After nearly a decade of work, on September 19, 2019, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) endorsed its much anticipated Tropical Forest Standard (TFS). The TFS is a first-of-its-kind framework for assessing jurisdiction-scale offset credit programs that reduce emissions from tropical deforestation and degradation. It is widely expected to serve as a replicable model for adoption by other international greenhouse gas mitigation programs that utilize tropical forest reductions as offsets, including the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).

The TFS framework ensures that reductions produced by a subnational jurisdiction’s systemic efforts to conserve its tropical forests are real, quantifiable, permanent, additional and enforceable – the hallmark criteria to ensure the environmental integrity of offset credits within emissions trading schemes, such as California’s Cap-and-Trade Program. It requires rigorous, independent third-party verification of both the emissions avoided by the jurisdictional plan and the jurisdiction’s adherence to social and environmental safeguards designed to protect indigenous communities.

Under the TFS, subnational jurisdictions wanting to issue offset credits for their overall forest conservation efforts must adhere to guiding principles endorsed by indigenous community leaders and state and regional governments whose territories include more than one-third of the world’s tropical forests. These principles mandate that indigenous communities are involved in plan development and implementation and share in the resulting economic benefits.

CARB’s endorsement of the TFS does not authorize emitters to use tropical forest offsets for compliance with its Cap-and-Trade Program at this time; CARB would need to amend its regulation to authorize such use and has no immediate plan to do so. Advocates for indigenous communities and environmental justice nevertheless opposed CARB’s action, arguing that it made it all but inevitable that CARB would soon adopt such an amendment and that doing so would allow emitters to continue emitting and consuming fossil fuels in California.

Against such opposition, leading scientists and environmental groups strongly supported CARB’s endorsement of the TFS as a critical near-term step to slow the loss of tropical forests and limit global warming to no more than two degrees Celsius. According to a recent estimate, tropical deforestation now amounts to more emissions each year than 85 million cars over their entire lifetime, dwarfing California’s own anthropogenic emissions and those of all nations but the U.S. and China. As a consequence, no serious effort to mitigate climate change can exclude measures to avoid continued deforestation and degradation of tropical forests.

CARB’s action comes at a timely moment, as the impacts of climate change and slash-and-burn agriculture are resulting in an unprecedented surge in uncontrolled fires throughout the Amazon rainforest. Although the political situation in Brazil may make it difficult to crack down on illegal burning and deforestation, CARB’s adoption of the TFS may amount to one small step towards counterbalancing the incentives that promote deforestation.