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CLIMATE CHANGE: Forests Join the Carbon Market

Zilia Castrillón* - IPS/IFEJ

BOSTON, Oct 6 2007 (IPS) - With deforestation as the second leading source of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, experts are focusing the discussion on the viability of compensating countries for protecting their forests.

Tropical rainforest on the Rara Avis private reserve in Costa Rica. Credit: Photo Stock

Tropical rainforest on the Rara Avis private reserve in Costa Rica. Credit: Photo Stock

The proposal "Reduced Emissions from Deforestation" (RED) was not included in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. But now is being evaluated by scientists, companies and agencies in poor countries that have extensive forested areas.

The CDM allows governments and corporations of industrialised countries (required under the Protocol to cut greenhouse gas emissions) to meet part of their obligations by investing in "clean" projects in developing countries, by which they obtain certificates of emissions reductions – at much lower cost than curbing emissions at home.

"Slowing emissions from deforestation would not stop climate change, but it could be an important part of a many-part strategy," Christopher Field, head of the global ecology department at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, said in an interview for this report.

RED emerged in 2005 at the 11th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, led by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica, with support from the Coalition for Rainforest Nations. Its aim is to include "avoided deforestation" in the global market of carbon credits – carbon dioxide being the principal greenhouse gas.

Implementation is expected to be finalized at the 13 Conference of Parties, to take place in December on the Indonesian island of Bali.

Brazil, for its part, proposes a fund with voluntary contributions of public money to compensate the effort made by developing countries to reduce deforestation, and that they would be remunerated based on prevented emissions.

In the article "Tropical Forests and Climate Policy", published May 10 in "Science Express" online magazine, Field and other researchers propose to slow the current pace of deforestation 50 percent by the year 2050.

That would be the equivalent of 50 billion tonnes of carbon prevented from being released into the atmosphere, or equal to six years of emissions of gases from fossil fuel combustion, the experts say.

But that figure is meaningless, says to Almuth Ernsting, of the Britain-based Biofuelwatch campaign. Because RED does not intend to stop industrial-scale logging, "there is growing evidence that many rainforests, including the Amazon forest, will collapse well before the destruction of a further 50 percent."

The Amazon is the forest ecosystem with the most carbon: 305 tonnes per hectare, of which 28 percent is in the soil, according to a 1998 study.

Its destruction would release 120 billion tonnes of carbon by 2050, which would be catastrophic to the global climate, says Ernsting.

The transformation of natural ecosystems into farmland entails a loss of 75 percent of the carbon in tropical soils. That implies between 18 and 20 percent of the total emissions from deforestation, according to experts.

There is about twice as much carbon stored in forests and soils as exists in the atmosphere, said William Moomaw, director of the Centre for International Environment and Resource Policy, at Tufts University in the United States.

If one area is preserved, and another is deforested, how is this to be counted, asks Moomaw by way of example. Planting trees in other areas to compensate for logging does not work because it often is done in areas not apt for forests, he explained.

This problem has come up with tree plantations intended to absorb carbon, and could be repeated in a scheme for reducing emissions from deforestation, say critics.

The carbon market helped finance monoculture plantations, and had negative results for the soil, local communities, water resources and, ironically, carbon emissions, says Biofuelwatch&#39s Ernsting.

There is also concern about the difficulties in controlling changes in the carbon stores of forests once the system is applied.

"Monitoring entails some costs, but existing satellite technologies make the challenge relatively straightforward," says Field, of the Carnegie Institution.

National measurement systems can function, according to Moomaw. In the international arena, the European Union, United States and Brazil would need to form a coordinated satellite monitoring team, available for countries with few resources but rich in forests.

Compensation for avoided deforestation should reduce net emissions, encouraging a change in international frameworks and adopting an emissions tariff for countries with little or no historic deforestation, according to the study "No Forest Left Behind", published by Conservation International in the Aug. 14 issue of the online journal Public Library of Science – Biology. Countries with much forest and relatively little deforestation are: Belize, Bhutan, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, French Guiana, Gabon, Guyana, Panama, Peru, Suriname and Zambia. Inhabited mostly by indigenous peoples, they would enter the carbon market through "preventive credits" or compensation that they would forfeit if there is an increase in loss of forest.

In order for the system to function equitably, it is important that local communities participate, according to experts.

"The principle of avoided deforestation is not a bad principle, however the means through which it could be realised are complex and fraught with unequal power relations," says Helen Leake, of the non-governmental Forest Peoples Programme. "The devil is in the details."

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS-Inter Press Service and IFEJ-International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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