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Environmental Justice Members Resign from CARB Task Force on Carbon Offsets

Photo by Jesse Marquez, via Ensia

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Two members of a task force working on carbon offset recommendations for the California Air Resources Board resigned this week in protest over a draft report they say is "fundamentally flawed."

They charge that conflicts of interest have produced a set of recommendations that is not much more than a policy wish list for groups who stand to gain from it. They are resigning in protest because they don't want their presence on the task force, or their names on the report, to be interpreted as agreement with its contents.

CARB says that their objections are "outside the scope" of the task force, which is limited to advising on ways to expand the carbon offset program.

Until Monday, Brian Nowicki and Neil Tangri represented environmental and environmental justice (EJ) advocates on the task force. The bill that created the task force, A.B. 398, called for its members to represent specific groups, including a "scientist," representatives from the carbon offset, agriculture, dairy, and forestry industries, and labor, for example--and of environmental and environmental justice organizations.

When CARB was forming the Compliance Offset Protocol Task Force last year, it had some difficulty finding environmental justice advocates to join it, and had to issue a secondary call for participation to get them [PDF].

Carbon offsets are part of the "market mechanism" California has been using as a strategy to reduce emissions in its cap-and-trade program. They allow polluting companies to pay for other companies, in other industries and sometimes in other parts of the world, to reduce emissions and get credit for it.

The idea of using the market to reduce carbon was conceived in part as a way to get agreement from businesses on the state's nascent climate change program when the 2006 Global Warming Act was being formulated. Putting a price on emissions would force industry to pay for the pollution it produces.

A combination of offsets, pricing, and steadily reducing a hard cap on emissions was envisioned as a way to bring emissions down without disrupting industry. It has led to the creation of a worldwide market for carbon offsets and a new industry for certifying their authenticity and reliability.

But environmental justice advocates have long charged that offsets would allow polluters to simply buy their way out of reducing their emissions, and that the communities living close to pollution sources would continue to bear the brunt of toxic pollution.

And studies are showing that they are right: offsets are not achieving much in the way of emission reductions, and, worse, the most-burdened communities are suffering from more, not less, pollution and emissions. That those communities also tend to be low-income communities of color is another reason for concern.

EJ advocates have pushed CARB to revisit the notion of offsets, which they say is "a mechanism that has failed to 1) provide any tangible benefits to the most impacted communities, 2) result in significant GHG emissions reductions, or 3) meaningfully protect the natural environment."

The quote above is from a November letter to CARB from a group of environmental justice advocacy organizations urging the board to reject the task force draft report. Specific objections to the report include its assumption that offsets are an appropriate way "to address EJ concerns and the needs of indigenous and other disadvantaged communities."

CARB's Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, last convened in 2017 to weigh in on the cap-and-trade scoping plan, objected to this notion. "Further," writes the letter, "the framing of market offsets mechanisms as inevitable and efficient falls squarely within systemic structures of white supremacy that inherently center economic profit for white industry owners and stakeholders, and devalue the lives of impacted BIPOC communities."

In their resignation letters, both Tangri [PDF] and Nowicki [PDF] emphasized this as one of the reasons for wanting to remove their names from the report. "The draft recommendations are a roadmap for expanding and deregulating the offset program, reflecting the desires of the majority of task force members, who have financial interests in the program," writes Tangri. "This agenda runs directly counter to the interests of the environmental and environmental justice communities: improving public health and maintaining the environmental integrity of the emissions cap."

"The report must be understood as little more than an aggregation of disparate priorities of offset proponents, rather than as the result of collective deliberations or a consensus of Task Force members," wrote Nowicki. "This presumably serves well the various parties represented on the Task Force, who see the final report primarily as a way to promote their varied interests and agendas, but it runs counter to the interests of those who advocate for a comprehensive review of the offsets program and its implications for public health and the integrity of the cap-and-trade program."

Tangri, Nowicki, the organizations that objected to the draft report, and CARB's own EJAC also raised concerns that CARB's focus on carbon offsets is serving to delay urgent needed action to reduce emissions of all kinds. The group letter raises specific objections to some of the recommendations in the task force report, as well. For example, the draft report includes suggestions that logging be considered a way to "prevent forest fires" and to allow offsets for logging mature and old-growth forests as long as the old trees are replaced with new seedlings. Neither of these techniques are considered good practice for forest management nor reducing overall carbon emissions.

CARB's official response to the resignations is that "the two task force members who resigned represented two organizations/interests that have long-standing concerns about the statutory direction to include a compliance offset program within the Cap-and-Trade Program. In addition, some of their concern involved issues beyond the Task Force scope - specifically, re-evaluating already approved protocols. The issues they raised on those earlier protocols have been fully litigated previously. The solicitation for task force application specifically states that it is to look at new protocols."

"Their departure will not impact the task force’s ability to hold its final meeting, which will be held on March 2, after which the final report will be posted," wrote CARB.

Resigning in protest is an action taken out of extreme frustration. It is a problem for everyone, because it removes EJ representatives from a body on which they have important input that CARB needs to hear.

But it also means that CARB cannot pretend it is listening to the concerns of EJ advocates. This is a serious issue, and the fact that CARB just created a new Deputy Executive Officer for Environmental Justice shows that they know this.

EJ advocates do not have the same resources as industries who can send representatives to every CARB meeting to make sure their viewpoints are heard. This one avenue for EJ input on the Compliance Offset Protocol Task Force is required by law; but if frustration drives them to remove themselves from it, there is real danger that their voices may go unheard.

Which serves no one.

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