 Oct 2015 https://theconversation.com/we-have-15-years-to-halt-biodiversity-loss-can-it-be-done-49330.

[7] For a pithy presentation of the basic ideas here see the short video ‘Biodiversity offsetting, making dreams come true‘ https://vimeo.com/99079535.

References

Rockström, Johan et al. (2009), ‘A Safe Operating Space for Humanity’, Nature 461: 472–75.

Stern, Nicholas et al. (2006), Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, London: HM Treasury.

Must Read Interview with Tom Goldtooth – Climate Change, the Big Corrupt Business?

Admin: By far the best interview out of Durban – If only everyone spoke the truth like Tom Goldtooth in this interview … we would be winning the battle instead of losing.

The Africa Report

By Khadija Sharife in Durban

05 December 2011

Tom Goldtooth, head of the Indigenous Environmental Network talks to The Africa Report about the manipulation of carbon trading data and the double standards assumed by richer countries.

“The carbon certificate, that says one corporation somewhere in the world now controls and owns what in our culture cannot be owned – land, air, the trees”- Tom Goldtooth/Photo/Reuters

Goldtooth expresses his misgivings about agriculture being included as part of the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD). Arguing that “REDD is going to be the largest legal land grab the world has ever seen”, the indigenous North American warns of colonialism and forced privatisation. And according to him “those with the most money and power can – by remote control, lock up the largest land areas in developing countries”. “They are happiest to work with the most corrupt because it is easiest that way,” he says.

Interview.

The Africa Report: How do indigenous peoples, such as yourself, perceive REDD?

Tom Goldtooth: There are a number of reasons for profiling REDD as a false solution. For indigenous peoples, and as an indigenous organisation that specialises in environmental issues, and which has consulted with many indigenous peoples from the North of the world to the South, from the East to the West, one of the biggest issues is escalation of global warming. In Alaska, melting ice has forced entire villages to relocate, there is coastal land erosion. It is not an easy situation to pull up your entire life – as a community – and move, especially with the other issues involved like settlers with private land rights. So the biggest issue we feel, is putting a stop to climate change by shutting the valve of GHG. It is a matter of life and death.

So we are very concerned that the second round of the Kyoto Protocol is being held back by the powerful governments of the world, including my own government, the US. Any real mitigation is welcome with open arms because we are the people who are most vulnerable and desperate for a solution. But is REDD a real solution? Already, there has been manipulation of the data, displacement of peoples, narratives driven by industry-funded scientists. We are concerned that the same people who caused the problem are now shaping the solution to fit with their agendas – which is making a profit using the same principles that caused the problem. Look at how it is being implemented as well – corporations know that it is easy to exploit the peoples of the South given the state of their governments, the lack of land rights, the violation of human rights, through that piece of paper – the carbon certificate, that says one corporation somewhere in the world now controls and owns what in our culture cannot be owned – land, air, the trees. How can this belong to a one financier when it belongs – and has a right to belong, to the earth?

Give us your perspective on the US government’s position in the climate talks?

In our country, there has been the expansion of fossil fuel development, so even while they are talking a green policy view, they are expanding dirty industry right in our backyards, which is also the homeland of indigenous peoples. Look at the tar sands in Northern Alberta, Canada – this is within the traditional homelands of the Dine’ people – I’m a Southern Dine’. Another group, the Namate, live downstream and with the immediate zone. They are about 22 corporations – many of them state-funded, including Statoil from Norway, and Total from France. The companies involved are not only polluting the atmosphere and the earth, but they’re depleting water, and the same companies are involved with clearing away the boreal forest. It is a viable option now that the price of fuel is going up. Yet Canada, which has not come close to meeting their commitments and is a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol, has gone ahead with tar sands. These are the governments that are supposed to provide the solution?

Has there been any co-option of the indigenous leadership through corporatising policies such as Alaska’s ‘native corporations’?

