Rhein on Energy and Climate

Outside the oceans tropical forests constitute the biggest carbon reservoir on earth. 289 billion tons carbon are sequestered in all forests on earth, and 0.5 billion tons of carbon are lost every year through net deforestation.

It is of crucial importance for the global climate to maintain the present stock of forests for the indefinite future. Human beings do exactly the opposite. They destroy them at an alarming speed: C02 emissions from cutting tropical forests constitute the single biggest source of emissions, amounting to roughly one fifth of all C02 emissions, more than those from the transport and industrial sectors combined.

The main drive behind the destruction of tropical forests comes from the desire of governments and local populations to make more “productive” use of their forest land. The timber it supplies yields high returns on the international market: the value of global annual wood removal amounts to $ 100 billion. When cleared of the trees, the forest land can serve for highly remunerative palm oil plantations, cattle ranches etc. A small part of it also helps indigenous populations to cultivate manioc and other basic foodstuff.

Standing trees do not yield any returns! They cost money for preserving and shielding them against illegal logging, forest fires and natural disasters.

We have to understand this basic interrelation if we want to successfully tackle deforestation. In 1997, the negotiators of the Kyoto Protocol largely disregarded forests. Countries with tropical forests were no issue, as they were not subject to any limitations of their C02 emissions. And negotiators were keen not to credit Russia, USA and Canada for their huge forests as “carbon sinks”.

After 10 years of oblivion, tropical forest issues are again on the centre stage. Two years ago, in September 2008, three UN institutions (FA0, UNDP and World Bank) have taken the UN-REDD – “Reducing emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation”- initiative.

The underlying purpose of REDD is to create financial value for the standing forests and offer financial and technical assistance to participating forest countries to and help them to effectively manage their forests and prevent illegal logging and deforestation.

The international community should remunerate tropical forest countries for their services. Theoretically, such payments might consist of two components; one for the value of the standing forests, the other for effective forest management.

The first component might resemble the flat “hectare payments”, which the EU has been granting its farming community since the 1990s in return for the ecological value of preserving farm land, whether cultivated or not. Annual payments have been in the order of € 40 billion!

For the preservation of the major tropical forests an annual transfer in the order of $ 30 billion has been advanced. Essentially all countries, including China, will need to participate in the financing. They all benefit from preserving tropical forests; as importers of timber, palm oil, maize, soybeans or beef many are indirectly co-responsible for deforestation.

The amounts for preserving forests and improving the effectiveness of forest management will need to be significant in order to offer enough incentives to governments and local communities to refrain from further deforestation.

Paying $ 30 billion annually for preventing about 2 billion tons of C02” would correspond to the low present market price of $ 15 per ton of C02. It is one of the most economic methods of restraining C02 emissions and slowing climate change, cheaper than investing in renewable or nuclear energies.

The system will have to be phased in progressively, say in the course of the next 10 years, as forest participating countries commit to and implement sustainable forest management. And it might have to be kept in force for some 20 years until the major tropical forest countries will have learned to manage and “harvest” their forests without reducing their overall surface, as Europe, USA and Russia have done during the last two centuries. Some 70 countries, especially in Europe and Africa, have updated their forest policies since 2005.

Norway has played an exemplary role in advancing the cause of global forest preservation. No other country has been so forthcoming with pledges of financial support. It is therefore in recognition of its vanguard role that 52 countries willing to commit themselves to the cause of forest conservation met in Oslo May 27th, 2010 to sign up for an “Interim REDD+ Partnership” and provide for the appropriate monitoring mechanism.

The main purpose of the REDD+ Partnership is to scale up existing forest preservation operations during 2010-12 and to provide a transparent, coordinated framework for the scattered projects and programmes presently under way. Scaling up will be possible thanks to pledges from seven major donor countries to dedicate $ 4 billion to such a programme.

The UN Climate Secretariat hopes to integrate the REDD+ Partnership in a comprehensive future climate agreement. This is not a good idea. The international climate negotiations have already become too complicated for arriving at effective solutions. Forests are different from C02 emissions from power generation, industry or transport.

It would be very helpful for everybody if a small number of committed countries were capable of a breakthrough on the preservation of tropical forests.

Let us therefore wish success to the REDD+ Partnership and hope that major forest countries with huge C02 emissions from deforestation like Brazil, Indonesia and Congo will effectively curb deforestation under its auspices and with an efficient technical assistance from the international community.

In any case, the Oslo Climate and Forest Conference 2010 so far the only really positive signal from the developed countries, seven months ahead of the Cancun Climate Conference.

Brussels 03.06.10 Eberhard Rhein

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