Finding an answer to deforestation is one of the main hopes for the Cancún summit, but the Redd scheme is fatally flawed, argues Simon Counsell. Photograph: Dimas Ardian/Getty Images
Sir Nicholas Stern’s seminal 2007 report for the UK Treasury had hugely important and mostly positive impacts on UK government policy on how to stop greenhouse gas emissions at home and worldwide. But propelling the problem of tropical deforestation into the limelight of climate change negotiations was probably less helpful than he would have imagined and, if this week’s events at the UN summit in Cancún, Mexico, are anything to go by, could help undermine the integrity of global efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
One of the more curious features about the current climate discussions in Cancún is that those who are most passionate about stopping the destruction of rainforests are also those most adamantly opposed to a scheme known as Redd – reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation – which basically aims to pay tropical countries to stop cutting down their forests and releasing the carbon they contain to the atmosphere. Common sense dictates that the green lobby should welcome such a scheme, which promises the conservation of wildlife-rich forests, while reducing the 12%-14% of global carbon emissions that come from their destruction in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia.
It has become commonplace to hear Redd described as the “low-hanging fruit” of efforts to prevent climate change: everybody (so the received wisdom goes) wants to protect forests and, if you believe the economic analysis from the likes of influential management consultants, McKinsey’s, it should also be much cheaper and quicker to save rainforests overseas than doing things like building windfarms in the UK or converting the national car fleet to hybrid vehicles. So convinced of this logic are wealthy countries that they have promised over $4.5bn to the scheme for the coming years.
But what looks good on a spreadsheet in an office in London, New York or Los Angeles can look quite different when it comes down to realities. Most of the countries where rainforests are found are notoriously corrupt and badly governed. Theft of international funding is endemic, and governmental ability to exert any real control over remote forested areas is nil, even where there is the willingness to do so. Long-term contracts that simply cannot be reneged upon have been handed by officials to logging and other forest-destroying companies; the kickbacks that came with the deals have already been spent or banked in offshore accounts.
Added to these prosaic realities, the UN itself has helped undermine the chances of Redd ever succeeding. Bizarrely, the UN’s definition of “forests” includes many things that actually cause their destruction, such as plantations of oil palm and fast-growing exotic tree species, which often replace natural forest. Areas that have been smashed up by logging companies equally count as “forest”, as does bare land which, in the UN’s gloriously euphemistic term, is “temporarily unstocked” of trees. Some tropical countries have spotted an opportunity here to cash in on payments to protect “forests” in order to subsidise yet more plantations of oil palm and “fastwood”. Early attempts to set up well-meaning Redd schemes in countries such as Guyana and Indonesia have quickly hit the buffers of vested interest and corruption, with “avoided deforestation funds” already being lined up for projects – such as hydroelectric dams and associated infrastructure – that will increase the destruction of forests.
In the absence of any internationally-agreed and mandatory safeguards, it is very probable that these kinds of abuses of Redd funding will be widespread. However, this week in Cancún, tropical countries have successfully stripped from the summit’s draft decision any wording obliging them to protect the environment or the rights of indigenous forest people, and have similarly purged all such references from the Redd “plan of action”. The consequence of this could be a lose-lose situation whereby schemes such as recently introduced in California to trade continuing carbon emissions from factories and power stations there against putative reductions in deforestation in developing countries will see neither the rich world’s carbon emissions coming down, nor effective measures introduced to genuinely protect tropical forests. Advocates of these forest conservation offset schemes seem not to have appreciated that the resulting continued rise in atmospheric temperatures will eventually destroy large areas of rainforest anyway.
So, why are rich countries falling for this flawed and potentially planet-wrecking scam?
Industrialised countries, especially the US, have found it politically impossible to introduce domestic emissions-reduction measures that interfere in the slightest with our high-carbon lifestyles. Consequently, with the UN’s efforts to forge binding global commitments having now run into the ground, and with the Cancún talks degenerating into acrimony, agreement on Redd is possibly the one face-saver left to them. Because rich countries politically now need Redd much more than tropical ones do, it is the latter that are dictating the terms of the debate – and it is why they will probably get their Redd payments, for a few years anyway, even if they use them to destroy forests rather than protect them.
Rich countries will never be able to exert the moral authority required to genuinely convert poor countries to the cause of forest conservation until they themselves show a willingness to take tough political decisions and reduce carbon emissions at home. So far, this week, they have totally failed to do so, and it is why forest conservationists such as myself now expect only the worst to emerge from Cancún – a deal that promises to reduce emissions from deforestation, but will almost certainly fail to do so, while we continue spewing carbon dioxide into an ever-warming atmosphere.