How California’s Forest Carbon Offset Rules Allow Inflated Climate Benefits
One way the California Air Resources Board determines the number of credits for a project is by comparing the carbon stored in that forest against regional averages. The bigger the difference between the two, the more credits, and money, landowners can earn.
Sources: California Air Resources Board, Forest Inventory and Analysis Program Credit: Lucas Waldron, ProPublica
Preserving especially carbon-rich forests is good for the climate, in and of itself. But when the trees in the project area bear little resemblance to the types of trees that went into calculating the regional average, it exaggerates the number of credits at stake, CarbonPlan’s study found.
Mark Trexler, a former offsets developer who worked in earlier US and European carbon markets, said the board should have anticipated the perverse incentives created by its program.
“When people write offset rules, they always ignore the fact that there are 1,000 smart people next door that will try to game them,” he said. Since the board set up a system that “incentivizes people to find the areas that are high-density, or high-carbon, that’s what they’re going to do.”
To estimate the extent of overcrediting in California’s program, CarbonPlan calculated its own version of regional averages for each project. The researchers drew on the same raw data used by the Air Resources Board, but only used data from tree species that more closely resemble the particular mix of trees in each project area.
In total, 74 such projects had been established as of September 2020, when CarbonPlan began its research. CarbonPlan was able to study 65 projects that had enough documentation to make analysis possible. All received credits for holding more carbon than the regional average.
The researchers found that the vast majority of projects were overcredited, but about a dozen would have received more credits under CarbonPlan’s formula. Those included two New Forests projects, which would have earned as much as an additional 165,000 credits.
The news organizations sent officials at the Air Resources Board a copy of the study and its detailed methodology weeks before publication. Clegern declined multiple requests to interview board staff and responded only in writing.
He did not address CarbonPlan’s calculations. “We were not given sufficient time to fully analyze an unpublished study and are not commenting further on the authors’ alternative methodology,” he wrote.
The outside scientists who reviewed the research on behalf of ProPublica and MIT Technology Review praised the study.
“It’s a really analytically robust paper and it answers a really important policy question,” said Daniel Sanchez, who runs the Carbon Removal Laboratory at UC Berkeley. While close observers are well aware of numerous problems with California’s forest offset rules, “they’re revealing a deeper set of serious methodological flaws,” he said.
None of the reviewers pointed out any major technical or conceptual flaws with the paper, which has been submitted to a journal for peer review.
“A significant new commodity market”
In early 2015, an offsets nonprofit hosted a webinar highlighting how Native American tribes could participate in California’s program.
One speaker was Brian Shillinglaw, a Stanford-trained lawyer and managing director at New Forests who oversees the company’s US forestry programs. The company manages the sale of carbon credits, sells timber, and on behalf of investors manages more than 2 million acres of forests globally, a portfolio it values at more than $4 billion.
New Forests also manages its affiliate, Forest Carbon Partners, on behalf of an institutional investment client it declined to name. Forest Carbon Partners finances offset projects and shepherds landowners through the process of applying for California’s offset program.
“The bottom line is the California carbon market has really created a significant new commodity market,” Shillinglaw said during his presentation. He said the program is something “many Native American tribes are very well situated to benefit from, in part due to past conservative stewardship of their forests, which can lead to significant credit yield in the near term.”
Translation: Because many tribes have logged less aggressively than their neighbors, their carbon-rich forests were primed for big payouts of credits. Under Shillinglaw, New Forests or Forest Carbon Partners have helped to secure tens of millions of dollars’ worth of credits for native tribes.
Among the 13 New Forests projects that CarbonPlan researchers were able to analyze, between 33% and 71% of the credits don’t represent real carbon reductions. That’s nearly 13 million credits at the high end.
“Although we cannot prove that New Forests acted deliberately on the basis of our statistical analysis, in our judgment there is no reasonable explanation for these outcomes other than that New Forests knowingly engaged in cherry-picking behavior to take advantage of ecological shortcomings in the forest offset protocol,” said Badgley, the lead researcher.
New Forests managed the first official project in California’s program, registering 7,660 acres of forest land on or near the Yurok Reservation, which runs more than 40 miles along the Klamath River near the top of that West Coast cluster of projects. The state issued more than 700,000 credits to the project for its first year, worth $9.6 million at recent rates.
State officials have pointed to the tribe’s participation as a triumph of the program. In 2014, the board released a promotional video that showed the meticulous work of measuring trees in the Yurok project. James Erler, the tribe’s then forestry director, explained how offsets enabled the tribe to reduce logging. Near the end of the video, Shillinglaw appeared in a sunlit forest, wearing a collared shirt and a New Forests–branded jacket.
