ClimateCovid P3.4: The Price of Carbon Fantasies



Panel 3.4: The Price of Carbon Fantasies: Understanding, Resisting, and Seeking Justice Beyond Neoliberal Climate Policy Delusions

“Neoliberal Dreaming — from Globalization to Climate Crisis”

Richard Widick (UC Santa Barbara)

“When carbon pricing becomes ‘Privatization of the Air’ — An introduction to emissions trading, seen from South Africa”

Patrick Bond (University of the Western Cape, SA)

“Decolonizing Carbon: Indigenous-Led Climate Change Mitigation in the Amazon Rainforest”

Tracey Osborne (UC Merced)

“Neoliberal Legacies and Current Trends in Climate Change Policy”

Tamra L. Gilbertson (University of Tennessee, Knoxville)

“Is White Innocence Holding Back Climate Movements?”

Larry Lohmann

Q & A

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4 replies
  1. rwidick says:

    Hello, and welcome to our conference on Confronting the Climate Crisis!

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the coming days and weeks.

    Thank you in advance for your participation!

    Richard Widick
    Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies
    University of California, Santa Barbara

  2. Ivonne Yanez says:

    all the presentations were very interesting.
    I would like to make a couple of comments to Tracy Osborn’s talk and the carbon offsets project in Ecuador.
    After listening to it, I am not convinced that this project is not colonial, like any other similar one, like REDD, for example.
    I say this because instead of stopping the use of private vehicles, or changing the lifestyle, or reducing the use of materials in California, particularly at the University involved in the project, the responsibility is turned over to indigenous communities in Ecuador.
    Again there is a confusion between two carbons, the biotic and the fossil. No fossil emission can be “offset” by a mature tropical forest. It is one of the great fallacies of offsetting.
    It is a mere Payment for Environemental Service, like any other, event Tracy says that there is no financialisation, or coorporate involvement.
    Finally, how can be financed a project that claims to support communities that leave oil in the soil and, at the same time, obtain carbon offset certificates to continue doing activities based on the use of fossil fuels?
    We would like to know where in Ecuador is located the project, that was not mentionned by Tracy

  3. Larry Lohmann says:

    Like Ivonne, I would like to question the extent to which the University of California project described by Tracey is a move toward “decolonizing carbon,” and indeed whether any carbon projects of this type could ever avoid reinforcing colonialism.

    1. Tracey’s presentation is spot on in its suggestion that REDD+ is multiply colonialist: for example, that it cashes in on the colonial history that has cheapened the land and labor of peoples whose territories it tends to target; that its market orientation leaves targeted communities insufficient room to bargain for more pollution rights sales revenues or other benefits; that it has financial, political and methodological incentives for claiming that Indigenous practices are a passive, damaging baseline awaiting the active intervention of conservationist or plantation-promoting elites; that it tends to devalue Indigenous knowledge of forest sustenance and protection in favor of Western intellectual disciplines; and so on.

    2. The presentation is also on solid ground in what I take to be its tacit premise that climate action cannot continue to follow the colonialist path that the United Nations, big business and Big Green have pursued for the past quarter-century, and instead must actively engage with and work against this colonialist history.

    3. But I’m not convinced that “colonial” REDD+-type carbon projects can be “decolonized” just by sprinkling some new methodologies on top. The sharp contrast that the presentation implies between standard carbon offsets and the UC-Ecuador carbon offsets seems to me way overstated.

    4. An example. The presentation highlights the difficulty Indigenous communities targeted for carbon projects have in getting good prices for their fictitious “carbon reductions” on global markets, suggesting that the bilateral, “non-market” exchange between UC and the community in Ecuador offers opportunities for fairer negotiation. But to what extent does this affect the colonial framework shared by all carbon projects, through which continued fossil fuel extraction (a linchpin of mechanization as expanded labor control) is defended via the preservation or expansion of biotic carbon pools aboveground (a strategy of expanded land control), or via the legal annexation of hypothetical future carbon savings by accountants? The Ecuadorian community in question has no power to negotiate which categories of travel or other fossil-fuelled activity UC will classify as “avoidable” and which it will classify as “unavoidable”-but-“offsettable.” The University of California decides that unilaterally. Similarly, UC has the power to send money to support an Indigenous community fighting oil extraction in Ecuador. But that Ecuadorian community does not have the same power to fund an Indigenous community in Oklahoma, Alberta or Akwa-Ibom the seizure of whose territories makes that UC travel possible, and who might someday want to engage UC for precisely that reason. Nor does that community have the power to fund other Indigenous communities on other continents who might be fighting further carbon projects on their own territories that are designed to “offset” and justify UC staff or student travel. The adjective “colonial” applies to the skewed power relations between UC and the Ecuadorian community just as aptly as it does to the power relations embodied in conventional liquid global carbon markets. They are relations that continue to provide benefits for colonizing powers for which colonized peoples have to pay disproportionate costs.

