Putting a Value on Forests

REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, and is a program created to assist developing countries prepare and implement national REDD+ strategies. REDD+ goes farther to include the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.

REDD relies on the expertise of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for sound science, opinion and funding.

From the UN-REDD website:

“REDD is a mechanism to create an incentive for developing countries to protect, better manage and wisely use their forest resources, contributing to the global fight against climate change. REDD strategies aim to make forests more valuable standing than they would be cut down, by creating a financial value for the carbon stored in trees. Once this carbon is assessed and quantified, the final phase of REDD involves developed countries paying developing countries carbon offsets for their standing forests. REDD is a cutting-edge forestry initiative that aims at tipping the economic balance in favour of sustainable management of forests so that their formidable economic, environmental and social goods and services benefit countries, communities, biodiversity and forest users while also contributing to important reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

The basic goal of REDD+ is to create and use market incentives (economics) to reduce deforestation and degradation and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. This is based on the premise that forests act as “sinks” for carbon dioxide (CO2) – trees absorb CO2 and release oxygen (O2) as a by-product. REDD+ can also create other benefits like conserving biodiversity, reducing poverty and social strife.

Countries, individuals, and companies would pay for forests to be conserved by the local government or indigenous people or whoever owns the land. Of course, those paying have to see the value in conserving or rebuilding the forests and the benefits they see from paying must outweigh the benefits of it being destroyed – for example fossil fuel acquisition, agricultural/pasture land development, or some other development that requires removing the trees.

Problems with REDD+

Three major problems with REDD that I will point out are ones which are hotly debated by scientists, economists and politicians. One is that the premise of forests being sinks for CO2 is scientifically inaccurate. They are not so much sinks as containers. Trees definitely absorb CO2; however they are just temporary holders of it. Eventually, trees die naturally or by other means, releasing the CO2 back into the soil and air when they decompose or burn. Additionally, it would take a very long time to re-plant all the forests that have already been destroyed or degraded to make any difference at all in the actual CO2 levels of our atmosphere, and preserving mature forests doesn’t help because mature forests give off just as much CO2 as they absorb.

That is not to say, of course, that we should forego REDD+ or re-planting trees. Deforestation and degradation is a large portion of CO2 emissions:

“The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated that deforestation and forest degradation contribute globally to approximately 17 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC, 2007 Fourth Assessment Report), which is more than the global transportation sector and third only to the global energy (26%) and industrial (19%) sectors.” (UN-REDD)

Second, there is a lot of controversy surrounding carbon markets. Putting aside the complexities of creating a new market, many people claim that creating this market doesn’t really solve the problem; it just gives certain countries or polluters which have money to pay for carbon credits (offsets) an excuse or “justification” to continue polluting. However, supporters of a carbon market say that it is at least a step in the right direction, and in order for people to see the “value” of something, there has to be a monetary value on it that is integrated into everyone’s expenses. When people are hit financially they are much more likely to seriously consider change.

shutterstock_4453441Finally, it becomes very difficult to implement REDD+ activities because of the diversity of people involved and varying socioeconomic factors. Indigenous people who live in the forests, local leaders, politicians, foreign companies interested in natural resources, or local businesses might all have conflicts of interest. These issues can be more pronounced in developing nations where economic growth is at a standstill, property rights are minimal or non-existent, or governments are willing to do or allow anything in order to make money.

Ben Caldecott,  head of European policy at Climate Change Capital and writer from The Ecologist says:

“In theory, REDD+ payments, together with the other benefits derived from intact forests (such as wellbeing, biodiversity, clean air, water and food), should be enough to convince local people and governments to protect forests. But, without secure property rights, how do you get the cash provided through REDD+ to those making the decision about whether to protect a habitat or not? If the cash from REDD+ goes to national governments, the only ones with clear ownership in many less developed countries, is the money likely to be passed on to those on the ground who are taking decisions? The answers to both questions are hardly satisfactory. “

Caldecott goes on to speculate that in areas without clearly established and secure property rights, the funds won’t get to those it needs to influence – like the indigenous people or communities who are greatly impacted by poverty and the temptation of clearing forest for more profitable business.

Market-based Solutions

What is a forest worth? While this is a fundamentally difficult question to answer, I would take a bet saying that we all have a hunch that forests are worth more standing than not. REDD+ is just a part of a climate change solution because it alone cannot solve the climate issues we are facing – it needs the help of other programs like a carbon trading scheme, taxes (we all like clean air and biodiversity after all, right?) and serious emission reductions by developed countries. REDD+ also has major hurdles to overcome in terms of solving socioeconomic factors that play into payments and preservation. This is no easy task. shutterstock_833733641

For now, to make climate change a priority perhaps we should seriously consider putting a monetary value on it starting in developed countries.  In the U.S. and many other highly developed nations, progress and success are measured by economics. Who has the most money, who can buy the most stuff, who can pay off what – this is how people think and function in the countries which are the biggest consumers and polluters. It makes sense then, to convince these big polluters to control themselves by creating something that can either negatively or positively affect them financially.

If a carbon market forces people to reduce emissions because they can’t afford to pay for the credits, that’s one way to get the job done. Also, if a carbon market is an incentive for people to not pollute because they will make money by abatement, that is another way to get it done. Either way, it’s my opinion that a carbon market is a step in the right direction, albeit not a complete, final, or ideal solution. Overall, REDD+ is a great example of the complexities involved when dealing with environmental issues that we, as the problem creators and the problem solvers, will need to address now and in the near future.

For an excellent article on CO2 and sinks, check out this National Geographic piece.

For the article written by Ben Caldecott on REDD+, see the Ecologist website.

Image Credits:

Dariush M./Shutterstock

Teng Wei/Shutterstock

Kalim/ Shutterstock

by Sara Stefanski

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