Forest protection plan questioned at UN

The world has to look after its trees, especially in rainforests, if climate change is to be stopped, the crucial United Nations (UN) climate change talks taking place in Bangkok heard this week. But now the UN’s scheme to protect the forests is being questioned after critics pointed out that it could be open to corruption.

Prominent conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and The Nature Conservancy are pushing hard for the scheme, called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (Redd), which will probably be included in the climate deal the world is expecting in December.

In terms of the scheme, poorer countries will be paid to preserve their forests.

If the plan is adopted, it could see up to $30-billion a year transferred from rich nations to countries protecting their forests. And many countries want a piece of the action.
In the original format of the plan, only countries with vast rainforests that cut down on its exploitation would have been able to access the funds.

But in 2007 keywords such as “enhancement” and “degradation” were added to Redd, pushed strongly by India and China. These inclusions will see funds also being distributed to these countries.

India argued that the original idea, which only included deforestation, unfairly favoured countries with high deforestation rates such as Brazil. It said countries had to be rewared for also maintaining and increasing their forests.

But environmentalists have expressed huge concerns that the scheme could be open to abuse and that it was only possible in a utopian world where greedy politicians and companies were not itching to get their hands on any grants.

The Ecosystem Climate Alliance (ECA), which is made up of environmental and social NGOs, says most countries that stand to benefit from Redd suffer from poor legal frameworks, weak enforcement, and collusion between political elites and the logging industry. It says good governance and comprehensive systems for monitoring Redd, which include independent “on-the-ground” monitoring, would be vital to effective Redd implementation.

“Measuring, reporting and verifying carbon stocks will not be enough. Good governance must underpin Redd,” said Dr Rosalind Reeve of Global Witness. “Policies, measures and performance must all be monitored closely.”

Interpol is certainly worried. The Guardian reported this week that the international policing agency believed that the chances were very high that criminal gangs would seek to take advantage of Redd schemes.

“Alarm bells are ringing. It is simply too big to monitor. The potential for criminality is vast and has not been taken into account by the people who set it up,” Peter Younger, Interpol environment crimes specialist and author of a new report for the World Bank on illegal forestry, told The Guardian.“Organised crime syndicates are eyeing the nascent forest carbon market. I will report to the bank that Redd schemes are open to wide abuse.”

The Guardian‘s investigation into the pitfalls has been a talking point at the Bangkok conferences with several supporters of Redd trying to play down the concerns the report has raised.

The UN is certainly aware of the unease surrounding the scheme and has advocated that strong safeguards be put in place to protect Redd from abuse. The transparent auditing of all projects that receive funding will have to be guaranteed. But the critics of Redd have pointed out that even the auditors may not always be above board. They point out that the another UN climate change funding scheme, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) that operates under the carbon trading market, has opened itself to abuse by paying money to projects in developed countries that might not have qualified.

Last month SGS, the world’s largest auditor of clean-energy projects, was suspended by the UN after it was unable to prove that its staff had properly vetted CDM projects that were then approved for the carbon-trading scheme, or even that they were qualified to do so. Norway’s DNV was also caught out last November for the same offences, when UN inspectors did a spot check on projects.

Redd, for some environmentalists, also presented a get-out-of-jail-free card for the huge polluters of the developed word, who simply would be able to buy carbon credits by funding forests in the developed world and so shirk their responsibility of cutting their own admissions.

But Redd also has a lot to offer, and not including the conservation of forests into a climate deal is simply not an option. An “anti-deforestation scheme” has to be included in a climate deal worth the paper it is written on.

A report by WWF warns that the success of combating climate change will drop progressively from bigger than 90% down to a paltry 35% if deforestation is not addressed in the climate deal. At the moment deforestation is responsible for about 20% of the world’s entire carbon emissions.

Redd was included in the Bali Action Plan two years ago. The roadmap gave the world’s community two years to negotiate the scheme in its final form, but negotiations surrounding Redd were sidelined at the climate treaty conference Poznan last year.

Now the scheme is one of the critical issues in this round of talks in Bangkok and NGOs are pushing hard for the UN to get it right. The ECA said negotiations to date at Bangkok were failing to deliver.

“The rules for Redd are being set now,” said Bill Barclay of the Rainforest Action Network, “But forest protection is being ceded to carbon cowboys and corporate greed. If we don’t act now to prioritise the protection of intact natural forests including their soils, we will lose a unique opportunity to end the deforestation and degradation that is contributing to climate change.”

Apart from the policing and possible corruption the scheme might be open to, another big concern for the ECA is the UN’s definition of forest.

“This does not distinguish between natural forests and plantations. Unless this is changed, measures to introduce Redd into a future climate agreement could have the perverse result of encouraging conversion and destruction of the world’s remaining natural forests,” the NCA said.

It also called on the scheme to benefit indigenous people and their tenure, since an estimated 1,6-billion people in developing countries are dependent on forests for their basic needs and livelihoods.

“There is an increased understanding in the Redd negotiations that forests cannot be effectively protected without securing the rights of forest-dependent communities,” said Nathaniel Dyer of Rainforest Foundation UK, “But the current text does not sufficiently reflect this and must be strengthened.”

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