Why Market-Based 'Solutions' to Climate Change Can Cause More Harm Than Good
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When I learned last November that California's then-governor Schwarzenegger had signed agreements to build a carbon offset protocol into California's Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32) (see AlterNet's coverage here and here), and that one of these agreements was with the state of Chiapas, Mexico, where I've spent significant time, I wondered immediately what this would mean for the Indigenous communities of Chiapas, who have engaged in a long struggle for autonomy over their resources and territories.
Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala, is Mexico's poorest state, with large areas of forest and the country's largest indigenous population. In 2009, the state launched and began widely publicizing its Climate Change Action Programme. The plan includes vast biofuel plantations, forest carbon offset projects, and a statewide "productive reconversion" initiative to convert subsistence farmers into producers of African palm, Jatropha, and export-oriented crops such as roses, fruits, and coffee.
I traveled to Chiapas in March to investigate. Among the dozens of people I spoke with was Gustavo Castro Soto, the coordinator of Otros Mundos, a small but prolific organization based in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the old colonial capital of Chiapas. Otros Mundos is the coordinating body of Friends of the Earth (FOE) Mexico, and a member of FOE International; locally, regionally, and internationally, Gustavo and Otros Mundos work to bring attention to the environmental and human rights impacts of corporate-led globalization in the form of large dams, mining, industrial agriculture, and, most recently, market-oriented climate mitigation policies such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and the emergent protocol known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD).
I spoke with Gustavo about the impacts he sees these recent policies having in Chiapas.
Jeff Conant: One of the latest issues to call the attention of social movements in Chiapas is a policy called REDD, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. REDD is being developed and piloted in many forested tropical countries. What's the concern?
Gustavo Castro: To see the concerns with REDD, you have to put it in the broader context of false solutions to climate change. If the more developed countries have signed the Kyoto Protocol, this legally binds them to reduce their Co2 emissions by five percent from 1990 levels. But this reduction is ridiculous -- in 1990 it was calculated as necessary to reduce greenhouse gases by some 80 percent; so governments and corporations did everything they could to reduce this 80 percent to 5 percent.
Worse, they see that this 5 percent reduction means less money, so they found a way to flip the commitment. They say, "Okay, rather than develop technologies that prevent cars from emitting Co2, because that's too expensive, lets find a way to absorb Co2, that'll be cheaper." In order for there to be compensation for this, they come up with a price per ton of Co2 and voila, they invent Carbon Credits.
Within this framework they say, what else generates Co2? Well, global deforestation is responsible for eighteen to twenty percent of excess Co2. Deforestation implies that the Co2 that's been converted to wood, when you burn it, you release the Co2 into the environment. So they propose the reduction of deforestation and they create RED, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation. But Co2 is also emitted when soils and biodiversity are degraded, when fields or forests burn or vegetative material is cut. So they add the second "D," for degradation, and call it REDD.
So how do we avoid deforestation? We pay people. And, well, if we can make a business by paying to not deforest, then we'll need to acquire large expanses of forest to feed this business. Let's say I need to reduce my Co2 emissions; rather than reduce, I buy the right to absorb it -- I buy a carbon sink. The big carbon sinks are the countries that have forest, so these countries, with vast forest cover, Costa Rica, Guatemala, México, Brazil, Colombia, can now sell the ability of their trees to produce fresh air, as it were. You, in the North, you need fresh air? I can sell it to you. So, they put a price on the trees and on fresh air, measured per ton of Co2, and they create the carbon market.