Problems with Wood Chips: Why Copenhagen’s Piecemeal Approach to Preserving Forests will Fail

We all share the same atmosphere. Wood is an internationally traded commodity. How is it, then, that, simultaneously, governments in East Asia are urging their citizens to reduce their consumption of wooden chopsticks whilst wood-burning boilers are being promoted in the UK?

Such a lack of consistency is typical of attempts to preserve forests, including the proposals apparently being discussed in the lead-up to the Copenhagen climate-change talks.

I’m finding literature supplied by the NGOs to be a lot more useful in understanding the Copenhagen discussions than anything I’ve seen in the mainstream media. A WWF “Pocket Guide” to “The New Copenhagen Climate Deal” was included with the Guardian early this week. I immediately turned to the section on forests (not apparently available online, but with some overlap to this page on WWF’s site). I highlighted the following passage about REDD which, according to WWF stands for “reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries”:

“There is no point paying to protect one forest, if the loggers and farmers simply go somewhere else and tear that down (in the jargon, this is called ‘leakage’) – or come back in a couple of years after REDD has paid out (the challenge of ‘permanence’).”

Very succinctly put.

Why, oh why, then would we even contemplate a REDD framework that does not meet the conditions of avoiding leakage and ensuring permanence?

As far as I can tell, Copenhagen is likely to spawn a variety of different schemes for preserving forests. These seem to fall into 3 main categories:

1. Carbon-trading REDD schemes

Specific areas of land are ring-fenced from deforestation (and/or reforested or afforested) and the amount of carbon “saved” compared to “business as usual” (i.e. if the land had not been protected). This carbon is then amortised over a number of years and traded as carbon credits for each of those years.

I don’t think I’m pre-empting a lot of discussion by suggesting that such schemes meet neither of the two criteria of avoiding leakage and ensuring permanence.

2. Preservation of specific forest areas

Despite New Scientist’s flippant headline, a scheme in Ecuador to preserve part of the Amazon rainforest (which happens to sit on a lot of oil) makes considerable sense:

“Ecuador said it would abandon plans for drilling in Yasuni National Park, one of the few pristine regions of Amazon rainforest remaining, if it was paid half of the $7 billion that it expected to earn from tapping the oilfield.”

The critical point is at the end of New Scientist’s report:

“…the UN Development Programme is expected to announce plans to hold contributions in a trust fund, passing along only the fund’s interest to Ecuador. … this will give future Ecuadoran governments an incentive not to start drilling for oil, while also encouraging other nations to pay up.”

This model could at least meet the challenge of permanence.

3. National commitments to reduce deforestation rates

The Copenhagen talks are unfortunately turning into a battle between the “developed” North and the “developing” South. This artificial distinction has spawned a counter-productive “them and us” mentality. It makes it even more difficult to define, let alone agree, sensible solutions to the problem of global warming.

Likely we are past the point where reducing deforestation rates is enough. Ultimately, we will probably need to significantly increase the forested area of the planet to absorb carbon that’s already in the atmosphere. But let’s put that issue to one side for now.

The problem with the “North” buying reductions in the rate of deforestation from countries in the “South” is the leakage criterion.

WWF has defined REDD as “reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries”. This makes absolutely no sense. We need to preserve temperate and boreal forests as well as tropical forests. You can’t assume a lot when it comes to the increasingly baroque Copenhagen negotiations, but I’d wager that none of Russia, Canada and the Scandinavian and Central European countries, not to mention Australia, Japan and New Zealand are classified as “developing”. It seems to me that the best that could happen under schemes aimed at reducing some national deforestation rates is that timber exports from those countries decrease, whilst they increase from countries not included in the scheme.

What is actually needed is a global Forest Endowment Fund which provides an income stream in perpetuity to any and all custodians of the world’s forests (and other ecosystems, in particular wetlands) in approximate proportion to the carbon stored in their trees and soils, as long as the forest remains in a defined state. Only this way is it possible to meet the key criteria, correctly identified by WWF, of avoiding leakage and ensuring permanence.