Nature Climate Change | Climate Feedback

When money grows on trees

climate.2009.78-i1.jpgIn this year’s series of UN climate talks – the latest of which took place last week in Bonn – one of the issues negotiators are sinking their teeth into is a source of greenhouse gases that has previously been sidestepped. Chopping and burning trees causes an estimated one-fifth of global emissions, and slowing down deforestation could be the cheapest and quickest way to keep a substantial load of gas out of the atmosphere. With this in mind, the Bali meeting in 2007 called for a decision on forests to be made by the time the 2009 talks wrap up in Copenhagen this December.

But deciding to do something about it and agreeing on what needs to be done are two very different matters, as Mark Schrope writes in a feature on Nature Reports Climate Change this week. He explains:

Some of issues raised are rooted in serious ethical and environmental concerns, such as how to protect indigenous people and ensure compliance. But much of what was being mulled over boils down to money: adequately addressing deforestation will require a new flow of billions of dollars from developed to developing nations. Developing countries are scrambling to position themselves to receive as much as possible, while developed nations are doing their best to ensure they get what they want from their investments. The result is a complex debate that is likely to grow more heated as countries move from stating their positions to settling on an agreement that everyone can live with beyond December.


From one point of view, the issue is surprisingly simple: emissions from deforestation are an order of magnitude higher in Brazil and Indonesia than in any other country, so ending land clearing in those nations is a logical focus for any deforestation policy. But the promise of large cash incentives has many more nations joining in the haggling over proposals. What’s more, stopping forests being cleared today is not enough. To make a difference to the climate, trees have to remain protected for a century or more, and ideally countries like Guiana and Gabon that haven’t begun destroying their forests should be encouraged to keep protecting them. The tricky business is to define these positive actions and invent a financing system that supports them – without unwittingly backing bad behavior, such as countries clearing trees now so that they can be paid to stop in future. As the issues have piled up, the original mechanism proposed for ‘reducing emissions from deforestation’, known as RED, has grown into REDD – the extra D is for preventing forest degradation – and more recently REDD Plus, which would also protect existing forest carbon stocks.

While many environmentalists see this as a welcome shift with significant financial implications, others suggest the multiplying details could be harbouring devils. “We’re going to end up with the potential for clever accounting rather than actually dealing with the problem of mass degradation of the world’s forests,” says Sean Cadman at the Wilderness Society Australia, part of an NGO consortium called Ecosystems Climate Alliance.

The news out of Bonn last week was on the whole rather doleful, with participants lamenting the amount of time it was taking to whittle down a 200-page negotiating document peppered with about 2,000 areas of disagreement highlighted in brackets. “We seem to be afloat on a sea of brackets,” says UNFCCC executive secretary Yvo de Boer in this Greenwire piece. But BusinessGreen had an upbeat interview with the deputy director of the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, who says progress on the 20-page section on forests is going well:

[Federica] Bietta said there was widespread support for proposals for the three-phase rollout of REDD through the scaling up of forestry management authorities and measurement mechanisms in rainforest countries, the deployment of demonstration forestry protection projects, and the access to carbon markets to help finance projects.

The question of whether forest projects should be financed through carbon markets – a key issue flagged up in Schrope’s feature – is still very contentious, Bietta admits. She argues credits are the ready source of support that’s now needed. But Brazil in particular has strongly opposed a market system that would allow industrialized countries to buy offsets to avoid reducing their own emissions. It looks like that’s one of many arguments that will head on through to the next round of talks.

Anna Barnett

Image: © istockphoto

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    Christopher Hedemann said:

    Protecting forests and revegetation is a project with urgency beyond the need to capture gas. Forests create stabilising microclimates, prevent soil loss and maintain soil nutrient quality, which are all essential to protect local agriculture and downstream river systems. Nor is protection of biodiversity an insignificant side effect. Failure to implement a scheme like REDD will result in ethical and environmental issues that dwarf emissions reduction.