On November 30th, I spent part of my day lying on the ground in the middle of a busy intersection in the heart of Chicago’s financial district with my arms locked into big plastic tubes that connected me to 11 other people. Our arms, in the tubes, were linked to form a big circle of bodies and tubes, around the outside of a large banner reading “The air is not for sale!”.
We chose that particular spot, under the shadow of the Chicago Climate Exchange’s offices, and caddy corner to the Chicago Board of Trade, to denounce the marketing of carbon as a fraud, an ineffective and unjust response to the crisis of climate change.
Our act of nonviolent civil disobedience resulted in closing down the flow of traffic through the financial district for close to two hours. The police sirens wailed, while activists chanted “Carbon Trade is a Big Charade” and “Keep the Cap and Ditch the Trade”.
After the considerable stress of delicate timing issues and dodging police attentions we were all a bit surprised at how easily and well orchestrated our arrival and takeover of the intersection went. But what was even more surprising to me was the profound sense of peace and power that I felt lying flat on my back in the middle of the road in a busy Chicago intersection. Looking up beyond the top of the Climate Exchange building, was a brilliant blue sky, with puffy clouds blowing across. The sky, our climate, this extraordinarily beautiful vision of the “Air That Is Not For Sale” – a line of vision that spoke directly to the very core of our reasoning for lying on the pavement in a busy intersection with our arms locked together…calm and empowered in spite of the growing numbers of frustrated police and wailing sirens.
Our mission? The Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) is the
nations first and largest carbon trading platform. This is where industries and individuals go to engage in the charade of trade if they want to pretend to be addressing global warming. The Exchange is a voluntary one: participants are not required by any law or governmental mandate to reduce their emissions. Since the US is not even a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, there is nothing forcing them to participate. But many choose to do so. Why? For some, like American Electric Power, DuPont and Ford Motor, most likely the motivation is to learn how to navigate these markets in preparation for what is seen by many as an inevitable future mandate (the house last June passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which includes a national cap and trade program with offset provisions, but the Senate has yet to take up the matter). Nonetheless, many want to “get ready”, and the CCX projects itself as the prototype for any future mandatory market. Other participants want to benefit from the greenwash that can be gained by claiming participation. A company that boldly claims to offset its’ emissions can project a green image, appealing to many potential clients who have at least a budding consciousness about environmental concerns. In short, greenwash is profitable!
What does the CCX offer? CCX, like other carbon trade venues, has a heavy focus on gas reclaiming projects – coal mine methane, landfill gas and livestock gas capture and destruction of HFC’s. These are all based on what are questionable practices in the first place (wouldn’t it be better to just stop making HFC?…and to dramatically reduce what goes into landfills?) In fact, because these gases are so potent, gas capture projects generate large amounts of credits- so much so, that an incentive is created to generate even more of these gases in the first place (a “perverse incentive”). Many HFC projects have generated absurdly huge windfall profits for a small initial investment.
In addition to gas reclamation projects, the CCX is notable for their focus on agriculture and forestry sector offsets. In short, these allow polluters to offset their emissions by planting trees, or paying farmers to adopt different practices that might sequester more carbon or reduce emissions.
The Kyoto Protocol “Clean Development Mechanism” which provides offset credits, has shied away from agriculture and forestry projects. In fact, there are limitations on the amount of forestry offsets that can be utilized. The reason? Measuring the flows of carbon in and out of forests, grasslands, agricultural lands, soils or any other biological system is notoriously difficult – in order to be a viable offset for real and rather easily quantifiable emissions from fossil fuel burning, a land based offset project must provide real, measurable reductions, that go beyond what would otherwise have been the case (are “additional), and are likely to last (are permanent) and can be verified. Living systems have a nasty habit of doing unexpected things like dying, burning or failing to thrive.
But the CCX has no qualms about such projects and claims to be able to really and truly offset fossil fuel emissions with agriculture and forestry offsets. What does this mean? It means that a coal plant in Ohio can purchase offset credits from a farmer in Iowa who claims to be switching to “no till” in his soya plantation. Note the use of the word “claims”. The CCX has already come under scrutiny when a farmer question about his practices revealed that he had been practicing no till for 14 years prior to registering with the CCX. In short, nothing had changed in his fields that could be claimed to be offsetting those coal plant emissions.
No till is generally a practice of industrial soy farms, among the most destructive and carbon intensive of all farming practices. involving GMO “Roundup Ready” soy and toxic herbicides.
