Global fund 'could pay owners to keep rainforests safe'

Posted: 20 October 2008

A revolutionary multibillion-dollar fund should be set up to pay the owners of the world's rainforests not to cut them down, according to a report sent to the British Prime Minister. John Vidal and Juliette Jowit of The Guardian report.

The report by special adviser Johan Eliasch says the scheme would be a comparatively cheap way to reduce climate change emissions and would also inject vital funds into developing countries to help alleviate poverty.

He proposes that a global carbon market could pay the tropical rainforests' owners, or people living in, them to save and maintain the trees, which store carbon dioxide - the main contributor to climate change. In addition, saving the rainforests would help to control global rainfall patterns. They are also home to more than half the world's species.

Aerial view of the Amazon forest. © Greenpeace / Beltra, Daniel
Aerial view of the Amazon forest. © Greenpeace / Beltra, Daniel
Aerial view of the Amazon forest.© Greenpeace / Daniel Beltra
The World Bank has estimated the cost of reducing deforestation by one fifth at $2bn-$20bn (£1.15bn-£11.5bn) a year, leading campaigners to calculate that halting the problem would cost up to $100bn a year.

But the Eliasch review claims countries without forests could also benefit from a global forest emission trading system, which would be relatively cheap compared with saving emissions at home.

"Integrating forests within a global cap and trade system would create opportunities to tackle a large part of current CO2 emissions while at the same time delivering substantial finance to forest conservation and sustainable forest management," says the report. "Forest carbon finance could also make a significant impact on reducing poverty through increased financial flows to developing countries."

The report marks a significant shift in the debate about saving rainforests, which has until now been dominated by charities and rich individuals - including Eliasch and the Cool Earth group he helped to set up - raising funds to buy forests, provoking outrage from some governments and local communities.

Forest credits

The new model has been supported by some environmental campaigners and by the government of Guyana, which last year offered to save its rainforests in return for payments from Britain. But others warn that it would allow developed countries to avoid tackling their own emissions.

"These proposals offer countries the chance to buy their way out of reducing emissions through forest protection," said Greenpeace's head of biodiversity, Andy Tait. He expressed concern over the effect the plan would have on emissions in rich nations. "If Gordon Brown accepts these proposals he will give a green light to companies to use forest protection abroad as a cheap alternative to making the dramatic cuts in the industrial and energy sectors that we need here in the UK."

The Eliasch review says new research forecasts that without action to stop deforestation the problem would, by itself, generate enough carbon dioxide emissions to tip the planet over the level considered crucial to avoid more than 2C of warming. "Consequently ... forests will need to form a central part of any global climate change deal," it says.

Clearcut tropical rainforest being converted into an oil palm plantation,  Sabah, Malaysia. Photo: Swedisth U. Silviculture department.
Clearcut tropical rainforest being converted into an oil palm plantation, Sabah, Malaysia. Photo: Swedisth U. Silviculture department.
Clearcut tropical rainforest being converted to an oil palm plantation, Sabah, MalaysiaPhoto: Swedish U. Silviculture department.
Deforestation contributes about 17 per cent of global carbon emissions, the third biggest source behind power generation and industry, and bigger than either China or the United States, says the report. It forecasts the pressure on forests will increase as world population grows by more than 2.5 billion people in the next 40 years.

"Rainforests [are] like a giant global utility right now, like a water utility or a power station, that's providing a service we're not paying for," said Andrew Mitchell, director of the Global Canopy Programme. "When you don't pay your electricity bill, you get cut off. We should recognise these countries shouldn't provide us with a service [for] free."

Mitchell added: "We're saying we need to build carbon capture and storage to take the carbon out of the atmosphere and forgetting about the plants taking it out for free. We have to do both."

Needs of the poor

Environmentalists welcomed the report as a sign of deforestation being taken seriously by governments, and agree the issue must be tackled, but urge caution over how it is done. "Sufficient and long-term funding is needed to act as an incentive to protect forests," said Emily Brickell, climate and forests officer for WWF-UK.

But protecting the needs of people was also paramount, she said: "More than one billion of the world's poorest people rely on forests for their livelihoods, so any measures to reduce emissions from deforestation must ensure that local communities enjoy continued access to, and benefits from, forest resources."

The reliability of the carbon market is also a key factor, said Simon Counsell, director of the Rainforest Foundation UK: "There is a serious danger of placing excessive hope in what might be very unreliable and speculative forest protection carbon credits.

"Avoided deforestation carbon credits might well turn out to be sub-prime, as weak tropical country governments fail to deliver actual reductions in deforestation, or as forests increasingly become susceptible to fire and disease because of the warming effects of climate change itself. Trading off our own emissions against hoped-for reductions in deforestation could be a catastrophic lose-lose strategy."

According to Friends of the Earth's international climate campaigner Tom Picken, the plan does not address the deeper causes of deforestation: "Financial packages are needed - but we must also address the underlying causes, such as biofuels, excessive meat consumption and industrial logging."

©Guardian Unlimited

LinksBrazilian deforestation speeds upThe full Eliasch Review can be downloaded from the UK Met Office websiteCool Earth