Shopping for Carbon
A New Plantation Economy

by Larry Lohmann

first published 1 May 2000


This presentation to the Agrarian Studies 2000 Conference at Yale University, USA, analyses in detail proposals to mitigate climate change. Tree plantations aimed at "compensating" for industrial carbon-dioxide emissions are now being established in many parts of the world. They put particular pressure on local land and water rights in the South and could well become a source of rural strife.

The market for what such plantations are said to produce -- a sort of carbon-sink equivalent -- presupposes an accounting system capable of commensurating and calculating over decades the global interactions of ecological, social, geological, political, hydrological, bureaucratic, biochemical, economic and atmospheric systems. Such an accounting scheme is impossible -- but is still being put together by an international web of technocrats, multilateral agencies, corporate alliances, brokers, lobbyists, consultants, financiers, think tanks, lawyers, forestry companies and non-government organizations. Understanding the discourses through which the carbon "offset" market is being created is crucial to political action on climate change.




Tree plantations aimed at "compensating" for industrial carbon-dioxide emissions are now being established in many parts of the world. The market for what such plantations are said to produce -- which is not, strictly speaking, carbon but rather a sort of carbon-sink equivalent -- presupposes an accounting system capable of commensurating and calculating over decades the global interactions of intercoupled ecological, social, geological, political, hydrological, bureaucratic, biochemical, economic, and atmospheric systems. The fact that such an accounting scheme is impossible has not so far proved to be an obstacle to the ongoing construction of the market and its associated system of property rights and distribution. This market is being put together not so much by states as by a burgeoning international web of technocrats, multilateral agencies, corporate alliances, brokers, lobbyists, consultants, financiers, think tanks, lawyers, forestry companies and non-government organizations. Like other enclosure movements, the push for carbon "offset" plantations extends and normalizes inequality. In applying "first-possession" views of property to the atmosphere, it would put particular pressure on local land and water rights in the South and could well become a source of rural strife rivaling industrial pulpwood and oil palm plantations. Understanding the discourses through which the carbon "offset" market is being created will be crucial to political action on climate change.

Most presentations at our [Yale University] Agrarian Studies 2000 conference analyze, in one way or another, past and present agrarian economies. This paper, by contrast, looks at what may become a future tree plantation economy revolving around a new global export crop: biological climate-change equivalents, or carbon sequestration credits. I hope to establish three main points: first, that the commodity to be traded in this new market is fictitious and that buying and selling it does not, in fact, address the issue of climate change; second, that the system of property rights the new market presupposes is inegalitarian and regressively redistributive; and third, that the expansion of carbon "offset" plantations is likely to provoke rural resistance. One ironic consequence of this new agrarian economy may be that industrialized countries' destabilization of global climate becomes, for the first time, an everyday political issue for many rural dwellers in the South.

Responses to Climate Change

For over 150 years, industrial societies have been moving carbon from underground reserves of coal and oil into the air. Today about 175 billion more tons of carbon dioxide circulate in the atmosphere than before the Industrial Revolution.1 Another six billion is being added every year.2 The climatic effects of this transformation of the world's fire ecology remain disputed and probably cannot be determined scientifically in exact detail. Two things, though, are not in question. First, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does affect climate. Without CO-2 and certain other gases which help trap heat near the earth's surface, the average surface temperature would drop from 15°C to -6°C. Too much CO2, and the oceans would boil. Keeping carbon dioxide levels within reasonable limits is an intricate set of checks and balances in the atmosphere, the ocean, living things, and the earth's crust and mantle. Volcanoes add CO2 to the atmosphere, while the weathering of silicate rocks -- aided by water and the activity of plants -- removes it. Living organisms extract CO2 from the atmosphere, depositing the carbon in their bodies, wood or shells. Some of this carbon is quickly released back into the atmosphere through decay and fire. Carbonates accumulating on the sea floor through weathering and runoff or other processes are eventually pushed under continental plates at ocean edges, finding their way to the atmosphere again in volcanic activity millions of years later.3 Still more carbon is buried underground in the form of coal and oil. Some is also stored in the oceans. Altogether, the mass of carbon which has accumulated in rocks due to the activity of living organisms is 100,000 times the mass of carbon in the atmosphere, while the mass of carbon in living organisms is four times that in the atmosphere. Second, permanently adding only a small percentage of the four trillion tons of recoverable fossil carbon still in the ground to the atmosphere would result in climate changes unprecedented in history, bringing extreme storms, droughts and floods, disrupting agriculture, increasing pest infestations, drowning islands and coastlines and creating millions of "climate refugees".4 At some unspecifiable point, runaway heating endangering planetary habitability could be triggered if methane is released from ocean bottoms and if peatlands and tropical forests dry out, ocean currents shift, and less sunlight is reflected from the poles.5 Consumption of all or most remaining recoverable fossil fuels is therefore not a realistic scenario.

Several strategies have been proposed in response to these findings, and to what appear to be the first signs of climate change. One is to reduce fossil fuel use dramatically and quickly. That suggests a particular focus on the emissions of industrialized societies, which have already used up a disproportionate share of global carbon sinks and stocks, through promoting energy conservation, efficiency, and use reduction, adoption of solar and other renewable energy sources, and a more "ecological" agriculture capable of conserving more carbon in soils and vegetable matter. A tiny step toward carrying out this strategy was negotiated in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, under which industrialised countries pledged to reduce emissions by an average of 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. The Protocol, however, is held by almost all observers outside the US to be inadequate.6 If extended in a way which required all countries to reduce emissions by similar percentages, moreover, it would be inegalitarian, since this would allow (for example) the US to go on producing roughly one-quarter of the greenhouse gases released yearly, even though it has only four per cent of the world's population.

A second strategy, also provided for under the Kyoto Protocol, proposes that richer nations or corporations be permitted to avoid emissions reductions by buying "carbon credits" from less polluting actors or by investing in projects which purportedly "sequester" or "store" carbon. This last approach, which is the topic of this paper, involves dominant users of fossil fuels either taking over a larger proportion of the earth's existing carbon dioxide-regulating mechanisms or modifying the earth's biosphere and crust to allow them to absorb more CO2, using capital which has itself been accumulated partly through a history of disproportionate use of those mechanisms. Promising to make it "safer" for richer nations and groups to continue rapid, high-level consumption of fossil fuels for as long as possible, this strategy enjoys great favour among fossil-fuel producing and consuming industries and many officials in the US and a few other Northern governments. The US Department of Energy, for instance, is currently exploring grandiose schemes for intensively "manipulating" terrestrial and ocean ecosystems and the earth's crust so that they can store three to six times more carbon than at present, in order to make possible "continued large-scale use of fossil fuels".7 US and Japanese scientists are currently conducting experiments to find out whether it might be possible to dissolve billions of tons of CO2 in deep ocean waters; to stimulate algal growth and carbon uptake over hundreds of square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean by fertilizing it with powdered iron; and to inject huge amounts of CO2 into aquifers or fossil fuel deposits underground.8 Other recent proposals for sequestering carbon dioxide have included firing dry-ice torpedoes deep into the ocean;9 building cars out of carbon;10 burying logs or organic waste under the sea floor;11 seeding large areas of land with organisms genetically engineered to fix carbon "more efficiently" or to produce carbon-containing "bioplastics" resistant to decay;12 establishing floating kelp farms thousands of square kilometres in size which, growing heavier as they consumed CO2, would eventually sink to the ocean floor;13 and using fleets of C-130 military transport planes to bomb the Scottish highlands and other likely regions with millions of metal cones containing pine saplings.14

Given, however, that most of these possibilities for carbon sequestration involve, in the Department of Energy's deadpan phrase, "immature technologies and ideas",15 it is likely that any carbon-sequestration or -storage approach to tackling climate change will resort principally to the less startling path of conventional or genetically-modified tree plantations and other agriculture- or forestry-based projects.16 "Tree-planting will allow US energy policy to go on with business as usual out to 2015", an official at the US Department of Energy exulted in 1994,17 at a time when New Zealand's Environment Minister was describing how, with the help of pine plantations, his country planned to lower net CO2 output by relying 80 per cent on carbon dioxide-absorbing "sinks" and only 20 per cent on emission reduction,18 and Japanese scientists were at work in South-East Asia researching how to "create an ideal carbon dioxide-reducing forest" to offset emissions from Japanese industry.19

The two strategies of deep, egalitarian emissions cuts and a market in carbon sequestration or storage are sometimes seen as complementary ways of checking the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. Yet they are starkly contrasting both in their politics and in their probable effectiveness in abating global warming.

