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REDD may miss up to 80 percent of land use change emissions

Organization recommends expanding REDD to cover all land use change emissions.

The political definition of ‘forest’ used in REDD (Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) threatens to undermine the program’s objective to conserve ecosystems for their ability to sequester carbon, according to a new analysis by the Alternatives to Slash and Burn (ASB) Partnership for Tropical Forest Margins.

In an analysis of three Indonesian provinces using REDD proposals for carbon accounting, ASB found that REDD may miss up to 80 percent of the actual emissions due to land use change. The carbon accounting problems could be fixed, according to ASB, by expanding REDD’s purpose from reducing emissions linked to deforestation (considering the problematic definition of forests) to reducing emission from all land use changes that either release or capture greenhouse gases, including but not limited to forests.

Under current definitions of ‘forest’ in REDD this burgeoning oil palm plantation in Malaysian Borneo may be considered forest deserving of carbon payments. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Environmentalists and policy-makers have long-pointed out a number of problems with REDD. For example, currently the political definition of forest under REDD will allow rainforests to be converted to monoculture plantations, so long as the plantation falls under the REDD definition of forest. In other words, in Southeast Asia oil palm plantations will be considered forests under REDD’s current definition, even though the conversion of rainforest into oil palm plantations releases significant amounts of carbon (oil palm plantation store 50-90 percent less carbon than forests). In addition, conversion from rainforest to oil palm plantations causes other impacts, such as drastic biodiversity loss.

“Countries can clear massive amounts of forest and still claim that deforestation had not occurred,” said Peter A Minang, ASB Global Coordinator, who has extensive experience working with the REDD initiative.

Conservationists also fear that protecting REDD’s definition of forests could push conversion into carbon-important ecosystems that don’t fall under the REDD definition, such as peatlands and sparsely-forested grasslands like Brazil’s vast Cerrado. Peatlands are especially important as they contain more carbon than even an untouched tropical forest.

“On the other hand, large wooded areas that are not part of officially designated ‘forests’ as well as huge tracts of peatlands (which account for 3 to 5 percent of global carbon emissions) would fall outside the definition,” explains Meine van Noordwijk, Chief Science Advisor for the World Agroforestry Centre and a co-author of the ASB analysis.

Rainforest in Malaysia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Agroforestry, where agriculture and forest are mixed in a matrix that has been shown to benefit both farmers and biodiversity, would also be left out of the current REDD proposal. The World Agroforestry Centre has found that half of the world’s agricultural lands have at least 10 percent cover: the percentage goes up in Southeast Asia and Central America, but none of these will receive carbon payments to keep their trees standing.

According to ASB, the best way to incorporate ecosystems that are currently neglected by REDD—peatlands, agroforestry, sparse forest—and keep plantations from benefiting from forest conversion is to expand REDD to the concept of “reducing emissions from all land uses”.

“[This proposal] will be more effective, because it considers carbon in all land uses and could prevent shifting deforestation activities from one area to another,” said Garrity. “It is efficient, because it focuses on areas with high potential climate impact, not on whether they meet an arbitrary definition of forests; and it is fair, because all developing countries could participate, even those that have low forest cover but possess lands with high carbon storage potential.”

An agreement over REDD is expected to be reached this week or next during the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

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