Carbon Offset Scams Facing Broad Opposition

Ahead of the reintroduction of Growing Climate Solutions Act, farmers join with environmental justice, worker and clean energy advocates to oppose false climate solution

Week of January 14, 2021 – Jim Walsh, Washington, DC — As the Biden Administration gears up for a global climate summit and Congress begins negotiations on an infrastructure package, agricultural-based offsets for polluters are attracting considerable criticism as a false solution that will do little to reduce emissions. 

A cadre of organizations recently sent a letter to Congress, coordinated by Food & Water Watch, that focuses on the Growing Climate Solutions Act, legislation that would lay the foundation for a federally certified carbon offset program. Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA-7) are leading this effort in Congress, and are expected to reintroduce the bill in the days ahead. 

While supporters of the Growing Climate Solutions Act, including powerful fossil fuel and agribusiness interests, portray offsets as a win-win for farmers and the climate, critics point out that offsets undermine efforts to create a more sustainable and regenerative farming system, weaken efforts to address climate change and increase pollution in environmental justice communities while also not eliminating existing pollution at source..

Family farmers must be part of any solution to the climate crisis, but are also justifiably dubious of relying upon corporate controlled market schemes to do so. Farmers have long been denied a fair (parity) price for their commodities due to price rigging by the food giants, and this same abuse will happen with carbon trading. Privatized pollution speculation is a false climate solution — a much better option is to encourage family farmers to switch towards more agroecological practices by expanding existing publicly funded conservation programs,” said John E. Peck Executive Director Family Farm Defenders.

Those opposed to the bill also outline existing USDA programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program that are oversubscribed and with more funding could actually help build soil health, protect water quality, and avoid greenhouse gas emissions while boosting farm income. In addition to increasing funding for these programs, the groups point to the need to close loopholes that fund factory farming, which are inundating environmental justice and rural communities with air and water pollution and perpetuating dangerous occupational conditions for farmworkers. 

Farmworker frontline communities bear the direct consequences and are the primary victims of the pollution caused by CAFOs and factory farms by diminishing air quality and often contaminating the water on which these communities rely for their daily needs,” said Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli, General Coordinator, Farmworker Association of Florida.

The pollution concerns with offsets do not end with factory farming; as the letter points out, offsets are actually increasing pollution in environmental justice communities where power plants and other polluters are already relying on offsets to  continue the status quo.

“My water-rich, life giving homelands are under attack. A new oil pipeline by Enbridge Energy will carry nearly a million barrels of the world’s dirtiest oil through our tribal territories, threatening our traditional foods, our waters, our ways of life, in fact our very lives. And not just here in Northern Minnesota; the effects on the climate threaten the entire world. Enbridge’s Line 3 will contribute the equivalent of the carbon produced by 50 coal fired power plants, while being able to claim net-zero emissions through scams like carbon offsets,” said Simone Senogles, a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and Indigenous Environmental Network.

Climate advocates have also voiced opposition to offsets, based on numerous studies that raise serious concerns about their actual impact on reducing emissions derived from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

“Offsets don’t stop climate change because they don’t stop emissions. The whole point of an offset is that one entity gets to keep emitting greenhouse gases. Major oil companies are claiming to be greening their operations by purchasing offsets, while at the same time expanding operations for the continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels. That fact alone should leave no doubt that the emperor is truly naked. Offsets are not a climate solution and continued emissions lead to continued warming,” said Doreen Stabinsky, professor of global environmental politics, College of the Atlantic.


As the United States lays out its climate plans, here’s 12 false climate solutions, faulty patterns, and harmful omissions to avoid

By Jacqueline Patterson, director of the environmental and climate justice program at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Recently, I had the opportunity to advise a wealthy individual on their personal giving.  I spent a considerable amount of time providing a written memo on how to support grassroots-led efforts to address climate change.  But when the resulting plan was made public, I read it with horror. Evidently, in my extensive guidance on what to do, my recommendations lacked clarity on what not to do.

Now, I’ve fielded many requests to weigh in on the Biden-Harris administration’s climate plans. In coalition with many other organizations, I have helped craft various “100 days” documents, spotlighting the critical need to center frontline communities, advance intersectional solutions, and implement a just transition.

However, it occurs to me that I should not make the same mistake in failing to illuminate the traps to avoid.