Ecological Politics

Consider the question of politics first. Assume for the sake of argument that on average, a citizen of the US produces 20 times the amount of carbon dioxide that a citizen of India produces, putting a proportionally greater burden on carbon dioxide-stabilizing mechanisms. How do the two strategies treat this issue?

The first approach treats this inequality as a problem. It would favor negotiations toward equalizing per capita emissions worldwide while contracting overall emissions drastically, without forcing unnecessary hardship on any side. It would take account, moreover, of the fact that the "carbon debt" that the North owes the South for its historical overuse of the atmosphere is still unpaid.

The second approach, on the other hand, takes unequal impact on the carbon cycle as a given. It assumes that because the rich industrialized countries have historically overused the atmosphere, they have a right to have done so, and to continue doing so.20 In fact, it would tend to worsen world inequalities in access to resources. Its key premise is that carbon-dioxide emissions are acceptable in any volume as long as they can be compensated for, or "offset", by some activity that absorbs the CO2 or prevents emissions which "would have otherwise occurred". As suggested above, the leading example of such an activity is planting trees, which, through photosynthesis, convert CO2 into wood carbon. Thus a utility company emitting a million tons of carbon dioxide a year can be just as "carbon neutral" as a subsistence farmer emitting one ton a year -- as long as the company plants thousands of trees. The same goes for individual consumers. An organization called Future Forests, for example, offers a scheme which allows a British family of "two parents, two children with a car" to be able to claim it is "carbon-neutral" at a cost of a mere $420 a year by planting 65 trees a year in Mexico or Britain.21 By the same token, Mazda's new model car, the Demio, is sold in the UK complete with a year's "carbon-neutral driving". Part of the purchase price of each car is used to pay a non-governmental organization to plant five trees to "make up for" the car's use of the world's carbon-cycling capacity.22 Before long, flipping a light switch, taking a holiday, or cooking lunch may involve the planting of fast-growing trees on faraway plots of land as well as the burning of fossil fuels mined in distant locations. The implicit equation associated with such schemes, "more trees planted = less emission of CO2", which to many middle-class intellectuals carries the self-evident logic of "carbon = carbon", symbolizes a new moral and aesthetic economy in which progress can be painted as involving both more emissions and more plantations, calling to mind a vista filled to the horizon by fast-growing eucalyptus harmlessly punctuated by smoking factories, hydrocarbon mines and sweeping autobahns. In this vision, trees become "high-tech sustainability machines",23 growing carbon instead of fruit or wood, while corporations have names like "The Utilitree Carbon Company" and non-governmental organizations attach to themselves labels such as the "Climate Neutral Network".24 US citizens who use 20 times more of the atmosphere for CO2 dumping than their Indian counterparts become entitled to use 20 times more tree plantation land in order to compensate, 20 times more "carbon workers" to plant and maintain the trees, and so forth. In fact, they are obligated to do so if they are unwilling or unable to reduce their emissions.

Experience with pulpwood, oil palm and other single-purpose tree plantations suggests that the "ecological" resource grab which this language of "neutrality" and "equivalence" conceals is likely to exert new pressures on local land and water rights, particularly in the South, where land is cheaper and growth rates faster, and pass on new risks to people who can ill afford to take them.25 Cropland, pastures or gathering grounds will be vulnerable to takeover, water sources and fisheries may be damaged, and soils are likely to be degraded. Many communities will be displaced, with little compensatory employment provided, while local structures of governance are likely to become less responsive to local people. Finally, as ecosystems are simplified in the name of efficient carbon fixation, biodiversity is likely to be reduced. Even some native forests may be supplanted. The scale of these effects, moreover, is potentially huge, given that some proposals have called for plantations to cover an area equivalent to that of Australia.26 Ironically, the community evicted today by a company drilling oil to feed distant automobiles may find itself displaced again tomorrow -- this time by tree plantations intended by the drivers of those automobiles to "offset" the burning of that oil. Instead of reducing the North's ecological "footprint", in short, carbon "offset" forestry expands it while redistributing more of the world's resources from poor to rich. At the same time, the North's historical "carbon debt" to the South is ignored.

If this approach promises to validate and deepen inequalities in the use of resources between North and South, it will also tend to sanction inequalities between urban and rural areas within both North and South, and even certify inequalities within industrialized regions. For example, a corporation that buys carbon-dioxide emission rights in Chicago by sponsoring carbon "offset" plantations in Costa Rica will be allowed to go on releasing, along with CO2, many other pollutants that pose local health risks, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and fine particulate matter. As the anti-environmental-racism movement in the US has documented, a disproportionate number of such factories are located in poor communities of color.27

Technical Effectiveness

The two strategies also contrast sharply in their likely technical effectiveness in responding to climate change. The effectiveness of emissions cuts is undisputed: thousands of years of experience have demonstrated the effectiveness of keeping hydrocarbons in the ground as a way of moderating CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Current scientific consensus, on the other hand, is that a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentrations over pre-industrial levels -- 280 parts per million by volume -- is likely to cause dangerous climate change. On current trends this will happen by the middle of the century; CO2 levels already stand at 30 per cent above those of pre-industrial times. Preventing a doubling of carbon-dioxide levels requires an urgent reduction in emissions of 60 per cent or more from 1990 levels.28 Practices which could achieve such reductions in industrialized countries -- and prevent those of Southern countries from rising above a certain level -- are, in addition, fairly well-known. Many techniques of energy conservation and energy efficiency, together with solar and other renewable energy technologies, are either already available or could be developed with the same sort of investment now devoted to nuclear energy or fossil fuel research.29 What is required is not a technological revolution so much as a more powerful political movement behind initiatives that already exist.

Using biological carbon sequestration or storage to "compensate" for emissions from exhumed geological carbon is, by contrast, a scientifically unreliable strategy. No one is exactly sure even where the biosphere's current carbon "sinks" are, or how they work; no scientific consensus exists today, for example, about how much carbon is moving into and out of temperate forests, or even how to go about finding out.30 Creating large, reliable new sinks with any degree of confidence would be far more daunting even than solving these recalcitrant puzzles. Still more difficult would be quantifying how effective each individual biological carbon sink might be separately in compensating for a given amount of industrial emissions. Unfortunately, this is what is required for the operation of the proposed approved international Carbon Shop, where wealthy customers who do not wish to cut their carbon dioxide emissions can go to have a precise length of carbon sink measured out for them which will safely "cover" their emissions.

The problem is how to calibrate an "equivalence" accurate and meaningful enough to underpin trading between the carbon sequestered permanently in geological fossil fuel deposits, the transient CO2 in the atmosphere, and the carbon sequestered temporarily on or near the earth's surface through biological means as a result of any particular tree plantation or national tree-planting programme. No one has any idea how to do this. Nor is it likely they ever will. The difficulty is rooted in an asymmetry in the measurability of climate effects which is concealed by the common sense that trees absorb carbon dioxide. Carbon-dioxide emissions from any given factory or motor vehicle, and their effect on atmospheric levels of CO2, can be measured reasonably accurately. Carbon-dioxide removals achieved by any given plantation project, by contrast, are impossible to predict with the necessary certainty over the century or more during which carbon emissions from fossil fuels retain their radiative forcing qualities in the atmosphere.31 It is next to useless, for example, merely to measure (as is certainly feasible) current rates of CO2 uptake of a particular stand of trees. For one thing, plantations can cause increased emissions of greenhouse gases from local or downstream soils, an effect which may be exacerbated by global warming.32 In addition, carbon stored in live or dead trees or in upper soil layers can reenter the atmosphere far more freely than subterranean oil or coal or sea-floor carbonate. As fire historian Stephen Pyne puts it, "biological preserves are not a kind of Fort Knox for carbon":

Living systems store that carbon, and those terrestrial biotas demand a fire tithe. That tithe can be given voluntarily or it will be extracted by force. Taking the carbon exhumed by industrial combustion from the geologic past and stacking it into overripe living woodpiles is an approach of questionable wisdom."33

Plantations are particularly vulnerable to wildfire and human-set conflagrations, as witnessed by the cases of Iberia and Indonesia.34 Probabilities of loss of trees through insect infestation, disease, or accident would also need to be calculated.