Yes – there are many shams, precisely like the native corporation. At the top, our allies in the UN tell us they are still wondering whether it can even scientifically work or not – offsetting biotic carbon in trees for the carbon mine from the earth and burnt through combustion. In the long term, we pay the price. The indigenous peoples in Alaska are very concerned about the destruction of their leadership through the native corporations that was a mechanism by the US government and politicians to gain title to buy them out with money through forming these corporations, which also locates negotiating tactics within these capitalist structures. We work with the Alaskan organisation Redoil – some have resisted becoming part of it and still call themselves traditional governments, they are not part of the regional corporation structures. Some have sold their shares. Others still participate to try and make a difference. These corporations are lobbied and collaborate with the business-as-usual fossil fuel leaders. It has taken us away from our traditional principles and values which is the opposite of commodifying, privatisation resources that are destructive and spell a death sentence. The native corporation heads – we see them in meetings, wearing designer suits, and talking designer talk. We don’t talk because their agenda is the same lethal talk that has caused a global crisis.

If we look at the way in which the UN is structured, is there legitimacy to this UNFCCC event – should it be delegitimised or engaged with?

It is a two-way street for us. Certainly, the UN is what you say. But look – we tried to use it as a way of lifting up issue of human rights, social and environment justice, and bring that to the framework. We know that the first Kyoto Protocol had many problems including that the emissions target that Annex 1 (developed) nations were signatories too, was the bare minimum. It was very hard for us to accept the compromise. Some of the bigger organisations said, ‘Tom Goldtooth – this is the first step, we can strengthen it later.’ But here, it is ‘later’ and the issue of relevant binding agreements holding industrialised countries accountable has to happen. But as indigenous peoples, we cannot wait for another international agreement to be negotiated – another wasted decade. You have petroleum companies now that are investing millions to offset their pollution by owning the environment. Our people end up as renters. But what happens when the carbon market falls apart or collapses? Who is liable? Who pays the price? We are told to safeguard and trust the process, but the advisors in the UN and World Bank, have even admitted that it is going to be very weak.

There is a lot of risk. We fear that at the end of the day, with agriculture now being included as part of REDD, REDD is going to be the largest legal land grab the world has ever seen. Back to colonialism, back to forced privatisation, especially for forest communities. Those with the most money and power can – by remote control, lock up the largest land areas in developing countries. And they are happiest to work with the most corrupt because it is easiest that way.

Do you have representation through large green political muscles – and if so, how, if not, why not?

“When indigenous peoples started to call into question the false solutions, we were attacked by large environmental organisations, saying that we were not looking at the bigger picture, at the benefit of REDD. We saw a campaign mounted to disrupt us, and to marginalise what we’re saying. But indigenous people no longer are able to stand back and let the ‘good intentioned’ voices speak on our behalf. In 1999, it used to be five or six people, at most, holding the line. Only when REDD became part of the picture, did indigenous peoples begin to stand up and actively resist. Corporations that fund some of the green organisations know how to play the game, and the organisations play back, to stay in business. The corporations know there is money to be made from investing in privatised trees, and that it looks good in paper. If you look at the NGOs, these are European ‘white’ NGOs, and there is tremendous racism and classism woven into that. When an ethnic person speaks up, they get offended they don’t want a solution from the marginalised. They want to devise the solution they feel is best for the whole system – and we have to ask ourselves what the system they actually represent, entails.

Many have proposed ‘eco-socialism’ and other similar models as the solution. Renowned Marxist David Harvey says it may be necessary to separate indigenous-type peoples living in the commons, like the Amazon, from the ‘natural’ commons – what is he advocating and from what standpoint?

“The white-is-right dogma – where they don’t care to understand what the reality is and the culture and beliefs, of indigenous peoples, all over the world, especially the most marginalised, the forest peoples. We are the ones most anxious to protect, our cultures are principles on the belief that we cannot own and abuse the earth for our short-term benefit.”

Youth from all over the world have flown in – yet many lack understanding of the political economy of pollution, both problem and solution. Why is this?

“Look at the role of the WWF-type organisations. These are educators. Al Gore – pushing for the carbon market, he is an educator on the environment and climate. They are slumming it out in Durban, it is fashionable for a young white kid from the US or UK to be concerned about a global poverty issue, not the reality in their own backyards, but somewhere where they can be special, become heroes. We challenged the big organisations with environmental racism – the top ten movements, including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, to bring our voices to the board, to the way in these campaigns are shaped. They resisted us. Even when they do appoint a person of colour, it is usually from within the mentality of surburbia, so that they are never questioned or taken out of the comfort zone where ‘white is right.’ And these organisations and their narratives are so popular – you have young kids coming, getting their hands dirty. They leave, feeling vindicated, slumming around – as if they have done their share. But this is our life, and that parachuting in and out of communities, the ruckus society, is destructive and presents the distorted reality. We have challenged, and become very unpopular, for raising the issue of classism which is source of the problem and requires an economic analysis if the environmental and climate narrative is to be truthful…. Look at 350.org – we had to challenge them to bring us to stand with them on the pipeline issue. Bill McKibben, the ivory tower white academic, didn’t even want to take the time to bring people of colour to the organising. We managed a negotiation that allowed for both groups to unite.

