False Solutions for Forests: Biomass Energy, Sustainable Timber, and Carbon Markets
The global convergence Reclaim Power, along with the No REDD in Africa Network, have named this week a week of action against false solutions. We offer this blog post as a contribution to that effort.
In the landscape of global deforestation, a tension exists between policies and practices aimed at drawing a sharp halt to the exploitation of forests and forest peoples and those designed to stimulate a vaguely promised market shift toward more ‘sustainable’ extraction of an ever-dwindling resource. During the last two weeks, several significant reports have been released that highlight a few of the overarching approaches that we at Friends of the Earth see as ‘false solutions’ to the deforestation problem.
Friends of the Earth Australia released a report this week documenting the failures of “sustainable” timber policy across Asia. The report, called “From Policy to Reality,” makes the case that the deforestation of Southeast Asian rainforests and logging-related human rights violations are driven by global over-consumption of tropical timber products and enabled by inadequate laws and purchasing policies.
Policies on “sustainable” timber procurement largely place the burden of proving timber legality and sustainability with producer countries — those that need the money — while consumer countries have failed to reduce their tropical timber consumption, the report announces.
In a press release announcing the report publication, Cam Walker of Friends of the Earth Australia said “We are witnessing a global depletion of natural timber resources and sustainable tropical timber remains essentially a mirage. Current laws and policies regulating timber production, export and import [often] ignore the reality on the ground [such as] systemic corruption, violations of human rights, and unsustainable production and consumption patterns.”
Even as policies guiding timber exports fail to curtail deforestation, the world’s energy economy is demanding increased burning of biomass — meaning forests. At the recent United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal, Global Forest Coalition and Biofuelwatch launched a report called “Wood Bioenergy: Green Landgrabs for Dirty Renewable Energy.” This report highlighted the impacts of expanding timber usable in order to generate industrial scale electricity and heat, especially in Europe and North America.
The report identifies increased demand for wood pellets in the EU and subsequent creation of new biomass facilities and conversion of coal plants to biomass as drivers of increased international trade in wood pellets. The UK alone is expected to burn pellets made from 82 million tons of wood in the coming year — eight times the country’s total domestic wood production. Most of these pellets are being imported from forests in British Columbia, Canada and in the southeast U.S., where they are sourced from rare Atlantic coastal wetland forests. The UK biomass facilities require pellets made from older hardwoods, the report reveals — a technological ‘fix’ that is bound to undermine any sustainability standards the facilities pretend to meet.
Even as the industrial demands on forests grow and corrupt practices undermine legal enforcement of timber harvesting bans, global carbon markets continue to eye forests as a source of carbon credits under the UN-backed scheme called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+).
A lengthy article in the Atlantic Monthly outlines the specific corrupt practices associated with forest carbon trading. The article, entitled “The Forest Mafia: How Scammers Steal Millions through Carbon Markets” begins with the story of an Australian “carbon cowboy” who approached the indigenous Matses people in Peru with a scheme to protect their forests by selling the carbon rights in the forest on the global market, through a project modeled on REDD+. His scheme collapsed when “60 Minutes Australia” exposed his plans to cash in on the carbon and then log the forests for export to China.
The article then goes on to highlight fraud in the European Emissions Trading scheme, detailing a long list of scams that have resulted in costs in Europe on the order of €15 billion. Towards the end, the article notes:
“There is something especially insidious about these fake forest carbon credits. They believe they’re funding not only the preservation of trees, but also the wellbeing of local forest communities. Unwittingly, they might be financing the destruction of both.”
In the absence of public support for forest conservation, most current REDD initiatives operate in voluntary carbon markets — precisely the markets that fall easiest prey to carbon cowboys and fraud — though the incentives to launder money through such an invisible commodity as carbon will easily encourage fraud in emerging ‘compliance carbon markets’ like California’s.
The Atlantic Monthly article points to California’s proposed REDD initiative as one public initiative that REDD proponents see as the savior of the policy. Through California’s cap-and-trade program, carbon credits sourced from forest management projects located within the lower 48 states can already help California companies such as Chevron and Shell meet legal compliance. But, the article notes, communities in the forest of Chiapas, Mexico, wrote a letter to California Governor Jerry Brown and other officials last year opposing California’s inclusion of Chiapas in the program and asking that forest offsets not be approved for use on the market. Friends of the Earth Mexico charged that the technical experts that helped set up the plan, “were more focused on approving the REDD+ scheme to assure business interests than guaranteeing the protection of biodiversity, forests, and indigenous and peasant farmers’ territories and rights.”
A more recent initiative by Indigenous Environmental Network, Idle No More and Friends of the Earth has continued to keep the heat on, asking Jerry Brown not to indulge in false solutions when the real solution is to reduce consumption of both fossil fuels and forest-products.
An article in the YALE forum on climate change states that the promise of REDD+ is flagging as the carbon markets fail to provide financing, and refers to another recent report from Conservation International called “REDD+ Market: Sending out an SOS” that warns: “the failure to increase the demand for REDD+ credits could result in the collapse of a number of high profile REDD+ projects while limiting the success of many others.”
I’d flip the script, however, and argue that it’s not the low demand for REDD+ credits that is the problem we need to address, but the high demand for forest lands and forest-derived products. Indeed, a recent assessment of the direct drivers of deforestation and forest degradation in 100 developing countries found that industrial agriculture is the cause of 73 percent of deforestation.
Yet, as a report from 2009 called REDD and Decentralized Forest Management shows, the economic incentives for exploitive land uses would vastly outcompete forest conservation even if the price of carbon were far higher than its highest level ever. Based on a comparison of the May 2013 carbon price (approximately $2 per ton), with the opportunity costs of oil palm plantations (estimated to be as high as $178.16 per ton of carbon emissions reduced), a rational economic actor would choose palm oil over conservation by a wide margin.
Indeed, new research from The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) employs a quantitative analysis of media reports on REDD+ to reveal that debates about REDD+ are skirting a fundamental issue by failing to discuss what actually causes deforestation in the first place.
“When governments, civil society and the private sector speak publicly about REDD+,” the CIFOR report reveals, “they often avoid talking about underlying problems.”
That, friends, is why we call it a false solution.