The New Frontier: Carbon or Conservation?—Raffa Sindoni

The above image depicts brown rolling foothills under the snow-capped peaks of Grand Tetons. Photo taken on the unceded Ancestral land of many Western Tribes who journeyed through this valley for time immemorial, such as the Arapaho, Arikara, Bannock, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Nez Perce, Sheep Eater, Sioux, Shoshone, and Ute, and is now known as the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming. Photo by: Raffaele Sindoni.

The rapidly expanding carbon-offsetting market casts a shadow across Western conservation movements. 

Although carbon markets are praised by some as a leading climate change solution, the morality and efficacy of this free-market phenomenon is hotly debated by academics, Indigenous activists, corporate titans, and environmentalists across the spectrum. 

So, what exactly is carbon-offsetting and how does it work? Why does it affect the future of Western resource conservation movements? 

Let’s start with the basics.

Offsetting 101

Private and public polluters participate in carbon-offsetting markets to claim “climate neutrality”. These “offset buyers” purchase large quantities of carbon-offsets to “neutralize” their carbon footprint or that of their products.

Some governmental bodies, such as California, require that polluters meet certain emissions goals and allow the use of offsets to meet these goals. These are called compliance carbon markets.

Polluters who are not beholden to any regulatory agency to meet an emissions goal, but voluntarily choose to meet an internally set goal (e.g. achieving net zero) operate in the voluntary carbon market space. For example, the U.S. airlines industry has voluntarily pledged to commit to carbon neutrality by 2050, which will rely on the use of carbon offsets, in part, to meet its commitment. 

On the other side of the coin, sellers of carbon-offsets receive compensation for managing projects that sequester carbon from the atmosphere or avoid emissions entirely. In the past, these markets have focused predominantly on forest regeneration or avoided deforestation projects. As technology and administrative knowledge improves, offsets have expanded to new arenas. According to UC Berkeley’s Voluntary Carbon Offset registry, over 100 million voluntary carbon-offsetting credits have been offered across the West in the last 20 years. The projects include sustainable grassland management in Montana, improved forestry management practices in New Mexico, avoided grassland conversion in Oregon, and manure methane digesters in California. 

A New Consideration for Land Managers

In the next five years, the voluntary carbon offset market is estimated to grow to nearly a $3 Billion dollar industry. As this voluntary market grows, more states are likely to follow California’s lead and expand their own compliance carbon markets for state regulated polluters. Further, with the Biden Administration’s mandate to achieve net neutrality by 2050, it is highly likely that the federal government will begin its involvement in carbon-offsetting as well. 

This growth in offset buyers will likely result in rising demands for offset-credits, with a possible rises in credit prices to follow. High carbon credit prices may make offsetting a very attractive option to land managers who can raise income by shifting their land strategies towards optimal carbon sequestration or carbon-release avoidance. 

With rising financial benefits of carbon-offsetting to landowners, carbon markets may compete against conservation interests across the West. It is not hard to imagine that, in the very near future, land will be more profitable when managed for carbon storage maximization over wildlife habitat, resource conservation, or timber harvest. In some cases, ecosystems shaped by carbon-offsetting may harmonize with the idealized end-goals fortress conservation, while conservation models that believe in more integrated ecosystem management may oppose a landscape maximized for carbon sequestration.

More Questions than Answers

Steam is gathering behind this climate solution that embraces economics, technocracy, and modernization as a key solution to our climate & ecological crisis. As evident by the rising number of offsetting projects cited in the UC Berkeley offsets registry, carbon-offsetting markets affect much more than carbon concentrations in the atmosphere. 

Once a parcel of land is set aside for carbon storage, it may be locked up against many forms of human intervention for up to 100 years, for fear of having to pay back credits if carbon concentrations on the land decrease. There are limited studies that show how holistic ecosystem health performs under the sole goal of carbon storage maximization. Indeed, this intersectionality should be further researched. Further, on the human-side of the equation, offsetting markets have long-term implications for land-owner capital access and credit viability, land turnover, and ownership structures. Thus, these markets have effects on the future of conservation, biodiversity, forest management, resource management, and environmental justice. 

In parallel to the excitement and momentum swirling around carbon offsetting comes a breadth of philosophical questions that spans across fields of ecology, economics, sociology, environmental justice, and more. These questions include:

– How will offsetting incentives compete against conservation incentives for land management outcomes?

– Does placing a dollar value on the natural processes of carbon capture worsen the underlying sociological symptoms that have caused climate change?

 – How are sovereign Tribal Nations facing carbon offsetting? How are tribes already using offset markets to fund their reacquisition of stolen ancestral land? 

– What lands are more rich or depleted in carbon reserves, and how do these differences make for divergent opportunities for groups who wish to sell offsetting credits? 

Through my continued research, I plan to discuss questions like these around the philosophy, ethics, and justice behind carbon offsetting. In my upcoming report as a Western Resources Fellow, I will be focusing on the distinct overlap between Native Tribes in the Western U.S. and soil organic carbon, one of the key soil health indicators and a driving factor in rapidly emerging below-ground carbon markets. 

Raffa Sindoni, Western Resource Fellow | Raffaele (“Raffa”) is a Master of Environmental (MEM) candidate at YSE, focusing on sociology, ecosystem management, and environmental justice. He is interested in the ways regenerative agriculture and ecosystem restoration support environmental and sociological healing in the wake of centuries of exploitation, oppression, and extraction. Raffa is also a Yale Environmental Justice Fellow and a research assistant in Dr. Justin Farrell’s lab on Western Land & Peoples, where he supports Tribal data-empowerment and researches Indigenous involvement in carbon-offsetting markets. Prior to Yale, Raffa worked as an economic consultant and data scientist, where he advised organizations like the DOJ, the ACLU, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. See what Raffa has been up to.  |  Blog