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We need a carbon deal on rainforests, and we have one

Conserving tropical rainforests is the single greatest thing we can do to reduce carbon emissions, according to shadow environment minister Greg Hunt. Hunt will use Australia’s leadership of the 2014 G20…

Tropical rainforests store huge amounts of carbon. So how can we protect them? Nigel Turvey

Conserving tropical rainforests is the single greatest thing we can do to reduce carbon emissions, according to shadow environment minister Greg Hunt. Hunt will use Australia’s leadership of the 2014 G20 meeting in Brisbane to broker a deal on rainforests and carbon reductions.

But we already have a global deal on tropical rainforests, known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, or REDD (with added economic benefits it is termed REDD+).

The framework rewards conservation of forests and reduction of carbon emissions from clearing and burning. These reductions can then offset emissions elsewhere, for example, in Australia once the ETS kicks in.

But REDD has suffered from the lack of a regulated market for carbon credits, and an overburden of aspirations. Can the initiative be saved, or is it doomed for extinction?

Deforestation is a tropical disease. In the decade to 2010, 83 million hectares of tropical forests were lost globally, around 12 times the size of Tasmania. Half of this deforestation is attributed to subsistence farmers seeking land for their families to survive.

Intact tropical forests store huge amounts of carbon, and support much of the world’s biodiversity. They have a vital role to play in conservation of biodiversity and climate change mitigation.

REDD was conceived in 1992 at Rio and formalised in 2007 at the Bali conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Conserving forests through REDD promised wealth enough to be shared with forest-dependent communities, forest managers and the state. Believers in both private and government sectors kept REDD alive through sequential UNFCCC meetings.

Few private corporations still believe in REDD because regulated markets for the carbon credits generated from REDD have not emerged since the Bali conference. Without such a market, REDD could be heading for extinction.

So, how does REDD actually work?

The first step is to figure out the historical rates for deforestation and losses of forest carbon. Once deforestation is stopped, the emissions reductions are measured, reported and verified. Finally the resulting carbon credits can be traded.

Proponents receive payment for reducing emissions. But to stop deforestation and reward subsistence farmers for doing so, proponents must be confident they can sell carbon emissions, preferably in a regulated market.

Without a regulated market, the voluntary market is the only market for REDD carbon credits, sold mostly in large bilateral deals rather than multiple trades. This market is self-accredited through agencies like the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance and its Standard, and the Verified Carbon Standard. By designing a project around these standards, the project can be accredited and provide a level of confidence for buyers of carbon offsets.

But if this is the only market for REDD credits, then regulation of REDD carbon units is not important. In a voluntary market, buyers may value forest project qualities other than carbon reductions, including biodiversity, landscapes, and livelihoods. Without international regulation of carbon units, REDD just becomes a component of certification in a green economy.

If REDD has lost its power in the private sector, it continues to enchant governments. For governments, REDD has magical properties – able to finance change in governance of forest resources and include rural communities in coordinated management of landscapes – the money flowing from governments in the global “north” to those in the “south”.

For example, in 2010 Norway offered US$1 billion to help Indonesia stop deforestation. To receive this money the Indonesian government has to improve forest governance. In response Indonesia placed moratoria on granting new forest concession licences. This helps constrain corporations from clearing forests, but does little to protect forests from desperate subsistence farmers.

But government interest in REDD too is under threat. It has become so burdened with aspirational criteria that it is unable to work effectively. These aspirations, each of them worthy in their own right, include gender, equity, indigenous knowledge and rights, capacity building, governance, transparency, stakeholder participation. This is on top of the fundamentals of conservation, biodiversity, carbon measurement, reporting and verification.

Australia’s own investment in REDD has suffered this fate. Having fed A$100 million into its Kalimantan Forest Carbon Partnership, the Australian government quietly euthanized the program.

As REDD guardians increase the environmental, social, economic, cultural and governmental expectations of tropical forests, the forest themselves are disappearing.

