Plans to cut global emissions by paying tropical nations cash in exchange for saving trees could backfire without localized protections, cautions a new report commissioned by Norway.
Greenhouse gas emissions from forest destruction and degradation make up nearly one-fifth the global total. Schemes to reduce this warming source -- referred to by the acronym REDD -- are gaining momentum in official U.N. discussions toward a new global climate agreement, analysts say.
But while such payment plans can cut greenhouse gas emissions cost-effectively, even the best-laid plans can go awry, the study found.
After examining 13 examples of similar programs in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia, the authors strike a cautionary note. For REDD to work, developing nations will have to govern programs, educate populations and make sure that the money is not hoarded or siphoned off by a few.
The research was conducted by the International Institute for Economics and Development, the World Resources Institute and the Center for International Forestry Research, and funded by the Norwegian government, which has taken a lead in many U.N. REDD initiatives.
"Effective and equitable governance will be the key to successful payment schemes," said lead author Ivan Bond. "Unfortunately, governance tends to be weakest in the very places where deforestation is greatest."
In the past, programs to stop deforestation have been criticized for failing to benefit or even harming poor and indigenous communities. Here, REDD would have to tread carefully, the report says, although it found no evidence that existing programs it examined were hurting these groups.
Tenuous land rights among the poor are another problem. "It's extremely difficult to ... change the way people manage land when they don't even have secure ownership of it," said another author, Peter Hazlewood with the World Resources Institute.
A growing but young field
Putting a monetary value on the services provided by ecosystems is still a nascent field, said Hazlewood. Those services can include carbon sequestration and also other benefits, such as water filtration, flood protection and recreation value.
Money can help conserve forests by compensating landowners who forgo the economic value of clearing trees to ranch cattle, harvest timber or grow palm oil. But so far, payment schemes, whether to address climate change or other conservation goals, have been relatively small in scale or voluntary, and generally lack good data.
Many programs examined did a poor job of establishing baselines against which to measure successes, the report notes.
"Most of these initiatives are not very old, and they are not tried and tested yet," said Hazlewood. If REDD becomes part of a global climate treaty, he said, it will require a massive scale-up of the idea.
REDD could bridge the gap
Annie Petsonk, international counsel with the Environmental Defense Fund, said REDD could help bridge the negotiating gap between the "north and south," offering industrialized nations a cheap option for cutting emissions and developing nations the chance to commit to action.
Years ago, negotiators were too skeptical to include forest projects in the Kyoto Protocol, which will soon expire. But now momentum is building to include them as a key part of a new agreement, said Petsonk.
Developing nations like Brazil have already started implementing early programs that show they are serious. And the U.S. climate bill passed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee would accept international forest carbon credits to offset domestic emissions and, importantly, use 5 percent of carbon permit revenues to directly fund forest projects in tropical nations. "That's a big amount of money," Petsonk said.
But at U.N. climate talks proceeding next week in Bonn, Germany, many details about REDD's structure are still an open question, said Hazlewood. Especially at the national level, most would not get worked out until after an agreement is reached. The moral of the report is that this phase would be critical.
"It is naïve to believe that it is easy to change and improve forest governance -- there are many deep and vested interests in maintaining the status quo," it says.