Rates of decay, too, are difficult to anticipate, since they depend on so many shifting variables. So too are rates of respiration -- the process by which trees release CO2 back into the air when they break down the sugars made during photosynthesis or soil microorganisms decompose plant matter. Thus carbon traders suffered an unexpected setback in October 1999 when a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that as the globe begins to warm and respiration increases faster than CO2 uptake, carbon "offset" plantations plantations will begin returning most of their carbon to the atmosphere. This suggests that within a few decades, plantations established today to protect the planet from global warming could well be contributing to it. Even in narrow biochemical terms, according to Will Steffen of Sweden's Royal Academy of Sciences, chair of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, forestry is an "insecure way of storing carbon out of harm's way".35

Carbon "offset" plantation accountants would also have to factor in a figure representing the degree to which their plantations damaged or supplanted other existing carbon reservoirs, as has happened in Jari in Brazil, where acacia plantations contained only a quarter of the above-ground biomass of the vegetation they replaced,36 and in Canada, where 250 years can elapse before a second-growth forest stores as much carbon as the old growth it replaces, and where a 450-year-old Douglas fir stand can have twice the carbon of a 60-year-old plantation.37 According to satellite-image analysis, in the 1980s, 75 per cent of new tree plantations in Southern countries in the tropics were established in places where, ten years earlier, natural forests had stood. The result was an estimated additional release of 725 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Replacing grasslands with plantations -- another common practice -- can be equally counterproductive. Recent studies show that the Andean Paramos ecosystem, for example, is more efficient than tree plantations in absorbing CO2.38

Calculating the net effects of carbon "offset" plantations also entails taking into account social processes. Communities displaced from carbon plantations would have to have their activities policed for roughly a century, to determine precisely to what extent they were encroaching on forests or grasslands elsewhere and releasing the carbon stored in those ecosystems to the atmosphere. Political strife or legal changes which could lead to a plantation's being cut down by angry villagers or state officials would need to be anticipated. Tracking the career of the carbon in paper and other wood products made from plantation trees also presents formidable difficulties from which social factors cannot be eliminated. Some may be burned almost immediately; others may decay more slowly; others may enjoy a somewhat longer -- yet still limited -- life in housing or furniture;39 still others may be landfilled, which could lead either to long-term sequestration or to dangerous releases of methane, depending on circumstances. The uncertainties and the possibilities for fraud are enormous. In one year, between 1997 and 1998, the US was able to double its estimate of its own carbon-fixing capacity merely by deciding to claim that wood products harvested from public lands and landfilled wood were part of its national carbon "sink" -- even though it admitted that net sequestration rates in its ageing forests were slowing.40 Offset advocates would also have to quantify, over long periods of time and with a degree of certainty comparable to that of simple combustion chemistry, the degree to which carbon "offset" plantations:

  • Caused forests to be cleared elsewhere to make up for lost food or other crops;
  • Displaced timber-harvesting operations to other locations;
  • Brought about other social changes affecting net carbon sequestration, such as loss of local agricultural knowledge or rising consumerism;
  • Drew funding away from other forms of carbon storage or sequestration (whose effectiveness would also need to be quantified for long periods under different scenarios);
  • Slowed the development of technologies or networks of political resistance which could prevent the mining of remaining oil or coal;
  • Undermined existing technologies or social networks which prevent climatically-destabilizing forms of industrial land clearance;
  • Provided a disincentive for Northern countries and consumers to change their "carbon habits";
  • Stimulated profiteers to degrade forests outside project boundaries in order to attract their own money for carbon projects;
  • Caused local people to abandon already-instituted good forest conservation practices;
  • Drove out of business other forestry operations not subsidised by carbon "offset" money; or, alternatively, pushed up wood prices, increasing pressures for logging outside project boundaries; and
  • Affected the nature of the market for forest products and the market for land, both of which have an impact on net carbon emissions.

In general, the relative carbon-fixing or -storing ability of any plantation -- and thus whether it is helping relieve global warming or making it worse -- would have to be determined by comparing the results with a "business as usual" scenario; there is no rationale for establishing a plantation that would result in more carbon dioxide being released than would be emitted without the plantation. But who decides what "business as usual" is? Who is to be empowered to decide "what would happen without the plantation"? These are political questions to which structural racial, anti-poor, and anti-rural biases are necessarily relevant, as well as institutional self-interest. In general, organizations whose future depends partly on certifying carbon "offset" plantations are unlikely to decide that what "would have happened" without a plantation would have a better outcome for climate. An urban intellectual with no knowledge of rural economy, methods of land stewardship or forest regeneration may well assume that without a plantation project, ignorant local rustics would necessarily scorch the land into oblivion. A careless forester may imagine that "what would happen without the plantation" can be read off by extrapolating from physical and biological data collected in the past on site -- forgetting that such predictions must inescapably also involve interpreting and predicting how human societies, some of them far away, will behave and respond to knowledge of such data. A World Bank official will have institutional and disciplinary incentives for not comparing the plantation with carbon-storage or sequestration options which involve broader political changes that make space for local forest conservation initiatives, such as reducing foreign demand for certain forestry products or building movements countering corporate or state repression. Experience suggests, moreover, that unfavorable predictions about "what would happen without the plantation" often function as self-fulfilling prophecies insofar as they contribute to the extinction of local land rights. This is not even to begin to consider the huge incentives to dishonesty in estimating "baseline" emissions on the part of those who stand to benefit from carbon "offset" forestry.41

Institutions with material and professional interests in certifying carbon "offset" plantations acknowledge few of these difficulties. When they do, they tend to claim that they can be "fixed" through the sorts of statistical manipulation or design and management that they are used to providing, neglecting to note that these efforts merely amplify the underlying problems. Some carbon consultants, for instance, claim that if growing one ton of wood and preventing it from decay or combustion for a century in order to maximize its climate-stabilizing effects is too "iffy" a proposition, the same result can be achieved by growing, say, 10 or more tons of wood and protecting it from rot or fire for a more realistic 10 years. Unmentioned in such paper exercises are such facts as that growing 10 tons of wood instead of one is likely to require 10 times the amount of land, multiplying any damage to local livelihoods and the potential for social strife and counterproductive knock-on effects. Other consultants assert that the instability of any single plantation can be "insured against" by investing in a portfolio of other dubious projects -- whose effects, taken together, are likely also to be unforeseeable and possibly counterproductive. Still other consultants, throwing up their hands, propose granting carbon credits only incrementally or after a plantation project has been completed, putting themselves at odds with investor patrons bent on avoiding, or "buying time" for, industrial reform.

In sum, the idea that a specified fragment of wooded land can "offset" a specified amount of industrial carbon-dioxide emissions depends on false assumptions about calculability of the results of the intercoupling of ecological, social, geological, political, hydrological, bureaucratic, biochemical, economic, and atmospheric systems. Large-scale "offset" plantations, instead of mitigating global warming, could even make it worse. Delaying the transition to a more equitable distribution of emissions and more sensible energy regimes, such plantations could result in an increased amount of avoidable carbon emissions both from industry and from the land.

