Given the importance of deforestation to climate change it would be perfectly reasonable to ask why we do not just protect the world's forests. But reducing deforestation is no simple effort. Forests are being destroyed as a consequence of global economic forces (eg demand for timber, beef, soybeans, palm oil, etc). Slowing or eliminating deforestation means addressing these underlining drivers by making forests valuable as living entities, rather than solely for what can be produced when they're cut.
One solution, known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), is being pushed as a key element for a new global agreement to fight climate change after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. The logic underpinning REDD is fairly simple. At present, the short-term economic gains from deforestation outweigh the long-term good of forest conservation. By investing up to £ 7.5 billion globally per year into saving forests, the economic balance is believed to change in favor of the latter. This money would be paid in the form of carbon credits, worked out in relation to national deforestation rates – the more a country saves, the more it earns.
This may seem like a good idea but such a scheme is a problem with problems. REDD simplifies the function of forest ecosystems to that of a carbon store. This undervalues them as water catchment areas, habitats for biodiversity and as the basis of indigenous and local peoples' livelihoods. Indigenous groups and forest communities are concerned that they will not see benefits from REDD. Worse, some believe the mechanism could trigger a new wave of land grabs and evictions by parties seeking to capitalize on carbon payments. Indigenous groups and forest communities have long struggled against development interests seeking to exploit their traditional lands and resources. More than a billion people worldwide depend of forests for their livelihoods, so schemes such as REDD pose a huge threat to them if not managed properly. Another danger is that schemes to 'avoid deforestation' become a further means for rich countries to avoid liability for over-consumption and evade emissions cuts (eg they continue spewing emissions offset by 'avoided deforestation' carbon credits). There are also fears that a market-based mechanism for reducing greenhouse gas emissions would crash carbon prices by swapping the market with cheap credits (eg making it cheaper for polluters to avoid genuine emissions cuts). This would reduce investment in low-carbon and renewable technologies, and cause developing countries to lose out on a massive investment in low carbon technologies. In essence, low carbon prices could derail global efforts to tackle global warming.
It seems quite clear that an unrestricted carbon market will not save the forests or stop runaway climate change. Forest conservation can be done much easier by a fund (eg Cool Earth) than by market cowboys racing around the world looking for cheap offsets.
What we need to examine are the factors driving deforestation, including the international trade in beef, soy and paper. We should first address those drivers rather than throwing money at companies cutting down trees, when we continue to give them incentives to do so. Financial incentives could also play a role, insofar as they support the recognition of land rights for indigenous communities or education projects. Such measures, which would cost far less than the proposed financing for REDD, could be of genuine worth in avoiding deforestation. But they are unquestionably to show up on the balance books of a forest carbon-trading scheme which main purpose seems to be providing Western countries with yet another escape from their responsibility to reduce emissions at home.
We must pressure our governments to drastically cut carbon emissions at home rather than buy offsets from abroad. We must encourage them to introduce strict environmental policies that reduce the consumption of imported forest products (eg waste management strategies that reduce the consumption of timber and paper, setting higher targets and timetables for paper and cardboard recycling from the domestic sector). The UK is currently one of the world's largest consumers of timber and paper products.
We must hold businesses accountable. Corporations need to know that the public will hold them accountable for business practices that are socially or environmentalally destructive. If you feel that a company's business practices are environmentally irresponsible, send the company a letter expressing your concern, or organize a boycott of the company.
We need better education across all levels of society. At the moment, many people are alienated from the knowledge of the consequences of their claims, and how their carbon heavy lifestyles contribute to deforestation and climate change (eg the excess consumption of beef, paper and timber).
We need to look at the role of ecotourism and volunteerism. Although this results in more people trampling in beautiful places, it is a very forceful mechanism for conservation and also brings revenue to local people without selling their land for timber, cattle farming and soy production.
There are many things we can all do to help protect the world's forests and reduce carbon emissions and we can not afford to be distracted by measures that provide no real solutions. The carbon market is not a 'magic bullet' to prevent further climate change, the growth in emissions or deforestation. The answer lies in changing our lifestyles and political systems and convicting others (individuals, businesses and politicians) to do the same.