By not tilling, soil disturbance is reduced, which supposedly reduces CO2 emissions. But in fact, it depends on the soil type and other factors. Some studies indicate that any savings from CO2 is counterbalanced by an increase in nitrous oxide emissions from fields under no till. And, without tilling, more toxic herbicides are required to keep weeds down. In sum, the jury is still out on whether no till really reduces emissions overall?or not. Once again, the proposed solution, instead of addressing the root of the problem, attempts to make something very nasty, perhaps slightly less offensive. Not exactly inspirational.
Worldwide, at least 100 million hectares of “chemical no till” is in practice, mainly in north and south America. The vast majority is Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” varieties. Monsanto sells the seed and the herbicide. If farmers start to profit from growing Roundup Ready soy and claiming offset credits for practicing no till, then Monsanto will likely sell far more seed and herbicide. Not surprising, Monsanto is a member of CCX, and has been heavily lobbying the US Congress as the climate bill is under consideration, ensuring that agricultural offset provisions are heartily endorsed.
We know full well that organic agriculture practices, localized production, small scale “non industrial” farming methods hold the potential to dramatically reduce emissions. The Rodale Institute studies have made this clear, not to mention the voices of the largest international peasant farmers movement in the world, “La Via Campesina”, who have argued for years that “small farmers hold the key” to cooling the climate. But that is not what the CCX is supporting, nor is it what the US climate legislation will likely endorse. Apparently the lobbyists from Monsanto are better paid.
If The US passes a climate bill that resembles what has already passed the house and is currently in process in Senate, over 2 billion tons of agriculture and forestry offsets will be provided (enough, according to International Rivers, to make it possible for polluters under the cap to avoid making real emissions reductions for close to 20 years!) The international climate policy negotiators are watching this closely, having proposed inclusion of agriculture and soils into the Clean Development Mechanism in the post Kyoto agreement. The result of this, should it come to pass, will be a massive new demand for access to land – as investors recognize the profits to be made from marketing carbon. Poor farmers are not likely to win disputes, but rather will be increasingly booted off their traditional lands. Meanwhile the Post-Kyoto agreement will also likely embrace “REDD”, (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) which will result in the trade of forest carbon. Indigenous peoples of the world, a large portion of whom live in forests, are rather alarmed at this prospect. When forests become a commodity, valued for their potential to “offset” the emissions of wealthy polluters, ownership of those forests is likely to be challenged. Once again, indigenous peoples can expect to be increasingly threatened and likely to be kicked off of their traditional lands.
So, while I was lying on the pavement in the middle of the LaSalle and Adams Street, looking up at the sky, I contemplated the big picture of carbon trading, recalling some lines from the seminal “Durban Declaration” for Climate Justice: “History has seen attempts to commodify land, food, labor, forests, water, genes and ideas. Carbon trade follows in the footsteps of this history and turns the earth’s carbon cycling capacity into property to be bought and sold in a global market. Through this process of creating a new commodity, carbon, the earth’s ability and capacity to support a climate conducive to life and human societies is now passing into the same corporate hands that are destroying the climate.”
While it is presented as a “solution” to the crisis, a way to reduce emissions, it is in truth no more than a mechanism for expanding corporate control over the commons. It is the antithesis of what climate justice activists are calling for. Instead of addressing poverty, injustice, hunger, environmental degradation – the root causes of all our varied crises, carbon markets are on course to converting virtually every scrap of land, every drop of water, every patch of sky, into a commodity, available for polluters to buy and sell in their grand game of pretend.
Even worse, it seems, the charade has robbed us of our own will and integrity, leaving us feeling entirely impotent, because, we are told, it is not our own personal force, our own strength, wisdom and common sense that will lead us forward, but rather, the blind, entirely amoral “market forces” we are to put our faith in.
Surely the earth and her people will rebel! Surely we will not allow this to happen! Surely we will all stand up (or lie down) and declare that the air is not for sale, the earth is not for sale, the forests are not for sale, our farms are not for sale, nor our soils. Our forests and biodiversity are not for sale, not the polar bears, the ice caps, the orangutans – not even the spiders or fleas or even the mosquitoes. Our children’s futures are not for sale. It is time for a new relationship with the earth and with each other, and the time to make it happen is now.
That is what the clouds told us while we were lying on the cold pavement with our arms locked in tubes, in the middle of LaSalle and Adams.
Rachel Smolker is the daughter of one of the founders of the Environmental Defense Fund. She is a biologist/ecologist by training with a PhD from the University of Michigan. She spent many years as a field biologist, gaining firsthand experience with the alarming loss of biodiversity and ecosystem decline in many areas of the world. She now works as an activist, researcher and writer on various aspects of climate change, especially biomass and biofuels (with Biofuelwatch), the US climate legislation (with Climate SOS) and climate justice (with the Mobilisation for Climate Justice and others). She lives in Vermont.
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