Construction of a Market

It's a striking sociological fact that the impossibility of constructing a non-fraudulent, standardized technical commodity of biological climate-change equivalents through plantation forestry has so far proved no obstacle to attempts to create a market which would make rights to that commodity privately ownable, transferrable, and accumulable. Hundreds of articulate technocrats and economists solemnly developing "carbon sequestration certification methods" and repeating incantations about "flexible mechanisms", "secondary metabolites", "transaction structure" and "portfolio development", together with environmental lawyers busily working out how to divide up legal responsibility between buyers and sellers for the failures of carbon "offset" forestry projects, are already fashioning and working within what I've elsewhere called a "genre of performance"42 in which inferences from certain known biological and social facts (for example, the differences between the underground pool of carbon in coal and oil reserves and the surface pool in vegetation and soils) are not permissible moves in the language-game. Impossibilities become instead mere "problems" awaiting technical solutions. Thus the displacement of polluting activities (for example, encroachment or logging) outside plantation boundaries is called, in the official jargon, "leakage" -- as if such results, like the minor drips from joints in pipes, were calculable aberrations from a norm of discrete transactions sealed off from each other. Predicting "what would happen without the plantation" becomes, instead of a matter for political negotiation and policy assessment, a exercise with a determinate, quantifiable answer, to be undertaken by qualified experts analyzing site-specific data only. Thus the IPCC Special Report on Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry, which many credulous environmentalist observers had hoped would investigate whether carbon trading involving sequestration projects made scientific sense, begs important questions even in its terms of reference by including sections on "carbon accounting rules" and "operational implications of uncertainties"; the draft report itself, instead of following its remit to explore sequestration "potential", assumes without evidence that, other things being equal, uncontested accounting procedures can be evolved for all sequestration projects.43

Meanwhile, through the efforts of consultants, financiers and others, the "initial voluntary schemes and bartering transactions common in the early 1990s have already given way to more sophisticated market mechanisms".44 The government of New South Wales, for example, has proposed legislation to allow investors to own private property rights in tree plantation carbon "to pave the way for sharemarket trading in greenhouse gas emission contracts".45 A Clean Development Mechanism provided for under the Kyoto Protocol is gearing up to channel development funds to carbon "offset" plantations which could produce bankable permits to emit CO2 known as Certified Tradeable Offsets (CTOs). Costa Rica is meanwhile financing "abatement projects" on its own through a National Carbon Fund from which investors can buy CTOs created through the channelling of Northern capital to forestry project developers. Polluting US companies have signed a US$20 million deal with the country to pay farmers to plant trees and maintain them for 15-20 years.46 Carbon credits certified by SGS Forestry are already being offered on the Chicago Board of Trade, and the Chaffee-Mack-Lieberman bill before the US Senate would guarantee government credit that could be banked for later use or traded on a market, should the Kyoto treaty take effect, to companies making early moves to offset their carbon dioxide emissions.47 The International Carbon Sequestration Federation and American Forests are also helping market carbon credits. The Sydney Futures Exchange, meanwhile, plans to launch a standardized market in carbon sequestration credits by the third quarter of 2000 and also contemplates a carbon derivatives market whose participants can hedge against risks such as changes to emissions targets and shortages of permits.48

With one eye on international climate negotiations and the other on public relations and national or local regulators, utilities and other companies have meanwhile been taking their own carbon forestry initiatives. The Electricity Generating Board of The Netherlands, for example, is attempting to sequester part of the carbon dioxide emitted from its power plants by contracting with the Malaysian Innoprise Corporation to plant dipterocarp trees on logged-over land in Sabah. The Board also helping to plant thousands of hectares of pine and eucalyptus in the Ecuadorian Andes.49 Amerada Gas is to earn a "Climate Care" label from the Oxford-based Carbon Storage Trust as part of a deal under which trees are planted in western Uganda.50 Detroit Edison is planting trees in Central America, and SaskPower of Canada and Pacific Power of Australia in their own countries. Suncor Energy (an oil-mining, refining and marketing firm based in Calgary, Canada) plans to join Southern Pacific Petroleum and Central Pacific Minerals in projects to plant more than 180,000 native trees in central Queensland to "offset" carbon dioxide emissions from future oil shale development.51 Not to be outdone, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile has arranged for 30,000 trees to be planted in Chiapas, Mexico, on lands inhabited by highland Mayan Tojolobal and lowland Mayan Tzeltal communities, to "offset" the 5,500 tons of carbon emitted annually by Formula One car racing, at a bargain price of $61,000 a year. The scheme is backed by the Mexican government and audited by a team from Edinburgh University.52 States also continue to play a direct role. The Canadian International Development Agency has agreed to forgive about US$680,000 of Honduras' $11 million debt with Canada if Honduras will establish an office under the Kyoto Protocol to promote tree plantations and monitor forest conservation.53 In return, Canada gets credit for "cutting" emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which it can use to delay industrial change. All in all, the World Bank estimates, the carbon sequestration market could be worth $10-20 billion by 2008.54 According to "... will offer support to governments in developing countries wanting to implement the Dams Commission report. We are willing to provide assistance on applying criteria and implementing the guidelines.", four million hectares of carbon "offset" plantations already exist worldwide.55

Understanding the logic of this characteristic momentum toward consensual fiction is of great importance for political and environmental activism. Explanations are unlikely to be simple, instead requiring close attention to the ways a plethora of institutions and their interests interact together.

Enclosure Parallels

One avenue of inquiry would be to try to understand the parallels and divergences with other historical processes of market construction. Like other enclosures, the creation of the carbon "offset" market serves multiple redistributive and cultural functions. First, it translates the potentially disastrous climatic effects of the historical dumping of disproportionate amounts of CO2 into atmosphere by a small world minority into a problem of economic scarcity of carbon sinks. Abating the climate crisis then becomes a matter of efficiency and capital accumulation. Insofar as industrial and financial institutions believe that it will be cheaper, acquiring inexpensive land to practice carbon "offset" forestry becomes rationally preferable to reducing pollution at source. Creating a trade in carbon forestry "offsets" then helps transfer carbon sinks, or the raw materials used to make them, from poor to rich nations. In an efficient market, Southern and Eastern European elites eager to sell off cheap, plentiful resources which can be categorized as, or used to create, carbon sinks or stocks, such as land, forests and water, will compete with each other to offer the best deals to a bargain-shopping industrial North.56 Both sides, moreover, will have incentives to exaggerate both the carbon emissions of the baseline case and the mitigation or reduction achieved by sequestration or storage projects.57

Simultaneously, miners and burners of fossil fuels who apply cash and technical expertise from a distance to create "offsets" are transformed into active, value-adding bearers of carbon credits and environmental virtue, while lowly forest dwellers are transformed into a passive or feckless background whose land is subject to being traded away over their heads.58 As photosynthesis in a Malaysian plantation is commensurated with and calibrated against the burps of a Ugandan cow and the combustion of petroleum in a California paper mill, the distinction is smudged between livelihood activities aimed at "having enough" and the indefinite accumulation of exchange-value. The moral vocabulary of "stimulating efficiency and innovation" in climate solutions meanwhile provides an ideological scaffolding concealing the redistribution of costs and risks. Integration of the climate-change equivalent commodity into everyday consumer culture, as with the Mazda Demio, further entrenches and conceals expropriation.

Although the parallels are far from exact, it may be worth comparing the move toward making carbon sinks into an efficiently-managed and -manufactured "product" with the early modern European quasi-commodification of land and labor. Just as in pre-20th century England legal means had to be found or invented to allow landowners full private property rights over land and forests which would allow them to exclude (often morally-denigrated) commoners from sharing their pasturage, fuel, and food sources,59 so exclusionary legal mechanisms are now being formulated to give investors private property rights to parcels of the atmosphere or of tree carbon. Just as a deskilled, decontextualized abstraction called "labour time" had to be identified, isolated, and made into exchangeable property during the Industrial Revolution, so a fiction called "tradable carbon" is today being worked up which is loftily indifferent to the local social, political, photosynthetic, geological, or combustion circumstances surrounding various aspects of the carbon cycle. Just as in modern Europe social infrastructure was laid which allowed a welter of locally-valid "fair prices" for bread to be supplanted by prices determined by wider "supply and demand", so attempts are being made today to bring distribution of rights to carbon sinks explicitly into line with the global distribution of economic power. If the commodification of land and work of the European past heralded a new age of real estate agents and labor brokers, so too are carbon brokers poised to ride into prominence today.

