April 5, 2021 by Utkarsh Akhouri
We sat down with Connie Best, an early pioneer of forest carbon offsets, within California, and, so through early leadership, out-of-state too.
Connie was also a member of ARB’s recent Offset Taskforce, and so here she outlines the rationale for several of the group’s recommendations. We also discussed the Task Force’s modus operandi, and heard an alternate account of the last-minute resignation of EJ members.
This conversation was in part response to our earlier interview with Dr Neil Tangri, we wanted to publish all sides of this debate for the benefit of our readership.
CC.info: Thanks for joining us today, Connie. For the benefit of our audience, please could you tell us about your profile and past experience working with offsets, and then about your direct experience on the committee.
CB: I am one of the founders and leaders of the Pacific Forest Trust (PFT). We are based in San Francisco and work on the West Coast, performing forest conservation, as well as working on forest policy, at both a regional and national level. When Laurie Wayburn and I founded PFT, we looked at the underlying drivers of forest loss and degradation, which were primarily economic – driven by unsustainable logging and conversion to development. We started thinking about ways to shift the economics towards conservation and stewardship for private forests in the US. Historically, the US has lost at least half of its forest and this is continuing, and the remaining forest has just a fraction of the previous biomass and carbon.
We started thinking about potential ‘goods and services’ that forests could provide which were more aligned with their ecological potential. In 1993, we settled on the ‘low hanging fruit’ of the carbon and climate benefits of forests. We started working with the Clinton Administration in the run-up to the Kyoto Protocol which, of course, produced at best very mixed messages around forests. When the Bush Administration came in, we then pivoted to work at the state level in California, where businesses were already starting to voluntarily track their emissions.
We passed the first legislation anywhere calling for the development of forest carbon project protocols to be developed and then we organised the first working group that led to California’s original voluntary protocol in 2005. We also developed the first project to take some of the mystery out of it; and the van Eck Forest Project became an example from which others could learn. In 2006, when AB 32 was enacted, we helped ensure the forest sector was recognised and that voluntary early actors would be able to transfer their projects over into the compliance market. I was also on the working group that developed what would become the compliance protocol. California’s leadership on this ought to be globally commended: the IPCC says the management of forests and other lands must provide 37% of the needed emissions reductions; California was 15 years ahead of the IPCC in this regard.
Most recently, I have served on the Compliance Offset Task Force representing the conservation community. It is important to understand that we are not forest project developers, but instead are a forest conservation organisation who see the critical importance of forests in solving the climate crisis.
CC.info: Could you briefly summarise the charter of the Compliance Offset Protocol Task Force as it stands and the lead-up to its creation?
CB: The legislature in AB 398 gave a narrow charter for this Task Force. The legislature started from the position that offsets were a valuable part of the State’s portfolio of climate actions, but they wanted to find ways to expand offsets, both in terms of types and the ability of various groups to participate and benefit from them. They mandated a 12-person stakeholder group, including critics of offsets, to see if an expansion of the program could benefit disadvantaged communities and indigenous people as well as other stakeholders, such as rural areas and farmers, particularly in-state.
CC.info: Could you discuss the process undertaken by the Task Force in collating and finalising its recommendations?
CB: We had a number of challenges in trying to do our work on the Task Force.
First of all, we only had a year to complete the report as ARB was slow at organising the Task Force. What a year 2020 would turn out to be! It was a challenging time for every one of us to do this work; we had one, and only one, in-person meeting before we had to transition to online meetings. Considering that everyone had to juggle many other commitments, working from home, with kids and so forth, it was by no means easy.
This was compounded by a California law called Bagley-Keene which kept us from being able to confer with one another outside of our designated subgroups, except at the two additional Task Force meetings held on Zoom. Most of our work was completed in topical subgroups, and we were not allowed to talk to anyone else outside of these six people. So there was this artificial division which frustrated open discussion, all in the name of assuring “open meetings.”. I know that at least two Task Force members complained about the process, and I would agree these limits were not helpful to achieving the goals of the COTF.
CC.info: So, the ethical transparency drive by the legislature actually led to a lesser ability to discuss the key issues?
