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January 30th, 2014

Greenwashing Pay-to-Pollute, and Harming Indigenous Communities to Boot

Say NO to REDD+ offsets in California’s carbon market

By Elizabeth Nussbaumer

In a recent blog post from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) they proudly announce their role in helping to develop offset credits from REDD+ programs in the Amazon — the reduction of emissions from deforestation and degradation — for use in California’s cap-and-trade market. REDD+ programs exist in Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and elsewhere, and in theory they supposedly protect tropical forests.

EDF specifies that incorporating offsets from REDD+ leads to rewards for indigenous peoples and even ecosystem protection under this supposedly great initiative. However, we see evidence of very different outcomes from REDD+ offset programs; so don’t start guzzling the cool-aid just yet.

The reality of this program is all but rewarding or great. To begin with, offsets of any kind are part of a pay-to-pollute loophole that allows companies to continue polluting at the source under the empty promise that emissions reductions will happen elsewhere; whether those reductions actually happen is highly questionable.

Offsets lead to emissions hot spots where pollution continues at the source, shifts the burden of reducing emissions elsewhere, and makes no guarantee that reductions will happen at the offset location. If no reductions occur at the source of pollution or at the offset site, this means an increase in total emissions, all because companies are allowed to pay-to-pollute rather than stop polluting, without exceptions.

If this isn’t bad enough, adding offsets from REDD+ programs introduces a new level of liability and entirely irresponsible disregard for legitimate emissions reductions. REDD+ programs alone have garnered quite a lot of attention over the years, and not because of their shining success. Rather, REDD+ initiatives have become notorious for fraud, corruption, land grabs, violating indigenous rights and many other serious injustices.

In October 2013, The Atlantic featured an extensive exposé on REDD+ and carbon markets. It told the deplorable tale of an offset developer who defrauded indigenous communities in the Amazon after conning them into signing over their forest rights for REDD+ offsets. The contracts for the forest rights ran for 200 years and the developer planned to harvest the timber and plant palm oil after the 25-year carbon plan in the contract ran out. This is just one side of the many problems of generating offsets from REDD+.

But don’t worry, in EDF’s glowing promotion of REDD+ offsets they reassure the reader that with the right technology everything will be okay and emissions reductions will be achieved. However, the cited satellite and airplane technology only shows whether forests are standing or have been destroyed—this means nothing regarding measurements of sequestered carbon dioxide (CO2), establishing and monitoring baselines, ensuring additionality, and a slew of other highly important requirements for verifying legitimate emissions reductions.

REDD+ programs have even been rejected by major carbon markets like the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), and forest offsets are not allowed as part of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol. However, California seems to have missed the memo on the perils of REDD+ and continues to push for the inclusion of these offsets as part of their cap-and-trade market.

As a result, indigenous groups continue to speak out against California’s plans to include offsets from REDD+ programs. In October 2012, several indigenous groups traveled to California to testify against REDD+ offsets and urged Governor Brown not to allow their use. These same indigenous groups have also sent several letters to the California Air Resources Board in charge of running the cap-and-trade market urging them not to allow REDD+ forest offsets.

Last May, The Sacramento Bee even featured an article by Jeff Conant of Friends of the Earth condemning California for considering REDD+ offsets as part of their cap-and-trade market.

Both the environment and indigenous groups lose when it comes to REDD+ offsets. The only players rewarded are polluters. Generating offsets from REDD+ programs requires privatizing large swathes of forest and subsequently commodifying this precious resource, placing it under private and economic control. Can we really afford to subject invaluable and incommensurable tropical forests to the volatility of global markets, all for the sake of making it easier for polluters to keep on polluting?

REDD+ offsets put profits over people. Our forests, water and air are owned by no one and shared by everyone. No one should sell what they do not own.


2 Comments on Greenwashing Pay-to-Pollute, and Harming Indigenous Communities to Boot

  1. Steve Zwick says:

    If there’s any REDD-related threat to indigenous people, it’s coming from ideologically-driven organizations that insist on spreading lies about this valuable mechanism, thus giving pause to buyers and sabotaging the efforts of indigenous people who are using REDD+ to save their rainforests and jump-start sustainable agriculture programs.

