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California’s Interest in Overseas Carbon Offsets Schemes Makes Some Greens See Red

Critics say REDD+ won’t help reduce greenhouse gas emissions

A plan by the state of California to include overseas forest conservation projects as part of its carbon offset scheme is drawing criticism from some environmental and Indigenous groups who say the effort will do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If that weren’t confusing enough (for non-policy wonks), the controversy is further convoluted by the fact that partisans on each side of the issue can’t even agree on which programs are supposed to be involved. The confusion is emblematic of the how the entire offset infrastructure is less-than-transparent.

aerial photo of a tree plantation
photo of two women conversingphotos courtesy Orin LangelleThe Mexican state of Chiapas scrapped its only REDD+ pilot project earlier this month. It was
plagued by a lack of clear objectives and had failed to take into account historic tensions
over land rights in the region.

A few weeks ago I wrote an in-depth report about why carbon offsets, especially forest offsets, are problematic and how they could undermine California’s new cap and trade program that aims to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

So far, California restricts offsets to US-based carbon capture projects. But it is considering including offsets from a controversial program called Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (known as “REDD+” by policy people), which offers carbon credits for preserving natural forests and forest plantations in developing nations. REDD+ projects, that are all in pilot phases currently, are so ridden with problems that the European Union in 2008 banned the use of forest offsets in its Emissions Trading Scheme until 2020 citing too many unresolved monitoring, reporting, verification and liability questions.”

But what the largest carbon trading market in the world rejected, California appears to be willing to take on. In 2010 it signed Memorandum of Understanding with Chiapas, Mexico, and the Brazilian state of Acre to set up an arrangement that would allow carbon offsets from REDD+ projects in these states to be included in the California cap-and-trade program. A REDD+ Offset Working Group, which includes technical experts from all three states, has been working on figuring out a framework that would enable California to use REDD+ offsets. The group has come up with recommendations and submitted its final report* on July 17 to the California Air Resources Board (ARB), the main state agency writing regulations to fight global warming.

Supporters of REDD argue that reducing deforestation offers an easy and cheap way of cutting back greenhouse gas emissions. But critics say the “pay-to-pollute” scheme that relies on market forces, one the key drivers of deforestation in the first place, to tackle deforestation is inherently flawed.

“With REDD, when you look at how these policies are implemented, its basically making nature itself into a kind of tradable commodity; it’s setting up markets to trade clean clean air or other natural assets around the world,” says Kathleen McAfee, a professor of international relations at San Francisco State University who studies global markets for environmental services. “But the problem with markets is that they generally tend to distribute wealth upwards – from the less wealthy to the more wealthy. And in the particular case of REDD you can really see this. Any time you have trading between highly unequal societies or highly unequal communities, the result is that the less empowered and less wealthy lose. And that’s what is happening here.”

That’s why many human rights advocates, Indigenous Peoples’ organizations and some environmentalists are fiercely opposing REDD+ projects. From the nonprofit research group Carbon Trade Watch:

REDD+ projects have already proven to be fundamentally unjust. Indigenous and forest-based communities have few formal titles to their lands and many are still struggling for legal mechanisms that recognize their rights and territories. In this regard, REDD+ has already encouraged forest enclosures, militarization, fraud, coercion, forced displacements and evictions in Kenya, Congo, Papua New Guinea, Brazil and many others."

The group says despite being such a contested issue, REDD+ projects are already happening simultaneously on different levels outside the UNFCCC framework, through national and sub-national programs like the one being mulled in California.

While the California Air Resources Board says it hasn’t made a final decision on whether it is going to include REDD offsets, Chiapas and Acre are already working on REDD+ projects that they hope the board will approve. But it appears the projects in both states have been facing some resistance on the ground.  

As an earlier Journal report  details, the REDD+ project being worked out in Chiapas’ Lacandon Jungle had already run into trouble as far back as two years ago. It was plagued by a lack of clear objectives and had failed to take into account historic tensions over land rights in the region.

