How a conservation non-profit made climate change worse by not cutting down trees

A new report from the MIT Technology Review serves as perfect microcosm of everything wrong with the carbon credit system here in these United States of America. The article explores the case of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, a 125-year-old conservation non-profit that protects some 38,000 acres of land. Back in 2015, Mass Audubon told the California Air Resources Board that it could log 9,700 acres of the land it owned, but that it would not do so, and therefore qualified to receive some 600,000 carbon credits from the state of California.

Basically: Mass Audubon convinced a government agency to pay them for not doing a thing they weren't going to do in the first place. Then they turned around and sold those carbon credits for around $6 million to a bunch of oil and gas companies, allowing them to increase their carbon emissions.

The idea behind these carbon credits is that someone does something that helps reduce carbon emissions, which offsets some other carbon emission somewhere else. I plant enough trees (or, in this case, don't cut down trees) that consume X amount of carbon, which then gives me the right to emit X amount of carbon — or, sell that right to someone else who wants to emit that carbon. In a supposedly perfect world where this works, this would eventually lead to an overall decrease in carbon emissions (or at the very worst, keep things at a stable level).

Except that's not what happens. Mass Audubon had no intention of ever cutting down those 9,700 acres of forest. So the carbon credits they received weren't actually offsetting anything; instead, they just allowed some other companies to produce more carbon emissions, with nothing to offset them. As the Tech Review explains:

In order for California's system to work, carbon market experts say, the program must cause carbon savings that wouldn't have happened in the absence of the program. If Mass Audubon had already planned to preserve the forest, then the carbon credits program is paying to save trees that were never at risk.

The concept in question is known as "additionality." And how regulators create rules to ensure it happens is at the heart of the debate about whether California's carbon offset program is actually benefiting the environment.

To the Air Resources Board, the landowner's intent is not important. So long as the land could have been logged in a way that is legal, doesn't lose money, and doesn't exceed typical logging practices in that region, the agency's rules treat the savings to the atmosphere as real.

Some offset researchers argue that the state's approach allows landowners to claim credits for trees that were never in danger.

New research by the San Francisco nonprofit CarbonPlan provides evidence that this is occurring: It shows that landowners in the program routinely maximize the number of trees they assert they could chop down if they weren't given carbon credits, even if they have little history of logging or have mission statements in sharp opposition to such practices.

Of course, from the perspective of a conservation non-profit, they just made an extra $6 million which they can use to aid in their conservation efforts. Think of it like poaching expeditions cooperating with animal conservationists — we promise we'll only kill some of the animals, and you get a little cash kickback to help you protect the rest of the animals.

In the case of Mass Audubon, they made blood money to aid in their conservation efforts by enabling fossil fuel companies to increase their carbon emissions, with no actual offsets, which will ultimately do more damage to the planet through climate change.

You'd think that would run counter to the mission of the organization.

You'd think.

A nonprofit promised to preserve wildlife. Then it made millions claiming it could cut down trees. [Lisa Song and James Temple / MIT Technology Review]