Friday, July 31, 2009

Saving a Rainforest (con't)

Regardless of the eventual source of funding, there is no question that considerable funds need to be generated to effectively reduce deforestation. A recent report from the Meridian Institute on behalf of the Norwegian government estimates that to achieve a 50 percent reduction in deforestation by 2020, REDD will need a commitment of 2 billion per year in 2010, increasing to 10 billion per year in 2014 for capacity building, readiness activities, and demonstration projects. The report suggests financing could come through a global fund, financed through donations generated by auctioning of emission allowances, fuel surcharges, or development aid. Prince Charles has suggested a different approach: a rainforest bond issue to provide emergency funding.

Beyond the money

Beyond the issue of financing, there are other points of contention, including how to establish baselines, especially in countries and regions that have managed to maintain forest cover or have already reduced deforestation rates dramatically. Some countries—like Costa Rica—want credit for early action, while others are pushing for elevated baselines to account for potential deforestation, positions that raise eyebrows among those concerned about the integrity of REDD. But as Kevin Conrad of the Coalition for Rainforest Nations puts it, "If we don't provide incentives for countries that have so far maintained their forests, but otherwise have land suitable for conversion, then those forests are going to fall."

National vs. Sub-National

There is heated debate over the scale and scope of REDD projects. Because few countries are expected to have national REDD programs up-and-running anytime soon, developers are first starting with individual projects within countries—a sub-national approach—that are ready for market-based compensation now. But eventually these projects will need to be integrated into a national system to avoid leakage and other issues. The process of integration remains contentious and some fear that early stage projects will never be recognized in national level accounting, depriving them of access to lucrative compliance markets.

Negotiators must further work out whether to include emissions from degradation of other carbon-dense ecosystems like peatlands, which in some years may contribute more than 2 billion tons in emissions. Wetlands International is adamant that peatlands be part of a climate pact—especially in light of Indonesia's recent announcement that it will open millions of hectares of swampy wetlands to oil palm cultivation. The move—ostensibly to expand production of palm oil, which can be used as a feedstock for biofuels—could trigger millions of tons of emissions and destroy habitat critical for endangered species, including the orangutan and Sumatran tiger.

Another issue—known as permanence—stems from the integrity of forest carbon stocks and the capacity of a forest to retain carbon in the future. Critics ask how it can be assured that a forest protected for REDD won't be logged, accidentally burned, or damaged by a storm, flood, or drought, reducing its capacity to store carbon. The issue is a significant one given the forecast impacts of climate change in places like the Southern Amazon. The 2005 drought—caused by abnormally high temperatures in the Atlantic, rather than el NiƱo—killed millions of trees and turned large expanses of the Amazon into a tinderbox. Thousands of square miles of forest went up in smoke, releasing more than 100 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

Healthy forest and recently cleared forest adjacent to Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) (February 2006). Photos by Rhett Butler.

REDD advocates say this issue can be addressed partly through safeguard required under criteria like the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) and the Climate, Community, and Biodiversity Standards (CCB) as well as emerging insurance products and national reserve accounts proposed by the Coalition for Rainforest Nations. But the best protection may be the forests themselves. Studies suggest that reducing deforestation can be one of the most important factors in increasing forests' resistance to the effects of climate change.

New technology, including a new class of remote sensing applications, will help scientists and forest managers monitor forests for degradation. Satellites and high-altitude aircraft equipped with lasers and high-resolution sensors can map the structure of the forest, greatly increasing the accuracy of carbon estimates as well as documenting changes in carbon stock. CLASLite, an advanced processing application for monitoring tropical deforestation, and Google Earth are greatly expanding the availability of forest cover data to scientists, policymakers, and the general public.

Eroded hillsides in Madagascar (October 2004). Photo by Rhett Butler.

An issue of payment

But great satellite imagery won't resolve a thorny issue arising from the need to directly address drivers of deforestation. Given that industrial activities today account for the bulk of deforestation, a successful REDD mechanism may mean paying agents of deforestation—forestry firms and agribusiness—to cease their activities. The concept doesn't sit well many environmentalists, but in cases where landowners are within the law, REDD becomes a way to encourage loggers, oil palm plantation developers, large-scale farmers, and ranchers to leave their forests standing.

Cattle pasture and forest in the Brazilian Amazon (top), Cattle in the heart of Mato Grosso state (April 2009). Over the past decade more than 10 million hectares – an area about the size of Iceland - was cleared for cattle ranching as Brazil rose to become the world's largest exporter of beef. Now the government aims to double the country's share of the beef export market to 60% by 2018 through low interest loans, infrastructure expansion, and other incentives for producers. Most of this expansion is expected to occur in the Amazon were land is cheap and available. 70 percent of the country's herd expansion between 2002 and 2006 occurred in the region. Photos by Rhett Butler.

"Without economic incentives, standing forest will always lose out to pressures from the market," explained John Carter, an American rancher in the Brazilian Amazon, who heads Alianca da Terra, an NGO that works to encourage environmental stewardship among beef producers in the Amazon. "Land appreciation and production value are at the end of the day what determine land use. In order for REDD to work, all landowners—whether they be Indians, ranchers, or farmers—should be allowed to participate."

