Native American Tribes Make CA’s Cap-and-Trade Go Round

Indigenous leaders walk a trail in the Yurok Experimental Forest during a visit to the Yurok Tribe’s northern California reservation. Image: Kevin Abourezk

In 2006, California passed a groundbreaking law that required statewide emissions to be reduced to 1990 levels by 2020 with the state’s cap-and-trade system being one of the primary policies implemented to achieve this target. Part of California’s cap-and-trade programs allows polluters to buy carbon offsets from California Air Resources Board (CARB)-approved forestry projects to support carbon sequestration of properly-managed forests. Dozens of forestry projects throughout the United States (and beyond) are part of the CARB program and a good portion of them are on tribal lands. 

For Instance: The Yurok tribe’s carbon-offset project, among the first of its kind in the United States, has become the tribe’s main source of discretionary income. It has helped the tribe buy back, to date, nearly sixty thousand acres—up from five thousand, according to the New Yorker.

  • As Minnesota Public Radio explained, carbon offsets have been big money-makers for some tribes. The Passamaquoddy Tribe in Maine expects to earn around $40 million in carbon offsets on a project that protects 90,000 acres of land.

Minnesota Wants In: Thus far there haven’t been any CARB-approved forestry projects in Minnesota, but land managers and tribal leaders are working to change this. Bryan Van Stippen, who works for the Minnesota-based National Indian Carbon Coalition, told MPR that, “In my opinion, we’re starting to see a big influx of tribal nations exploring these opportunities because they can be significant revenue generators for the tribes themselves.”

Tribes Know Their Land: Native American tribes know their land and how to manage it better than any other group including the government. The UN has expressed that indigenous people must be a part of the solution to climate change as their generational knowledge of land and ecosystems is invaluable in fighting and adapting to the climate crisis (ironically, something that indigenous people played no part in creating). However, while many tribal elders have been willing to share their knowledge about their land, others have been (justifiably) reticent to do so for fear of being exploited.

Go Deeper: Last month the CARB voted 7-4 to approve a controversial carbon-offsetting standard that would let companies buy carbon credits to stop tropical deforestation as a means to offset their own emissions. Critics of the program complained that the Tropical Forest Standard wouldn’t be creating any additional forest stewardship and would rather just be paying for efforts that are already occurring. They worry that the overall cap-and-trade program is already overestimating its benefit for forests.

Why This Matters: It’s important to note that not all eligible tribe members are in favor of participating in California’s cap-and-trade scheme as they see it as a way to allow exploitive companies to keep polluting the planet. There is a sort of twisted logic in the fact that after tribes had their ancestral land stolen from them, they’re now being asked to make up for the exploitation of those lands. Monday is Indigenous Peoples Day and it’s worth it for all of us to take a moment an honor the stewardship native people have provided and continue to provide to our planet. As Grist explained,

“Indigenous peoples comprise only 5 percent of the world’s population, yet their lands encompass 22 percent of its surface. Eighty percent of the planet’s biodiversity is on the lands where they live — and it may not be a coincidence.”

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