On 19 September 2019, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) endorsed a set of guidelines called the California Tropical Forest Standard (TFS).
It is important to state that California’s endorsement of the TFS does not, in itself, allow tropical forest offsets into the California Cap-and-Trade Program. Nor does it result in the state’s linkage with any jurisdiction - this would require a separate regulatory process that could take years. What it does is establish minimum requirements for states and countries seeking to finance large-scale forest protection programmes with carbon markets such as California’s.
As such, the TFS is the latest effort to support implementation of a jurisdiction-scale approach to Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) – a controversial approach to market-based forest conservation. Through REDD, governments and businesses in the global North pay entities in the global South to conserve forests.
CARB, the body tasked with regulating air pollution in the state and overseeing California’s Cap-and-Trade program – the world’s fifth-largest economy – describes the new standard in the following words: “The California Tropical Forest Standard specifies criteria to assess sector-based offset crediting programs that reduce emissions from tropical deforestation for immediate use by jurisdictions across the globe that are taking action to reduce [greenhouse gas] GHG emissions from tropical deforestation. Much the same as other California international leadership initiatives, this jurisdictional approach to tropical forest programs is anticipated to serve as a robust, replicable model for other GHG emissions mitigation programs such as the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation and other emerging programs.”
The TFS is controversial, and its adoption by the state agency was highly contested. The premise that California should adopt or endorse international offsets at all was widely challenged by climate justice advocates in the state and internationally, but the state Air Resources Board has been consistent in its refusal to acknowledge the criticisms despite its statutory commitments to environmental justice. Years of hearings at the agency have been extremely polarised, with Indigenous Peoples’ organisations and green groups falling on both sides of the issue. Some state legislators have cautiously favoured the TFS, while others vehemently opposed it.
Notably, the TFS won CARB’s endorsement by a single vote – the smallest margin in the history of this state agency.
Proponents of the standard include the Governors’ Climate and Forest Task Force and a host of business-friendly environmental groups who aggressively promote carbon offsetting as a theoretically low-cost climate solution. Groups who voiced strong opposition were marshalled by the California Environmental Justice Alliance, which maintains that carbon offsets do nothing to reduce emissions while allowing toxic hotspots to continue contaminating low-income communities of colour. Voices in opposition to the standard, including academics and Indigenous Peoples’ organisations from many nations, note that more than a decade of REDD initiatives have both failed to protect forests and led, in numerous well-cited cases, to criminalisation and threats to forest-dwelling indigenous communities.
Proponents have argued that the TFS could “allow real money to flow toward fighting deforestation” – without any concrete sense of where that money will come from, or when, or under what administrative purview. Proponents stand by the standard’s rigour, as it requires offsets to be “verifiable, permanent and additional”, yet critics note that the very nature of forests and deforestation renders these concepts moot. And even proponents of the TFS (at 4:55:40) acknowledged that its adoption previously would not have prevented the current forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon.
Proponents suggest that the standard requires robust monitoring and oversight of initiatives– but the TFS provides no details on the proposed workings of this oversight. For all its effort to endorse the TFS, California currently does not have the capacity, the competency, or the authority to oversee complex forest conservation policies in foreign jurisdictions. State legislators have noted that existing efforts to monitor REDD activities in many countries have proven inadequate at best. Some observers have also raised concerns that the TFS may replicate the significant conflicts of interest that have beset other REDD standards. To illustrate: the Climate, Conservation and Biodiversity Alliance – one of the organisations behind the TFS, and one that is poised to take on third-party verification of TFS projects – has actively advocated that California endorse the standard, while accepting donations from private-sector interests, including BP and Weyerhauser who are expected to trade readily in forest-carbon credits.
The state’s decision raises questions about who will use the guidelines and for what purpose. There is little doubt that the organisations behind the TFS are eager to promote its adoption within the UNFCCC’s guidelines on market mechanisms, and have found California’s Air Resources Board to be a convenient stepping-stone on that path. Beyond the UNFCCC, ICAO and California represent the clearest potential venues for roll-out of the TFS, but the ICAO has already adopted offset criteria, while California presently admits no international offsets.
Given that the TFS is merely a collection of minimum requirements without rules for oversight and implementation, it seems to be a checklist that anyone can adopt, or something like a rough draft of a contract between potential buyers and potential sellers of offsets. As such, it does what its proponents have hoped, which is to “send a signal” to tropical jurisdictions that California may soon be open for business. But given the need to rapidly decarbonise the economy, and the fact that forest-risk commodities like beef, soy and palm oil will likely always outcompete offsets in the marketplace, this signal is, at best, too little too late.
If it is merely an effort to use a California public agency to endorse a reformed approach to offsetting, rather than focusing on the strict regulations we urgently need, then it is sorely misguided.