Yet if moral outrage was often the response to the transformation and transfer of local commons rights, incredulity is a more common reaction on the part of ordinary people who learn they are being dispossessed of something which hadn't seemed possible to purloin: the air itself. In time, the language of "win-win-win scenarios" used by apologists of atmospheric enclosure ("the North wins, the South wins, and the environment wins"), may come to be as bitterly resented by many as the argot of the economic theorists and moralists William Cobbett satirized as "feelosofers", or of the historians who claimed that, "in the aggregate", enclosure must have benefited rural dwellers.60 Yet in the present case such resentment is scattered and fragmentary. One reason is that the creation of private property in carbon sinks and stocks is taking place against a background in which, unlike many local commons regimes, the structure of rights is barely defined at all.61 On one plausible conception, everyone has a right to breathe, and thus to some set of carbon sinks, and this right is not a transferrable private property right. Yet because the atmosphere cannot be staked out, perambulated, or bounded in the ordinary way, and because it is difficult for ordinary people to know when a distant nation is using up more than its fair share of a physical entity which, unlike common trees and waterways, is not under local view, it is difficult to defend, or even understand, as a commons. Resistance to atmospheric enclosure may well first make itself felt as a popular, locally-based political force in storm- and flood-threatened island states and in rural societies whose land is designated as a substrate for carbon "offset" forestry.

A Web of Actors

A second, and related, avenue of inquiry would be to examine the interactions of a broad web of actors with varying interests in the construction of a market for climate change equivalents. This network ranges much further beyond the state into a global technostructure than has been the case with historical enclosures. I've already mentioned energy utilities, financiers, image-conscious car companies, trading firms and brokers who hope to collect commissions for facilitating carbon deals, and multilateral agencies who plan to exploit the political infrastructure they have already helped put in place for redistributing wealth from South to North. But there are, of course, many more:

  • Corporate networks whose structures of knowledge, behaviour and investment are tied to mining and consuming remaining fossil fuel deposits were reluctant to allow US delegates to the climate negotiations to commit themselves even to tiny reductions in CO2 emissions unless the South did as well, although many members of these networks aggressively promote increased fossil fuel use in the South. When pressure for at least some symbolic cuts became irresistible at the negotiations which led to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the same networks instructed US and other delegations to secure a quid pro quo that would allow trading in emissions and carbon "offsets", including carbon credits from tree plantations, as a way of meeting reduction targets.62 This, they reasoned, would at least delay changes in established ways of doing business. Such corporate networks are also on the move outside the climate negotiations themselves. In January 1999, for instance, the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations proposed to Chinese President Jiang Zemin that a group of Japanese companies carry out a plantation programme in China as a way of securing larger quotas for emitting carbon dioxide under the Kyoto Protocol.63
  • Industry-friendly think tanks and Non-governmental organizations were among the first to conceptualize, broker and certify carbon "production". Roger Sedjo of Washington-based Resources for the Future, for example, building on a scheme originally mooted in 1976 by the visionary physicist Freeman Dyson, estimated in the 1980s that a plantation half the size of the US could compensate for all current fossil fuel emissions, volunteering "degraded" lands in "the tropics" for the job.64 In 1988, the World Resources Institute (WRI) brokered a deal between the US organization CARE and Applied Energy Services, Inc. of Arlington, Virginia, which was willing to spend US$2 million to make a proposed coal-fired power plant in Connecticut more acceptable to state regulators. Under the scheme, 40,000 smallholder farmers in Guatemala were to plant 50 million pine and eucalyptus trees and undertake agroforestry, terracing, and fire control to offset the plant's emissions,65 with the help of the US Peace Corps, USAID and the Guatemalan Directorate General of Forests. Today certain classes of environmental organizations keep up a reputation with patrons or peers in government and business as advocates of the fashionable "free market" approach to environmental issues by acting as carbon brokers and "offset" specialists. The Environmental Defense Fund and the Rainforest Alliance, for example, have joined the Forestry Research Institute in helping to audit Suncor Corporation's carbon forestry projects in Central America and elsewhere.66
  • Consultancies are flourishing amid new opportunities for prestige and salaries for professionals willing to research, broker, certify and administer carbon "offsets". Firms such as SGS Forestry, Margules Poyry and Econergy International Corporation can gain lucrative contracts to monitor and justify carbon forestry projects. Many carbon consultants shuttle between serving United Nations organizations, lobbying the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and their own profit-making carbon "offset" ventures. To take only one example, Mark Trexler -- whose pioneering firm Trexler & Associates stands to make fortunes from brokering carbon deals -- was present at the fourth meeting of the COP in Buenos Aires in November 1998, and is also a review editor of one chapter in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's draft Special Report on Land Use, Land Use Change, and Forestry.67
  • Professionals in other disciplines also stand to gain from an "offset" boom. Many foresters see the spread of climate-oriented plantations as a way of empowering and revitalizing their marginalized and politically weak profession. Some nourish a sincere hope that carbon funds will translate into better programmes to preserve native forests and benefit excluded forest-dwelling groups and local livelihoods. In this they are influenced by a number of neoclassical economists who claim that the only alternative to converting native forests to agriculture which is likely to "pay" in strict market terms is to treat them as carbon "offsets". Genetic engineering researchers also expect to find jobs in adapting trees to take up more carbon and store it more permanently.68
  • Potential exporters of what might be called "climate stability units" have not been slow in seeing the commercial advantages. The Australian government, for instance, has played an important role in creating trial markets in emissions permits and carbon credits, with an agriculture minister in New South Wales heralding a "dynamic new industry" which would create jobs out of a million hectares of new carbon plantations.69 Many of these would be paid for by Japanese utilities, including Tokyo Electric Power Company, which earlier this year signed an "offset" plantation deal to plant 40,000 hectares of trees in the state.70 Many Southern governments in particular are unlikely to be in a position to resist the carbon-plantation wave. The Clean Development Mechanism, for example, holds out the promise of providing elites and others in the South with the cash, resources, technology and prestige which are traditionally associated with development schemes. Many Southern delegations are now lining up to find out what kind of extra benefits might accrue to their countries, governments and elites under CDM and related measures.71 Some 26 African ministers have made a special appeal for CDM funds, asking for a "seed fund" to help them prepare the necessary administration. Even Argentina has reportedly toyed with the idea that it could earn US$700 million a year for "maintaining carbon dioxide-absorbing forests" established, with the help of $4 billion in foreign investment, on 10 million hectares of what is now mainly grassland.72
  • Some Plantation owners and their state backers hope to gain either more investment or a greener image from carbon deals. A commercial grower of coniferous trees in Ireland, for instance, recently cited research showing Norway spruce stores more carbon than mixed deciduous forests. Malaysia's Primary Industries Minister soon chimed in with the claim that his country's oil palm plantations were in fact "better than the developed nations' pine trees in terms of absorbing carbon gases".73
  • Other Forestry companies are also ready to cash in. No sooner had global warming become a hot political topic, for example, than an American Forest Association official proposed planting 100 million trees to help ameliorate global warming. In Norway, the forestry company Treefarms has announced a project to plant fast-growing pine and eucalyptus trees on 150 square kilometres of grassy plain in southwest Tanzania. The company claims that by 2010 the project will store more than a million tons of carbon.74

Whose Atmosphere Is It, Anyway?

Future rural-based movements opposing the opening of local franchises of a global Carbon Shop are likely to find themselves in alignment with at least one potential ally. This is the growing campaign around the principle of "contraction and convergence", according to which countries would negotiate (and, if necessary, constantly renegotiate) a ceiling on carbon-dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere in line with changing scientific estimates of the danger level. They would then agree to progressive cuts in emissions which would allow that goal to be reached at the same time that per capita emissions levels among rich and poor were gradually equalized.