In recent comments to the REDD Offsets Working Group, the Indigenous Environmental Network noted that even the “the supposedly exemplary case, State of Acre,” had problems. IEN said Acre officials “have not sought through meaningful consultation, [Indigenous people’s] free, prior and informed consent to REDD+ on their territories nor the time, place or manner of the imposition of REDD+.”

Then, late last week, the environmental group Friends of the Earth (FOE) sent out a press release saying that the state government of Chiapas has scrapped its REDD+ project. The release relied on an interview in the Chiapas daily El Heraldo where the Mexican state’s environment secretary, Carlos Morales Vázquez, was quoted as saying that the project “was an utter failure” and had been cancelled. FOE noted that it was likely that the project could be moved to other areas since Chiapas was still referring to REDD+ as a keystone of the state's climate change strategy.

(To muddy the waters some more, the same day as FOE sent out its presser, Code REDD – a San Francisco-based nonprofit that partners with corporations to “profitably integrate REDD+ into their business strategies”— sent out a its own press release in support of REDD+ in California’s climate policy that was signed by “key stakeholders,” including global NGOs like Conservation International and Indigenous community leaders.)

In California, the REDD Offsets Working Group responded to the FOE release by calling it misleading. In an email to me, Tony Brunello from the REDD Offset Working Group called the FOE release “poorly researched” and said the project in concern wasn’t one that ROW was looking at. He directed me to this article and asked me “to do a little more homework.” So I did. Because, really, I’ve been following the Chiapas story for quite a while, and as far as I knew, there was only one REDD+ project being worked on over there.

I contacted Jeff Conant, who’d written about Chiapas for the Journal earlier. Conant now works on REDD issues with FOE. Here’s what he had to say:

“Until we received formal notice (scroll down the linked document for English translation), on Friday July 19, of the Chiapas administration’s plan to cancel the former REDD effort and move ahead with a program more fully integrated into the ROW process, our understanding was that the REDD program of the state of Chiapas was the self-same program instituted by Governor Juan Sabines in 2011, and which we have documented and strongly criticized.”

He said the cancelled program was frequently referred to as REDD+ by the Chiapas administration and that until this point there had been no public disavowal of the program either by the state officials or by members of the REDD Offsets Working Group.

Curiouser and curiouser! I relayed his response back to Brunello and got this emailed comment in return:

“It is a great thing Chiapas is revising their jurisdictional forest carbon program to better align with ROW recommendations. The project they cancelled was one constantly criticized by all for not being a red (sic) project.” 

Am I the only one seeing some mixed messaging here?

This odd mix-up isn’t much of a big deal in the end, but it does serve to reinforce just how convoluted, fractious, and lacking in transparency the whole REDD+ process is and how difficult it is to oversee projects from thousands of miles away.

As San Francisco State’s McAfee says: “There’s so much conflict of interest, there’s so much uncertainty, that the greater the distance between the purchaser of the permit to pollute and the actual activity that is allegedly resulting in less environmental damage, the less the likelihood that there’s actual net environmental gain.”

I asked Brunello (via email), given how problematic these projects seem to be, why was California was still considering REDD+ offsets? He didn’t reply.

But the answer is pretty simple – the state needs to be able to supply business with more offsets. The cap-and-trade scheme allows polluting companies to meet up 8 percent of their emissions reductions requirements via ARB pre-approved offsets. That 8 percent number can add up to a lot – more than 200 million tons of carbon offsets over the next eight years. (Once the offsets program is up and running, that is; it’s scheduled to start this summer).

“We think there’s not going to be enough supply… everybody’s on agreement on that,” says Belinda Morris, California director of the American Carbon Registry, one of the two agencies certifying offsets in the state. Morris and other market analysts predict that forestry, which they say has the greatest potential for producing offsets, is the sector where the bulk of California’s offsets will be generated.

Bottom line, if California is going to use offsets in such high volume, and if it wants them cheap, it will have to look at forests beyond US borders.

