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Rainforests and Climate Change

RFUK is calling on anyone who is Hot and Bothered, to fight climate change, by protecting rainforests as well as reducing emissions at home.


Do Trees Grow on Money?

Rainforests are back on the global agenda in a big way. Governments now recognise the importance of protecting tropical forests in order to avoid dangerous climate change, and there is now much debate. As governments try to thrash out the details of a new international agreement, possibly to be signed at the end of 2010, they are discussing how best to include measures to save rainforests, and thereby address one of the major causes of climate change. Worldwide, forest destruction generates more greenhouse gas emissions each year than do all the trains, planes and cars on the planet. So if we are to tackle global warming, there is an urgent need to find ways to reduce the 14% or so of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by forest destruction each year, and to keep the remaining forests standing.

We need to protect the planet's remaining forests not only to stop climate change from getting worse, but to ensure that we can withstand the impacts of global warming. Healthy forests absorb and store vast quantities of carbon, helping to regulate temperature and generate rain. When they are destroyed, this carbon is released into the atmosphere. They also fight erosion and protect underground water supplies. Thus keeping forests standing is both a critical part of mitigating climate change and of adapting to a warmer world.

To date, most of the talk has focused on how to pay for reducing deforestation, rather than on how to actually go about doing it. We believe governments need to support local people to protect their environment, as we have been showing for 20 years can be a very effective way of saving rainforests.

Forest peoples must be at the centre of any solution to deforestation. For any approach to preventing deforestation and degradation to be effective, it must involve local populations, forest-dependent communities at every step of the way - from the design to the implementation. If forest peoples are left out, denied a seat at the table or driven off their lands by people seeking to control the forest, not only will they be further impoverished, but the measures won't succeed in protecting the forest in the long run.

Instead of blaming or evicting people living in and around the forest, they should be enlisted as agents of forest protection. People living in and around the forest are often accused of causing deforestation through their traditional farming techniques or hunting and gathering practices. Not only are such accusations ill-founded, since small-scale, rotational agriculture often helps to enhance forest growth, but they fail to see what an essential role local peoples can and must play in the protection of forests. Targeted micro-financing could help local people mobilise their entrepreneurship, providing greater incentives for them to manage the forest around them sustainably.

The focus should be on clarifying and formalizing the land and resource rights of people living in and around the forest, first, before any payment schemes can be implemented. When communities that depend on forests for multiple uses - not just as a source of monetary income, but for food, medicine, shelter, cultural values, among others - have a recognized legal title to those forests, they have an added incentive to and stronger basis for protecting those areas from destruction.

For solutions to be lasting, they must address the underlying drivers, not just the immediate causes, of deforestation. Paying off a cattle farmer so that he does not cut down a forest to graze his cows in one area today, does not address the underlying issues - demand for the beef, nor the competing land uses that pushed him to the forest frontier - and so opens up the possibility that he will simply go elsewhere, putting pressure on the forest and local communities in other areas.

If forest protection is to contribute to the global fight against climate change, strategies to combat deforestation must take a comprehensive look at the pressures on land use, including not only demands for forest products, like timber, but demand for other agricultural products and infrastructure development that increase pressure on land use and set in motion chains of land use change that lead to forest destruction.

It's not just about the money. Deforestation is not simply an economic problem. The destruction of rainforests is the result of a complex web of political, social, cultural, and economic factors. The immediate and underlying causes of deforestation differ from one country to the next, and even from one area to another within countries. There have been various attempts over the past decades to fight deforestation, countless initiatives that have failed not for lack of money, but due to lack of political will and intractable governance problems. There is no guarantee that a load of new money will help solve the problem of deforestation, and injecting money into some countries, may do little more than enrich elites and create perverse incentives. The focus on funding has distracted attention from the fundamental issues at the heart of the problem of deforestation and forest degradation - control of land and resources and forest governance. Before we can think about paying to stop deforestation or to keep healthy forests standing, we must answer the questions: Who owns the forest and who controls its use? Who is protecting it now and who is in a position to do so in the future?

Including forests in a global climate deal must not undermine efforts to cut emissions in the industrialized world. We must save the world's rainforests in addition to, and not instead of, reducing emissions in industrialized countries. If rich countries pay to keep carbon locked up in forests but continue to pollute at the same rates, we will not avoid climate catastrophe. The climate crisis is real and urgent. In order to avoid dangerous levels of planetary warming, we must quickly and dramatically reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, particularly those due to the consumption of fossil fuels in the global North.