“It’s a beautiful watershed,” Shillinglaw said over footage of a running stream and an elk standing before a thicket of trees. “This is the Yurok Tribe’s ancestral homeland and, in part due to the carbon market, will be managed through a conservation approach.”
CarbonPlan estimates the project earned more than half a million ghost credits worth nearly $6.5 million.
Here’s why the researchers say it was overcredited:
The boundary dividing California’s coastal and inland regions runs through the middle of the reservation. The carbon-rich forests on either side of that line are similar, filled with large Douglas firs like most of the coastal region. But more than 99% of the forest designated for preservation falls within the inland zone, where average carbon levels are much lower. The fact that the project was located in the most carbon-rich area of that zone enabled the landowners to earn an exaggerated number of credits.
The Yurok Tribe worked with New Forests to develop a 7,660-acre offset project on the eastern side of its land.
The fact that the carbon-rich project fell in a region with far lower carbon averages may have produced more than half a million credits of dubious climate value.
At least one person involved in the Yurok Tribe’s forest offset efforts was aware of how geographical choices swing the credits that can be earned.
Erler said during a 2015 presentation at a National Indian Timber Symposium that the tribe had the “distinct pleasure” of having the boundary run through its territory.
“You can take the same inventory data and apply it to the California Coast”—the region to the west—“and it doesn’t come out with the same numbers as you do if you cross the street,” Erler said at the conference, captured in a YouTube video posted to the Intertribal Timber Council’s channel. “Vegetation may be the same, but it changes.”
Badgley said that while the researchers can’t speak to the intentions of any actors involved, it’s clear that this project “benefited from overcrediting and that the Yurok Tribe’s forester was aware how the specific aspects of the protocol rules our study criticizes led to beneficial outcomes.”
Erler didn’t respond to a list of emailed questions.
In an emailed statement, Yurok spokesperson Matt Mais said that the property was the only land the tribe had available to enroll at the time and strongly denied the tribe engaged in any sort of gaming of the system. He didn’t respond before press time to a subsequent inquiry asking why the rest of the tribe’s land wasn’t available for the offset program.
Over the last decade or so, the tribe has slowly reacquired tens of thousands of acres of its ancestral territory, in and around the watershed of Blue Creek and other streams that sustain migrating salmon, from the Green Diamond Resource Company, a major Seattle-based timber business. The complex multistep land deals were done in partnership with the nonprofit Western Rivers Conservancy and financed through government grants, philanthropic donations, and the sale of the tribe’s offset credits.
“As we have recovered additional forestlands, we have enrolled additional acreage in California’s climate programs in support of our Tribe’s strategic goals including protecting salmon habitat, sustaining the revitalization of our cultural lifeways, and facilitating economic self-sufficiency,” Mais wrote.
“It’s insulting to claim that the Yurok Tribe has ‘gamed’ or ‘exploited’ California’s climate regulations,” he added. “Equally important, it’s concerning that elite institutions now criticize us for legally and ethically using a program that was created to protect mature forests and then using those funds to purchase and restore more forest land that was, at one point, ours.”
New Forests defended its practices in emailed responses to questions, arguing its projects have preserved existing carbon stocks and removed CO2 from the atmosphere through subsequent tree growth “as confirmed via third-party verification.”
In a statement, the company said it has worked on projects in numerous areas, not just along the program’s regional boundaries. The company said its projects “have protected and will enhance carbon storage on hundreds of thousands of acres of forests,” adding that one project with the Chugach Alaska Corporation enabled the permanent retirement of a significant portion of the coal reserves in the Bering River Coal Field in southeastern Alaska.
New Forests follows the board’s “scientifically accepted regulations to both the spirit and letter of the program,” the company said in a subsequent statement. “New Forests is proud of the forest carbon projects we have developed under California’s climate programs—they have generated positive environmental impact and furthered the economic and cultural objectives of the family forest landowners and Native American tribes with whom we have worked.”
New Forests didn’t respond to numerous additional inquiries, including direct questions about whether it was gaming the rules of the program.
In an emailed response, CarbonPlan stressed that its paper criticizes the design of the program—not the Yurok Tribe or other landowners. Nor does it allege anyone has broken the rules. Its analysis doesn’t consider or depend on the intent of any forest owners, who can benefit from flaws in the rules whether they intended to or even know about them.
“We recognize the injustices experienced by the Yurok Tribe, including the seizure of their historical lands by the United States government and its citizens,” the nonprofit stated. “We also recognize the Yurok Tribe’s legitimate interest in securing resources to repurchase lands that previously belonged to the Tribe and its people.”