There is so very much at stake. Between climate change, COVID-19, the economic crisis, and racial injustice, you could say we are in the midst of a syndemic—an interconnected series of epidemics with shared, systemic roots. Unless those root causes are addressed, crises will continue to sprout like the heads of a hydra, with marginalized group the most impacted.

Climate “solutions” that ignore these interrelated challenges will not be effective or just. Here are some of the all-too-common false solutions, omissions, and past patterns we must avoid:

  1. Carbon pricing— Carbon-pricing allows polluters to pay a nominal fee, or sell and trade the “right” to emit greenhouse gases. Too often, this results in polluters increasing emissions in places where it is cheapest to pollute, intensifying the lethal poisoning of BIPOC communities.
  2. Propping up polluters— Strategies that support harmful natural gasnuclearbiomassbiofuels, and carbon capture and sequestration are largely driven by the need to pacify powerful constituencies. Efforts to address the climate crisis will fail if they are counterbalanced by coddling of polluters.
  3. Supporting investor-owned utilities– It’s not just the energy sources that are problematic; we can’t continue to support a failed utility business model that lines the pockets of investors and CEOs while heartlessly turning off energy access to impoverished people, often with fatal results.
  4. Technofixes—Too many are looking for easy answers so we can geoengineer our way out of the climate crisis. But, as Martin Luther King saidAll progress is precarious and the solution to one problem brings us face to face with another problem. Tinkering with complex planetary systems—by, for example, using aerosols to control the earth’s temperature—is likely to yield unforeseen and even deadly consequences.
  5. Single-issue solutions—In the words of Audre Lorde, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live singleissue lives.” Solutions that address multiple problems at once — for example, creating well-paid jobs while building efficient, resilient homes — are both effective and politically popular.
  6. Ignoring grinding poverty—Too many communities’ rights and wellbeing have been historically ignored and neglected in the fight against climate change, including Freedman’s settlements, unincorporated areas, deep rural communities, and some urban communities. Our definition of “disadvantaged communities” must include and prioritize them.
  7. Assuming a rising tide lifts all boats—From Urban Renewal (known as “negro removal”) to Opportunity Zones, many programs for economic development have turned out to be ineffective or even harmful—uprooting and destroying communities they intended to help.  Without intentionality and community driven planning processes, climate action plans could have similar results.
  8. Separating domestic and foreign policy–Failure to link fair immigration policy with outsized US responsibility for climate change deflects responsibility for a key driver of immigration. And failure to link the decline of coal burning in the US with a moratorium on coal exports just shifts pollution overseas.
  9. Accepting the linkage between money and politics—The fossil fuel industry and other corporate interests have a stranglehold on our legislatures and, to some extent, our courts. But we need not accept that. To advance and uphold true democracy, this administration must get money out of politics once and for all.
  10. Failure to address racism and anti-Indigeneity—Climate change and systemic racism are inherently linked as Black and brown communities bear the worst impacts of environmental harm. Continuing to ignore treaty rights and avoid meaningful reparations legislation would be a failure to address this wrong.
  11. Deploying “Weapons of Math Destruction—Too often, policies are driven by algorithms and formulas that reinforce inequality, such as funding community amenities from taxes that leave marginalized communities even worse off and without critical climate infrastructure. Even the upcoming Executive Order on Climate Related Risks, if not anchored by equity measures, will deepen disparities.
  12. Incrementalism/low ambition– This is no time to make small tweaks to a fundamentally flawed system. To change systemically rooted problems, we need, bold, ambitious, transformational policymaking.

We must avoid the well-worn traps and failed policies outlined above. And, as we define what it means to truly “build back better” we can and must do so with principles, policies, and practices that are anchored in regeneration, cooperation, and democracy.


A ‘Red Deal’: Why Indigenous Communities Belong at the Center of Climate Action

Policies that aren’t rooted in Indigenous communities can cause many of the same oppressive outcomes as extraction.


“We are all related; us, plants, animals, water, air, and soil. We are all related.”

Driven by an endless hunger for power and control, colonial empires used violence to appropriate Indigenous land for mining and labor—a process that continues up to this day.

Asheninka Mino, a medicine man from the Indigenous community of Asheninka in Peru, repeated these words as we walked through the mountains of Mora, New Mexico. “To achieve peace is to achieve harmony with Pachamama (Mother Earth)—to respect it and nourish our relationship with her,” he continued.

