CORPORATE SPONSORED GREENS UNDERMINE THE CLIMATE MOVEMENT PART II

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22 march 2010

The Wrong Kind of Green

Johann Hari, The Nation, March 22, 2010

At Copenhagen, some of the US conservation groups demanded a course of action that will lead to environmental disaster--and financial benefits for themselves. It is a story buried in details and acronyms, but the stakes are the future of civilization.

When the rich countries say they are going to cut their emissions, it sounds to anyone listening as if they are going to ensure that there are fewer coal stations and many more renewable energy stations at home. So when Obama says there will be a 3 percent cut by 2020--a tenth of what the science requires--you assume the United States will emit 3 percent fewer warming gases. But that's not how it works. Instead, they are saying they will trawl across the world to find the cheapest place to cut emissions, and pay for it to happen there.

Today, the chopping down of the world's forests is causing 12 percent of all emissions of greenhouse gases, because trees store carbon dioxide. So the rich governments say that if they pay to stop some of that, they can claim it as part of their cuts. A program called REDD--Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation--has been set up to do just that. In theory, it sounds fine. The atmosphere doesn't care where the fall in emissions comes from, as long as it happens in time to stop runaway warming. A ton of carbon in Brazil enters the atmosphere just as surely as a ton in Texas.

If this argument sounds deceptively simple, that's because it is deceptive. In practice, the REDD program is filled with holes large enough to toss a planet through.

To understand the trouble with REDD, you have to look at the place touted as a model of how the system is supposed to work. Thirteen years ago in Bolivia, a coalition of The Nature Conservancy and three big-time corporate polluters--BP, Pacificorp and American Electric Power (AEP)--set up a protected forest in Bolivia called the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project. They took 3.9 million acres of tropical forest and said they would clear out the logging companies and ensure that the forest remained standing. They claimed this plan would keep 55 million tons of CO2 locked out of the air--which would, in time, justify their pumping an extra 55 million tons into the air from their coal and oil operations. AEP's internal documents boasted: "The Bolivian project...could save AEP billions of dollars in pollution controls."
Greenpeace sent an investigative team to see how it had turned out. The group found, in a report released last year, that some of the logging companies had simply picked up their machinery and moved to the next rainforest over. An employee for San Martin, one of the biggest logging companies in the area, bragged that nobody had ever asked if they had stopped. This is known as "leakage": one area is protected from logging, but the logging leaks a few miles away and continues just the same.

In fact, one major logging organization took the money it was paid by the project to quit and used it to cut down another part of the forest. The project had to admit it had saved 5.8 million tons or less--a tenth of the amount it had originally claimed. Greenpeace says even this is a huge overestimate. It's a Potemkin forest for the polluters.

When you claim an offset and it doesn't work, the climate is screwed twice over--first because the same amount of forest has been cut down after all, and second because a huge amount of additional warming gases has been pumped into the atmosphere on the assumption that the gases will be locked away by the now-dead trees. So the offset hasn't prevented emissions--it's doubled them. And as global warming increases, even the small patches of rainforest that have technically been preserved are doomed. Why? Rainforests have a very delicate humid ecosystem, and their moisture smothers any fire that breaks out, but with 2 degrees of warming, they begin to dry out--and burn down. Climatologist Wolfgang Cramer says we "risk losing the entire Amazon" if global warming reaches 4 degrees.

And the news gets worse. Carbon dioxide pumped out of a coal power station stays in the atmosphere for millenniums--so to genuinely "offset" it, you have to guarantee that a forest will stand for the same amount of time. This would be like Julius Caesar in 44 BC making commitments about what Barack Obama will do today--and what some unimaginable world leader will do in 6010. In practice, we can't even guarantee that the forests will still be standing in fifty years, given the very serious risk of runaway warming.

You would expect the major conservation groups to be railing against this absurd system and demanding a serious alternative built on real science. But on Capitol Hill and at Copenhagen, these groups have been some of the most passionate defenders of carbon offsetting. They say that, in "political reality," this is the only way to raise the cash for the rainforests, so we will have to work with it. But this is a strange kind of compromise--since it doesn't actually work.
In fact, some of the big groups lobbied to make the protections weaker, in a way that will cause the rainforests to die faster. To understand why, you have to grasp a distinction that may sound technical at first but is crucial. When you are paying to stop deforestation, there are different ways of measuring whether you are succeeding. You can take one small "subnational" area--like the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project--and save that. Or you can look at an entire country, and try to save a reasonable proportion of its forests. National targets are much better, because the leakage is much lower. With national targets, it's much harder for a logging company simply to move a few miles up the road and carry on: the move from Brazil to Congo or Indonesia is much heftier, and fewer loggers will make it.