CB: Absolutely it did. I was on the forestry subgroup, along with Brian Nowicki, and we met anywhere from weekly to monthly and made every possible effort for each member of the subgroup to attend. Brian told us he was just too busy to be present which was unfortunate. I had actually recommended Brian to be on the Task Force and I was disappointed that we could not gain the benefit of his perspective; however, the suggestions he did make were incorporated into the final report.
CC.info: Beyond these practical issues, there were clearly large ideological differences between members of the Task Force, at least between the two resignees and the remainder. And in the end there was no collective agreement by two of the representatives with the group’s findings.
The resignees pointed to the 2017 EJAC recommendations as more representative of the views of their communities, which are vastly different to the Taskforce recommendations. There remains such a chasm between consensus on offsets, do you feel that ARB should return to the legislature and the due democratic process to reconcile these differences?
CB: Offsets are not the answer to all climate challenges. Many approaches are needed to achieve healthy air for everyone, but especially for fence line communities that are disproportionately impacted by dirty air and climate impacts. Broadly speaking, I think that the majority support EJ views, although I think there are disagreements on elements of strategy and implementation.
I think that the Task Force recommendations contain many important proposals, and just because one person from the EJ community has taken this position, does not mean that everything else is invalidated.
By choosing to serve on the Task Force, and then subsequently stating that the whole process was invalid is a political position. I cannot speak for Dr Tangri, but I am aware that many organisations are prone to act in this way in order to promulgate their own agendas and to cast aspersions on the process. I hope that people can see beyond this and can explore the rationale behind some of the recommendations as a lot of thought has been input to achieve these.
The legislature called for this Task Force, and the Task Force has delivered in its report to ARB. In turn, ARB has obligations to the legislature to give a genuine consideration of the recommendations. Legislative oversight will be important in delivering on these recommendations.
CC.info: One of the limitations explained in a previous interview with Dr Neil Tangri (ex-Task Force representative for Environmental Justice), was that before the Task Force was established, there was already a feeling of disenfranchisement within the EJ community and that there were not many volunteers for the role.
Do you think that this should have been a paid role for those with no monetary interest in the offsets market?
CB: For those of us who work for NGOs, we had no specific support to do this work. I took time away from other responsibilities and shoehorned this in, as I felt that it was important. I imagine everyone on the Task Force was getting a paycheck from somewhere, and in agreeing to serve on the Task Force, it should be seen as an act of public service. The state has a long history of naming people to commissions and not paying them. This does limit the ability of people in public interest organisations with less economic capital behind them to participate. However, it was no secret that we would all have that challenge.
It appears in the design of the Task Force that the Legislature wanted the EJ community involved, even though the EJ position is not generally supportive of offsets. If people who believe that offsets are illegitimate and are an obstacle to real climate action are then invited to a committee which is charged with expanding the use of offsets, then of course you will not get a desirable result. However, to say that Task Force members were not open to the EJ perspective was not accurate.
CC.info: As it stands, the offset market is dominated by forestry offsets with lower marginal project costs. One of the original purposes of the offsets program was for the development of new technological protocols to be initially subsidised, which could then be widely deployed elsewhere.
A criticism Dr Tangri made was the point that no new technology has arisen from this program. How would you respond to the idea that forestry projects should assume a lesser role, and other technologies should take a more central role?
CB: There are some changes in forest management that lend themselves to be quantified and monetised as offsets. I would say that if there are technological advances that similarly can be quantified, then they absolutely should be an offset. But there are other forestry actions that may be important for climate benefits that cannot be – such as fuels management or restoring more resilient forest structures. It is therefore not a question of forest or not-forest; but we should instead be more specific around actions and whether they make sense as offsets or if their adoption should be incentivized using other means, such as investment of allowance auction proceeds.
It is a self-selecting group of practices that are feasible to become offsets, and part of that selection filter is the economics. After all, all offsets sell at the same price, so costs have to be below the selling price. Expensive forestry projects do not become offsets.
