Study Says Pacts Protecting Forests
Must Consider People

By Jon Luoma

Deforestation amounts to a double blow to global climate stability, since vanished trees can neither take up atmospheric carbon dioxide nor store volumes of carbon aboveground and in their root systems. 

Recent estimates suggest that about 15 percent of the ongoing rise in greenhouse gas emissions is linked to world deforestation (when the extra carbon emitted from forests underlain by peat is included). And a slew of analyses—from U.S.-based McKinsey & Co.; The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, prepared for the government of the United Kingdom; and other reports—have suggested that avoiding future deforestation, particularly in the developing tropics, could be one of the least-expensive paths to reducing projected climate change.

At the most recent round of international climate change negotiations in Cancún, in December, one of the few successes negotiators could point to was an initial agreement on an outline to do just that.

Dubbed REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), the approach being contemplated can look like a harmonious marriage of environmental and economic blessings. The general idea: rich industrialized nations (or their emitting industries) somehow pay poorer nations (or entities within them) to protect and maintain their forests via direct payments as part of a credit-based carbon cap-and-trade system. Developing nations, particularly those in the tropical south, win a flood of new income. By picking what amounts to the low-hanging fruit, the richer industrialized nations of the developed north win a cheaper route to greenhouse gas mitigation. 

The Economist, in fact, has proclaimed REDD “Tropical forests’ best hope.”     

Nevertheless, a detailed new analysis by some 60 experts on forest governance suggests that “top-down” international agreements on saving forests have done little good in the past and that any REDD pact, unless greatly broadened, would likely suffer a similar fate. Presented at the 9th session of the United Nations Forum on Forests in late January and early February, the study, prepared by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), was titled “Embracing Complexity: Meeting the Challenges of Forest Governance.” It noted that past international pacts, such as the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, had largely failed to halt rampant deforestation because they ignored the needs of people living in and around the forests as well as the multiple layers of factors influencing deforestation, including demand for agricultural land in a hungry, increasingly populated world.

According to the chair of the Expert Panel on the International Forest Regime, University of Saskatchewan political scientist Jeremy Rayner, the nub of the 172-page IUFRO report is this: forests are more than sinks for carbon. REDD’s central flaw, he says, is that the proposed program “continues to explicitly value carbon storage above the improvement of forest conditions and livelihoods.”

Negotiators had already begun to acknowledge at least some of that. The preliminary framework agreed to at Cancún referred to a program called REDD+, with the “plus” including “sustainable forest management” and “enhancement of carbon stocks.”

“But it’s still too narrow. It doesn’t capture what we need to know about forest ecosystems and the people who live in and around them,” says Benjamin Cashore, professor of environmental governance and political science at F&ES and a co-author of the study.

Constance McDermott, James Martin Senior Research Fellow in Forest Governance at the University of Oxford and another co-author of the study, says that unless the process finds ways to address factors such as “global consumption, including the growing demand for food and biofuels, and the problems of land scarcity, REDD will fail to arrest environmental degradation and will heighten poverty.”

“If we decide to pay a large corporation not to cut a forest down to create an oil palm plantation, have we just enriched private capital in one spot at the expense of an indigenous community in another?”
Benjamin Cashore

Cashore says primary flaws include the large gaps in knowledge about how even to begin effectively implementing an international REDD program, since a transfer of funds for environmental protection on this scale is unprecedented.

“Here’s a metaphor,” he says. “If you’ve ever seen a bunch of five-year-olds trying to score in a soccer game, they’re all very eager, but they’re all clustered around the ball like a bunch of ants. Later they learn how to spread out and use strategies. By high school, they’re executing long passes and using better strategies. We’re at about the kindergarten level of understanding now. We need to figure out fast how to get to the high school level or beyond.”

He added: “We don’t even know what scale works best. Should the program be nation-focused? Will it work to say to a nation, here’s your baseline, don’t cut down forests beyond that? Or should money go to fund projects in a region? Should we just pay a company not to log? In that case, how do you know the exploitation doesn’t just pop up elsewhere, a kind of ‘waterbed effect’?” (Formally, that waterbed effect, where damage is avoided in one place but the chainsaws or torches just move to another, is known as “leakage.”)

And there are fundamental questions of justice: since money will always be limited, who gets it? “If we decide to pay a large corporation not to cut a forest down to create an oil palm plantation,” asks Cashore, “have we just enriched private capital in one spot at the expense of an indigenous community in another?”

The stakes could hardly be greater. Although there are some hopeful signs that deforestation has slowed in some nations, notably Brazil, the “Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010” by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization stated that the rate of worldwide deforestation remained “alarmingly high.” Just in the past decade, South America lost an average of 4 million hectares (about 10 million acres) each year, with Africa losing 3.4 million hectares (about 8.5 million acres) annually. Combined, the total loss of forests from those two continents alone over just a decade was about six times the area of Pennsylvania.

For industrial emitters, early estimates suggest that paying for avoided deforestation could be a bargain compared to technological fixes aimed at curbing emissions. Estimates of the cost of, say, capturing and storing carbon from a power plant run as high as $115 per metric ton. One U.N. working group has estimated that REDD projects in some areas could save the same amount of carbon for as little as $2 to $4 per metric ton. Estimates run higher in other cases; for example, it could cost as much as $30 per metric ton to prevent a forest from being converted to high-value oil palm plantations in Indonesia. But even that looks like a bargain. And it’s one that could bring a bonanza to nations on the receiving end: the United Nations has calculated that “financial flows … from reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation could reach up to $30 billion a year.”

The approach appeals to a broad spectrum of advocates with interests well beyond the economic. 

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