Exploring the Multiple Subjectivities of Forest Carbon Offsets

What is a forest carbon offset, anyway?
by Lauren Gifford

Lauren Gifford is a PhD candidate in Geography. She was the first recipient of the Radford Byerly, Jr. Award in Science and Technology Policy. She used the grant, in part, to support summer dissertation research in Grand Lake Stream, Maine, and will share some of her research findings at the CSTPR seminar series on September 13, 2017.

Within geography, I identify as a critical political ecologist who uses science and technology studies (STS) to broadly ask how, and by whom, climate and conservation policies are enacted. I focus primarily on forest carbon offsets, conserved forestlands that “offset” industrial greenhouse gas emissions. These forest offsets are translated into credits and traded on carbon markets as representations of avoided GHG emissions and are used by countries and companies to balance administrative carbon budgets. My research focuses on carbon offset projects in Maine that sell carbon credits to California’s cap and trade market. My dissertation explores how a mechanism originally designed to address industrial GHG emissions in California has become a major tool for forest conservation and economic development in Maine—essentially how climate policy in one place has driven large scale investment in another. I argue that, in achieving mutually exclusive goals, these mechanisms often overlook the atmospheric carbon concentrations they were designed to address.

Forest carbon offset projects, in which conservation and forest management support carbon sequestration, produce carbon credits for both voluntary and compliance carbon markets like California’s cap and trade program. Part of an umbrella of development that includes the contentious REDD+ mechanism, forest carbon projects are employed to simultaneously support conservation, carbon sequestration, and the balancing of administrative carbon budgets. They were originally designed to serve the dual goals of slowing tropical deforestation in places like Brazil, Indonesia and central Africa, while sequestering carbon to offset pollution from industrial polluters in the global north. But increasingly– part of a trend toward the neoliberalization of conservation and environmental management– land managers are turning to carbon offsets as new funding streams to support existing conservation projects or foster more ambitious protection endeavors.

Forest carbon projects are gaining popularity in the US and, in particular in Maine. Maine has long been a key player in the US timber industry where there is a critical mass of large tacts of privately held land, many with existing conservation easements. In Maine, forest carbon projects are increasingly being used to fill economic voids amid the dismantled vertically-integrated pulp and paper industry. My fieldwork is primarily based in Grand Lake Stream, a remote town in the northeastern part of the state that’s home to four forest carbon projects—some of the most established initiatives in the country.

My research examines the use of forest carbon offsets as a means of conservation finance, and looks at the complexity of linking forest conservation to financialized carbon storage. I question the shift of a mechanism often criticized for its neocolonial implications of north/south capital flows, to one re-imagined by US landholders, reconfigured to administratively meet their needs, often without real change to forest management practices.

My dissertation is based on five years of qualitative data collection on forest carbon projects in the US and Latin America—with a focus on two projects, one in Maine and the other in the Peruvian Amazon. Additional data was gathered via annual attendance at the United Nations climate negotiations, meetings of emissions trading and ecosystem services professional communities, and via participant observation in carbon accounting training courses through the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute. The latter was employed to critically study the techniques and discourses used by carbon accounting and verification professionals.

The results of this research are vast, and I will spend the next few months wading through empirical and theoretical questions to help frame these findings in ways that are useful to science and policy communities. I’ll begin by exploring the multiple subjectivities of forest carbon offsets, asking how they work to co-produce one another, and ultimately how they influence seemingly dispirit climate and conservation policies. In short, I’ll distill this data in order to return to (and answer) the simple question that drove me to chase this topic in the first place: “What is a forest carbon offset, anyway?”

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