“Why did America’s leading environmental groups jet to Copenhagen and lobby for policies that will lead to the faster death of the rainforests – and runaway global warming?” Good question. It comes from a new article by journalist Johann Hari in The Nation. In the article, “The Wrong Kind of Green”, Hari slams the corruption of US NGOs that receive corporate funding.
As Hari points out it is no coincidence that these NGOs are the ones driving the push for trading forest carbon. Hari is not afraid to name names:
“[O]ther organizations–like Conservation International and [The Nature Conservancy] TNC – seem incapable of internal reform and simply need to be shunned. They are not part of the environmental movement: they are polluter-funded leeches sucking on the flesh of environmentalism, leaving it weaker and depleted.”
Hari traces the impact of funding from polluters to environmental organisations. “Companies like Shell and British Petroleum (BP) were delighted,” writes Hari. And no wonder. For comparatively small amounts of money, polluting corporations can buy “reputation insurance”, or defence against criticism. Every time they are criticised, the polluters can show their green awards, provided by the same environmental organisations that they funded.
Meanwhile, the environmental organisations stop criticising their funders. Hari quotes Christine MacDonald, who left her job as a journalist in 2006, to start work at Conservation International:
“About a week or two after I started, I went to the big planning meeting of all the organization’s media teams, and they started talking about this supposedly great new project they were running with BP. But I had read in the newspaper the day before that the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] had condemned BP for running the most polluting plant in the whole country…. But nobody in that meeting, or anywhere else in the organization, wanted to talk about it. It was a taboo. You weren’t supposed to ask if BP was really green. They were ‘helping’ us, and that was it.”
Being in the pocket of polluting corporations helps explain why some environmental organisations support REDD and forest carbon trading. It provides “solutions” for polluters (who don’t need to reduce their pollution, they can “trawl across the world to find the cheapest place to cut emissions, and pay for it to happen there,” as Hari puts it). REDD also provides profits for the environmental organisations (through trading forest carbon).
Hari writes that “At Copenhagen, some of the US conservation groups demanded a course of action that will lead to environmental disaster – and financial benefits for themselves.” REDD “sounds fine”, writes Hari. “A ton of carbon in Brazil enters the atmosphere just as surely as a ton in Texas.” But the reality is that “In practice, the REDD program is filled with holes large enough to toss a planet through.” Hari takes the example of the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project to illustrate the problems. The project was set up by The Nature Conservancy, BP, Pacificorp and American Electric Power (AEP). As Greenpeace research revealed the project hugely overestimated the amount of “avoided emissions” from the project. And the loggers who were kicked out of the project area simply moved their logging operations to other forests.
One way of addressing this sort of “leakage”, is to use national targets rather than project (or sub-national) targets, thus preventing loggers from moving to another area of the same country. (National targets do nothing to address the problem of a country’s logging industry moving to a neighbouring country, as Vietnam’s has done in Laos and Cambodia.)
Yet the Nature Conservancy and Conservation International have lobbied for sub-national targets to be included in international REDD negotiations and US climate bills. Last year, these organisations and others signed an agreement with polluters which, “offered some of the biggest, filthiest planetary polluters an ‘easy out’, by lobbying the US Congress jointly with them, that US carbon emissions should be offset against oversees credits for ‘avoided deforestation’,” as an anonymous contribution on REDD-Monitor noted.
“Do the math, and it’s not hard to see why the BINGOs have finally sold their souls to the devil. Around 150 million hectares of tropical forests is in protected areas worldwide, much of it under the control or management of international conservation groups. Each hectare of forest contains around 100-200 tons of carbon, and each ton of carbon could be worth around $10 at the moment (and potentially much more in the future). The BINGOs know that they have a big stake in an asset potentially worth $150 billion and upwards.
“But there would have to be a buyer for this asset to actually be worth anything. Step in the big fossil fuel-burning power utilities, which, like most US businesses, have been cosseted and protected from global environmental realities by eight years of the Bush administration. If there is an easy way to avoid changing their business model, of avoiding the installation of more efficient technology, or of losing market segment to renewable energy producers, they will surely take it. Avoided deforestation offsets on a grand scale – brokered by their chums in the conservation groups – would be just the ticket.”
Not surprisingly, Conservation International denies that greed explains their position on REDD. “Our only interest is to keep forests standing,” Becky Chacko, director of climate policy at Conservation International, told Hari. “We don’t [take this position] because it generates revenue for us. We don’t think it’s an evil position to say money has to flow in order to keep forests standing, and these market mechanisms can contribute the money for that.”
Hari asked how Conservation International justifies the conceptual holes in the entire system of offsetting. “Her answers become halting,” Hari writes.
“She says the ‘issues of leakage and permanence’ have been ‘resolved.’ But she will not say how. How can you guarantee a forest will stand for millenniums, to offset carbon emissions that warm the planet for millenniums? ‘We factor that risk into our calculations,’ she says mysteriously. She will concede that national accounting is ‘more rigorous’ and says Conservation International supports achieving it ‘eventually.’”
Eventually, of course, is likely to be irrelevant. By then the forests will have gone up in smoke.
“So it has come to this,” writes Hari. “After decades of slowly creeping corporate corruption, some of the biggest environmental groups have remade themselves in the image of their corporate backers: they are putting profit before planet.”