Carter believes that forest reserves—required under Brazilian law for landowners in the Amazon—should be eligible for payments under REDD.

Some environmentalists worry that REDD could become a tool for "greenwashing," whereby firms mask their environmental damage by buying REDD credits. This concern touches on the entire debate about "offsets," a concept that activist groups like the World Rainforest Movement and the Rainforest Foundation UK find deeply troubling. Buying REDD credits, however, will not offer environmental transgressors sanctuary from environmental campaigns and freely accessible satellite imagery. Green groups are already putting Google Earth to use for monitoring deforestation and other activities.

Forestry remains a controversial issue in REDD discussions. Some environmental activists complain that REDD may allow selective logging in old-growth forests, the most biodiverse and carbon-dense ecosystems. Others argue conversely that sustainable logging should be allowed as a source of income for forest holders, including indigenous communities. Recent reports of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlight the value of reduced-impact logging as a mitigation strategy. But the impact of logging depends largely on forestry rules and governance structures, an area of particular concern to the Ecosystems Climate Alliance (ECA), a coalition of eight environmental and rights groups.

Issues of consumerism, governance

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a member of the ECA that works on international trade and demand issues, believes REDD should incorporate rules for demand in consuming countries, since deforestation is as much driven by market demand in industrialized nations as it is by poverty in developing nations.

Logging truck in Malaysia (April 2008). Photo by Rhett Butler.

"My major concern is that until we talk about these demand issues in a meaningful way, we aren't talking about a real solution," EIA Forest Campaigns Director Andrea Johnson said.

Johnson believes funds for supplemental activities under the Waxman-Markey bill could be directed towards joint implementation of demand-side laws like the U.S. Lacey Act, which is used to fight illegal logging by requiring companies to respect environmental laws in the countries from which they obtain plant and wildlife products.

Jihan Gearon of the Indigenous Environmental Network, an indigenous rights coalition, said, "Offset mechanisms, including REDD, do not address the real problem causing climate change. The major driver of climate change is the historical and current burning of fossil fuels—coal, oil, and gas—to feed the unsustainable consumption needs of industrialized countries, like the United States. We have to prioritize and focus on changing these unsustainable consumption patterns, which are responsible for not only climate change but also a host of other issues including pollution to land, water, air, animals, and people."

Governance also is a critical issue for the success of REDD—it ranks among the top priorities among REDD designers, but good governance is difficult in frontier areas where most deforestation is occurring. Development agencies are positioning REDD as a vehicle to deliver services and protections that vast amounts of aid have so far failed to provide—a tall order for a conservation initiative. Still, REDD has at least two advantages over prior mechanisms: it offers a wide range of benefits and will be performance-based. If a country fails to reduce deforestation by meaningfully addressing drivers of deforestation, it won't collect.

But this new governance regime raises other questions, especially in areas where rights are poorly defined. This is particularly important for forest-dwelling communities and indigenous people, who despite having occupied lands for years or generations may still lack formal title, or even basic rights, to land and resources. Many groups fear that regulation could cause them to be further disadvantaged, depriving them of their land as well as leaving them out of carbon payments. Some paint a nightmare scenario of forced displacement at the hands of carbon speculators.

"REDD projects do not help indigenous peoples and forest peoples," Gearon said. "In fact they hurt these communities and take away access and rights to forests, traditional territories, and medicines. Our principal hope and concern for the REDD mechanism, as well as other market-based solutions to climate change, is they be rejected because they are false solutions to climate change."

The Indigenous Environmental Network and other groups have called for the inclusion of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a treaty signed by the majority of the world's countries in 2007, in REDD. But REDD designers say the stipulation is unlikely because negotiators from countries that haven't signed the Declaration (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States) can't sign an agreement that binds them to a treaty their countries have not ratified. Many native leaders are lobbying for a mandate that all REDD programs seek the "free, prior, and informed consent" of local people.

But in spite of these concerns, the consensus among coalitions representing forest people is that forest conservation should be included in a climate framework. Some groups are even supportive of a market mechanism, recognizing that a well-designed mechanism is better than the status quo.

The Surui are an example. The tribe actively sought out its own carbon project, first focusing on reforestation of areas that had been illegally logged, but then exploring REDD as a means to generate income to defend its forest home. Almir Surui, a Surui chief who has become the public face of the tribe, said forest conservation is also a way to maintain culture in a place where there are strong bonds between land and society.

But in pioneering their REDD project, the Surui have run up against some obstacles, indicating that the forest carbon initiative hasn't been designed with indigenous issues in mind. For example, by virtue of being good stewards of their forests the Surui encounter the same problem faced by countries with high forest cover and low deforestation rates: the REDD process doesn't reward them for their success in maintaining their forest cover even as forests around their reservation fell to bulldozers and loggers.

Bulldozers on the edge of the tropical rainforest (top), logs awaiting processing and shipment in Gabon (bottom) (June 2006). Photos by Rhett Butler.

The final installation on this riveting article tomorrow!

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