What ProPublica Gets Wrong – And Right – On Forest Carbon Finance

Steve Schwartzman and Christina McCain

Everyone agrees that we must save the world’s forests if we’re to end climate change, but how to get there? One cluster of tools involves using carbon finance to keep forests alive, and a ProPublica piece critical of such efforts sparked a swirl of reactions, including one in these pages. EDF’s Steve Schwartzman argues that the critique failed to adequately distinguish between isolated projects and jurisdiction-wide programs.

This story first appeared on the EDF Blog.

28 May 2019 | ProPublica’s recent piece An (Even More) Inconvenient Truth is a deeply reported story on very real problems – and even bigger potential problems – with offset projects in existing and emerging carbon markets. But the evidence the article lays out does not support its conclusion about forest carbon crediting. And readers might come away without understanding that protecting forests, including through forest carbon credits, is one of the most important solutions to climate change out there, and the planet can’t afford to dismiss this opportunity to solve the climate crisis.

Missing: The critical distinction between individual “projects” and large-scale, state-level programs to reduce deforestation

It’s not news that bad carbon credits won’t solve climate change. Lots of studies have shown that there are all kinds of bad offset projects, and definitely not just forest projects. But today’s jurisdictional forest credits aren’t your parents’ forest project offsets: they’re real emissions reductions. Though you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the ProPublica story.

The ProPublica piece fails to distinguish large-scale national or provincial programs to reduce emissions from deforestation – known as “jurisdictional” programs – from one-off, small “projects” to reduce deforestation. ProPublica’s implication that old projects had failings and therefore now so must contemporary jurisdictional programs, is like saying flip phones had all sorts of problems, so all cell phones must be unreliable and we should shun smartphones.

Many projects are not adequately monitored, or supported by a policy framework, political will, or the force of law for carbon crediting. As the story finds, there is evidence of many projects that claim they’re protecting forest and sell carbon credits, but in the end don’t actually protect the forest. Or of projects that protect a piece of forest here, while somebody slashes and burns over there – so those credits aren’t really reducing emissions. Of course these scenarios are the opposite of stopping climate change: the polluter goes on polluting and the offset that was supposed to compensate for the pollution pollutes too.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with project-level efforts. Well-designed projects, especially those designed and implemented by forest communities themselves, can have incredibly positive impacts, co-benefits, and results.

But as the story shows, to both back-up the efforts of those forest communities in fighting deforestation that can encroach on them, and to guarantee that the overall results are ensuring deforestation reduction across the landscape and not in one isolated spot, a wall-to-wall accounting (a “jurisdictional” approach) is necessary.

Jurisdictional programs to reduce deforestation cover forests for an entire state, are managed by the state or federal government, and provide environmental standards and protections for forest communities.

California’s Tropical Forest Standard

ProPublica missed that California’s Air Resources Board was very aware of all of these problems, and designed its Tropical Forest Standard (TFS) accordingly. California has made clear that, if it acts to incorporate the potential for tropical forest credits in its market, it won’t be taking credits from any of the ill-fated projects profiled in the article. In fact, it won’t be taking credits from individual projects at all. Neither will any of the emerging carbon markets in the UN or anywhere else.

The problem with the article is that it does a great job of critiquing of what’s wrong with offset projects – but fails to note that no one – not California, not the UN, not the World Bank – is proposing to let forest projects into new carbon markets. All these new policy frameworks start from the awareness that projects are subject to problems like leakage and permanence that large-scale jurisdictional efforts largely or wholly avoid. It also fails to report the widely available data on how much jurisdictions like Acre and other Amazon states have actually reduced emissions.

What California could do – and what any jurisdiction or carbon market should do – is trade with jurisdictions that can demonstrate implementation of a successful program like the Brazilian state of Acre’s.

Acre, Brazil

Acre reduced about 121 million tons of CO2 between 2005 and 2016, and did this while it was increasing both GDP and agriculture production. Reducing jurisdiction-wide emissions, while increasing the economic output that was driving emissions is the same feat that California and the European Union have achieved, and a measure of real progress.

And Acre’s reductions are “permanent” emissions reductions. A permanent reduction does not mean that if a jurisdiction reduces dirty energy in its electricity sector, for example, that all coal stays underground forever. It means that the jurisdiction generated as much (or more) energy as before, only with fewer emissions. In Acre’s case, they reduced deforestation and increased their agricultural production. This is also a permanent emissions reduction.

That’s why from the perspective of the atmosphere, it doesn’t matter that ProPublica saw lots of deforestation along the roads (it was already there when I first went in 1986) or that somebody said you can’t make a living from the trees. Acre’s are real emissions reductions, and creating the right incentives – positive and negative – is what’s needed to keep them going ultimately to zero.

Brazil did the same thing in the Amazon from 2005–2017, reducing emissions from deforestation over 80% below the historical average while increasing cattle and soy production. This kept about 4.9 Gt CO₂ out of the atmosphere.

What’s surprising is not that Brazil’s deforestation has gone up somewhat. It’s that the reductions have proved robust even though there are a lot of reasons for it to go up to its historical levels again – the powerful Ag lobby in Congress in the last three governments, no incentives for conservation, and no budget for enforcement. The transformational changes that Brazil started, such as large-scale recognition of indigenous territories and creation of protected areas, have made a difference.

1 Boucher, D. and D. Chi, 2018. Amazon Deforestation in Brazil: What has not happened and how the global media covered it. Tropical Conservation Science, Vol. II: 1-4. DOI: 10.1177/1940082918794325. Figure 1. National Space Research Institute (INPE), annual deforestation 1988 – 2018

So, yes, offset projects have a really checkered record and that’s why California won’t be accepting any international project credits. At the same time, the most important thing California could do for the indigenous and forest peoples on the front lines of Bolsonaro’s war against them and the forest is to endorse California’s Tropical Forest Standard – regardless of whether Acre or any other jurisdiction is ready right now to meet its rigorous criteria.

The TFS says that California knows that stopping deforestation is central to controlling climate change, and it’s ready to do something about it. Just like emissions reductions in California or the European Union, these emissions reductions from large-scale programs to reduce emissions from deforestation are real and permanent, and that’s as much as any policy can do – and what our atmosphere desperately needs right now.

Steve Schwartzman is Senior Director, Tropical Forest Policy, for the Environmental Defense Fund, while Christina McCain is EDF’s Director, Latin America and Climate.

Please see our Reprint Guidelines for details on republishing our articles.