When released into the atmosphere CO2 remains active for 100 years. Forests on which the carbon offsets are based, rarely remain intact for that long.
Photography by Fernando Martinho, for ProPublic
RIO BRANCO, BRAZIL — The state of Acre, on the western edge of Brazil, is so remote, there’s a national joke that it doesn’t exist. But for geochemist Foster Brown, it’s the center of the universe, a place that could help save the world.
“This is an example of hope,” he said, as we stood behind his office at the Federal University of Acre, a tropical campus carved into the Amazon rainforest. Brown placed his hand on a spindly trunk, ordering me to follow his lead. “There is a flow of water going up that stem, and there is a flow of sap coming down, and when it comes down it has carbon compounds,” he said. “Do you feel that?”
I couldn’t feel a thing. But that invisible process holds the key to a massive flow of cash into Brazil and an equally pivotal opportunity for countries trying to head off climate change without throwing their economies into turmoil. If the carbon in these trees could be quantified, then Acre could sell credits to polluters emitting clouds of CO₂. Whatever they release theoretically would be offset, or canceled out, by the rainforest.
Five thousand miles away in California, politicians, scientists, oil tycoons and tree huggers are bursting with excitement over the idea. The state is the second-largest carbon polluter in America, and its oil and gas industry emits about 50 million metric tons of CO₂ a year. What if Chevron or Shell or Phillips 66 could offset some of their damage by paying Brazil not to cut down trees?
The appetite is global. For the airline industry and industrialized nations in the Paris climate accord, offsets could be a cheap alternative to actually reducing fossil fuel use.
But the desperate hunger for these carbon credit plans appears to have blinded many of their advocates to the mounting pile of evidence that they haven’t — and won’t — deliver the climate benefit they promise. MORE