Audio Postcard: Real-time farming
Pinot Grigio actually makes a white wine and it’s won a few varieties in California that, uh, is a pretty common variety that actually we make purple grapes that make a white wine. So my name is Dirk Heuvel and I’m the VP of vineyard operations here at McManis family vineyards.
My family actually kind of set roots here, actually farming almonds. And some people say almonds, we say in Ripon, and we say, say, almonds.
I feel like, if it was like my dad or my grandpa trying to adopt this technology, absolutely. I think there’d be a huge culture shock there for them. I still think they don’t quite understand it, but they’re seeing the results of it. So I think that’s the most important thing—that we’re able to show them that it is working and how it’s working for us.
I will say today, I feel that we’re growing better quality grapes than we were 30 years ago. Just adapting a lot of this aerial imagery, modern irrigation technology, running drip system technology, you know, being able to fertilize through drip systems. And you can actually look at the imaging on your phone and you can actually pinpoint go out and walk to a specific vine. You know, that might be a vine that died, that shows up on the aerial imaging. You can use the technology and, and walk right into a specific area. Just being able to identify areas, you know, using GPS. We can have field checkers go through the field now and on their app, they’re able to actually drop and pinpoint where we might have mite issues where we might have, you know, leafhopper issues, areas that need to get treated. And that actually allows us to go through and just cite specific treat. Instead of treating an entire vineyard block, we’re able to just treat specific areas.
Jennifer: It was only what like five, seven years ago, it was half of farm workers weren’t using smartphones.
Dirk Heuvel: Yeah.
Jennifer: So, if people are dropping pins that’s…
Dirk Heuvel: Yeah. You know, 30 years ago, in order to make a phone call, you’d have to drive in a, in a town or go to your house to call your irrigator to do stuff. And now it’s, this is almost, it’s like real time farming. Now we can make decisions on the fly. And one of the big advantages to using variable rate applications is that you’re only applying the amount of nutrients or amendments that are needed for a specific area. So before we adapted this variable rate technology, we would drive down a row and we would put a consistent amount of amendments, whether it be gypsum, lime, soil, sulfur, we would apply that amount evenly throughout the entire vineyard block. Now we realize going through and using this variable rate technology is that we might cut the, the amendments that are needed by 20 to 30% on a specific vineyard block, just by applying the correct amounts of nutrients where they’re needed and not overlying where they’re not needed
The Download: dual-driving AI, and Russia’s Telegram propaganda
This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.
This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles
The news: Wayve, a driverless-car startup based in London, has made a machine-learning model that can drive two different types of vehicle: a passenger car and a delivery van. It is the first time the same AI driver has learned to drive multiple vehicles.
Why it matters: While robotaxis have made it to a handful of streets in Phoenix and San Francisco, their success has been limited. Wayve is part of a new generation of startups ditching the traditional robotics mindset—where driverless cars rely on super-detailed 3D maps and modules for sensing and planning. Instead, these startups rely entirely on AI to drive the vehicles.
What’s next: The advance suggests that Wayve’s approach to autonomous vehicles, in which a deep-learning model is trained to drive from scratch, could help it scale up faster than its leading rivals. Read the full story.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Russia’s battle to convince people to join its war is being waged on Telegram
Putin’s propaganda: When Vladimir Putin declared the partial call-up of military reservists on September 21, in a desperate effort to try to turn his long and brutal war in Ukraine in Russia’s favor, he kicked off another, parallel battle: one to convince the Russian people of the merits and risks of conscription. And this one is being fought on the encrypted messaging service Telegram.
Opposing forces: Following the announcement, pro-Kremlin Telegram channels began to line up dutifully behind Putin’s plans, eager to promote the idea that the war he is waging is just and winnable. But whether this vein of propaganda is working is far from certain. For all the work the government is doing to try to control the narrative, there’s a vibrant opposition on the same platform working to undermine it—and offering support for those seeking to dodge the draft. Read the full story.
NASA’s DART mission is on track to crash into an asteroid today
NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test spacecraft, or DART, is on course to collide with the asteroid Dimorphos at 7.14pm ET today. Though Dimorphos is not about to collide with Earth, DART is intended to demonstrate the ability to deflect an asteroid like it that is headed our way, should one ever be discovered.
Read more about the DART mission, and how the crash is likely to play out.
I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.