To take a hypothetical example, suppose all countries agreed that 450 parts per million by volume was the maximum upper limit for CO2 in the atmosphere that could be allowed before the year 2100. Suppose they also decided that by the year 2030 per capita emissions throughout the world should be equal. To reach that figure, Britain would need to reduce its current emissions by about half and the US by more than three-quarters, while China would be permitted to increase its emissions by no more than two-fifths and Bangladesh by no more than around twentyfold. After 2030, all would progressively reduce their emissions pro rata to a final per capita entitlement of 0.2 ton of carbon per year by the year 2100.

By refusing to enshrine and expand inequalities in resource use or to conceal the pathologies of current patterns of fossil-fuel exploitation, such an approach goes directly to the root of the climate crisis. A livable climate is less likely to be promoted through expanding monoculture plantations, logging, fossil-fuel plants and automobile manufacture than through a commitment to equity.75


Notes and references


1 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, second draft Special Report on Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry, Technical Summary, p.3. CO2 proportions in the atmosphere are now the highest they have been in 200,000 years.

2 Ibid.

3 T. E. Graedel and P. J. Crutzen, Atmosphere, Climate and Change, Scientific American Books, New York, 1995; S. Lamb and D. Sington, Earth Story, BBC Books, London, 1998.

4 Jeremy Leggett, The Carbon War: Dispatches from the End of the Oil Century, Allen Lane, London, 1999.

5 Ibid.

6 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Conference of the Parties, Third Session, Kyoto Protocol, FCCC/CP/1997/L.7/Add.1, Article 12.2, p.13, Kyoto, Japan, 11 December 1997. One group of scientists has calculated that fully implementing the Kyoto Protocol would reduce the expected warming of 1.4°C by 2050 by only 0.05°C (Vanessa Houlder, "Beginning of the End", Financial Times, 15 April 1999). The US Senate, fearful of the "costs" to energy corporations of abating global warming, feigns to hold the position that, because growth in emissions is faster in the South than in the North, even the minor emissions cuts mandated by the Kyoto Protocol are unacceptable because they exempt, for the time being, large developing nations like China and India. See (e.g.) Ross Gelbspan, "Putting the Globe at Risk", The Nation, 30 November 1998, p.20. Past and present national disparities in emissions, many US political and industry-lobby leaders imply, are not worth discussing, since in the future underdeveloped countries will "inevitably" become the more significant threat to climatic stability. T. Frassrand et al., interview with Senator Chuck Hagel, CNN Newsroom Worldview, 15 December 1997; United Mine Workers, "United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts Praises Senate Action on UN Treaty", PR Newswire, 25 July 1997. For a rebuttal, see World Resources Institute website,

7 US Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Fossil Energy, Working Paper on Carbon Sequestration Science and Technology (draft), Washington, February 1999. The approach exemplified by this study was preceded by a series of other attempts, mainly undertaken in the US, to question the need for emissions cuts. In the early 1990s, for example, the World Resources Institute attempted to demonstrate that the South bore comparable responsibility with the North for greenhouse emissions (Patrick McCully, "Discord in the Greenhouse: How WRI Is Attempting to Shift the Blame for Global Warming", The Ecologist 21, 4, July/August 1991, pp.157-65). After this effort failed, an industry lobby casting doubt on the whole idea of global warming then went into high gear. This lobby in turn began to overreach itself in 1996, provoking a reaction from US scientists and even the Clinton administration (Michael Grubb, "Buying a Better Climate", Prospect, August/September 1997, p.60). By 1999, many transnational companies which had earlier derided the idea of action over global warming -- including General Motors, British Petroleum, Enron, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, 3M, United Technologies, DuPont and Monsanto -- had recanted (J. Carey, "Look Who's Thawing on Global Warming", Business Week, 9 November 1998; H. J. Hebert, "Fight over move to give credits to polluters who clean up emissions", Associated Press, 24 March 1999). Yet no sooner was the need for emissions reductions acknowledged than voices were heard claiming that it would be far cheaper to take over inexpensive land to practise forestry than to reduce pollution at the source (J. Smith, K. Mulongoy, R. Persson, R. and J. Sayer, "Harnessing Carbon Markets for Tropical Forest Conservation: Towards a More Realistic Assessment", Center for International Forestry Research, Jakarta, 1998, p.6; Center for International Environmental Law, "Twelve Principles to Guide Joint Implementation", CIEL website,, accessed 18 June 1999). The US believes that reducing CO2 emissions at home would cost $125 per ton of carbon (although this estimate came down dramatically in the early months of 2000), while buying "emissions credits" on a world market would cost as little as $14-23 per ton; the World Bank sees the differential as between about $50 in "advanced economies" and $5-15 in "developing countries" (Financial Times, 19 January 2000, p.12). Among the cheapest credits available would come from forestry projects. For example, the US has estimated the cost per ton of sequestered carbon of approved forestry projects in Costa Rica as ranging from $3 to $16, as compared to a cost of $338 to $895 per ton for domestic energy sector projects. Carbon forestry takes advantage not only of North-South cost differentials, of course, but also of urban-rural differentials. Thus the Business Roundtable (G. Palast, "Fill Your Lungs - It's Only Borrowed Grime", Observer (London), 24 January 1999) recently joined by the Global Climate Coalition (ENN, 18 March 1999), has been pushing for limitless use of contamination credits, including those involving forestry, and in 1997 US negotiators dutifully made it a condition of their signing on to emissions limitations that emissions trading be allowed with countries which had not accepted such limitations (D. M. Goldberg and G. M. Wiser, "Climate Change and Sustainable Development: Rethinking the JI Pilot Phase: A Call for Independent Evaluation and a Legal Framework," Widener Law Symposium Journal 3, Fall 1998, p.421). By 1998, climate meetings, as Daphne Wysham caustically notes, had come increasingly to resemble "trade shows" in which, "instead of focusing on how to prevent global warming, attendees jostled to get a piece of a lucrative emerging market: trading in pollution credits" ("Profiting from Pollution", San Jose Mercury News, 22 November 1998).

8 Ibid.

9 D. Normile et al., "Science Gets the CO2 Out", Popular Science 244, 2 February 1994, p.65.

10 US Department of Energy, op. cit.

11 This suggestion was made early on by biologist Norman Myers.

12 US Department of Energy, op. cit., Chapter 7.

13 US Department of Energy, op. cit., Chapter 3; D. Normile et al., op. cit.

14 P. Brown, "Aerial Bombardment to Reforest the Highlands", The Guardian 1999. Other projects are designed to create licenses to pollute by "reducing emissions elsewhere from what they would have been". Alberta's largest energy utility, TransAlta, for example, is financing a project to feed Ugandan cows supplements to reduce the volume of their farts to buy itself time to upgrade three coal-fired generating stations (C. Gillis, "Getting down to business end of air pollution: TransAlta to help gassy cows in return for Kyoto credits", National Post (Canada), 23 March 2000). It is beginning to be possible, moreover, to get carbon credits -- odd as it may sound -- by logging. The trick is to be able to argue that the logging in question causes less deforestation than would "otherwise" have occurred. For example, New England Electric Systems of Massachusetts, a coal-burning public utility holding company, has paid the Malaysian Innoprise Corporation to conduct "reduced-impact" logging on a part of its concession, hoping that by doing so it will be seen to be "sequestering" [sic] carbon at a price of less than US$2 per ton. Another "reduced impact" logging scheme, backed by the United Nations Development Programme and brokered by COPEC, a Los Angeles based carbon-offset consultancy firm, has been tried in Papua New Guinea. The Costa Rican CARFIX project -- implemented by the voluntary organization Fundacion para el Desarrolllo de la Cordillera Volcanica Central -- meanwhile earns its North American sponsors carbon credits by promoting "sustainable logging" and tree plantations on "grazed or degraded lands", the rationale being that these will provide locals with income they would otherwise have to earn through forest-endangering export agriculture and cattle production (World Resources Institute, "Mitigating Climate Change through Forestry",, accessed 27 March 1999; "Tropical Forestry Management Options for CO2 Mitigation"). In Belize, at the same time, Suncor has teamed up with several utilities including Wisconsin Electric Power Company and Detroit Edison to help a non-governmental organization, the Project for Belize, buy 6,000 hectares of endangered forest that would allegedly otherwise have been "converted to mechanized agriculture". The idea is to log this and other tracts of forest "sustainably", add value to the wood through milling and woodworking, and in other areas to conserve and "improve pine stocks through regeneration". The logging project, it is claimed, will prevent over a million tons of carbon dioxide (equivalent to the annual greenhouse emissions from hundreds of thousands of cars) from entering the atmosphere at a cost of less than $2 per ton of carbon (Canada News Wire, 12 November 1998). The "alternatives" to such logging are generally seen as being restricted to either high-impact logging pursued by corporations or the forest degradation assumed to be the inevitable result of leaving things to the locals.