Postscript: REDD+ offsets also face a legislative challenge in California – Senate Bill 605. Authored by Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach), the bill, which has received little publicity so far, includes a proposal to limit the offsets used to ones generated by projects within the state of California. The idea is that this would give priority to reducing pollution within California. The bill has been passed by the Senate Committee on Environmental Quality and is now with Senate Committee on Appropriations. Reuters Point Carbon analysis, says the bill, if passed, would reduce the supply of offsets by 85 percent. It predicts the bill has only a 20 percent chance of passing in its current form.


* An earlier version of this report said the REDD Offsets Working Group was scheduled to submit its final recommendations this summer. In fact, ROW has already submitted its recommendations. This article has been revised to reflect this information. 

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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Steve – I don’t know that your IRA analogy quite stands up, as both ‘versions’ of REDD in Chiapas stand for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. The chief difference between them is that the cancelled state REDD program was – we all agree – sloppy, subsidy-based, and not ‘jurisdictional,’ while the new version is jurisdictional and will be, presumably, much more well designed, thanks to the hard work of the ROW, as well as to the bird-dogging of a few NGOs who did a lot of work to bring to light the complex social issues at play and the need for better oversight.

The other thing that the two ‘versions’ of Chiapas REDD have in common is that neither would have come about were it not for the emergence of the California offsets market and the 2010 MOU between California and Chiapas. It is in this sense – the broader sense – that the flawed and failed REDD project initiated by Governor Sabines (3 months after signing the MOU) was linked to California’s emergent cap-and-trade scheme.  And it is precisely an understanding of the broader context that, I’d argue, is required to comprehend the real impacts that such projects can have, as well as their potential uptake by stakeholders.

Market advocates are well aware that ‘price signals’ – the promise of future economic benefits – can have a profound triggering effect on social policy. When California signed the MOU with Chiapas – a state with a long and well documented history of conflict between the government and a wide swath of the indigenous population – this sent a ‘price signal’, if you will, to the Chiapas administration that led that administration to initiate a project that manifested all of the potential fatal flaws of REDD. The fact that this was carried out with no MRV, no baselines, no crediting pathway, no safeguards, no nothing – does not obviate the fact that it was, in principal and in intent, tied to California’s burgeoning market.

Indeed, I find it troubling that no official in California has shown concern for the fact that the Schwarzenegger administration entered into this territory without doing its homework on a governor (Sabines) who ended up leaving Chiapas bankrupt and riddled with failed development projects (see ‘Sustainable Rural Cities’ for one especially unfortunate case; or have a look at the scandal surrounding the murder of Mariano Abarco Roblero for his opposition to the operations of the Canadian mining corp. Blackfire in the rapidly growing Chiapas mining sector).

Is it good that the new version of REDD in Chiapas will be more closely tied to responsible policies that may have a dampening effect on such abuses? Absolutely, and I congratulate ROW for having helped rein it in. Will it include a well-thought out social assessment and a process of free, prior and informed consent to allow the local population to determine if and how the program meets their needs? I hope so. I wonder, though, how such a process will go when proponents such as yourself respond to critics by calling them ‘idiotic’, as you once did of my counterparts at Otros Mundos in Chiapas, or by dismissing their concerns as ‘silly’ as you did of Kathleen Macafee in your previous missive. That doesn’t bode well for an inclusive and informed consultation process that allows for reasonable dissent, as global best practice dictates.

While the facts about Chiapas’ REDD plans have been at times difficult to ascertain – (a little like putting a price on hot air, or measuring and monetizing the hypothetical absence of a forest) – I have made an effort to do a service to both forests and human rights by sticking my neck way out through the investigation that I’ve carried out. Clearly some of my findings have been contentious; clearly some of the language I’ve used to share these findings has raised a few hackles; and clearly the opposition of a number of NGOs and social movement groups has thrown a few red flags up in what could have been a much less visible process. With so much at stake, I think it’s been worth it.