Concerning celebrated activist voices like Naomi Klein – they appear to come from a specific formula – What are your thoughts?

“Well, it is always the case with the media that ‘white is right’ or that global issues affecting people of color on the frontline should be represented by the type of voices that don’t engage, in a threatening way, the realities of capitalism. There are also many fashionable voices that become part of the establishment in the sense that while they do espouse the truth, it is not pose a threat for change, for ending the system, because someone has adopted a cause that they were not born into. The communities that live in the cancer hotspots, in the immediate environment, their voices are too real, too threatening. Meanwhile, infiltration continues – how the corporations lend their money to the media – how the media shapes the tones and get the right voices to provide just the right amount of dissent. Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg donated millions to the Occupy Wall Street. We need a systems change, not an isolated trendy environmental change. The organisations that speak need to have a real constituency – they need to be accountable to the people they represent. There is no time for egos and games anymore.

As Navaho people, as Dakota people, we are struggling to understand how the problem that created the problem becomes the solution? In our language, we have no translation of ownership for the air – or carbon. One of my elders told me, if you ever have a hard time translating something into your language, beware that it may lack the truth.

http://www.theafricareport.com/index.php/news-analysis/climate-change-the-big-corrupt-business-50176874.html

DEFINITELY THE WRONG KIND OF GREEN : Convention on Biodiversity GREENWASH

Partnership between Airbus and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biodiversity

Announcement: http://www.airbus.com/en/presscentre/pressreleases/pressreleases_items/2010_03_05_biodiversity_year_flag_a380.html

Not that this comes as a surprise to citizens and organizations that have witnessed the sell out of the Convention on Biodiversity over the past years. The Convention on Biodiversity even produced a joint report with Shell in 2007: Report: http://www.cbd.int/doc/business/cbd-guide-oli-gas-en.pdf

Oh, and by the way, at the last World Conservation Congress, the general assembly of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), many participants proudly walked around with buttons stating “Nature is our Business”.

This is not a joke – IUCN itself offered business courses for its members during the congress on how to better “market” nature conservation.

It gets worse

Some former IUCN-staff are now promoting the adoption of a “green development mechanism” at the upcoming Conference of the Parties. http://gdm.earthmind.net/default.htm

There also is an active “Business and Biodiversity Initiative” which is promoting, amongst others, biodiversity offsets. You can read this report:

http://www.globalforestcoalition.org/img/userpics/File/LifeAsCommerce/Casestudy-Life-as-Commerce-in-Paraguay.pdf to understand how this is working out in Paraguay.

It can be easily summarized as:

You can continue to burn forests for soy plantation expansion as long as you give a donation to WWF (which has conveniently included the possibility for these offsets in the criteria for “responsible” soy). Needless to say, some Paraguayan IUCN members (especially the chair of the IUCN Commission for Environmental Law, who is director of a Paraguayan NGO) are actively trying to incorporate these payment for environmental services schemes into national REDD strategies.

After all, it’s the money they love…. (innovative financial mechanisms they call that in CBD slang)…

Thank you to Global Forest Coalition (An integral NGO) for insights and links. | http://www.globalforestcoalition.org

Airbus gets a crafty upgrade by flying the flag for biodiversity

A380 airliner to feature official logo for UN, despite aviation being a major source of emissions that threaten biodiversity

In this hand out image provided by Airbus, the Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger plane, takes its maiden flight over south-western France Photograph: H. GOUSSE/AP

Who do you think might just have been granted the right to display the official logo of the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity? A conservation body, perhaps. Or a new brand of organic food?

Well, no. It’s an aircraft manufacturer, actually. The world’s largest aircraft manufacturer: Airbus Industries. The European company that is doing more than anyone else, Boeing included, to increase the number of flights we take, and thus the airline industry‘s contribution to climate change.

During 2010, the logo will appear on the side of Airbus’s latest airliner, the A380, on scheduled services with the world’s airlines. The largest passenger aircraft is specially designed for those long-haul flights across oceans and from Europe to the far east, where a single flight can more than double your annual CO2 emissions.

