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Trading CO2 Emissions for Trees: Who Benefits?

by Larry Lohmann

The proponents of carbon forestry believe that by planting vast tree
plantations, it would be possible to counteract the release of carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere which results from the burning of fossil
fuels. A briefing paper recently released by Corner House , "The Dyson Effect: Carbon 'Offset' Forestry and the Privatisation of the Atmosphere", questions this view and maintains that ”this approach to global warming is based on bad science, enlarges rather than reduces society's ecological footprint, and reinforces neo-colonialist structures of power.” Reprinted here is a shorter piece which accompanies the main paper. It points out that many interest groups stand to benefit from carbon trading schemes. The main article is highly recommended.

Many groups stand to gain from an expansion of carbon "offset" forestry:

* Fossil fuel mining and refining companies hope to use tree-planting
to delay or avoid changes in established ways of doing business.

* Utilities such as Detroit Edison and the Electricity Generating
Board of the Netherlands see carbon "offset" forestry as a cheap way of persuading state regulators or consumers that they are taking action over emissions.

* Car companies including Mazda and Fiat hope to gain a green image by planting trees.

* Trading firms, brokers and investment and other banks expect to
collect commissions for brokering carbon deals as stock markets and futures exchanges take shape in Chicago, London and Sydney. Organizations such as the International Carbon Sequestration Federation and American Forests are already helping market carbon credits. Companies such as Trexler & Associates stand to make fortunes from brokering carbon deals.

* Consultants such as SGS Forestry and Econergy International
Corporation can gain lucrative contracts to monitor, certify and justify carbon forestry projects.

* Industry-friendly think tanks such as WRI find sequestration and
storage programmes in line with their general ideology and benefit from helping to plan and justify them.

* Elected officials in the US serve the energy companies who
influence and fund many of them by insisting that most emissions "reductions" be achieved through carbon trading. The Australian government, sees opportunities for economic growth in creating trial markets in emissions permits and carbon credits. Among Southern governments, Costa Rica is perhaps most openly inviting carbon forestry deals.

* Multilateral agencies plan to feast on carbon trades, exploiting
the political infrastructure they already have in place for transferring
wealth from South to North. Projects which claim carbon credit for "preventing deforestation" are congenial to the World Bank's traditions of claiming that it is effective in its operations but not responsible for their destructiveness - the logic of trading carbon storage will allow it to insist that no matter how bad the result of a carbon project, "what would have happened otherwise" is worse.

* State bureaucracies responsible for forests, agriculture and commerce may also benefit. In New South Wales, one official has spoken of a "dynamic new industry" which would create jobs out of a million hectares of new plantations. Another claims that one hectare of pine plantation, when viewed as a carbon sink, is "worth" about 1,400 hectares of mature subtropical rainforest.

* Some plantation owners and their state backers hope to gain either
investment or a greener image from carbon deals. A commercial grower of coniferous trees in Ireland, for instance, recently cited research showing Norway spruce stores more carbon than mixed deciduous forests, while Malaysia's Primary Industries Minister chimed in a few months later with the claim that his country's oil palm plantations are in fact "better than the developed nations' pine trees in terms of absorbing carbon gases".

* Other forestry companies in a position to receive carbon sequestration investment are also likely to support trading: no sooner had global warming become a hot political topic, for example, than an American Forest Association official proposed planting 100 million trees to help ameliorate global warming.

* Certain NGOs, by carving out a position for themselves as carbon
brokers and "offset" specialists, can gain a reputation with patrons or
peers in government and business as advocates of the fashonable "free market" approach. Through its participation in Environmental Resources Trust, for example, Washington's Environmental Defense Fund is to assist Suncor in working out ways of tracking forestry-related greenhouse gas emissions reductions. EDF also assisted in a failed 1996 scheme to head off environmentalist criticism of a self-chilling soft-drink can developed by The Joseph Company which used HFC 134a, a powerful greenhouse gas. In exchange for EDF's support for the can, the firm would have underwritten activities "offsetting" the can's climatic impact. The Rainforest Alliance, meanwhile, has joined the Forestry Research Institute and a University of Florida academic in helping to audit Suncor's carbon project in Belize.

* Some environmental NGOs with staff working in particular forest
areas, such as the Project for Belize or WWF, see sequestration projects as a way of raising money for conservation.

Many non-official organizations with vested interests in carbon "offset" forestry exert influence at meetings of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Framework Convenstion on Climate Change by staging "side events".

Present in Buenos Aires in November 199 were SGS Forestry, the Nature Conservancy, WRI and Mark Trexler, as well as "offset" skeptics such as Greenpeace.

Sources: Business Times (Singapore); The Age (Melbourne); Irish Times;
Business Times (Malaysia), Canada News Wire, Health, PR Watch, The PIG Report for Non-Profit Accountability Project, news reports.

Taken from a longer article by Larry Lohmann, "The Dyson Effect: Carbon 'Offset' Forestry and the Privatisation of the Atmosphere" available from Corner House , a United Kingdom NGO which aims to support the growth of a democratic, equitable, and non-discriminatory civil society in which communities have control over the resources and decisions that affect their lives and means of livelihood.



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