Better REDD than Dead

Typical Guardian.  p.2 of today’s edition directs the reader to its website to read about John Vidal’s “look into plans to pay poor countries to protect their forests”. I resolved to get online as soon as I’d finished my coffee.  But the paper has sold itself short – the same content appears as a double-page spread in the print edition (p.22-23).  And very informative it is too (as far as it goes) – as I might have mentioned before, the issue could hardly be more important.

But what distresses me is the spin: “UN’s forest protection scheme at risk from organised crime, experts warn” in the online version, and “UN forest scheme is invitation to corruption, experts warn” in the print version.  [I’d really love to know how the Guardian determines the subtle differences between its online and print readership, choosing the most appropriate wording for these overlapping communities!].

It seems to me that the headlines mislead.  The real questions should be:

– Are we better off with REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing countries, i.e. the UN’s scheme) or without it?

– What are the weaknesses of the REDD mechanisms currently proposed?

– Is it possible to design a better REDD scheme?

Now, I’d say we’re in a desperate situation, forest-destruction wise.  As I explained way back, we need to reverse deforestation to have any chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.  18 months later, the world seems slightly less in denial.  So any initiative that creates incentives to preserve what remains of the world’s forests is certainly worth supporting rather than undermining.

Let me emphasise the objective.  Our goal is simply to preserve the world’s forests.  It’s not to be “fair” – as I implied in an entirely different context earlier on, the world is not fair, and if we try to make it fair at the same time as solving global warming, well, then, we’re unlikely ever to solve any problems at all.

Summing up the criticisms of REDD as that it may be “unfair” is perhaps an oversimplification.  There appear to be two principle types of objection:

– the schemes may provide opportunities for fraud;

– money may not go to the right people.

These quite separate issues are conflated in some of the quotes in today’s Guardian.  But fraud clearly mainly includes “claiming credits for forests that do not exist”.  Clearly such fraud undermines REDD schemes, but hardly invalidates them.  If we’re not prepared to deal with frauds of this kind, then we may as well just give up.  Trees rarely walk and when they do, it’s a very slow process.  Satellites, for example, can be used to monitor forests.  It’s not rocket science.  Or rather, yes it is!

Rather more challenging is the problem of land rights.  Another article in today’s Guardian spread describes the problem:

“Landowners [in Papua New Guinea] claimed they had been forced to sign over the rights to their forests by ‘carbon cowboys’. The scandal is embarrassing because Papua New Guinea, which has a history of rampant, illegal logging, is leading world efforts to have Redd schemes backed at the UN climate change talks which culminate in Copenhagen in December.

Elsewhere, Redd projects are widely expected to reward political and commercial elites with billions of dollars of public money, with little or nothing reaching the communities who will be expected to protect the forests. In Indonesia, where 40 million people depend on forests, potential Redd projects are in limbo because much of Indonesia’s forests have never been surveyed, and land ownership is fiercely disputed.”

Now let’s consider the logic of the situation.  It’s clear from the quote that there are  already land rights problems – REDD isn’t causing them.  The problem is that local people – who might help to preserve forests – are being dispossessed by various outside groups in order to exploit their land by destroying the forests.  REDD, it seems, might lead to the same or other outsiders expropriating funds due to local people for not destroying their forests.  We’re better off in two distinct ways:

– the forests are preserved;

– as a result, it might eventually be possible to correct the financial situation.  REDD will need to continue indefinitely.   Governments and courts can in principle resolve conflicting land claims and ensure future REDD income is allocated accordingly.

The article does say “potential REDD projects are in limbo” because of land disputes.  Sorry, why can’t funds be held pending the resolution of such disputes? – giving an all sides in a dispute an incentive to preserve the forest, in case they eventually get awarded the accrued funds.  It’s just a matter of setting up the necessary bureaucracy.  OK, not a trivial task maybe, but not impossible either.

Most important, though, land ownership disputes are a problem however you try to preserve forests.  If governments are unable to protect forests either by ensuring the owners or (the term I prefer) custodians can be paid (or otherwise rewarded) to not allow them to be cut down, and/or by edict, outlawing destruction of the forest (for which the government itself would require an incentive), then it is simply impossible to prevent deforestation.

The problems of land ownership and the treatment of forest peoples certainly make REDD schemes more difficult to implement.  But REDD doesn’t cause these problems. They have to be dealt with separately.

We should press ahead with REDD.


That was the good news.  Now for the bad news.

There are massive problems, with REDD schemes as currently proposed.  The schemes are too cumbersome and piecemeal, and the principal of “avoided emissions” is logically flawed.

Consider one scheme described in the Guardian:

“British conservationist Rob Dodwell and California-based dotcom millionaire Mike Korchinsky, the ranch’s two main shareholders, say they have spent $400,000 (£251,000) over six months measuring Rukinga’s trees and getting their Redd application validated. Despite the deep concerns of many observers about how open to fraud Redd projects are, the pair are determined to show it can be done properly.

The carbon stored has been provisionally estimated at around 160 tonnes an acre, which at the present world price of carbon could earn Rukinga nearly $2m a year — a big return for land bought only 10 years ago for around $10 an acre.”

I can’t help mentioning that 160 tonnes an acre is a lot – perhaps it should be per hectare [especially as Rukinga is earlier in the article described as “32,000 hectares” – remember this is a daily newspaper and, as I’ve noted elsewhere, institutional innumeracy is endemic in the sector].  Anyway, my point is: who said this has to be an exact science?  No one.  More to the point, it doesn’t.  No need to thrash ourselves with this particular rod.  This problem is tied in with the piecemeal approach.  If we pay for preserving every bit of forest on the planet (and the second D in REDD is a shame – forest doesn’t know whether it’s in a “developing” country or not), then we can just use rough estimates of the carbon per hectare.  In any case, carbon storage is not the only ecosystem service we might want to reward, so it’s a bit daft to get anal about it.

But why would we want to “pay for preserving every bit of forest on the planet”?  Surely we just need to preserve the bits someone is about to chop down?  When I put it like that, it sounds a bit stupid, doesn’t it?  Yeap, it’s our old friend, or perhaps I should say enemy, displacing the problem.  If we pay the owners of Rukinga to preserve their trees, then, yes, we have helped ensure the future of a wildlife sanctuary, but we haven’t reversed total net global deforestation.  And, unfortunately, that’s what we need to do.

I’ll endeavour to describe a better scheme another time (I have a presentation on the subject which I’m slowly writing up).  Here’s a clue, though: if we do way with the rod we’ve made for our back of demanding accurate estimates of carbon stored in forests, then it follows that we can do away with another rod we’ve created.  It makes no sense to include REDD carbon in fossil-fuel carbon emissions trading schemes.

KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid, as Jack Lang (the Cambridge entrepreneur not the French politician or the Australian politician!) is fond of saying.