The Central African Forest Initiative (CAFI) has just awarded an initial payment of $17 million to Gabon, hailing its achievement in reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in 2016-17 from the baseline levels of the previous decade. However this claim is contradicted by data from the FAO and Global Forest Watch which shows primary forest loss actually increasing between 2016 and 2017, with deforestation reaching its third highest level since 2001.
The reason for these conflicting results stems from a lack of sector-wide standards in methodologies, and cherry-picking baselines for forest emissions estimates - a fundamental issue pervading payment for performance schemes. In Gabon, forest clearance rates have increased since 2011 as the government has promoted the development of the palm oil industry. In the few years leading up to 2017, and licenced by the government, one company alone cleared nearly 100,000 acres of forest for oil palm plantations.
What this discrepancy highlights is an integral flaw in the concept of results-based payments which incentivises the perception of performance rather than meaningful action, allowing countries to receive payments without creating enabling conditions on the ground.
Joe Eisen, executive director of the Rainforest Foundation UK, said “While we certainly need increased funding for forests, this payment risks setting another precedent whereby countries are rewarded for gaming the system rather than achieving verifiable and socially just reductions in deforestation.”
In an article on Climate Home, Marc Ona, executive secretary of Gabon-based NGO Brainforest, described the announcement as “false advertising”, adding the 2019 accord between the Gabonese government and CAFI has in no way been responsible for a reduction in deforestation three years earlier.
“If we were going to reward the result of Gabon’s policies, then payment by results should start from 2019, when we are able to follow the evolution of the situation,” he said.
This is the latest in a growing line of such schemes, including from the Green Climate Fund, which have allowed for reductions against inflated baselines, the result being that deforestation can still continue to increase, dramatically, whilst being lauded as overall reductions within the confines of the model.
The risks of carbon offsetting are also highlighted by Minister White’s comment at the announcement on Tuesday that “Gabon has more than enough carbon to offset these emissions [for Norway to continue drilling for oil in the Arctic].” Protecting the rainforests of Gabon is vitally important in itself but the carbon they sequester cannot compensate for fossil carbon that accumulates in the atmosphere over many centuries. Equating fossil with biological carbon can be a dangerous distraction from the urgent need to decarbonise our economies.
What’s more, increasing demand for carbon credits to meet net-zero commitments puts communities in the vulnerable position of having to compete with the state, logging companies and even conservation organisations for land and carbon rights. A recent study conducted by Rainforest Foundation Norway showed that between 2011 and 2020, less than 1 percent of climate funds went to projects supporting Indigenous Peoples and local communities land tenure and forest management. A far more just and effective use of climate funds would be to direct financial support to resolving the land rights of the one billion people who live in and depend on forests, and who are evidenced as being the best stewards for keeping trees standing.