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A fly in the forest-saving ointment

deforestationProposals for compensating developing countries for curbing deforestation via the international carbon market risk neglecting biodiversity hotspots, two leading scientific organizations jointly declared today.

The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) and the Society for Tropical Ecology (GTÖ), which met this week in Marburg, Germany, issued “The Marburg Declaration”, highlighting “the urgent need to maximize biodiversity conservation in forest carbon-trading”.

Deforestation gives a serious one-two punch to the climate: not only does it negate the carbon dioxide trees take in from the atmosphere, but it also releases stored carbon when trees are burned or chopped down and left to rot.

In recent years, the idea of rewarding nations for reducing deforestation by letting them “sell” the carbon value of their living forests on the international carbon market has been gaining momentum. Not only does it mitigate climate change by preventing land use changes, but it also has the potential to conserve the forests’ diverse plants and critters and to direct money to the poorer regions in the tropics.

The idea, known as REDD for “reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation”, was outlined in December 2008 during the United Nations climate summit in Bali, Indonesia. Advocates hope it will be integrated into the new global climate treaty that will be negotiated this December in Copenhagen.

But the ATBC and GTÖ point out a significant flaw in REDD schemes: from a market perspective, they look to benefit some forests far more than others, and biodiversity hotspots will be the big losers.

International carbon traders will try to get the best carbon bargains for their money. That means they’ll focus on areas like the Brazilian Amazon, where land prices — and correlating carbon credits — are cheap, and the potential supply of carbon credits is very large (due to rapid destruction of sizable chunks of the forest). Further, REDD-supporting infrastructure, including ways to monitor deforestation and deal in carbon credits, is already in place.

That’s all well and good for Brazil, but countries seen as biodiversity hotspots are much less attractive to the carbon market. Forests in places like the Philippines, Madagascar, west Africa, and the Andes contain the most critically endangered species, but land there is more expensive due to high-quality timber trees and soils good for farming. These regions, clinging to the dwindling remnants of their forests, also lack appeal because of their limited carbon creeit supply.

William Laurance, chair of the ATBC conservation committee, wrote in an email that there could be both top-down and bottom-up approaches to improving the situation: 1) building a mechanism into the UN climate convention “such that forests that contain lots of endangered species are priced at a premium”; or 2) nongovernmental conservation groups could “sweeten the pot” by contributing to carbon credits in hotspot regions, thus evening out the price for the buyer.

Laurance also points out that “buyers of carbon credits also like to get good PR. The conservation groups could help to ensure that those paying more for biodiversity-saving carbon credits get the positive public recognition they deserve.”

Image: NASA LBA-ECO Project


  1. Report this comment

    WES said:

    What this does not say explicitly enough, is that protecting some forests via REDD, such as the Brazilian Amazon, will place more pressure on other forests to meet the world demand for forest products. Without addressing this issue, the benefits of REDD are a myth.

    The current thinking is to establish national carbon accounting systems to determine if there are net benefits from REDD in individual countries – but this does not address the effects on forests in other countries that do not participate in REDD.

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