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Offsetting: A dangerous distraction

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Offsetting: A dangerous distraction. Click to download pdf file (889 KB)Friends of the Earth released a new report during the recent UN climate negotiations in Bonn: “A Dangerous Distraction – Why offsetting is failing the climate and people: The Evidence” (pdf file 889 KB).

The report examines the record of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and asks what the effects are likely to be of expanding offsetting as proposed in the UN climate talks, including through proposed offset-based REDD mechanisms.

“Offsetting is now a dangerous distraction,” Andy Atkins, Executive director of FoE England, Wales and Northern Ireland writes in the introduction to the report. “Negotiators must recognise that it does not work, will not work and that it must be scrapped.” FoE explains that “Offsets are a swap of an emissions cut in developed countries for a cut in developing countries. But action in both is needed.” The report recommends that governments should “Reject plans to introduce REDD offsets, and instead negotiate effective and fair mechanisms to protect the Earth’s forests that do not involve offsetting.”

The United States introduced offsets to the UN climate negotiations in Kyoto in 1997. The US negotiating team was led by Al Gore. When the European Union asked for emissions reductions of 15% by 2010, the US, lead by Gore, managed to push the target down to 5.2% by 2012. “The US had just put a wrecking ball through the Kyoto Protocol,” George Monbiot writes. “Then it did something worse: It destroyed the whole agreement.”

Most of the other governments insisted that the cuts be made at home. But Gore demanded a series of loopholes big enough to drive a Hummer through. The rich nations, he said, should be allowed to buy their cuts from other countries. When he won, the protocol created an exuberant global market in fake emissions cuts.

The five central arguments against offsetting, outlined in FoE’s report, are that it:

    1. counts action in developing countries as part of the cuts promised in developed countries, although the science is clear that action is needed in both developed and developing countries.

    2. cannot guarantee the same cuts as would have happened without offsetting.

    3. is causing major delays to urgently needed economic transformations in developed countries.

    4. does not ensure positive sustainable development in, or appropriate financial transfers to, developing countries.

    5. is profoundly unjust, fundamentally flawed and cannot be reformed.

The report looks at the perverse incentives that the current REDD discussions are creating:

Proposals under discussion for a REDD mechanism based upon a baseline of deforestation also risk creating the perverse incentive for countries with low current levels of deforestation to increase their level of deforestation in order to subsequently be able to claim greater amounts of finance on the basis of reduced deforestation, thus increasing carbon emissions in the short term.

These perverse incentives can clearly be seen in Guyana, where President Jagdeo has launched an “avoided threatened deforestation” scheme. An editorial in Guyana’s Kaieteur News in May argued that Guyana “should proceed full steam ahead with the exploitation of our forestry resources. In addition to placing our future development more firmly in our own hands, it will ironically make our arguments for REDD even stronger.”

FoE’s report looks at other risks of an offset-based REDD mechanism:

Proposals for a market REDD mechanism pose significant risks to sustainable development. The definition of a forest under the Kyoto Protocol allows for the replacement of natural forest with plantations. If this definition were to be carried over into a REDD mechanism then REDD finance could well be used to fund conversion to plantation forestry which stores as little as 20 per cent of the carbon that intact natural forest does.

Proposals for a market REDD mechanism are likely to drive up the value of forest lands, which risks increasing the likelihood that forest lands will be wrested away from forest-dependent communities, who are likely to be marginalised already within their countries. The commodification of forest carbon is likely to be inherently inequitable as it discriminates against women and other marginalised groups who rely on free access to forest resources.

Denying local and indigenous communities access to forest resources could have sever impacts on poverty alleviation and the achievement of the Millenium Development Goals.

The negative impacts on the climate found with clean development mechanism projects are “magnified by even more uncertainty over carbon guarantees,” with forest offsetting. FoE notes that “forests could become a net source of carbon instead of a sink as the planet warms up,” and that protecting forests “is a complex socio-economic issue requiring policies that respect the land rights of indigenous peoples and forest communities.” The pressures on forests are complex (including demand for forest products, illegal logging and displacement of people from other lands) and “demand complex governance arrangements not suitable to forest carbon trading.”

FoE concludes that “proposals to link REDD finance to the offset market should be rejected outright.”
 

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