What ProPublica’s forest carbon credits story still gets wrong – and right (with update)

By Steve Schwartzman, Senior Director, Tropical Forest Policy, and Christina McCain, Director, Latin America

Amazon Canopy. Warwick Lister-Kaye / istockphoto.com.

***Please read on for our response to ProPublica’s follow-up article***

ProPublica’s recent piece An (Even More) Inconvenient Truth is a deeply reported story on very real problems – and even bigger potential problems – with offset projects in existing and emerging carbon markets. But the evidence the article lays out does not support its conclusion about forest carbon crediting. And readers might come away without understanding that protecting forests, including through forest carbon credits, is one of the most important solutions to climate change out there, and the planet can’t afford to dismiss this opportunity to solve the climate crisis.

Missing: The critical distinction between individual “projects” and large-scale, state-level programs to reduce deforestation

It’s not news that bad carbon credits won’t solve climate change. Lots of studies have shown that there are all kinds of bad offset projects, and definitely not just forest projects. But today’s jurisdictional forest credits aren’t your parents’ forest project offsets: they’re real emissions reductions. Though you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the ProPublica story.

The ProPublica piece fails to distinguish large-scale national or provincial programs to reduce emissions from deforestation – known as “jurisdictional” programs – from one-off, small “projects” to reduce deforestation. ProPublica’s implication that old projects had failings and therefore now so must contemporary jurisdictional programs, is like saying flip phones had all sorts of problems, so all cell phones must be unreliable and we should shun smartphones. 

Many projects are not adequately monitored, or supported by a policy framework, political will, or the force of law for carbon crediting. As the story finds, there is evidence of many projects that claim they’re protecting forest and sell carbon credits, but in the end don’t actually protect the forest. Or of projects that protect a piece of forest here, while somebody slashes and burns over there – so those credits aren’t really reducing emissions. Of course these scenarios are the opposite of stopping climate change: the polluter goes on polluting and the offset that was supposed to compensate for the pollution pollutes too.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with project-level efforts. Well-designed projects, especially those designed and implemented by forest communities themselves, can have incredibly positive impacts, co-benefits, and results.

But as the story shows, to both back-up the efforts of those forest communities in fighting deforestation that can encroach on them, and to guarantee that the overall results are ensuring deforestation reduction across the landscape and not in one isolated spot, a wall-to-wall accounting (a “jurisdictional” approach) is necessary.

Jurisdictional programs to reduce deforestation cover forests for an entire state, are managed by the state or federal government, and provide environmental standards and protections for forest communities.

California’s Tropical Forest Standard

ProPublica missed that California’s Air Resources Board was very aware of all of these problems, and designed its Tropical Forest Standard (TFS) accordingly. California has made clear that, if it acts to incorporate the potential for tropical forest credits in its market, it won’t be taking credits from any of the ill-fated projects profiled in the article. In fact, it won’t be taking credits from individual projects at all. Neither will any of the emerging carbon markets in the UN or anywhere else.

The problem with the article is that it does a great job of critiquing of what’s wrong with offset projects – but fails to note that no one – not California, not the UN, not the World Bank – is proposing to let forest projects into new carbon markets. All these new policy frameworks start from the awareness that projects are subject to problems like leakage and permanence that large-scale jurisdictional efforts largely or wholly avoid. It also fails to report the widely available data on how much jurisdictions like Acre and other Amazon states have actually reduced emissions.

What California could do – and what any jurisdiction or carbon market should do – is trade with jurisdictions that can demonstrate implementation of a successful program like the Brazilian state of Acre’s.

Acre, Brazil

Acre reduced about 121 million tons of CO2 between 2005 and 2016, and did this while it was increasing both GDP and agriculture production. Reducing jurisdiction-wide emissions, while increasing the economic output that was driving emissions is the same feat that California and the European Union have achieved, and a measure of real progress.

And Acre’s reductions are “permanent” emissions reductions. A permanent reduction does not mean that if a jurisdiction reduces dirty energy in its electricity sector, for example, that all coal stays underground forever. It means that the jurisdiction generated as much (or more) energy as before, only with fewer emissions. In Acre’s case, they reduced deforestation and increased their agricultural production. This is also a permanent emissions reduction.

That’s why from the perspective of the atmosphere, it doesn’t matter that ProPublica saw lots of deforestation along the roads (it was already there when I first went in 1986) or that somebody said you can’t make a living from the trees. Acre’s are real emissions reductions, and creating the right incentives – positive and negative – is what’s needed to keep them going ultimately to zero.

Brazil did the same thing in the Amazon from 2005–2017, reducing emissions from deforestation over 80% below the historical average while increasing cattle and soy production. This kept about 4.9 Gt CO₂ out of the atmosphere.

What’s surprising is not that Brazil’s deforestation has gone up somewhat. It’s that the reductions have proved robust even though there are a lot of reasons for it to go up to its historical levels again – the powerful Ag lobby in Congress in the last three governments, no incentives for conservation, and no budget for enforcement. The transformational changes that Brazil started, such as large-scale recognition of indigenous territories and creation of protected areas, have made a difference.

1 Boucher, D. and D. Chi, 2018. Amazon Deforestation in Brazil: What has not happened and how the global media covered it. Tropical Conservation Science, Vol. II: 1-4. DOI: 10.1177/1940082918794325. Figure 1. National Space Research Institute (INPE), annual deforestation 1988 – 2018

So, yes, offset projects have a really checkered record and that’s why California won’t be accepting any international project credits. At the same time, the most important thing California could do for the indigenous and forest peoples on the front lines of Bolsonaro’s war against them and the forest is to endorse California’s Tropical Forest Standard – regardless of whether Acre or any other jurisdiction is ready right now to meet its rigorous criteria.