We need to go back to REDD roots - it’s about forests and people – and use investment in forest protection to improve livelihoods at the local level. Learning by doing. It wont be perfect, but if we wait for perfection we will only be certifying tropical grasslands.

Intergovernmental agreement on a regulated market seems a pipe dream – there are too many aspirations and agendas. Instead, we need brave investors in the voluntary market place who recognise the upside of saving forests and improving the livelihoods of some of the poorest people on the planet. And for the next government of Australia to keep REDD credits, voluntary or otherwise, in an ETS.

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. John Newlands

    tree changer

    Preservation of a standing forest is not a new carbon sink. The net emissions are the same before and after money changes hands. If the owner razes the forest it is a debit against them. As Norway's sovereign wealth fund discovered in Bolivia the adjoining forest may be logged even harder.

    If the West (guilt stricken bad guys) pay a developing country (blameless good guys) to preserve a forest it's essentially extortion. For example a crook demanding money from a shopkeeper not to break the…

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    1. Nigel Turvey

      Adjunct Professorial Fellow in Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods at Charles Darwin University

      In reply to John Newlands

      The threat of deforestation affects almost all tropical forests, not just Indonesia. And the genius of REDD is that it can provide the financial incentive for subsistence farmers to use land sustainably, rather than clearing land year after year. No other system of payment for ecosystem services has come so close to becoming reality and making such a difference. That is the shame. By all means leave the carbon in the ground, or tax fossil fuels into history, but it will not prevent the loss of one hectare of forest cleared by a subsistence farmer to feed his family. To get your house in order, first get a house.

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    2. Mike Jubow

      forestry nurseryman

      In reply to Nigel Turvey

      Nigel, I can accept your stance to a point, but a standing, mature forest will hold a reasonably steady quantity of carbon which has been sequestered over the last few centuries. In contrast, a vibrantly growing new forest will be sequestering carbon at a very high rate but to achieve these rates the land where it is planted has to have been cleared in the first place.

      Another method of gaining high carbon sequestration rates is to professionally manage the forest and remove a small quantity…

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    3. Nigel Turvey

      Adjunct Professorial Fellow in Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods at Charles Darwin University

      In reply to Mike Jubow

      Mike, this brief article is a comment on the state of REDD. But yes, its about sustainable management of landscapes - carbon is just a component. Employment in reforestation that protects native forests helps sustainability. For more on our project in Sulawesi, check out my TEDx video in the hyperlink 'tropical disease' in the 5th paragraph of this article.

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    4. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to John Newlands

      Mr Newlands points out that "Preservation of a standing forest is not a new carbon sink."

      By contrast, Opposition Environment spokesman Greg Hunt reportedly argues that "Conserving tropical rainforests is the single greatest thing we can do to reduce carbon emissions".

      If Mr Newlands is correct, Mr Hunt has risen to the rhetorical standard of his fellows.

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  2. Colin Creighton

    Chair, Climate adaptation, Marine Biodiversity and Fisheries

    Actually the "single biggest thing" we can do for carbon is repair coastal wetlands in Australia and worldwide. Biggest bang for buck in carbon sequestration there is. Besides that will give us food called fish to eat.

    The "second biggest thing" Australia could do is stop importing rainforest timbers. Oh guess what - that would mean we actually start to invest in high value plantation timber development in Australia. Thats jobs and landscape repair right along the Great Australian Dividing Range. sounds like a good idea for Direct action to me!

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    1. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Colin Creighton

      Colin

      Strongly agree with your "second biggest thing". As well as investing in high value timber plantations (which may be problematic), we should also be acknowledging and encouraging the efficacy of sustainably managing our own native forests for high value timber.

      But, Australia's forestry and timber sector continues to have to fight a war for its own survival against supposedly 'green' ENGOs mounting often irrational political campaigns against it, even though only about 5% of Australia's…

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    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      I am one of those greeny's that did not understand the difference between Forestry aka Forest Management and Logging.

      What changed my mind was furious engagement on various websites with Forestry workers.