Airbus has won this green accolade by dint of hard cash. Airbus is helping fund a cherished project of the secretariat of the UN Convention on Biodiversity to educate young people across the world about the virtues of biodiversity, called the Green Wave Initiative. Airbus did not respond to questions from the Guardian about how much money is involved in the partnership, but the UN Environment Programme has described it as a “huge gesture of support“.

The Green Wave is a neat idea. To mark the International Day of Biodiversity on 22 May, young people will be asked to plant a tree at 10am local time wherever they are in the world. Thus they will create a “green wave” that will spread from east to west round the planet.

But it is an even neater idea for Airbus, the current trailblazer for an industry whose year-on-year carbon dioxide emissions are rising faster than any other. At a time when climate change is widely recognised by ecologists as a leading cause of species loss around the world, Airbus’s adoption of a green mantle courtesy of a major UN conservation organisation might seem, well, ironic.

Airbus has increased its cuddlability quotient by partnering with National Geographic on the green wave project. National Geographic is an organisation with a sky-high green image. The duo got a special thank you from UN secretary-general Ban ki-Moon when they announceed the partnership last June.

Airbus has an answer to those who accuse it of greenwash. The company says that it is “pioneering greener flight”. And it is undoubtedly true that the Airbus A380 superjumbo has got its emissions down, thanks to lighter materials and smarter flying technology.

Airbus says it will reduce emissions to less than 75 grams of CO2 for every passenger kilometre. But that will not apply if its wide open spaces are filled with extra business and first-class seats as many purchasing airlines promise. Look out for Singapore Airline’s super-first class on the A380, with private suites, double beds and wardrobes and wide-screen TVs.

But even if Airbus achieves those low figures per passenger-kilometre in real operation, the big problem is that passenger-kilometres are going up far faster than aircraft efficiency is improving.

Emissions from the airline industry continue to rise by about 3% a year, taking up an ever greater share of total global man-made emissions. So a little humility might be in order from the world’s most prolific manufacturer of new planes. But, no.

Announcing the adoption of the logo this month, Airbus’s senior vice-president for public affairs and communications, Rainer Ohler baldly claimed that the aviation industry had “already reduced aircraft emissions by 70% in the last 40 years.”

You don’t need to be a statistician to spot the trick here. Not so much “hide the decline” as “hide the increase”. Ohler meant airlines had cut emissions per passenger-kilometre by 70% since the days before jumbo jets. But, to be clear, aircraft emissions are soaring. In Britain, for instance, they have risen since 1970 by between four- and five-fold.

They will continue to soar, while the likes of Airbus continues to fill the skies with chunks of flying metal the size of a football pitch. And whatever logo they put on the side of their planes, species will continue to go extinct as a result.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/18/un-year-of-biodiversity-airbus

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Noel Kempff project is ‘saving the forest’ by forcing destruction elsewhere

Forest conservation project in Bolivia proves that unless a nation as a whole cuts deforestation, individual carbon offset schemes are worthless.

REDD and the rainforest in the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park,  in the Amazon Basin, BoliviaThe rainforest in the Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, Bolivia. Photograph: Pablo Corral Vega/Corbis

It is the ultimate greenwash nightmare. A tough international deal to curb emissions of greenhouse gases is passed in Mexico later this year. Companies then meet their targets not by cutting their own pollution but by buying into hundreds of forest “conservation” projects round the world. But those projects then fail to deliver real benefits for forests or staunch the flow of carbon into the atmosphere.

Some big-time green groups prosper but the planet burns.

Exhibit A in this doomsday scenario is a 14-year-old forest conservation project in Bolivia called the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project, one of the world’s largest schemes to fix carbon in protected forests. It is the brainchild of the US green group The Nature Conservancy and industrial partners, including the oil company BP and America’s largest burner of coal, American Electric Power.

The Noel Kempff project is hailed by The Nature Conservancy as a model for the operation of Redd (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) – the international plan to allow countries and companies to offset their carbon emissions by investing in preventing the destruction of forests.

Like much else, negotiations on Redd stalled in Copenhagen last December. But it is still on the agenda for agreement when talks resume in Cancun next December.

Some think such projects could scupper Redd though. Last autumn Greenpeace dubbed the Neol Kempff project a “carbon scam”.