1 The US says Russia will face catastrophe if it uses nuclear weapons
It’s hard to know whether Putin’s threat is a bluff—or deadly serious. (The Guardian)
+ Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky thinks it is very real. (CNBC)
+ What is the risk of a nuclear accident in Ukraine? (MIT Technology Review)
2 YouTube wants to lure creators away from TikTok with cash
But it won’t say how much. (MIT Technology Review)
3 Germany’s zero-tolerance for hate speech is a double-edged sword
While the threat of fines disincentivizes some perpetrators, activists worry that too many people are being targeted. (NYT $)
+ Misinformation is already shaping US voters’ decisions ahead of November’s midterms. (NYT $)
4 Why even the largest companies are vulnerable to hacking
A zero-trust approach is helpful, but will only take you so far. (WSJ $)
+ Hackers can disrupt image-recognition systems using radio waves. (New Scientist $)
+ Microsoft is optimistic that AI can root out bad actors. (Bloomberg $)
+ The hacking industry faces the end of an era. (MIT Technology Review)
6 Fighting climate change extends beyond kicking corporations
A more nuanced approach could be required to speed up the transition to cleaner energy. (The Atlantic $)
+ Global wildfires mean that snow is melting quicker than usual. (Slate $)
+ Disaster insurance is increasingly tricky to navigate. (Knowable Magazine)
+ Carbon removal hype is becoming a dangerous distraction. (MIT Technology Review)
7 Crypto’s fired workers don’t know what to do next
But plenty of them haven’t let their experiences put them off the sector. (The Information $)
+ Interpol has issued a red notice for Terraform Labs’ co-founder Do Kwon. (Bloomberg $)
9 Why neuroscience is making a comeback
Some experts are convinced that making neurology and psychiatry departments work closer together is long overdue. (Economist $)
10 How plant-based meat fell out of fashion
Evangelists are convinced the nascent industry is merely experiencing teething problems. (The Guardian)
+ Your first lab-grown burger is coming soon—and it’ll be “blended”. (MIT Technology Review)
Quote of the day
“There’s definitely the boys’ club that still exists.”
—Taryn Langer, founder of public relations firm Moxie Communications Group, tells the New York Times about her frustrations at the sexist state of the tech industry.
The big story
The quest to learn if our brain’s mutations affect mental health
Scientists have struggled in their search for specific genes behind most brain disorders, including autism and Alzheimer’s disease. Unlike problems with some other parts of our body, the vast majority of brain disorder presentations are not linked to an identifiable gene.
But a University of California, San Diego study published in 2001 suggested a different path. What if it wasn’t a single faulty gene—or even a series of genes—that always caused cognitive issues? What if it could be the genetic differences between cells?
The explanation had seemed far-fetched, but more researchers have begun to take it seriously. Scientists already knew that the 85 billion to 100 billion neurons in your brain work to some extent in concert—but what they want to know is whether there is a risk when some of those cells might be singing a different genetic tune. Read the full story.
We can still have nice things
+ Some gadgets are definitely more useful than others.
+ Calling all cat lovers! This potted history of mischievous felines in French painter Alexandre-François Desportes’ work is heartwarming stuff (thanks Melissa!)
+ A useful guide to working out what you really want from life.
+ A Ukrainian startup is reportedly planning to use AI to clone the iconic voice of James Earl Jones, aka Darth Vader.
+ The rumors are true—butter really is having a moment.
This startup’s AI is smart enough to drive different types of vehicles
Jay Gierak at Ghost, which is based in Mountain View, California, is impressed by Wayve’s demonstrations and agrees with the company’s overall viewpoint. “The robotics approach is not the right way to do this,” says Gierak.
But he’s not sold on Wayve’s total commitment to deep learning. Instead of a single large model, Ghost trains many hundreds of smaller models, each with a specialism. It then hand codes simple rules that tell the self-driving system which models to use in which situations. (Ghost’s approach is similar to that taken by another AV2.0 firm, Autobrains, based in Israel. But Autobrains uses yet another layer of neural networks to learn the rules.)
According to Volkmar Uhlig, Ghost’s co-founder and CTO, splitting the AI into many smaller pieces, each with specific functions, makes it easier to establish that an autonomous vehicle is safe. “At some point, something will happen,” he says. “And a judge will ask you to point to the code that says: ‘If there’s a person in front of you, you have to brake.’ That piece of code needs to exist.” The code can still be learned, but in a large model like Wayve’s it would be hard to find, says Uhlig.
Still, the two companies are chasing complementary goals: Ghost wants to make consumer vehicles that can drive themselves on freeways; Wayve wants to be the first company to put driverless cars in 100 cities. Wayve is now working with UK grocery giants Asda and Ocado, collecting data from their urban delivery vehicles.
Yet, by many measures, both firms are far behind the market leaders. Cruise and Waymo have racked up hundreds of hours of driving without a human in their cars and already offer robotaxi services to the public in a small number of locations.
“I don’t want to diminish the scale of the challenge ahead of us,” says Hawke. “The AV industry teaches you humility.”