    5. One aspect of these power relations is that, in classic colonialist fashion, they divide the colonized. “Non-market” carbon offset projects can carry out this disempowerment agenda just as effectively as “marketized” ones. In Ecuador itself, the “non-market” or “pre-market” SocioBosque program has divided Indigenous communities and even demobilized and undermined local anti-oil resistance. For example, when at one point the government ran out of money to make SocioBosque carbon payments, one community that had grown to expect them turned to oil interests instead to make up the shortfall, strengthening the hand of the local pro-petrolero faction. Other carbon offset schemes, whether marketized or not, have pitted Indigenous communities against one another whether their territories are adjacent or located on separate continents, and have also empowered more than a few repressive national forest departments bent on evictions and brutal policing methods.

    6. These power relations constitute another illustration of the oft-noted truth that there is no such thing as a carbon-oriented “climate mitigation” project that is not implicated in colonizing processes globally and oil extraction worldwide. Any supposedly “bilateral” carbon project will in fact be “located” in many countries and continents at once, as part of an intrinsically-colonialist process systemically spread across the world. The fact that we can’t specify how many distinct places the UC project in question is “located” – in addition, of course, to California and Ecuador – only underlines how many territories must be involved.

    7. A different example. The UC project described in the presentation is said to be “decolonizing,” unlike your run-of-the-mill carbon project, in that it “celebrates and encourages” Indigenous practices such as chakras rather than those of settler or foreign consultants alone. However, not all projects that base themselves on Indigenous practices in this way are decolonizing. Quite the reverse. In Burma, India and elsewhere, the taungya system associated with the German colonial forester Dietrich Brandis was and is without question “based on Indigenous knowledge, forest governance and land use practices.” Yet it was designed to deepen colonialism, and it did. It “perverted” and “adopted and adapted native logic” as it “coaxed, cajoled and coerced” Indigenous Karen hill people into becoming “landless labourers serving British commercial [teak] interests in their own hills” ( I don’t reckon there’s any need to go on about the parallels with supposedly “Indigenous-led” projects that produce bogus “carbon emissions reductions” ( instead of teak. Continuing the struggles of some of their great-great grandparents, which took place in the world of 19th-century colonial timber extraction, today’s Indigenous communities targeted for carbon projects have to adapt their practices to a world of compensation for fossil fuel extraction rather than the world of fossil fuel extraction having to adapt to theirs. They have as little say in determining whether the colonialist ideologies of “carbon neutrality” and “net zero” – with their associated agenda of imprisoning refugee fossil-origin carbon molecules in their land – is to be treated as if it were a viable basis for climate action as their ancestors did in determining whether maximal teak extraction would be treated as a viable basis for the welfare of South and Southeast Asians.

    8. Yet another example. To what extent are the bilateral intellectual exchanges between UC students and Indigenous communities in Ecuador that the project envisages likely to be “decolonizing” if they are premised on community members acquiring the Western carbon accounting and monitoring techniques required to recast local practices as assembly lines for carbon products for California? Again, there are uncomfortable parallels with the way that the hybrid-colonial forestry sciences that are dominant in forest bureaucracies in the global South – and that have so often proved to be a repressive and anti-ecological force there – arose from, and continue to arise from, just such intellectual exchanges. I have to say that I’m skeptical about whether this is the kind of thing that Linda Tuhiwai Smith had in mind in her book on Decolonizing Methodologies (, which Tracey cites as an inspiration.

    9. One more example, bearing on the very core of the colonialism that no carbon project of the UC-Ecuador variety can ever escape. I.e., the production of “avoided deforestation,” “avoided pollution” or “avoided extraction” in colonized territories as a source of fossil fuel combustion pollution rights for colonizers.

    10. How is “avoided deforestation,” “avoided pollution” or “avoided extraction” manufactured? Only by determining what is being avoided, and then assigning a number to it. Who makes this determination?

