The Looming Tragedy of Carbon Markets Paying to Destroy Ancient Forests

Light REDD: The Looming Tragedy of Carbon Markets Paying to Destroy Ancient Forests

Using carbon funds, the world's governments are poised to subsidize ancient forest logging, claiming it benefits the Earth's climate. REDD's potential support of "low impact" logging of ancient forests, and conversion of natural forests to tree farms, fails the climate, biodiversity and biosphere.

By Dr. Glen Barry, Ecological Internet December 13, 2008 From Earth's Newsdesk,

Plans to pay for rainforest protection using funds from carbon markets progressed during this week's UN climate talks. I have long promoted the deceptively simple idea of paying to keep rainforests standing, yet am far from jubilant with the results. It appears first time, industrial logging of ancient forests -- through so-called low-impact and certified logging, and the conversion of these and other natural forests to plantations -- is falsely considered as having carbon benefits, and will be paid for with our tax dollars and carbon offsets.

The concept of paying for rainforest protection with carbon money has become known as avoided deforestation, or alternatively, as REDD for "Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation". Like many promising concepts before it (i.e. "sustainable development" and "certified forestry"), REDD is in danger of becoming empty jargon meant to legitimate continued environmentally destructive activities.

Worldwide, an area of forest greater than the size of Greece is deforested every year, and much larger areas are continually ecologically diminished, contributing about a fifth of the global greenhouse gas emissions causing abrupt and potentially run-away climate change. Given the biosphere, atmosphere and most species depend upon these forests; the basic idea of paying for protection of rainforests is a sound one. But like so many good eco-ideas before it, the devil is in the details.

Most generally, the concern is whether further commoditizing ecosystems does in fact lead to their protection. As capitalism verges upon collapse because of its dependence upon unsustainable growth as the measure of well-being, it is difficult to trust the world's ancient forest, global ecosystem engines, to yet another market. To date the carbon market has failed miserably to reduce emissions, and its primary impact has been to enrich the polluting elite. What will make avoided deforestation different?

There is much vagueness regarding what specific sorts of activities REDD will fund. Terms like preservation, protection, conservation, sustainability and low impact are used imprecisely and interchangeably when in fact they are quite different. Efforts to end old growth logging, aid in natural forest regeneration and improve their management, and promote socially acceptable plantations of mixed native species are certainly welcome.

Yet it is clear that REDD, as envisioned under United Nations' climate activities, will also subsidize first time industrial logging of primary and old growth forests, and why not? Virtually everyone else tasked with global environmental stewardship -- from stylish Greenpeace, to ultra-establishment World Bank, to second tier posers like Rainforest Action Network -- support the myth of certified ancient forest logging. They and others fail to see that maintaining and restoring large, relatively INTACT terrestrial ecosystems is key to solving both the climate and biodiversity crises, and is ultimately the only long-term foundation for global ecological sustainability.

REDD as it now stands further greenwashs the notion that logging the world’s last ancient forest ecosystems, and converting these and other natural forests to tree farms, benefits the climate. This is in direct contradiction to the best current science. We are learning primary forest ecosystems, including soils, continue removing carbon indefinitely. And their continued ability to both hold existing, and remove new, carbon is majorly and permanently reduced when "managed" for the first time.

The ecological rigorousness of the REDD concept is being negotiated away in order to get industry and government onboard. To appease those responsible for the very burning and cutting destroying ecosystems, while legitimizing their right to continue doing so in a slightly better fashion, REDD is at risk of becoming meaningless. The promise of logging their forests and having carbon payments too, largely motivates government and industry involvement with REDD.

REDD buys into the pernicious myth that low-impact, certified, sustainable, ecosystem based, socially responsible, pixie- magic-dust methods exist to acceptably log a sixty million year old sacred and ecologically precious ancient forest. The world's remaining primeval forests are ecologically and evolutionarily perfect, and there is no industrial management needed or possible that does not release huge amounts of carbon initially, while reducing long-term carbon storage potential. Nor can any sort of industrial scaled logging avert dramatic destruction forever of ancient forests' structure, composition and function.

Because plantations are widely mistaken as forests, REDD will lead to replacement of carbon rich forests by monoculture tree plantations. Much carbon is lost immediately, and future carbon storage potential is forever diminished. While planted trees remove carbon, the carbon stored is not going to persist for millennia like in ancient forest ecosystems. Fast growing monocultures to make paper may be rotting in a land fill within a year. Further, industrial tree plantations are notorious for their toxic waste, social disruption and soil depletion.

An ecologically sufficient gold standard for avoided deforestation looks like this. In regards to primary and old growth forests, a maximally effective program would fund only strict preservation in order to optimally protect carbon and biodiversity stores in the long-term; and only with local support, their continued traditional uses and possibly limited small-scale, community-based eco-forestry development. The best way to remove new carbon is to assist secondary forests to regenerate old-growth characteristics, while expanding and connecting fragmented primary forest landscapes through ecological restoration. There must be no incentives to promote, or tolerance of, replacing natural forests with monocultural tree farms. Demand for forest products can be met from rigorously ecologically certified native, non-toxic tree plantations and delicate management of maturing secondary forests.

There are many other important and troublesome issues regarding REDD that must be resolved for it to be a force for good. REDD allows the rich world to buy their way out of reducing their own carbon emissions reduction. The well-off must not be allowed to use REDD to avoid reducing their own fossil fuel emission reductions. REDD mainly benefits the countries and interests that have caused most of the world's deforestation, and it is imperative local forest dwellers yield most of the benefits. Further, REDD is likely to result in land grabs and other violations of indigenous rights. Strict prohibitions upon REDD financing industrial ancient forest logging and plantations upon recently deforested lands, coupled with getting payments to willing local participants, will alleviate most concerns.

If carbon markets expand to include forests and pay for anything less than full protection of ancient forests, carbon markets will be revealed as a fraudulent Ponzi scheme whose primary purpose is to enrich the elite, not to reduce emissions or ensure a habitable biosphere. Yes, I want carbon markets and REDD to work. But not at the expense of Earth's last intact ecosystem engines, not if carbon markets abet continued emission growth and forest loss, not if carbon accounting trickery pays for continued ecocide, not if land is stolen from local peoples, and not if it slows down sufficient, real progress to END the biodiversity and climate crises.

Carbon markets themselves are underperforming. There is no indication they will become global and result in absolute emission reductions in time to avert global ecosystem collapse. The primary beneficiary thus far has been polluting industries which have reaped windfall profits after being given carbon credits for free. Carbon markets will have completed their descent into irrelevancy and actual harm to the climate and biosphere if these funds pay to log ancient rainforests. If policy-makers get it wrong and grant carbon funding to anything less than full protection for ancient forests, carbon markets will have proven their failure.

It just seems a little much, indeed a blind leap of faith, to suggest that the present economic system, which has brought the Earth to the edge of ruin by liquidating the Earth's life- giving ecosystems over the last few hundred years, and is now collapsing, is capable of saving terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere. If history teaches us anything, it is assigning an economic value to shared natural resources, in a world of exponential growth in population and consumption, assures their over-use. Unless these concerns with the functioning of carbon markets, and how they relate to primary and old-growth forests in particular are addressed, the REDD concept is unworthy of support.

** Due to popular demand, Earth Meanders is back as a project of Ecological Internet! More later on our plans, but needless to say, the urge to meander became too great to resist.



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