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Scientists sound warning on forest carbon payment scheme

Scientists convening in Bali expressed a range of concerns over a proposed mechanism for mitigating climate change through forest conservation, but some remained hopeful the idea could deliver long-term protection to forests, ease the transition to a low-carbon economy, and generate benefits to forest-dependent people.

Presenting at the annual Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, scientists and policy experts warned that the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) program outlined in international climate talks could fail to achieve the desired outcome of protecting forests, while having detrimental impacts on biodiversity and local livelihoods, if it isn’t properly designed or excludes critical safeguards. Some researchers argued that the economics of REDD may fall short of competing with returns from other forms of land use, including logging and plantation development, while others said that a successful REDD program could undermine wildlife-friendly farming approaches, promote conversion of low carbon landscapes for industrial tree-planting projects, and shift conservation priorities toward carbon-dense ecosystems.

Tangkoko, Sulawesi in Indonesia

“REDD is a potentially excellent mechanism by which to address GHG emissions while incidentally contributing to biodiversity conservation and the maintenance of ecosystem services,” said Jaboury Ghazoul, an ecologist at ETH Zurich, who discussed potential unrealized costs of REDD. “There are, however, challenges to overcome, ranging from the administrative and technical implementation of REDD, to the wider knock-on effects on downstream livelihoods and regional development. As scientists keen to see the successful implementation of REDD we must also recognize and grapple with its wider challenges.”

Several presenters used the host country of Indonesia, which recently signed a one billion dollar deal with Norway to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, to provide context of the types of problems that could befall a poorly designed and implemented REDD mechanism.

Financial fraud

Christopher Barr, a former CIFOR researcher, pointed to financial mismanagement and outright fraud in Indonesia’s Reforestation Fund as an example. He noted that during former Indonesian President Soeharto’s reign the country’s Reforestation Fund suffered losses of more than $5.2 billion – much of it to corruption and fraud. Although the current administration has taken steps to improve financial controls, hHundreds of millions more have been misappropriated or wasted on poorly managed projects in recent years.

Deforestation for palm oil production in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo

According to Barr, “Indonesia’s experience with the Reforestation Fund provides important insights into the government’s capacity to manage and allocate a large stream of funds in the country’s forestry sector. It demonstrates that existing administrative structures are ill-equipped to handle the influx of REDD+ funds and will need to be strengthened. Just as mechanisms are being developed to measure and verify changes in forest carbon emissions, effective systems are urgently needed for financial verification as well.”

Roger James of Conservation International echoed these concerns in a presentation on the REDD readiness of Papua New Guinea, a country that on the international stage has led the push for the payments for forest conservation mechanism, but done little at home to support the scheme at home. James highlighted examples of fraud revolving around the PNG forest carbon sector as well as the rise of a REDD “cargo cult”, whereby the expectations for “sky money” have risen so high they can never be met. He mentioned that the fundamentals of REDD were poorly understood in many parts of the country, with some villagers talking of getting carbon money for their forests and then selling the trees to loggers. James said that given the uncertainty around REDD and lack of capacity within PNG, conservationists working in country should focus on making biodiversity conservation effective rather than waiting for carbon finance.

Knock-on effects

Jaboury Ghazoul said that policymakers supporting REDD may be greatly undervaluing the opportunity costs of forgoing logging and conversion of primary forests. Looking at Indonesia, he highlighted potential job losses, shifts in overseas development aid regimes linked to forestry, and impacts on downstream industries as examples. Ghazoul also said that by increasing the opportunity cost of land use, REDD could put pressure on “wildlife-friendly” farming approaches like organic agriculture.

“Two important challenges facing human society is reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the need to meet food demands for a growing population. REDD is a mechanism that can substantially contribute to the first challenge, but by doing so might constrain our ability to manage the second.”

“An expanding population will need more food, which is likely to require more agricultural land at the expense of forests, something that would conflict with REDD. Resolving this conflict requires us to produce more food from less land – in other words the intensification of land use. While this may allow us to reconcile one conflict, it opens us up to another – that of maintaining diverse agricultural landscapes that support biodiversity. So, while promoting REDD to preserve forests we might inadvertently be driving agricultural intensification and the loss of biodiversity in human dominated landscape mosaics. REDD++, which accounts for carbon values of agricultural as well as forest landscapes, offers exciting possibilities to circumvent this second challenge.”