15 US Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Fossil Energy, Working Paper on Carbon Sequestration Science and Technology (draft), Washington, February 1999.

16 This is the type of carbon sequestration which the Kyoto Protocol recognizes as a way for Southern nations to "assist" industrialized countries in "achieving compliance with their quantified emissions limitation and reduction objectives" (UNFCCC, op. cit.).

17 F. Pearce, "All Gas and Guesswork", New Scientist, 30 July 1994, p.14.

18 Australian Financial Review, 15 February 1995.

19 Japan Economic Newswire, Kyodo News Service, 29 February 1992.

20 The common law of first possession, which is reflected in the attitudes of the US and other industrialized countries is, as Carol Rose notes, biased in favour of those who mark and transform nature through cultivation, manufacture, and development in a commercial system, presupposing that human beings are "outsiders to nature" ("Possession as the Origin of Property," in Property and Persuasion: Essays on the History, Theory and Rhetoric of Ownership, Westview, Boulder, 1994, p.20).

21 Financial Times

22 J. Boley, "Car Firms Keen to Plant Trees and Make Motoring Greener", Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 13 March 1999; "Car Firms Take a Breather", Western Daily Press (Bristol), 7 June 1999.

23 J. R. Sullivan, "The tree decade: replenishing our forests and cities could buy the earth desperately needed time", Health 22, 5, May 1990, p.60.

24 This aesthetic has been embraced particularly warmly by the World Bank, which plans to benefit both from supporting massive new fossil fuel developments and from "cleaning up" afterwards. By helping to build badly-polluting projects today -- despite its own admissions that climate change is a particular disaster for the South and that efficiency and renewables are the best way of getting electricity to the two billion rural poor who lack electricity -- the organization hopes to ripen "low-hanging fruit" it can harvest tomorrow (D. Wysham, The World Bank and the G-7: Still Changing the Earth's Climate for Business, Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, 1998).

25 Ricardo Carrere and Larry Lohmann, Pulping the South: Industrial Tree Plantations and the World Paper Economy, Zed Books, London, 1996; World Rainforest Movement, Tree Plantations: Impacts and Struggles, World Rainforest Movement, Montevideo, 1999.

26 See the estimate of Gregg Marland of Oak Ridge National Laboratory cited in W. Booth, "Johnny Appleseed and the Greenhouse: Replanting Forests to Mitigate Global Warming", Science 242, 4875, October 1988, p.197. Chris Upton of SGS Silviconsult claims that in Brazil alone, there exist 20 million hectares of deforested and now abandoned low-grade land suitable for carbon forestry (Timber & Wood Products, 6 February 1999, p.32). Richard Houghton and colleagues believe there to be 3.2 billion hectares of tropical areas suitable for management practices designed to accumulate carbon ("Current land cover in the tropics and its potential for sequestering carbon", Global Biogeochemical Cycles 7, 2, 1993, pp.305-320). Another research team gives a figure of between 620 million and two billion hectares as being theoretically available in tropical forests to store additional carbon through forestry practices (Dixon, R. et al. (eds.), Assessment of Promising Forest Management Practices and Technologies for Enhancing the Conservation and Sequestration of Atmospheric Carbon and their Costs at Site Level, Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, 1991). According to Alan Grainger, 758 million hectares of degraded tropical watersheds, drylands, forest fallows and logged rainforests could be restored to forest, although he is wise enough to remember that "those who use the land may be unwilling to convert it to forest." ("Modelling the Impact of Alternative Afforestation Strategies to Reduce Carbon Dioxide Emissions", in Proceedings of the Conference on Tropical Forestry Response Options to Global Climate Change, 1990). Mark Trexler estimates that 126 million hectares of the tropics are available for reforestation, over half of that through plantations, and another 217 million for assisted regeneration, although he cautions that land is less likely to be a limiting factor than labour, management, and "administrative restrictions" (Trexler, M. and Haugen, C., Keeping it Green: Tropical Forestry Opportunities for Mitigating Climate Change, World Resources Institute, Washington, 1995).

27 Michael Belliveau, "Trading Places: Lethal Lessons from Los Angeles", Transnational Resource & Action Center, October 1998,, accessed 28 April 1999.


29 Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute argued throughout the 1990s that the received wisdom that stabilizing CO2 emissions would cost rather than save money rests on ignorance of the "vast empirical literature on how much it actually costs to save energy, as documented by thousands of utilities and industries" (J. Gersh, "Capitalism Goes Green," Amicus Journal, Spring 1999, p.37; Rocky Mountain Institute Newsletter, various issues).

30 See, e.g., R. A. Houghton, E. A.Davidson, and G. M. Woodwell, "Missing Sinks, Feedbacks, and Understanding the Role of Terrestrial Ecosystems in the Global Carbon Balance", Global Biogeochemical Cycles 12, 1, 1998, pp.25-34; G. M. Woodwell, and R. A. Houghton, "The Mystery of the Great Northern Forest", in Proceedings of the 7th Annual Conference of the International Boreal Forest Research Association: Sustainable Development of Boreal Forests, ARICFR, Moscow, 1997, pp.37-44.

31 D. Schimel et al., "Radiative Forcing of Climate Change", in J. T. Houghton et al., eds., Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 1995. In a sense, native forests and industrial plantations also belong to distinct carbon "pools" due to the difficulty in many places of re-establishing ecosystems which perform the functions of the original forest once land has been industrially transformed. It would be theoretically possible, of course, to use carbon plantation wood to replace some fossil fuels, thereby slowing depletion of the underground carbon pool. But this is not, in reality, what most carbon "offset" schemes are aimed at.

32 See, e.g., Risto Isomaki, "Paper, Pollution and Global Warming: Unsustainable Forestry in Finland", The Ecologist, 21, 1, 1991, pp.14-17.

33 "Fire Planet: The Culture and Politics of Combustion", Corner House Briefing Paper No. 18, February 2000.

34 Paul Gellert, "A Brief History and Analysis of Indonesia's Forest Fire Crisis", Indonesia 65, pp.63-85, 1998; Stephen Pyne, World Fire: The Culture of Fire on Earth, University of Washington, Seattle, 1995.

35 New Scientist, 23 October 1999.

36 P. M. Fearnside, "Tropical Silvicultural Plantations as a Means of Sequestering Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide", mimeo, Manaus, 29 June 1993.

37 David Suzuki, "Defense of Clearcut Logging Is Specious", Toronto Star, 29 May 1993, p.D6.

38 WRM Bulletin, 1999

39 Researcher Piers Maclaren estimates that at present only 12 per cent of the carbon warehoused in commercial tree plantations has a life expectancy of more than five years (De Freitas, C., "Washing Funds down the Carbon Sink Won't Stop Global Warming", National Business Review, 2 June 1995) and even plantation wood stored in structures such as housing frames begins to decay after around 40 years, releasing CO2 and methane ("ANZAAS Congress: Efficiency Key to Carbon Cutback", Melbourne Age, 16 February 1990, p.16; see also Cullet, P. and Kameri Mbote, A. P., "Joint Implementation and Forestry Projects: Conceptual and Operational Fallacies", International Affairs, 74, 2, 1998, p.393).