      I think a big part of it is we know the profit motive for the industry is cutting down tree's and seeing as we are constantly saturated by propaghanda from fossil fuel, tabbaco, fast food companies, etc - there is a natural and healthy skepticism that arises about the intention of a forestry…

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    3. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      With all due respect, Mark, there is an extinction emergency in Victoria's remnant forests, for which the solution can only start with large-scale forest restoration.

      I'd suggest that you have a common interest with the ecosystems that conservationists purportedly 'protect' in agitating to substantially increase the size of the forest estate.

      To put it another way, instead of fighting over the remaining crumbs, you could try growing a bigger pie.

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    4. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to David Arthur

      David

      What you refer to as "Victoria's remnant forests" is actually over 8 million hectares in size. The whole premise of the Greens so-called 'extinction emergency' is that it being primarily caused by logging and its solution is to create more national parks! Sounds like the typical political campoaign to me.

      In fact, over 90% of Victoria's forests are not used for timber production, so it is drawing a pretty long bow to suggest it is going to be responsible for extinctions.

      Just what is "large-scale forest restoration"? You seem to think its about increasing the area of the forest estate, but it isn't about that at all. Its about increasing the area of forest in national parks and reserves where most uses are banned or restricted, and is typically accompanied by a weaker capability to manage critical threats such as fire.

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    5. Mark Poynter

      Forester

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Michael

      The misconception that you seem to be under is that "forestry companies" have control over where and how much they can log, when in reality this regulated by Govt forestry agencies who are therefore also responsible for ensuring that biodiversity is protected in accordance with previous Govt land use planning processes which have formerly delineated wood supply zones and conservation reserves.

      Sure those companies have a profit motive as does any business, but the regulations don't…

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    6. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Thanks Mark, that's a useful reply with much information.

      While I'm relieved that over a third of Victoria is forested, how does that compare with pre-European settlement forest cover ie under Indigenous land management? I expect that they'd have been maintaining many well-delineated grass corridors amidst the forests for hunting purposes.

      You make a good point about locking land up in National Park, but I think it is a bit unfair to just blame Greens for that. Here in Qld, ALP governments…

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    7. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Mark Poynter

      Thanks for that, is there anywhere I could see what these standards are for the forestry companies?

      I'm interested in how they measure biodiversity and how they allocate logging area's

      You can understand I am no less sceptical of forestry companies than I am of the government

      like KRudd says Climate Change is biggest moral issue of our time - and aims for 5% reduction in CO2.....5%....biggest moral issue 5% change

      So the fact that the government are setting these standards in and of itself is little comforting

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  3. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Thanks Prof Turvey.

    Please comment on what would happen to REDD if it was a market for carbon credits ceased to exist?

    For example, what would happen to REDD if the world ceased using fossil fuels altogether? Alternatively, suppose if it is realised that humanity has already emitted ample CO2 such that atmospheric CO2 is already far and away too high; would there not be an immediate worldwide drive to cease using fossil fuels altogether?

    In the latter case, there'd be no carbon emissions requiring permits, but should there still be a need to preserve rainforests, what alternative mechanism could be used to fund REDD?

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    1. Nigel Turvey

      Adjunct Professorial Fellow in Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods at Charles Darwin University

      In reply to David Arthur

      David - my article bemoans the fact that, apart from small deals, the REDD carbon market is stillborn. Tropical forest management has to be viewed in the totality of the landscape and people. Get the REDD principles and investment in employment right and we can get by without the REDD credits. Check out the TEDx link in the article for what we are trying to achieve in Sulawesi.

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    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Nigel Turvey

      Thanks for that response, Prof Turvey.

      Pardon my thickness, but I read the article as arguing that REDD held great potential for forest restoration. My point (sort of like ants at a picnic) is that REDD is predicated on the existence and operation of carbon emission permit markets, which just happen to be the secondmost deadset stupid way of addressing climate change.

      The most stupid way would be to ignore the problem.

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