One of the goals of the Task Force’s Charter was to develop more offset protocols. As Dr Tangri clearly had ideas around alternate protocols, I am puzzled as to why he didn’t present any of these. It may be that his ideas did not get circulated to the whole COTF.
One offset type that needs improvements that would benefit front line and fenceline communities is the current urban forestry protocol, which is ineffective and not being utilised. Revising the urban forestry protocol to drive more urban greening is one of the COTF recommendations.
CC.info: From our interview, I believe Neil viewed his role as a critic and a check on suggestions from the industry, more than a contributor of new protocol types.
The Task Force made the following recommendation in the final report submitted to ARB: Compliance entities who do not fully utilise their quota of permissible offset credits should be able to trade their remaining allowance, provided that the total offsets issued does not surpass the limits established under AB 398.
Could you provide the rationale behind this recommendation as you understand it?
CB: This came from a working group in which I was not a part of. At face value it appears that the rationale was to put offsets in a position more equivalent to allowances in terms of trading. PFT has not taken a position on that per se. In the first chapter of the report there is a discussion regarding the supply and demand which, while it contains some interesting suggestions, is outside of the primary objectives laid out in the Charter, i.e. addressing new approaches or refinements to current protocols.
Within the context of Cap-and-Trade, California has created a set of high-quality offsets standards, and in doing so, the producers of verifiable emissions reductions are rallying behind the promotion of this program. The voluntary market is expanding but it often uses lower quality, less durable offsets. There is a plausible case for using higher quality compliance offsets in that market as well.
CC.info: The voluntary market is only trading up to $7-8, whereas CCOs are trading at around $13, and so we can see a large price differential between these markets. For projects that are developed under the expectation of being CCOs, a switchover may not be feasible.
CB: I am not coming from the standpoint of promoting more income for forestland owners, but instead from the point of view of reducing GHG emissions, and I think that there are some forest protocols out there that do not move the dial in this direction, but they are in the voluntary markets. 30-year credits, for example, can only make things worse.
This is the challenge with offsets: if you are going to use them to permit a ton of CO2 to enter the atmosphere which would not have taken place otherwise, you at least must utilise conservative accounting and mandate a 100-year commitment.
CC.info: It would also be good to know why was it also recommended by the Task Force to reduce the invalidation time frame from eight down to three years?
In addition, there are also some recommendations that seem to ease the burden on offset developers which may have the effect of reducing offsets quality; how do you reconcile these points?
CB: The eight-year invalidation risk period has proved to be unnecessary as projects are not being invalidated. There are many overlapping layers and safeguards within the protocol. Having now road-tested 120 forestry projects, it is clear that there are redundancies that are not necessarily accomplishing anything, such as advancing permanence or conservative quantification; they were there because at the time they seemed like a good idea when the protocol was first being shaped. Now, with practical experience, we are better able to distinguish elements that genuinely protect the integrity of offset quantification and those that simply add complexity and cost.
It is important to note that nobody has ever created an economy-wide climate regulatory program, and one including Cap and Trade with limited offsets. California is the world leader on this front. With the whole program, including protocol development, it is an iterative process to figure out the best way forward. I see the proposals being made by the COTF forestry subgroup as incremental and contributing to the reduction of unnecessary burdens that limit participation by disadvantaged communities, small forest owners, tribes and others with less financial means. The recommendations made will not affect the quality of forest offsets. The recommendations are in many cases clarifications of definitions, i.e. in improving transparency. The idea that these 11 tweaks are equivalent to a large-scale deregulation is not accurate.
I think it is sad that those who advocate for other offset types feel that the only way for those ideas to get oxygen and funding is to get rid of forest offsets. That ignores the fact that we will not solve the climate crisis without forests. Remember, forests are both a major source of emissions — and they are the most expandable sink we have. We must engage forests and those who own them to prevent emissions from forest loss and degradation, and to reabsorb that excess CO2. Everyone is talking about a ‘technological fix’, but we already possess a huge, under-utilised technology in the form of forests. I am not saying that we should not go for technology, but we should also allow the natural systems to do what they do best. This is an urgent matter. We need to make serious progress in the next decade, dramatically reducing GHG emissions in every way possible.
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