Mark Rose, chief executive of pioneering international conservation organisation Fauna & Flora International, answers the critics of plans for the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation mechanism and explains why it must be given a chance to work if we are to avert catastrophic climate change
World leaders meet in Copenhagen in December to hammer out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.
For the first time, the new climate agreement is likely to include provisions to reduce the damaging greenhouse gas emissions that result from habitat destruction.
There are many voices of support for the proposed mechanism to achieve this - known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation or ‘REDD’ - not least within the UN itself. But not everyone is convinced that REDD is the new green.
Until now conservationists have failed to make a strong enough case for including emissions from habitat destruction in the global climate treaty, perhaps because the case seemed so obvious!
How could anyone possibly ignore the massive impact that deforestation and wider habitat destruction has on carbon dioxide emission levels?
The Copenhagen COP presents the world with an opportunity to rectify this glaring omission and make an immense contribution to global efforts to combat change.
There is understandably much debate about precisely how this will be included in the COP. Rewarding countries and communities for not destroying their forests is a complex business.
It is essential that negotiators at Copenhagen get it right to prevent REDD from falling at the first hurdle.
However, some of the voices of concern are even suggesting that REDD should not be pursued and that energies should be focused elsewhere.
Some argue that focusing on deforestation in developing countries reduces pressure on developed countries to cut their own emissions. In other words, that REDD lets the polluters off the hook.
They are missing the point. Protection of forests and other carbon storing habitats is not an alternative to Annex I countries reducing their own domestic emissions.
The two go hand-in-hand. I’m all in favour of pressurising countries and corporates to put their own house in order, but here’s the thing: deforestation accounts for a jaw-dropping 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire transport sector.
Can anyone suggest another way of cutting emissions by 20% in one fell swoop?
This is an unrepeatable opportunity to keep the world’s remaining forests standing, with positive results for people, wildlife and the health of the planet as a whole.
Potential big impact
REDD has the potential to generate millions of tons of emission reductions annually.
There are concerns that such a significant volume of credits could ‘flood’ the market, depressing carbon prices to the extent that incentives to invest and develop in clean-energy technologies will be reduced.
Readily available mechanisms to prevent flooding include reducing the supply of REDD credits, increasing demand by simultaneously introducing REDD credits and imposing tighter global targets for emissions reductions, and using a dual market approach to avoid crashing the price of credits.
Moreover, if US climate change legislation is passed, there will be a potential annual demand for one billion tons of international offsets.
Could REDD jeopardise some countries’ economic development by requiring them to forgo opportunities derived from activities such as agriculture and timber production?
Not if we apply the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, which requires that wealthy countries take the lead in emission reductions while offering incentives to developing countries to follow suit.
The latter will only participate and agree to stem deforestation if it is in their interests, but they are increasingly aware that natural capital is just as vital as economic capital.
They themselves must decide whether the benefits offered through a forest carbon mechanism outweigh the costs of reining in deforestation. It is up to us to make the offer as attractive as possible.
International forest carbon policies currently focus on rewarding countries that are losing forests, not those that have been good stewards.
Progress needs rewarding
Policies geared towards reducing deforestation rates do little to help countries with low rates of deforestation. There is a perverse incentive for previously responsible governments to start logging with a vengeance today in order to reap the benefits of REDD tomorrow.
This is a real concern, but one solution would be to look beyond historic rates of deforestation at predicted future deforestation rates. Such an approach would provide some incentives for high-forest-cover countries to remain that way.
The integrity of REDD, and the effectiveness of the climate regime as a whole, is in danger of being compromised by the inclusion of the ‘sustainable forest management’ concept.
The term is so poorly defined and open to interpretation that it leaves a loophole wide enough to drive a logging truck through. In practice, it is a euphemism for highly destructive activities such as industrial-scale timber extraction.
This is a valid concern, but REDD provides the opportunity to break the cycle of destruction and place an economic value on the role of standing forests.
It must support alternatives to industrial logging that bring lasting and sustainable development benefits and ensure ecosystem resilience.
The main objectives of REDD should be to protect primary forests, restore degraded forests and support the development of activities based on non-timber forest products, payment for ecosystem services and small-scale, community-based harvesting.
Anyone who attended the Bali conference could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that forests were just sticks of carbon.
If REDD ignores the wider importance of forests and other ecosystems beyond their carbon storage value, biodiversity will fall through the cracks.
International policy is in danger of encouraging a one-dimensional approach to REDD, leaving other biologically rich ecosystems exposed to degradation or destruction. FFI’s own priority is to develop REDD projects that deliver carbon, community and biodiversity benefits – and we are showing how this can be done.
We believe that projects must include appropriate enforcement and monitoring for biodiversity, alongside any carbon focused forest-stock activities.
Indigenous peoples and rights-based organisations are among the strongest critics of the REDD process.
They maintain that international forest carbon activities could adversely affect indigenous and other forest-dependent people by restricting their access to forests and resources.
Emotive words like exploitation, resettlement and disenfranchisement help to conjure a less than flattering vision of the likely impact of REDD, but it is misguided to assume that such negative outcomes are inevitable.
At FFI, we are proceeding on the basis that human rights are the number one priority.
Without the full participation and agreement of forest-dependent communities in the decision-making process, REDD is a complete non-starter.
Any disputes over land rights, for example, must be resolved in favour of forest and indigenous communities through clear and binding legislation.
The same is true of revenue sharing, which must be made equitable to ensure that a select few do not profit from REDD at the expense of local communities.
The opportunities far outweigh the risks; with the appropriate safeguards in place, the revenue generated could be directed towards poverty alleviation and development programmes, and could also flow directly to those living in forests.
FFI is already demonstrating the feasibility of this approach in the Indonesian province of Aceh, Sumatra, where ‘avoided deforestation’ initiatives are contributing to post-tsunami recovery.
REDD’s detractors point to the potential risks posed by corruption, sharp practice and vested interests, but we mustn’t allow such moral hazards to deter us from aiming high. They simply underline the need for transparency, accountability and rigorous standards of accounting.
Similarly, REDD needs to be implemented by disinterested parties, rather than by institutions representing the interests of shareholders or trustees in developed countries.
If REDD is to be credible, provision must be made to ensure adequate monitoring of how countries are implementing the scheme and insuring against abuse.
Governance is without doubt a critical part of the effort to bring international forest carbon into climate policy, and there is little question that some tropical forest nations have poor track records in the area of forest governance.
A well-structured international forest carbon policy could, however, provide a powerful incentive for reform.
First, and perhaps most important, the basic idea of performance-based payments for forest protection means that the money will not flow unless and until performance has been demonstrated.
If there is evidence of destruction, payments will be adjusted accordingly. We need to ensure that funds are available to support the development of effective governance.
The monumental challenge of climate change cannot be tackled with simple, ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions. It will demand a plethora of different approaches, some of which require a pioneering spirit and a sizeable stomach for risk.
REDD is no silver bullet, but it represents a golden opportunity.
At FFI, rather than sitting back and speculating whether it will work, we are out in the field focusing our energies proving that it can.
We’re working with local communities, talking with national governments and collaborating with players from the international financial markets to give REDD every possible chance of delivering a greener, healthier planet.