    11. In traditional REDD+, settler experts and consultants tend to decide – using econometric methods and remote sensing mixed with racial prejudice and old colonialist tropes – that the deforestation or pollution to be avoided is down partly to Indigenous or peasant practices or partly to the largely predetermined march of economic development, but can be headed off in the most cost-effective and politically-painless way by the creative intervention of white conservation and economic development in Indigenous and peasant communities. Students of history will recognize in this accounting methodology something of the old colonialist conception that there exist “people without history” (to borrow Eric Wolf’s venerable formulation, living in the mythological place that John Locke fantasized about when he said that “in the beginning, all the world was America” ( Students of the future, meanwhile, will see analogies – in the same racial trick of recurrently dichotomizing the world into white “project” and black or brown “baseline” – with the contemporary growth of policing by predictive algorithm (

    11. Whatever. The point is that the UC-Ecuador carbon project gamely seeks to turn all this on its head by insisting that it is not white agency, but Indigenous agency, that is responsible for the “avoided deforestation” or “avoided oil extraction” that is produced, and that the menacing, otherwise fated “baseline” historical sequence that is to be transcended – and to which a single number can be assigned using probabilistic methods – is in fact down to extractivism, particularly involving soy, palm oil, timber, beef and minerals, as well as Western-style conservation.

    12. Which means that the question now becomes: to what extent can colonialism be sidestepped just by admitting Indigenous agency into official carbon accounting methodologies? In reality, how much decolonizing is accomplished by this seemingly neat switcheroo of putting the corporations behind the extraction/deforestation juggernaut in the position of being those fabled “people without history” awaiting the creative intervention of Indigenous peoples? Note that the “avoided deforestation” and “avoided extraction” that is produced still goes toward perpetuating the regime of fossil extractivism and use that supports UC travel. Note that Indigenous peoples can earn their new mantle of being active interveners in history only by manufacturing quasi-commodities, in this case cheap units or tokens of UC self-regulation. Note that it remains partly the prerogative of white experts to decide that the community in Ecuador possesses agency after all. Note also that the range of baselines of “what would have happened without the project” required for manufacturing units of “avoided deforestation” or “avoided extraction” from any particular project excludes from the start any possibilities of revolutionary change through mass mobilization ( And note, finally, that both parties to the deal have economic incentives to inflate the community’s role in preventing what they claim would have happened otherwise ( The more documents can be produced that attribute – say – the defeat of extractivism in Block 22 to Waorani militancy rather than current oil economics, or “avoided” forest fire damage to local stewardship rather than passing rainstorms, the more money the community gets and the more fossil fuels UC permits itself to use. The “efficiency” of the colonialist assembly line producing cheap permissions for continued UC travel is maximized, fossil extractivism tightens its hold globally, and still more Indigenous communities are divided from one another. On the whole, does all that militate against colonialism – or rather deepen it and make it more sophisticated?

    13. Academics involved in climate action need to be clearer about these issues if they want to take a stand against the colonialism displayed in – for example – the subtitle of this virtual gathering: “a nearly carbon-neutral conference.” Just as this year has witnessed a slew of corporations eager to proclaim their support for Black Lives Matter, so too the next year, or the year after, may well see some of the same corporations – not to mention institutions like the World Bank, UNDP, UNEP, FAO and UNFCCC – fervently adopting what they will call a “decolonization” agenda. Each of their deplorable projects and policies may well soon come complete with a “decolonization” module which it will be the prerogative of designated specialists in “decolonization theory” from Harvard or Johns Hopkins to design and implement. Manuals for “decolonizing” development projects are probably even now being sketched out by technocrats in offices and academic departments from Geneva to Palo Alto, if they haven’t been written already, just as “free prior informed consent” has long since been absorbed and twisted in neocolonial contexts across the world ( The more opposition to this kind of nonsense can be mustered today among academics, the better prepared resisters will be to navigate the fogbanks of tomorrow.

  4. Tracey Osborne says:

    First, I would like to thank you Ivonne and Larry for your thought-provoking comments and questions that are key for the success of any project or initiative that intends to address climate change through actions in tropical forests based on climate justice. I very much respect the work of you both.

    Obviously in a short 20-minute talk there is a lot I was unable to say. So I will try to address some of the key concerns here. I want to start by saying that as a scholar-activist with expertise in climate change mitigation in tropical forests from a critical political ecology perspective, I am very aware of these critiques and have made similar arguments myself in the past (Osborne 2011, 2013, 2015; Osborne et al 2014). The research presented here aims to develop a conceptual framework for equity-based climate change mitigation in tropical forests. The goal of the project in Ecuador is to compensate and support the work of an Indigenous community that is actively defending their land against extraction, and thereby already contributing to climate change mitigation. Since I am committed to engaged scholarship with theoretically-informed praxis, I am ultimately interested in exploring how we get from where we are today to the end goal of social transformation and a post-offset world, keeping in mind the urgency to act on climate change.