    From the third paragraph on, nearly everything you say here is wrong – and verifiably so. That paragraph starts, for example, by saying that “offsets of any kind are part of a pay-to-pollute loophole”, when in reality offsets are carefully-crafted instruments that promote environmental action across an entire system.

    If you want to see how offsets work in your own back yard, check out the mechanism that California implemented as part of the Clean Air Act of 1990. That law put a cap on the amount of sulphur and nitrogen oxides (SOx and NOx) that industry can pump into the air, but it let the private sector identify the most efficient way of meeting that cap. Then as now, right-wingers went apoplectic – predicting everything from rolling blackouts and soaring energy costs to the end of the coal sector and a nationwide recession. Left wingers had the opposite fear – they believed industry would just “buy its way out” of its clean air ,obligations, and likened the permits to indulgences.

    Both sides were wrong. The program has helped cut acid rain in half since its inception, and at a cost of just $3 billion per year, which is more than 85 percent lower than industry projections. More importantly, it saved local communities more than $122 billion per year in reduced health costs and cleaner lakes and rivers.

    This same principle applies to REDD+, which encourages emission reductions in the most efficient way possible. Ultimately, we need to reduce emissions across all sectors – transportation, manufacturing, and agriculture. Rather than letting industry off the hook, REDD+ puts the burden on industrial emitters but lets them offset a small portion of their emissions by helping indigenous people and other groups pay for reductions in land-use under some clearly-defined circumstances. To earn credits, they have to go through a rigorous verification and validation process and submit to ongoing audits. It’s hardly the free ride you characterize it as being.

    You also build much of your argument on an October 2013 “expose” in The Atlantic, but that story was not about REDD+. It focused primarily on one fraudster who tried to pretend to do a REDD project and didn’t even get away with it. I wrote a rebuttal on Huffington Post, and you can find it here:

    The true story of REDD+ is to be found in hundreds of projects that are delivering real, verifiable benefits by saving an amount of endangered rainforest larger than all the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo combined. To focus on one character who isn’t even part of the REDD+ community is an insult to indigenous leaders like Almir Surui (see, who are using REDD+ for their forests and their people.

    We do need critical eyes on REDD+, but this ideologically-driven opposition isn’t critical so much as it is dishonest. Disturbingly, people who pretend to be among the good guys are employing the same tools that most of us had come to expect from reality-challenged demagogues on the right. Just as Fox News and their ilk have created a make-believe Barack Obama that they can imbue with all evil traits that the real Obama doesn’t have, you and your ilk have created a make-believe REDD+ that exists only in your imagination. In the process, you are harming the very forests and forest people that you claim to be protecting.


  2. Elizabeth Nussbaumer says:

    Thank you for your comment Mr. Zwick.

    In numerous instances offsets fail to meet requirements for verification, especially additionality and permanence. There are also examples of no emissions reductions occurring, ultimately increasing emissions. Offsets offer a weak solution with substantial liability attached. For more information, please see our brief here:

    The national Acid Rain Program under the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments coincided with a switch to low-sulfur coal, and studies show that direct regulation achieved SO2 reductions of 78% in the E.U. and 82% in Japan, compared with only a 39% reduction in the U.S. Rule 1610 in California led to significant pollution hotspots in Los Angeles, and RECLAIM failed to achieve its goals, managing only paltry reductions. These programs do not offer viable solutions for long-term success. For more information, please see our brief here:

    Offsets from REDD+ do not offer a viable solution, either. Adding the REDD+ component to offsets presents many more problems regarding legitimate emissions reductions, human rights and the privatization of vital common resources. REDD+ offsets represent subpar, ill-conceived Band-Aid attempts at emissions reductions. For more information, please see our brief here:

    When the goal is legitimate emissions reductions, not turning a profit, none of these approaches offer reliable solutions.

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