The TFS says that California knows that stopping deforestation is central to controlling climate change, and it’s ready to do something about it. Just like emissions reductions in California or the European Union, these emissions reductions from large-scale programs to reduce emissions from deforestation are real and permanent, and that’s as much as any policy can do – and what our atmosphere desperately needs right now.

Update June 7, 2019: The following is our response to ProPublica’s follow up article “These 4 Arguments Can’t Overcome the Facts About Carbon Offsets for Forest Preservation.”

ProPublica approaches its response to the mounds of criticism over its anti-forest credit article by insisting on conflating REDD+ projects with jurisdictional approaches and leaping to the conclusion that it’s all too complicated, too uncertain, too risky to ever work. While we understand a desire to defend the work and valid conceptual questions raised about this complex problem, this doubling down approach requires some impressive mental gymnastics to sustain itself.

REDD+ (Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) can work at jurisdictional scales. We know this because Brazil reduced deforestation by over 70% from 2004 – 2017, keeping nearly 5 Gt CO₂ out of the atmosphere – while increasing its soy and cattle production. ProPublica omits this last critical point, arguing that “…it’s impossible to tell how much of an additional benefit [the program’s] funders created. The drop coincided with a massive federal conservation program.” This is like saying that Germany didn’t really reduce emissions because it subsidized solar energy. No one asks the EU or California whether their emissions reductions are “additional” because the atmosphere only cares whether the major emitters, like Brazil, are increasing or decreasing their emissions.

Complementary policies to attack a complex problem are meant to do just that – bolster your chances of success with a suite of tools – but the measure of success is decreasing emissions, not parsing out which policy gets more credit in a highly interconnected system.

ProPublica makes a big deal of the claim that Norway and Germany’s US$1.2 billion payment for reducing deforestation “hasn’t been shown to have a causal connection” with reducing deforestation. But how much of a causal connection can $1.2 billion over a decade have in a $3+ trillion (PPP) annual GDP economy? What matters is that Brazil committed to reduce deforestation at scale, and did it. As ProPublica notes, deforestation has gone up some since 2012 – but the reductions have been remarkably robust.

Brazil’s retrograde agriculture caucus of the Congress has been enormously powerful not only in the current environmentally disastrous government but also in the previous two. Yet this caucus has not gotten what it wants because of an effective civil society and indigenous mobilization, as well as public opinion and media that are against deforestation and supportive of indigenous land rights. Furthermore, laws and policies since at least 2003 have called for forest protection enforcement and incentives – but the incentives have never materialized. In the last several years, Brazil’s currency, the real, has been historically weak, favoring commodity exporters like soy growers. But deforestation – in spite of all this – remains far below pre-2005 levels. This is critically important, but we should not presume it’s sustainable in the long-term without some future incentives.

ProPublica also makes a big deal of “international leakage” of emissions, where emissions causing activities can shift from one country to another. But “leakage” is a problem where reducing production of a good in one place (because of emissions controls) causes demand for it, and production, to increase somewhere else. If you’re reducing emissions and increasing production, like Brazil has done, there’s no reason to expect international leakage.

Similarly, there are answers to the issue of tracking forest degradation. We can now measure carbon stocks in forests directly, and measure change in carbon stocks – from whatever cause – directly too. If we do that, the results will account for whatever has happened from one point in time to another.

Yes, it’s true that governments change. But if you’re the governor of Acre, Brazil and you want to build your state’s economy and the only way you can see to do it is industrial soy, that’s what you’re going to do. By dismissing all forest protection credit programs as failures, ProPublica is essentially telling Acre’s governor to go ahead and burn, and telling California to look the other way. On the other hand, if California were to endorse the Tropical Forest Standard – regardless of whether it thinks any particular jurisdiction could meet the criteria today – the governor of Acre might think again about burning those forests, and their potential conservation value in compliance markets. Research shows that Brazil can meet the demand for agricultural commodities without cutting down a single new tree, by using already cleared and degraded land. But this will cost money. Where is it going to come from?

Supporters of the idea of jurisdictional REDD+ programs and proven examples like the one in Acre aren’t romantics dreaming of magical forests and ignoring emissions accounting. We have seen it can work, and we’d like to be on the side of history that thought big, and did the hard work to develop and test innovative approaches that make a difference. The alternative is stand by on a false moral high ground while it burns.

ProPublica’s piece is ultimately going after something that isn’t there. After all those thousands of pages of documents, and thousands of miles of travel and dozens of interviews, ProPublica never asks: if REDD+ won’t stop deforestation, what will? Is deforestation ineluctable, destined to continue until the forests are all gone? What would that mean for the global atmosphere? Sure, the article wasn’t about that. But for someone who was thinking at all about the future of the forests – or the planet, for that matter – you’d think some version of these questions would come up. It would make sense that they wouldn’t, though, if ProPublica set out to show that REDD+ hadn’t and couldn’t work in the first place, and found what it was looking for – gotcha!

This entry was posted in Brazil, California, Carbon Markets, Forest protection, Indigenous People, Paris Agreement, REDD+, United Nations. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Mark Trexler
    Posted May 25, 2019 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    The problem is that jurisdictional programs pose some of the same challenges that project-based efforts do, as well as challenges of their own. To suggest that jurisdictional programs are inherently permanent and real is simply incorrect.

    There’s a big difference between looking far and wide for ways to help protect topical rainforests, and suggesting that offset markets be used to drive such efforts.

    • Victor Escalona
      Posted May 28, 2019 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      That is why California imposes criteria to avoid crediting bad quality emissions reductions. What I hear from Propublica or people like you ia complaints, not solutions.