Nieuws - 24 mei 2012

Rewarding forest conservation

Joris Tielens

At last: some serious funding for combatting deforestation in tropical regions, saving the climate in the process. This is the promise made by REDD. But if you fail to take biodiversity and the local population into account, things can go very wrong and it all gets a lot more complicated. Wageningen researchers are working on a solution.

Tropical rainforest in Guyana preserved with help from Norway.
The idea of REDD, Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, is simple: western countries that need to reduce their CO2 emissions can buy emission rights from countries with large tracts of tropical forest. These countries can sell their rights as long as they leave the forests alone, so that CO2 is not released into the atmosphere but stays captured in the trees. The system ensures that densely forested countries are rewarded for their forest management, while western industrialized countries can achieve their climate targets without having to impose restrictions on their own industry.
Negotiations about integrating REDD into the new climate treaty that will soon be superseding the Kyoto one have been going on for a year already. Reducing deforestation, which is to blame for 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, is seen as a relatively cheap way of combatting climate change. There is also talk of planting new forests in a programme dubbed REDD+. This could generate about 30 million dollars in emission rights, a prospect relished by nature and forest managers. But before that is possible there are a number of practical objections to be cleared up.
One of the places where the practical difficulties are being studied is Wageningen, where 80 researchers form a network known as REDD@wur. Among them is Ingrid Visseren-Hamakers, assistant professor in the Forest and Nature Policy chair group. She is researching the implications of the planting programme for biodiversity and for the local population. ‘Reforestation must not be done at the expense of either', she asserts. The danger is, in her view, that before long everything will revolve around CO2. It might soon be possible to earn emission rights and money by felling rainforest and planting young trees, at the expense of biodiversity.
Visseren-Hamakers is also concerned about the forest users. If the rights of the local population are not respected, the ambitious programme could degenerate into blatant land-grabbing. An Irish company called Celestial Green Ventures, for instance, made unclear and dubious contracts with Brazilian Indians whereby the Indians signed away their right to use the forest. The Brazilian public prosecutor is investigating the affair.
A further danger is that REDD+ will mean that forest conservation in one area leads to deforestation in another. Or that the revenues from the programme get swallowed up by a corrupt government instead of being used to benefit forest management. ‘So it is essential that policy is well organized and fine-tuned', says Aarti Gupta, assistant professor in the Environmental Policy chair group. ‘From local government in developing countries to the United Nations.' Gupta is primarily interested in the politics of the trade in emission rights from forest management. ‘The organization of the project will determine whether REDD+ succeeds. If industrial countries just use it to reduce their emissions, it won't work. But if developing countries and forest dwellers get a say in the implementation, it could work as a way of rewarding good forest management.'
But how is that forest management to be measured? How do you establish whether a forest is growing or shrinking, improving in quality or deteriorating? This monitoring is the field of professor Martin Herold, professor of Remote Sensing at the Laboratory for Geo-information Science and Remote Sensing. He is doing research on the measuring, reporting and verification of the CO2-related implications of deforestation. One way of doing this is to use satellite images that show changes in the forest cover. But this data needs to be supplemented with measurements on the ground to clarify the size and type of trees concerned, since old forest captures less carbon dioxide than young forest. And this is expensive. ‘The more conditions are set for REDD, the harder and the more expensive the monitoring becomes', says Herold.
Many countries still lack the capacity to carry out these measurements to the standards of the IPCC. Yet this is a requirement for participating in REDD+ projects. ‘It is precisely the countries with a lot of deforestation that lack this capacity', says Herold. He is involved in several projects providing training on this point for researchers from developing countries. From Wageningen, Herold coordinates an international team of researchers who are putting together a guide to monitoring methods, the GOFC-GOLD sourcebook. The guide was used at the Durban climate conference. Herold drew up a strategy for capacity building in Guyana and helped set up a monitoring system there. Guyana is now the furthest of all the countries and has already signed an agreement with Norway which will finance forest conservation in Guyana. ‘So investing in capacity really does pay', concludes Herold.
Phantom emissions
But not all countries have reached this stage. Alterra researcher Eric Arets did research in Surinam, where there is a lot of forest and relatively little deforestation, but little reliable data. Arets: ‘The IPCC demands conservative estimates of the emissions from a forest for which the data are unreliable. That could mean that Surinam is going to have to report emissions from forests that do not actually exist.' Arets does support the inclusion of biodiversity considerations in the monitoring of REDD+ but wants to see it kept as simple as possible. ‘Now developing countries will be expected to produce more complex reports than the Kyoto treaty required the Netherlands to produce on its national emissions.'
REDD is sometimes described as a fast and cheap way of saving the climate. But this promise will only be fulfilled if numerous conditions are met without making the implementation so expensive that it is of no use to developing countries. ‘High time for more Wageningen research to come up with solutions', concludes Ingrid Visseren-Hamakers.
Foresters, climate scientists, remote sensing specialists, political scientists and management scientists join forced in the RED@WUR network instigated by Visseren-Hamakers and Gupta, and financed by INREF. Martin Herold believes Wageningen UR could become a major international player in the development of REDD. ‘We have all the relevant disciplines at hand here.' Many projects are already up and running and a remote sensing project run by the European Space Agency (ESA) was recently added to the mix.
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