The $10m project, launched back in 1996, doubled the size of an existing national park and sought to project more than 800,000 hectares of forest, while testing the idea of running a forest as a verifiable carbon sink. It currently employs 27 rangers. With deforestation thought responsible for an estimate 17% of carbon emissions, the stakes are high.

The problem, however, is summed up in one word: leakage. That is jargon for what happens when the loggers put their chainsaws in the back of a pickup, drive down the road to the next forest, and resume activities. In other words, can protecting one place prevent the forces of forest destruction from simply moving elsewhere?

This is hard to do. Since the start of the Noel Kempff project, deforestation rates in Bolivia have gone up. So the argument is that one-off carbon offsetting projects do not deliver real benefits to the atmosphere unless governments undertake much wider efforts to curb deforestation.

For this reason Greenpeace is not alone in believing that Redd should only compensate at the national level. No awarding of carbon credits for “sub-national” projects like Noel Kempff. In other words: unless a nation as a whole cuts deforestation, then nobody gets any carbon credits. Only that way can you stop leakage wrecking it.

But groups such as the Nature Conservancy strongly disagree. They have a clear institutional interest. Their main activity is buying or managing land for conservation. It says there are good reasons for backing sub-national projects and has lobbied hard to ensure they stay in the UN’s plans.

The Nature Conservancy says “national-scale accounting is the ultimate goal” of Redd. “However, a transition period should be allowed in which sub-national or project-scale activities can generate credits for sale in compliance markets.”

It adds that “this type of activity will need to be accomplished at a much larger scale to make a significant difference to greenhouse gas emissions”. And that is where the difference arises. The Nature Conservancy thinks sub-national projects will result in “learning by doing“; its critics think they will fatally undermine the whole enterprise.

While hailed as a model, the Noel Kempff project does not augur well for being able to measure carbon in forests. By 2004, the corporate partners in the project had reported offsets of 7.4m tonnes of CO2. But in 2005 a new evaluation cut that figure to just over 1m.

But even this could turn out to be an over-estimate. The 2005 audit shaved 16% off claimed offsets to account for leakage. Greenpeace cites a report from Winrock International, a non-profit consultancy, saying the long-term leakage figure could be much higher.

How would this play out in the carbon markets? Under the Noel Kempff plan, 51% of the emissions reductions achieved by the project can be claimed as offsets by corporate partners like AEP and BP. The remaining 49% goes to the Bolivian government. The original plan was to sell the emissions reductions on the Chicago Climate Exchange, which trades in voluntary carbon offsets.

Both AEP and BP told the Guardian this week that they had not offset any of their emissions as a result of the Noel Kempff project. BP said: “The project has not yet generated any carbon credits and BP has received no credits from it.”

AEP, which burns 77m tonnes of coal annually in the US, uses the project to burnish its environmental image. It advertises its support for the Noel Kempff project on its website as part of its corporate citizenship activities.

It says that the company is “committed to combating tropical deforestation and putting in place criteria to ensure that forest offsets can be part of the toolkit for addressing global climate change”. Both BP and AEP referred questions about the progress of the project to The Nature Conservancy.

It says Greenpeace’s description of the Noel Kempff project as a scam was “an attempt to discredit emissions offsets that businesses might claim by supporting such efforts in the future”. Rather, it says, the project was a pioneering activity from which much has been learned. AEP agrees. It says: “The reduction in the offsets from the project should be viewed as a validation, not criticism, of the project as it demonstrates that [The Nature Conservancy] and the project funders were willing to adjust the offset amounts based on improved science.”

But have the right lessons been learned? Better carbon accounting is of course a good thing. But if the Noel Kempff project is truly a model for a future world of carbon markets rooting in rainforest conservation projects, it suggests real problems ahead. If companies with environmental reputations to defend can become bogged down in charges of greenwash, what about the bad guys?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/11/greenwash-noel-kempff-forests

Calculating the value of carbon in trees | Nature Conservancy Exploitation

Thursday, February 25, 2010

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Calculating the value of carbon in trees

Biologist Ricardo da Britez measures stored carbon Delegates at the global climate summit failed to figure out a way to stop the destruction of the world’s forests. But some lawmakers think they have a solution, and it relies on financing from some of America’s biggest polluters. Michael Montgomery reports in collaboration with Mark Schapiro.