The Rainforest Foundation UK believes the best way to keep forests standing is to keep them in the hands of the people who live in and depend on them, and have protected them for years.

Can the market save the forests?

Some believe that the global carbon market - what is essentially the trade in pollution permits - holds the answer for protecting rainforests. They claim that rich countries will pay to keep trees standing in developing countries, in exchange for not having to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions as much at home.

As it is often stated, the objective is "to make trees worth more alive than dead", and the way to do that is to put a price-tag on standing trees, representing the value of the service they provide to the climate. The question is not just how much is the world willing to pay to keep forests standing, but who should be paid and what will they do, in concrete terms, to protect the rainforest?

[To forest peoples, trees are already worth more alive than dead; they provide them with multiple benefits, many of which cannot be given any monetary value or replaced with any payment.]

Right now, there are various incentives to cut trees and destroy forests - whether to sell the timber, clear the land in order to plant crops, raise animals, or expand infrastructure and human settlements. The theory is that if we can pay people enough to keep the trees alive, they will stop cutting them down. This idea is problematic for several reasons.

First, it assumes that the primary driver behind deforestation is an economic one - the pursuit of income or profit - and thus that providing that income from keeping the forest standing will prevent the destruction from happening. In fact, multiple factors contribute to deforestation, including importantly, political will, regulation, and governance of forest resources.

Second, it pays the polluter, rather than making the polluter pay. That is, it rewards those who are destroying the forest, and thereby provides people with a perverse incentive to destroy the forest (or to threaten to do so) in order to receive payments not to carry out the destructive activities.

Advocates of market-based approaches to forest protection claim that only the market can generate the money needed. They argue that the market will mobilize massive sums of money that no public sector or philanthropic fund could generate. However, few people ask whether massive sums of money are in fact needed to stop deforestation and forest degradation. Over the past several decades, there have been numerous initiatives that aimed to stop deforestation, many of which were well-financed. If they failed, it wasn't for lack of money, but rather lack of political will and persistent forest governance challenges. Some money is certainly needed to finance forest protection and sustainable management, but the question is how much money is really needed to halt forest destruction?

The cost of keeping forests standing will vary greatly from one context to another - and we cannot simply calculate the immediate land-use value to put a price-tag on changing forest management. For example, the costs of stopping ‘deforestation' from unsustainable small-scale subsistence farming cannot simply be calculated in terms of land-use substitution values - e.g. in terms of the monetary value of what's produced on the land. Unless mass-starvation and conflict is envisaged, the cost of stopping such farming would actually include the necessity to find an alternative food source for scores if not hundreds of millions of people in and around the main tropical forest countries.

Risks of a market-based approach to reducing deforestation and degradation:

• The carbon market benefits those with access to the market. Millions of people who live in and depend on tropical forests, and who have protected them for years, will be excluded from mechanisms which rely on a global trading system. They are not necessarily part of formal cash economies, let alone familiar with contracts or privy to the trading floors on Wall Street or Bank Street.
• Putting a market value on the standing forest risks driving up the price of land, thereby making it more likely that the traditional inhabitants will be deprived of their territories by outsiders interested in buying up the forest, and able to pay for it.

If rich countries pay to keep carbon locked up in forests but continue to pollute at the same rates, we will not avoid climate catastrophe. The climate crisis is real and urgent. In order to avoid dangerous levels of planetary warming, we must quickly and dramatically reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. We must save the world's remaining rainforests in addition to, and not instead of, reducing emissions from fossil fuel consumption or other sources in the industrialized world. The global carbon market is based on the premise that carbon is carbon is carbon, and thus that one ton of carbon emissions foregone in one country can balance out the emission of one ton of carbon elsewhere. This approach ignores the differences between "green carbon" (trees) and "brown carbon" (fossil fuels), including the issue of permanence.

A simple approach to paying off someone who is destroying the forest in one area could actually do more harm than good. Firstly, even if this approach succeeds in stopping deforestation in one part of the forest, it may push the destructive activity to another area, where the forest may have higher values in terms of the carbon it stores, the biodiversity it houses or local livelihoods it supports. Secondly, if those who pay for the protection of an area of forest take it as a license to continue polluting elsewhere, at best there will be no net climate benefits (no overall reduction in emissions), and at worst, overall emissions could increase. In such a trading system, temporary protection of the forest - because the forest may well be destroyed or burn accidentally at some point in the future - essentially authorises permanent release of fossil fuel emissions elsewhere.

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