By Jeff Conant on Fri, July 26, 2013 at 5:12 am


This is a well-written piece, but your contention that “partisans on each side of the issue can’t even agree on which programs are supposed to be involved,” is dead wrong, as is your contention that REDD advocates are sending mixed messages.

Indeed, if anyone is sending mixed messages in this whole thing, it’s Jeff Conant – who, as you quite clearly demonstrate, just spent two years trying to equate the “the REDD+ project being worked out in Chiapas’ Lacandon Jungle” with jurisdictional REDD while then differentiating that project from “a program more fully integrated into the ROW process” when he got called out.

Your own quotes from Conant and the link to the story he wrote for your publication nearly two years ago ( show that the confusion and mixed messaging that you’re highlighting come not from those engaged in the legitimate REDD debate, but from efforts by Friends of the Earth to equate the Lacandon Jungle program with jurisdictional REDD – despite the fact that they clearly knew it was NOT a REDD project at all.

Yes, it uses the REDD acronym, but it has about as much to do with jurisdictional REDD as the Democratic Party of Albania has to do with Barack Obama’s climate policy, or that my Individual Retirement Account (IRA) has to do with the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

In our coverage (, we gave Conant the benefit of the doubt when he insisted that last week’s release was an honest mistake based on poor phrasing by the Chiapas government and the el Heraldo newspaper. But the piece he wrote two years ago and that you linked to indicates this “mistake” is part of a systematic pattern of distortion. I say this because Conant clearly knew that the Lacandon Jungle program followed no carbon standard, that it employed no structured methodology, and that it involved no input from indigenous people. He clearly knew that it was just a poorly-conceived mechanism that funnels $200 or so a month from auto fees to landowners, and he rightly and roundly criticized it (as has pretty much every REDD advocate who has encountered it), but then he employed a bit of verbal sleight of hand to link that program with jurisdictional REDD – a link that he clearly knew was wrong.

In last week’s release, he makes the implicit explicit – a tactic I’d expect from the Heartland Institute or the National Review Online or the Competitive Enterprise Institute (the latter two of which are being sued by climate scientist Michael Mann for defamation of character – and rightly, I’d add).

I’m also wondering what purpose your other sources serve. You quote Kathleen McAfee, for example, as saying that REDD is “basically making nature itself into a kind of tradable commodity”, which is, quite frankly, silly. People who buy REDD credits aren’t purchasing nature; they are paying to preserve it. REDD simply make that easier to do.

You also cite Carbon Trade Watch as saying that “REDD+ projects have already proven to be fundamentally unjust,” but where?

Yes, there is a legitimate debate around REDD, and even this legitimate debate can be confusing, but the people you’ve cited here appear more intent on derailing that debate than engaging in it.

By Steve Zwick on Thu, July 25, 2013 at 11:34 am

Unfortunately, I have to stick with my original comment here that you should do a bit more homework.

1 - We released our report at July 17th, a week before your article.  You state it has not been released yet.

2 - If you read the ROW report, you will see we focus on STATE-WIDE deforestation and GHG reductions, not specific projects like La Candone. 
All projects must feed up to STATE-WIDE (or titled JURISDICTIONAL-WIDE) deforestation and GHG targets to ensure there is no “leakage” and reductions are real.  Your article confuses projects and state-wide programs. 

3 - Our group, the ROW, is simply a group of non government experts making recommendations to the states.  Period.  We collectively have never supported any project anywhere.  See the ROW report and website at 

3 - The ROW recommendations encourage states to support good programs and not support bad ones.  If Chiapas decides to not support a bad one (as everyone in your article agrees) isn’t that a good thing?  Your article implies we supported the project, now we don’t support the project.  Not true.  Again, you confuse support for projects and state-wide programs.  Big difference.

If you actually want to talk about this, you should just call me at 916-290-6150.  My multiple calls to you just never seemed to get through.  Having worked with EII for the last 20 years (Baikal Watch) with gary cook and Bob Wilkinson, I found this article very disappointing.

By Tony Brunello on Wed, July 24, 2013 at 5:42 pm

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