California Cap-and-Trade: More Harm Than Good

April, 2017


Environmental justice takes a back burner to forest offset market

At first blush, the stories of landscape stewardship and forest restoration surrounding the commercialization of carbon credits as tradeable forest offsets in the California Cap-and-Trade Program are heartwarming. Encouragement arises from the promises of well-intentioned forest landowners finding new carbon accounting-based streams of revenue to assist in responding to the considerable financial challenges of managing depleted forests. The celebration of the new forest offset market that apparently puts the sordid history of forest liquidation and cut-and-run practices to rest is a bright ray of sunshine piercing through the dark clouds of climate change. Photos of fog-draped coastal redwood forests are splayed across the front pages of the nation’s leading newspapers, touting the success of California’s Cap-and-Trade Program.

What is missing from this glossy magazine cover story, however, are the bitter realities that expose how the exorbitant utilization of forest offsets in California’s Cap-and-Trade Program could be doing more harm than good. Without adequate consideration of the climate impacts at the polluter end of the forest-offset equation, the irreversible impacts from the emissions of fossil fuels continue largely unabated. These emissions are without question the primary driver of the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Offsets deceive the public regarding the clear dangers of continued mobilization of fossilized carbon, the result of which is to delay the urgent and dramatic measures our society must take to eliminate our use of fossil fuels to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Forest offsets, as they are used in California’s Cap-and-Trade, are a scientifically flawed concept and an expression of climate science denial. Carbon sequestration in forests must be understood in the context of past deforestation and land use change. It is erroneous and scientifically unjustified to claim that carbon sequestration in land-based ecosystems like forests can effectively neutralize the emissions from burning fossil fuels. Such claims are based upon a mistaken interpretation of how human economic activity is disturbing global carbon cycles. The neutralization myth contributes painfully to climate science illiteracy by obscuring and misrepresenting the severity of life-threatening global climate impacts that will result from the ongoing mobilization of fossilized carbon reserves—carbon that has been literally locked away and stable for tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of years. 

As if this were not bad enough, forest offsets are then leveraged into a cultural and political pawn in the perpetual chess game of the fossil fuel industry’s intent to continue with business as usual. Initial data shows that under Cap-and-Trade, the emissions from many of the largest regulated facilities—such as refineries—are increasing. California is able to meet emissions reduction goals only through tricks of carbon accounting that include a preponderance of forest offsets. The affected communities living closest to these facilities are denied relief from the burden of toxic fossil fuel pollution. The continued disregard of the conditions faced by these nearby communities, often comprised primarily of people of color and the poor, is an important issue of environmental justice.  

A nefarious and unexpected outcome has come from these political dynamics that inflicts harm on efforts to build a broad constituency for forest protection. Unfortunately, the association of forest conservation with the acceptance of and support for continued pollution in front line communities has resulted in disinterest and even antagonism among environmental justice organizers towards forest conservation efforts. 

Stunningly, traditional conservation organizations—largely white and middle class—have fully dismissed the demands of environmental justice and communities of color to resist unjust and scientifically dubious pollution trading in California climate policy. These conservation organizations are increasingly siding with the fossil fuel industry to promote Cap-and-Trade as the preferred means to (supposedly) respond to the climate crisis, regardless of the environmental racism and flawed science permeating the pollution-trading scheme. 

By eagerly promoting the trafficking of carbon credits to the oil and gas industry—thus providing political cover to the fossil fuel interests who refuse to relinquish their grip on our economic and political systems—traditional environmental organizations who promote forest offsets and pollution trading have exacerbated an already existing divide between forest protection and the millions of vulnerable Californians who live in the shadows of the toxic pollution of the fossil fuel industry. 

It is not too late for forest protectors to recalibrate their advocacy and prioritize environmental justice in California climate policy, as the future of Cap-and-Trade will be in play this summer in the California State Legislature. An adherence to science and the courage to stand with environmental justice and affected communities will be indispensable in challenging the flawed assumptions that are making it possible for forest offsets and Cap-and-Trade to do more harm than good to front-line communities, the global atmosphere, and the future of a livable planet.

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