He was teaching undocumented youth the importance of being rooted as we organize for our immigrant communities.

Every year, I have the privilege to attend the New Mexico Dream Team‘s UndocuHealing Retreat—a weekend-long retreat focused on creating space for undocumented youth to process trauma and stress through Indigenous medicine and ceremonies.

Throughout these ceremonies, the concept of treating Mother Earth and others with respect is encapsulated in two philosophical terms: Mitakuye Oyasin and In Lack’ech. These phrases, respectively from the Lakota and Mayan traditions, encapsulate ancestral wisdom. They highlight the sacred relationship we hold with Mother Earth and others.

Nick Estes, in his book Our History Is The Futurenotes that “these Indigenous ways of relating to human and other-than-human life exist in opposition to capitalism.” Instead, capitalism sees humans and the sacred as “labor and commodities to be bought and sold.”

And it is exactly this ideology that has displaced Indigenous communities for over 500 years.

Driven by an endless hunger for power and control, colonial empires used violence to appropriate Indigenous land for mining and labor—a process that continues up to this day. “Extractive projects materially dispossess Indigenous peoples of their lands to secure the future of the settler colonial nation,” as Philip Son wrote recently for Society and Space.

In Brazil, for example, Indigenous leader Sonia Guajajara reports that aggression by predatory agricultural companies against indigenous people there “has been getting much worse under the anti-Indigenous government of Jair Bolsonaro, who normalizes, incites, and empowers violence against the environment and against us.”

It is this same extractive economics that’s causing climate change today, leaving the Global South most vulnerable to the climate crisis. Left unchecked, the phantom dream of never-ending development will mean genocide for natural ecosystems and Indigenous nations alike.

There was an old Lakota prophecy (pdf) that “a black snake will slither across the land, destroying sacred sites and poisoning the water before destroying the earth itself.” According to Dallas Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), the black snake could represent not only the pipelines constructed across Indigenous lands, but also “the sickness of capitalism” itself, which casts a “shadow upon our heart and spirit of negativity, of dysfunction, of unhealthiness.”

Global climate action is, thankfully, reaching a fever pitch. But climate policies that aren’t rooted in Indigenous communities can end up causing many of the same oppressive outcomes as extraction.

Global climate action is, thankfully, reaching a fever pitch. But climate policies that aren’t rooted in Indigenous communities can end up causing many of the same oppressive outcomes as extraction.

A great example is the United Nations REDD+ project, aimed at providing incentives to slow deforestation and to restore and conserve forests. Unfortunately, the project’s reliance on privatization has undermined these goals.

According to an informative report (pdf) by IEN, projects that privatize forests in the name of mitigating climate change, like REDD+, “have resulted in militarization, evictions, fraud, disputes, conflicts, corruption, coercion, con men, crime, plantations and 30-100 year contracts, [and] deals with oil companies and other climate criminals.”

For Indigenous groups like the autonomous Zapatista resistance movement in Mexico, Adriana Gomez Bonilla explains, the fear of climate change is not just what happens to the climate itself. It’s that climate action will become another pretext for governments to displace them from their lands in the name of conservation.

For all its other virtues, this is a weak point of the Green New Deal framework. While the plan is “anti-capitalistic in spirit” and pays “lip service to decolonization, it must go further” to ensure indigenous liberation, Nick Estes writes in a piece for Jacobin.

Earlier last month, The Red Nation published “The Red Deal“—a political framework developed by young Indigenous activists, which pushes the Green New Deal to go further.

“The Red Deal is not a counter program of the GND,” they write. “It’s a call for action beyond the scope of the U.S. colonial state. It’s a program for Indigenous liberation, life, and land.” It pushes current climate policy work to expand, to include the demilitarization of the U.S. border, the abolishment of ICE, and decolonization of stolen land.

It also brings hope and a galvanizing energy to aim for Indigenous liberation.

As we look forward to a cleaner economy, the Indigenous resistance throughout the world brings hope that any climate action will include Indigenous liberation—an action that would re-establish our relationship with Mother Earth. It brings to light that Indigenous liberation is climate justice.

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Josue De Luna Navarro is the New Mexico Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Find him on Twitter at @Josue_DeLuna.