Why is REDD on so many people’s lips at Copenhagen?

Forests are a hot topic in the UN’s climate change negotiations in Copenhagen this week. Many experts are pointing to reduced deforestation projects (known as REDD projects) as an economically cheap way to help developed countries offset CO2 emissions, while preserving forests in developing nations.

And while many tropical countries, such as Indonesia, Costa Rica, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Papua New Guinea, are often in favor of REDD proposals, if done incorrectly, these projects can cause a whole host of problems (As Mark Schapiro reported in an article in Mother Jones.)

But the devil is in the details, unfortunately. And while delegates from around the world negotiate REDD provisions for carbon emission offsets in Copenhagen, the U.S. is also developing similar forestry proposals in its own climate bills.

Global emissions from deforestation

About one fifth of total global CO2 emissions come from the forest sector, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Some of these emissions are due to deforestation, which comes from agricultural activities, biofuel plantations and illegal logging for precious woods such as cedar and mahogany, according to research by Dr. Matthew Finer, an ecologist at Save America’s Forests. Some of these emissions are due to “degradation” which comes from accidental fires or controlled burns, and in some cases, from forest dwellers cutting trees—such as palm—for food.

This is important, because in some developing countries, more carbon emissions come from deforestation than from energy generation, said Florence Daviet, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute’s climate and energy program, in a telephone interview from Copenhagen. 

In addition, forestry projects could have a “quite a large impact” on mitigating climate change, said Professor Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, in a telephone interview from Lisbon, Portugal.

“Between 25 to 30 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions come from land-use change, so deforestation counts for significant amount of that change,” he said. A renowned expert in energy policy and climate change issues, Kammen attended the conference in Denmark, blogging on Berkeley’s website about his involvement and observations. 

REDD details: biodiversity, additionality

Some of the critical details about REDD programs are buried within hundreds of pages in the House and Senate versions of the climate bill, but experts note these details are vital to creating forestry projects that actually reduce emissions and do not produce negative unintended consequences. One is verifying that these carbon reductions are real—essentially that trees exist and are absorbing GHG emissions. This can be achieved through remote sensoring, said WRI’s Daviet, and in some cases is already being done.

Another is called “additionality,” which is often referred to in laymen’s terms as “anyway credits.” Alexander Pfaff, an associate professor in Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy has studied REDD projects in Costa Rica and has seen instances in this country where farmers were paid not to cut down forests—even though they would not have cut them anyway.

The issue at hand with additionality, “is that if you were going to clear [the forests and stopped], then I changed things. If you weren’t going to clear and I pay you, I’ve changed nothing,” he said in a telephone interview. 

Yet another issue that is sometimes a point of contention among environmentalists, Pfaff said, is called “co-benefits,” and is a part of both the House and Senate versions of the climate bill. The idea is that a project should reduce carbon from the atmosphere, but also have the co-benefit of protecting habitats for species, preserving water quality, and stabilizing soil.
 
Attaching a value to somewhat intangible things, such as biodiversity, is important, because it helps ensure financial instruments include these services the ecosystem provides, rather than simply paying for sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. 

Irony: Many perils lurk within the details of REDD

Groups concerned with biodiversity and indigenous autonomy are concerned with co-benefits, because a project without them can create perverse incentives.

Kammen notes there are instances in China and Brazil in which landowners cleared the forests and reaped the financial benefits from the timber and wood products. They then planted monocultures—large plantations of a single species—and received credit for carbon offsets. 

“This could have huge negative effects on biodiversity,” he said. “There is the potential for projects [to be harmful] if they don’t reflect biodiversity and to hurt local communities.”
 
Payments for so-called ecosystem services—for protecting water quality and species habitats, among other things—must be reflected in REDD projects, Kammen said. In the House version of the climate bill, projects that have co-benefits for biodiversity do receive more credit than ones that do not.

What support is the US giving?

There are benefits from REDD projects to US companies that might soon be facing greenhouse gas emission limits from a federal policy.

“If you can reduce immediate emissions as a result of land-use change and tree cover change or degradation of forests, it will take immediate pressure off emissions reductions [goals] in the short term,” WRI’s Daviet said.

In addition, Kammen said that forestry projects can be done “at a rate of a few dollars per ton of carbon,” which is much less expensive than many other options, especially for electrical utilities or oil refineries.

Representative Henry Waxman, expressed his support for REDD provisions within the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the climate bill he co-authored with Representative Edward Markey. 

“The clearing and degradation of tropical forests is a major driver of global climate change. Forests cover about 30 percent of the Earth’s land surface and hold almost half of the world’s terrestrial carbon,” Rep. Waxman said in an email.

“Deforestation is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries, amounting to roughly 20 percent of overall emissions globally. Reducing emissions from deforestation is highly cost-effective, compared to many other sources of emissions reductions.” Rep. Waxman is also the Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. 

Ignorance could lead to unrealistic expectations

Last week the US’s special envoy to the UN, Todd Stern said he would not use public funds to aid climate efforts in China, denying the idea developed nations owe developing countries “reparations” for pollution in the past.

But the global demand for things such as cheap timber or biofuels can pressure developing countries to invest in projects that produce the most revenue, said Daviet.

“The bigger picture is the demand that drives deforestation in developing countries,” she said, noting our expectations for reducing deforestation may not be realistic if the US continues to buy biofuels on the world market.

Over the next year, FRONTLINE/World and CIR will report on key issues of climate change in a joint project—Carbon Watch—focusing on the multi-billion-dollar carbon trading market. We’ll look at which proposals to reduce emissions by 2020 really add up; at the hidden interests behind these solutions; and the new industry players. This week, our reporters blog from the Copenhagen climate change summit.

Sarah Terry-Cobo is a reporter based in Oklahoma City, specializing in environmental science and policy and Latin American issues. She is a native Oklahoman, where she graduated from the University of Tulsa with a bachelor’s degree in environmental policy. After college she moved to California to attend UC Berkeley, where she graduated with a master’s in journalism and master’s in Latin American studies. She began as a print reporter, but has expanded her skills with audio production and data visualizations.