40 Cathy Fogel, personal communication, 1999.

41 On a first-possession approach, each country has an incentive to set a baseline which is as large as possible, since, as officials at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Environment concede, the baseline can be viewed as a country's entitlement (Centre for Science and Environment, "Politics in the Post-Kyoto World", CES Briefing Paper 2, New Delhi, n.d., p.4). Thus just before the Kyoto negotiations, both the US and Japan tried to change the date for basing each country's cuts from 1990 to 1995, and the South has an incentive to increase emissions as fast as possible now in order to be able to reduce less later. Similarly, when a Regional Clean Air Incentives Market was set up in Los Angeles, companies which had formerly underestimated their emissions in order to reduce permit fees "suddenly reported elevated rates of air pollution", since the higher the pollution levels claimed, the greater their pollution allowance (Michael Belliveau, op. cit.).

42 "Missing the Point of Development Talk: Reflections for Activists", Corner House Briefing Paper No. 13, August 1998.

43 The report, prepared in response to a request from the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice at its Eighth Session, Bonn, June, 1998, is charged with assessing the "potential of other human-induced additional activities as mentioned in Article 3.4" of the Kyoto Protocol "and issues associated with operationalizing this Article". See Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change document No. 12327/M/IPCC/SRLFC, Annex 1, Geneva, 27 May 1999. As David Bloor remarks, "We do not [stop reasoning scientifically] in order to protect our institutions from collapse under the pressure of logical criticism. Rather, it is because we routinely accept [their] activities ... that we adjust our reasoning" (Knowledge and Social Imagery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991, pp.142-46). See also Cohn, C., "Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals" in Laslett, B., Kohlstedt, S. G., et al. (eds.), Gender and Scientific Authority, Chicago, 1996, for a parallel discussion on how, in the 1980s, the issue of the impossibility of "limited nuclear war" or "surgically clean counterforce strikes" could not easily be raised within the language used in nuclear war-planning institutions. For different views of the phenomenon, see Donald Davidson, "Paradoxes of Irrationality" in Richard Wollheim (ed.), Essays on Freud, Penguin, London, 1982, and James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine: "Development", Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990.

44 "Trading off trees for pollution", Timber & Wood Products, 6 February 1999.

45 The Australian, 27 October 1998.

46 Sunday Age (Melbourne), 12 March 1995

47 Los Angeles Times, 24 March 1999; Dow Jones Newswires, 24 March 1999.

48 South China Morning Post, 2 November 1998; Emily Saunderson, "Exchanges Look to the Environment", Environmental Finance 1, 5, March 2000, p.23.

49 FACE Foundation website,, accessed 8 April 1999.

50 Timber & Wood Products, op. cit.

51 Canada News Wire, 2 November 1998. Much carbon forestry trading also occurs inside national boundaries. For instance, Delta Electricity and State Forests of New South Wales have established a joint venture pine plantation, with Delta providing the land in exchange for the future right to the carbon (Canberra Times, 3 November 1998). In New Zealand, the Minister for the Environment has ruled that the Electricity Corporation be granted an air-discharge consent for the 400-megawatt Stratford power station on condition that it plants a forest to absorb the plant's emissions (National Business Review, 2 June 1995). Planting trees in Britain to "compensate" for the pollution created by their business ventures are the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, Fulham Football Club, Whole Earth foods, musicians Julian Lennon, Neneh Cherry and Keith Allen, and artist and restauranteur Damien Hirst (Timber & Wood Products, op. cit.).

52 Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 27 July 1997; Independent (London), 3 October 1998; United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, "Scolel Té: Carbon Sequestration and Sustainable Forest Management in Chiapas", USIJI Uniform Reporting Document: Activities Implemented Jointly Under the Pilot Phase,, accessed 20 April 2000.

53 WRM Bulletin 1999.

54 Saunderson, op. cit., p.23.

55 Business Week, 9 November 1998. Mike Read Associates claims that "there are already over 100 [carbon sequestration and storage] projects around the world, with many more in preparation" (Sink or Swim? How Can Forestry Be Used to Mitigate Climate Change?, report prepared for World Wide Fund for Nature, 1998,, accessed 9 April 1999).

56 This scenario is implied by J. Smith, et al., op. cit.; CIEL, op. cit. 18; L. H. Kosloff, "Climate Change and Sustainable Development: Linking Climate Change Mitigation with Sustainable Economic Development: A Status Report", Widener Law Symposium Journal 3, Fall 1998, pp.379-80; M. Trexler, and C. Haugen, Keeping it Green: Global Warming Mitigation Through Tropical Forestry, World Resources Institute, Washington, 1994; Grainger, A., "Estimating Areas of Degraded Tropical Lands Requiring Replenishment of Forest Cover", International Tree Crops Journal 5, 31, 1988.

57 K. R. Richards, "Joint Implementation in the Framework Convention on Climate Change: Opportunities and Pitfalls", in An Economic Perspective on Climate Change Policies, ACCF Center for Policy Research, 1996, cited in D. M. Goldberg and G. M. Wiser, op. cit.

58 An exception is an arrangement by which the the Coordinating Body for the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) receives funds from European municipalities for forest and land rights protection through the German-based Climate Alliance.

59 For a brief survey of this process as it relates to English woodlands, see Larry Lohmann, "Forests: Myths and Realities of Violent Conflicts" in Mohamed Suliman, (ed.) Ecology, Politics and Violent Conflict, Zed, London, 1999, pp.158-80.

60 E. P. Thompson, Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, London, 1963.

61 Even for privatization enthusiasts, it is still unclear who is to own what proportion of the carbon credits supposedly "created" by sculpting new carbon sinks out of trees in a Southern country -- the host state, the private project developer, Northern donor states, other investors, local landowners, "carbon workers", or local residents (D. M. Goldberg and G. M. Wiser, op. cit.).

62 Leggett, op. cit.

63 WRM Bulletin 1999

64 F. J. Dyson, "Can We Control Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere?", Energy 2, 1976, pp.287-291. For Sedjo's estimate see J. R. Sullivan, op. cit. See also B. W. Walsh, "World Forests", American Forests 95, 11/12, November 1989, p.28 and R. Sedjo and A. M. Solomon, "Climate and Forests" in N. J. Rosenbert et al. (eds.) Greenhouse Warming: Abatement and Adaptation, Resources for the Future, Washington, 1989. Norman Myers, a wildlife biologist, once calculated that a eucalyptus or pine plantation the size of Western Europe, or perhaps Zaire, ought to be enough to remove three billion tons of carbon dioxide from the air. According to the IPCC, op. cit., if the total area of plantations currently planned were fixing carbon with maximum efficiency, they would be able to store only one to two gigatons per year, as against the current estimated surplus of CO2 in the atmosphere of 175 gigatons, increasing by six gigatons per year.

65 Alex Michaelowa, "AIJ Cannot Function without Incentives", in Riemer, P., Smith, A. and Thambimuthu, K. (eds.), Greenhouse Gas Mitigation: Technologies for Activities Implemented Jointly, Amsterdam, 1998, pp.403-408; World Resources Institute, "Mitigating Climate Change through Forestry", accessed 27 March 1999.

66 The PIG Report for Non-Profit Accountability Project,; Canada News Wire, 12 November 1998

67 IPCC, second draft Special Report on Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry, Chapter 6, 1999.

68 Ironically, while the paper industry is looking forward to genetically-engineered plantation trees low in lignin -- a structural element in trees which must be removed in the manufacture of high-quality paper -- the incipient carbon industry is looking forward to genetically-engineered trees with extra lignin to foster long survival.

69 The Age (Melbourne), 7 January 1995.

70 The Guardian (London), 22 February 2000.

71 United Nations Environment Programme News Release, Nairobi, 23 October 1998.

72 NotiSur: Latin American Political Affairs (University of New Mexico), "Buenos Aires Hosts Follow-Up to UN Global-Warming Meeting at Kyoto", 20 November 1998.

73 Irish Times; Business Times (Malaysia).

74 New Scientist, 23 October 1999.

75 Thanks to Ricardo Carrere, Cathy Fogel, Aubrey Meyer, Tim Forsyth, Chris Lang, Marcus Colchester, Alvaro Gonzalez, Sarah Sexton, Bill Barclay, Patrick Anderson, Anna Fanzeres, Nick Hildyard, Lambert Okrah, Robert Mowbray, Mick Kelly, Yoichi Kuroda and Korinna Horta, none of whom is responsible for the result.