    Though there is a lot to respond to from your comments, I gather the main question is about whether it is appropriate to use the term “decolonial” in reference to this work. I acknowledge that this research takes place in a broader context of a set of social and political economic conditions that are themselves colonial, so in that sense, the research and project are not innocent. Therefore, to your point, perhaps applying the term “decolonial” to any university-related project should be done with caution, and I appreciate you bringing that up. I am deeply aware of the main issues that you raised – power inequities, concerns of the commodification of nature, and the issues of biotic vs fossil fuel carbon. We have taken these issues and more into consideration and followed the lead of our Indigenous partners to develop this research and project — though we are open to ways we can improve. While the conditions are far from perfect, the goal of our work is to support Indigenous sovereignty and land defense, and thus, this project is primarily driven by the community’s own plans and initiatives for sustainable development (their life plans). With this as a model and learning experience, we plan to develop a broader framework for equity-based climate change mitigation in tropical forests.

    We also hope to expose some of the injustices inherent in the carbon offset framework, which you have raised. There are many obstacles to the development of such a radical project that attempts to support Indigenous self-determination. Structural barriers have been evident in attempting to work even within UC’s more accommodating model. However, because the UC staff with whom we collaborate are aware of the problems of offsets, particularly those in tropical forests, we have been able to negotiate terms that would be impossible in a conventional project of the carbon market or through the Ecuadorian state PES program, Socio-bosque, which allows oil drilling in areas of forest protection. However, we ultimately aim to create an alternative to “traditional” carbon offsets that would better enable Indigenous communities to participate on their own terms and may avoid some of the issues associated with carbon markets.

    This gets to the points made about biotic vs. fossil fuel carbon. Yes, these are clearly different pools of carbon, which may be an issue particularly when considering permanence. Fossil fuels that remain underground will not contribute to carbon emissions, but carbon stored in vegetation is in the active soil-vegetation-atmosphere carbon cycle and is in constant risk of being released due to fire, disease, or land-use changes. Widespread fires in the Amazon and policy changes under the Bolsonaro Administration in Brazil bring these issues into sharp relief. While the goal of this project is to keep the massive reserve of carbon associated with fossil fuels in this Indigenous territory underground – so presumably the same carbon pool in question in California with regards to travel – we track the biotic carbon, as well as biodiversity, and social goals tied to the realization of Indigenous life plans. This also serves to provide a very conservative estimate of the carbon emissions avoided through defending the land against oil development.

    Are there power imbalances between the University of California and Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon? – of course. However, the aim is to use these differences to redistribute resources to those who are already doing the labor of defending against fossil fuel extraction. Therefore, as part of a commitment to decolonizing methodologies, we are negotiating and advocating for ways to best support the long-standing and self-defined goals of the community, which are to keep fossil fuels in their territory underground and realize their own plans for community development (life plans).

    Finally, I do not agree that the University of California is the same as any other institution or entity associated with carbon market exchange. The UC has voluntarily agreed to carbon neutrality which goes beyond reductions. University administrators could choose to do absolutely nothing. But students are committed to climate action and have demanded the UC take bold action. Over the summer, UC fully divested from fossil fuels becoming the largest university system in the US to do so. While UC currently has a carbon neutrality goal, it sees offsets as a temporary strategy for climate action. Our project aims to find ways in which these goals can be leveraged to support the ongoing work of Indigenous Peoples in defending their land against extraction. Therefore, in thinking about next steps, I would welcome further suggestions on equity-based climate change mitigation in tropical forests. This is a critically important issue and I would value your input on developing a plan.

    Osborne, T. 2017. Public Political Ecology: A Community of Praxis for Earth Stewardship. Journal of Political Ecology, 24: 843-860.
    Osborne, T. 2015. Tradeoffs in Carbon Commodification: A Political Ecology of Common Property Forest Governance. Geoforum, 67: 64-77.
    Osborne, T., Bellante, L. and vonHedemann, N. 2014. Indigenous Peoples and REDD+: A Critical Perspective. Cusco: Indigenous Peoples’ Biocultural Climate Change Assessment Initiative. [Peer- reviewed report]. Retrieved from:
    Osborne, T. 2013. Fixing Carbon, Losing Ground: Payments for Environmental Services and Land (In)security in Mexico. Human Geography, 6(1): 119-133.
    Osborne, T. 2011. Carbon Forestry and Agrarian Change: Access and Land Control in a Mexican Forest. Journal of Peasant Studies, 38(4): 859-883.

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