Looking under the covers of carbon trading and forest protection

posted by Becky Ran

This weekend, the Saturday New York Times featured a lengthy article on efforts in Brazil to save the Amazon rainforest by paying farmers NOT to cut down forests. The article does justice to what is undoubtedly a complicated situation, pointing out  the difficulties in putting a monetary value on standing forests, the complications of persuading farmers to take a risk on a different business model and the danger that programs to pay for forest preservation will be misused.

Also, environmental groups caution that, designed poorly, programs to pay for forest preservation could merely serve as a cash cow for the very people who are destroying them. For example, one proposed version of the new United Nations plan would allow plantations of trees, like palms grown for palm oil, to count as forest, even though tree plantations do not have nearly the carbon absorption potential of genuine forest and are far less diverse in plant and animal life.

“There is the capacity to get a very perverse outcome,” said Sean Cadman, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society of Australia.

Bringing this point home, two other articles this weekend point out the very real perverse outcomes that are already happening on the ground. The Economist’s Natasha Loder reports on her blog, Overmatter, that PNG has just suspended the head of its Office of Climate Change under charges of corrpution – yup, that’s the same guy responsible for structuring a carbon trading/forest preservation scheme.The OCC is starting an investigation of the situation, which it hopes to complete by the Copenhagen negotiations in December, but

At the same time, the OCC needs to get on with developing its Interim Low Carbon Development Strategy, which emphasises the REDD policy agenda. Part of this involves looking at securing land for REDD and for benefit sharing. Another part of this strategy involves looking at the drivers of deforestation and degradation in the country. Again, much needed work. You can’t just buy up a few blocks of forest in a country, slap a REDD sticker on them and hope that deforestation will go away.

Arthur Max over at AP is sounding another alarm – reporting on the breakup of one of the first carbon trading scams, resulting in 9 arrests in Amsterdam this weekend.

The arrest confirmed fears among law enforcement officers that swindlers — operating from the trading floors of Europe to the tropical forests of the Pacific — are being attracted to a market that has grown to more than $100 billion.

Where there is money, there is lots and lots of room for corruption and perverse outcomes, particularly in countries without strong and transparent governance. For those of us who want to protect our world’s rainforests, respect indigenous rights and avoid catastrophic climate change, the path to any forest carbon trading scheme is one that must be tread with extreme caution.