Biologist Ricardo da Britez and a fellow worker measure the carbon stored in a tree in Brazil. (pbs.org)

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TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: The recent global climate summit left a lot of issues hanging at the end of last year. So the world is still trying to settle on a way to stop the steady destruction of the world’s forests. That’s a critical question, since the clearing of forests leads to more greenhouse gases worldwide than all the cars, trains and planes combined. But hold on. Some lawmakers think they have a solution. And it relies on financing from some of America’s biggest polluters.

Michael Montgomery brings us this story in collaboration with Mark Schapiro of the Center for Investigative Reporting.


Michael Montgomery: It’s a basic equation: forests pull carbon from the atmosphere. But when trees are burned or chopped down, that stored carbon goes back into the air.

Jeff Horowitz is with the nonprofit coalition, Avoided Deforestation Partners. He says one way to fight climate change is to change the economics of forests.

JEFF Horowitz: What we are trying to do is make forests more valuable alive than rainforests that they would be as rainforests that have been slashed and burned.

In Brazil’s vast Atlantic Forest, some big U.S. companies are already investing in this idea. Several years ago, the U.S. Nature Conservancy brokered a deal between American Electric Power, Chevron and GM. The companies gave a Brazilian nonprofit money to create a 50,000-acre nature reserve. What’s unusual about the deal is what the U.S. companies get out of it — credit for carbon stored in the trees to cancel out their industrial emissions back home.

Some of America’s biggest polluters, like American Electric Power, like the idea. Mike Morris is CEO.

MIKE Morris: If you think about biodiversity and you think about the capacity of forests to do the things that they do, and you know that they are a very effective carbon sink, it just makes sense.

But companies like AEP have to know how much carbon the trees are storing to qualify for credits. Deep inside the reserve, biologist Ricardo da Britez is helping them do just that.

Da Britez drives a small nail into a Guaricica tree. He wraps a metal measuring tape around its white trunk. Then, with some quick math, he calculates the tree is storing around 220 pounds of carbon. Maybe enough to cancel out a week’s worth of emissions from a Hummer.

Da Britez explains that credit for the carbon stored in this tree belongs to General Motors. If the amount of carbon doesn’t sound like much, supporters of the plan say this: If you multiply that one tree by millions of others, it could help America hold down its own greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s got some U.S. companies really interested. Here’s why. Legislation pending in Congress would put a cap on the heat-trapping gases companies can release. But the plan also allows companies to get around these caps by investing in projects that cut emissions somewhere else. And preserving a forest could be a lot cheaper as a first step than modernizing power plants.

American Electric’s Mike Morris.

Morris: What I’m trying to do is make sure that the cost of electricity to my customers stays as low as we can have it stay during the period of the technology rolling out.

Electricity prices may stay cheaper, but Greenpeace forest expert Rolf Skar isn’t so sure that letting companies buy up carbon stored in trees is the best way to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He says saving forests this way could amount to sidestepping needed regulations.

ROLF Skar: There’s no way to ensure that we will avoid the worst effects of climate change — catastrophic climate change — if we allow polluting companies to continue to pollute here in the U.S. and simply side step their obligations to clean up their act by paying for avoided deforestation elsewhere.

Skar says this way some companies will never invest in cleaner technology. And there are other issues: Can anyone really guarantee that these trees will store carbon forever. What if there’s a fire, or a blight?

Back at the reserve, Ricardo Da Britez finishes his analysis of the Guaricica tree. So how much is the carbon in this tree really worth?

RICARDO Da Britez: One dollar.

But that tree, and the thousands more here, could become a lot more valuable if U.S. legislation passes. Then, the price of carbon could skyrocket. And that means U.S. corporations would set their sites on buying up forests like this one around the world.

With Mark Schapiro, I’m Michael Montgomery for Marketplace.

MOON: Our story was produced in collaboration with the PBS newsmagazine Frontline/WORLD. Tomorrow we’ll look at how the project is affecting local populations in Brazil’s Atlantic forest.

http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2010/02/25/pm-brazil-one/

WATCH | Brazil: The Money Tree | NRDC Exploitation

This story is a joint project of FRONTLINE/World and the Center for Investigative Reporting, in association with Mother Jones magazine.
“Brazil: The Money Tree” was produced by Andrés Cediel and co-produced by Daniela Broitman.

http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/carbonwatch/moneytree/