Carbon conservation not necessarily aligned with biodiversity conservation

Stuart Pimm, a Duke University scientist, added that biodiversity hotspots not always aligned with the most carbon-dense regions of the world, leading to risk that REDD focus could shift priorities away from species conservation, a sentiment shared by Elizabeth Losos, president of the Organization for Tropical Studies Environmental Sciences & Policy.

Francis “Jack” Putz, an ecologist from the University of Florida, urged caution on what he termed the “arborealization” of conservation agendas. Putz fears that new emphasis on REDD will trigger afforestation of low-carbon ecosystems like savannas, jeopardizing biodiversity.

“We need to be careful not to undervalue low carbon landscapes,” he said.

Still hope for REDD

Not all the news was negative however. Greg Asner discussed breakthroughs in remote monitoring of forests, including high resolution, 3-D mapping of forest cover using airplane-based LiDAR sensors and advanced processing of satellite imagery. The image processing technology, which is currently being used in the Amazon to detect both deforestation and small-scale forest disturbance caused by selective logging, will soon be available online for Southeast Asia and Africa. Asner said LiDAR is now allowing researchers to conduct biological inventories of tree species from thousands of feet above the canopy at a rate of more than 10,000 hectares per day.

Related: Brazil could halt Amazon deforestation within a decade

Dan Nepstad, a researcher at the Woods Hole Research Center, was upbeat about the prospects of carbon finance for protecting rainforests. Nepstad detailed the sharp drop in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon in recent years and said that REDD could play a key part to consolidating gains in the region, perhaps bringing an end to deforestation within a generation, while helping the world transition to a low carbon economy. He cautioned that REDD could be “messy” from the get-go, but the potential benefits are immense.

“We need to approach REDD as a skinny pack donkey upon which we are loading concerns for food security, biodiversity (in savannas and grasslands), land rights, and other issues. The risk is that we will overload the beast and keep it from making any progress or, worse, killing,” he said. “REDD must be viewed not as the latest “silver bullet” for protecting tropical forests. Rather, REDD is the first component of a new rural development paradigm that is focused on the maintenance of forests, but that must eventually culminate in even greater biodiversity protection, increased agricultural output, and stronger control over forests and lands by their traditional and indigenous inhabitants.”

Rainforest in Sumatra

Claudia Stickler, also a Woods Hole Research Center scientist, added that carbon finance could be a path to reconcile seemingly conflicting national targets for Brazil: a 30 increase in agricultural production by 2019 and a 70 percent reduction in deforestation by 2020. She said REDD payments could provide a key incentive covert the largest drivers of deforestation in the Amazon — ranchers and farmers — into forest protectors.

“It’s important to understand the true potential of REDD+. If done properly, it could represent a sea-change in the prevailing conservation and economic/social development paradigms, which have largely separated these two agendas and/or relegated their conception and execution to relatively small-scale projects and initiatives,” she told

“Clearly, there are a number of critical issues to deal with—not the least of which is the depth and breadth of social engagement that is necessary to make policies associated with REDD implementation stick—but the opportunity to achieve forest governance on a broad scale should not be jettisoned for fear that these obstacles will prove insurmountable.”

Making logging a part of the solution

Several ATBC presenters emphasized the importance of “sustainable forest management” or low-impact logging and reforestation under the REDD+ mechanism. Bronson Griscom of The Nature Conservancy, said that reduced impact logging would increase returns from carbon conservation, improving its economic performance and reducing the risk that landowners would abandon forest conservation commitments. Griscom argued that careful logging could help mitigate the issue of international leakage, since forests would continue to supply timber to meet global demand. Lex Hovani, also of The Nature Conservancy, added that low-impact logging could generate income for communities and forest managers once REDD payments are phased out sometime after 2030.

“We need to think not only about how REDD is going to start, but how REDD is going to end,” he said.

Putz said that reduced impact logging (RIL) techniques can significantly reduce emissions relative to conventional logging. He estimated that RIL could cut global emissions in legal logging concessions alone by 160-360 million tons per year. Several other researchers reported that selectively logged forest retains 80-90 percent of the species found in primary forests, but cautioned that single-species plantations — like acacia, rubber, and oil palm plantations are biological deserts.

“Plantations aren’t forests,” said Putz.

The ATBC meeting wraps up tomorrow. A declaration on the billion dollar Norway-Indonesia forest partnership is expected at the conclusion of the conference.

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