Simon Lewis, a forestry expert at Leeds University, says, "There is no question that national targets are much more effective at preventing leakage and saving forest than subnational targets."

Yet several groups--like TNC and Conservation International--have lobbied for subnational targets to be at the core of REDD and the US climate bills. Thanks in part to their efforts, this has become official US government policy, and is at the heart of the Waxman-Markey bill. The groups issued a joint statement with some of the worst polluters--AEP, Duke Energy, the El Paso Corporation--saying they would call for subnational targets now, while vaguely aspiring to national targets at some point down the line. They want to preserve small patches (for a short while), not a whole nation's rainforest.

An insider who is employed by a leading green group and has seen firsthand how this works explained the groups' motivation: "It's because they will generate a lot of revenue this way. If there are national targets, the money runs through national governments. If there are subnational targets, the money runs through the people who control those forests--and that means TNC, Conservation International and the rest. Suddenly, these forests they run become assets, and they are worth billions in a carbon market as offsets. So they have a vested financial interest in offsetting and in subnational targets--even though they are much more environmentally damaging than the alternatives. They know it. It's shocking."

What are they doing to ensure that this policy happens--and the money flows their way? Another source, from a green group that refuses corporate cash, describes what she has witnessed behind closed doors. "In their lobbying, they always talk up the need for subnational projects and offsetting at every turn and say they're great. They don't mention national targets or the problems with offsetting at all. They also push it through their corporate partners, who have an army of lobbyists, [which are] far bigger than any environmental group. They promote their own interests as a group, not the interests of the environment." They have been caught, he says, "REDD-handed, too many times."

TNC and Conservation International admit they argue for subnational accounting, but they claim this is merely a "steppingstone" to national targets. Becky Chacko, director of climate policy at Conservation International, tells me, "Our only interest is to keep forests standing. 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."

Yet when I ask her to explain how Conservation International justifies the conceptual holes in the entire system of offsetting, her answers become halting. 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."

There is a broad rumble of anger across the grassroots environmental movement at this position. "At Copenhagen, I couldn't believe what I was seeing," says Kevin Koenig of Amazon Watch, an organization that sides with indigenous peoples in the Amazon basin to preserve their land. "These groups are positioning themselves to be the middlemen in a carbon market. They are helping to set up, in effect, a global system of carbon laundering...that will give the impression of action, but no substance. You have to ask--are these conservation groups at all? They look much more like industry front groups to me."

So it has come to this. 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. They are supporting a system they know will lead to ecocide, because more revenue will run through their accounts, for a while, as the collapse occurs. At Copenhagen, their behavior was so shocking that Lumumba Di-Aping, the lead negotiator for the G-77 bloc of the world's rainforest-rich but cash-poor countries, compared them to the CIA at the height of the cold war, sabotaging whole nations.
How do we retrieve a real environmental movement, in the very short time we have left? Charles Komanoff, who worked as a consultant for the Natural Resources Defense Council for thirty years, says, "We're close to a civil war in the environmental movement. For too long, all the oxygen in the room has been sucked out by this beast of these insider groups, who achieve almost nothing.... We need to create new organizations that represent the fundamentals of environmentalism and have real goals."

Some of the failing green groups can be reformed from within. The Sierra Club is a democratic organization, with the leadership appointed by its members. There are signs that members are beginning to put the organization right after the missteps of the past few years. Carl Pope is being replaced by Mike Brune, formerly of the Rainforest Action Network--a group much more aligned with the radical demands of the climate science. But other organizations--like Conservation International and 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.

Already, shining alternatives are starting to rise up across America. In just a year, the brilliant 350.org has formed a huge network of enthusiastic activists who are demanding our politicians heed the real scientific advice--not the parody of it offered by the impostors. They have to displace the corrupt conservationists as the voice of American environmentalism, fast.

This will be a difficult and ugly fight, when we need all our energy to take on the forces of ecocide. But these conservation groups increasingly resemble the forces of ecocide draped in a green cloak. If we don't build a real, unwavering environmental movement soon, we had better get used to a new sound--of trees crashing down and an ocean rising, followed by the muffled, private applause of America's “conservationists”.


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