Ecocentric

Climate: Speaking the Truth on Avoided Deforestation and Warming in Cancún

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Photographs for TIME by Kemal Jufri / Imaji

Someone speaking the truth—it’s an unusual occurrence at any government event (unless you have a link to Wikileaks) and it’s even rarer at the highly stage-managed U.N. climate talks. But that’s exactly what happened last night in Cancún at an event put on by Avoided Deforestation Partners, an NGO dedicated to promoting REDD, or Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. (For background on REDD, see these TIME stories here and here.)

Bharrat Jagdeo, the president of the heavily-forested South American country of Guyana, was sharing a panel with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and a number of other heavy-hitters in the sector, including the billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Jagdeo and Stoltenberg know each other—Norway has agreed to give Guyana $250 million dollars if it managed to preserve its entire forest—larger than the size of England—over the next four decades. Signed just before last year’s troubled climate summit in Copenhagen, the deal was hailed as historic, one that would slow climate change (12% to 17% of the planet’s carbon emissions now come from deforestation) and provide a model for how rich nations could help poor tropical countries hold onto their forests for the benefit of the planet.

Only one problem: Jagdeo said on stage that he wasn’t getting the money. “We have not seen a single cent on projects for transforming the country,” he said, to the visible discomfort of the Norwegian Prime Minister, seated to his left. “It hasn’t been forthcoming.”

The result was that Jagdeo, and his country, was left on a limb. By choosing to try to preserve its forests through a REDD scheme, rather than cutting them down for logging or agriculture, Guyana was taking a risk, putting its trust that the international community would pay up. Every day that money was delayed, Guyana was taking a hit—and so was its president, who has been lauded for his environmental vision. “If you can’t get [REDD] right in Guyana, you can’t get it right anywhere,” said Jagdeo.

Jagdeo later clarified that his argument was less with Norway, which was actually providing the money, than with the World Bank, which has been tasked with actually dispersing it. But Stoltenberg noted that Norway’s REDD money was conditional on the countries actually preserving their forests, rather than as an upfront payment. And the prime minister was under political pressure of his own. Norway spends more than 1% of its GDP on foreign aid—significantly more than, for example, the U.S.—but Stoltenberg said that opposition parties in his country wanted to cut that funding. “It’s hard to win elections on the message of high taxes,” he said.

No doubt. But as Jagdeo responded, REDD will only work if it can tap into a large pool of funds—which means that developed countries will need to take on deep carbon cuts and offset at least some of them through a private sector offsets. Unless REDD could produce markets that would support carbon costs of at least $20 to $25 a ton, it wouldn’t make economic sense for tropical nations to protect their forests, rather than use them for logging or clearing the land for agriculture. (Jagdeo also noted that REDD had additional hurdles—while businesses involved in the forest trade would pay promptly, and wouldn’t tell countries like Guyana how to spend their money, REDD funds tended to come with significant strings, and delays.) At that point Jagdeo turned to another panelist, White House aide Joe Aldy, and asked him to ensure that President Barack Obama would read a report on international climate finance that made just that case.

All of this was occurring in front of the backdrop of international negotiations over REDD here at Cancún, where avoided deforestation is considered one of the best chances for agreement. As of Wednesday night, it appeared that negotiators here were zeroing in on a deal, albeit one with initially limited ambitions that would contain strong safeguards to prevent carbon leakage, but that would restrict the role that private money would play in forest deals. (Several developing countries, led by Bolivia, have opposed the role of private markets in REDD, preferring that the money would instead come from public funds from developed nations like Norway.) It would also likely allow early deals to be completed on the sub-national or state level, rather than just on a country to country basis—leaving room for bilateral deals like the one that is being worked out between California and Mexico’s Chiapas state. That has its risks too, however, especially if private companies are using international avoided deforestation to offset their carbon emissions at home. “We agree that sub-national projects can come first,” says Lou Leonard, managing director for climate change for the World Wildlife Fund. “But how do you avoid leakage?”

That’s the nature of REDD—lots of potential, lots of risk, lots of complications. The more I’ve explored the issue here in Cancún, the more complex it becomes—and the more important, given the unique roles that rainforests play in climate change and in our planet’s biodiversity. It’s tempting to think of trees just as carbon banks, as a quick and easy way to slow the pace of global warming. After all, it doesn’t take any technological leaps to stop deforestation—just quit cutting down trees. But a forest is far more than carbon, which is why any REDD deal needs to take into account the rights of the indigenous people who live on the land, the value of the wildlife that call the forest home and the economic development of tropical nations that are still mired in poverty—Guyana’s per-capita GDP is a little more than $2,300.)

REDD advocates look at those conditions as a positive—not only can we cut carbon with the right avoided deforestation framework, but we can provide sustainable development, settle land tenure rights and protect biodiversity. As potential carbon offset programs go, that’s a lot more for your buck than, for example, paying off Chinese factories not to produce a refrigerant they likely wouldn’t have produced anyway. But it’s also a lot of weight to load on one policy—which helps explain why actually designing and implementing REDD here in Cancún isn’t as easy as it looks.

And that’s true for climate policy on a larger scale. To large countries like the U.S. and China, the argument over climate change is an argument over economics and power. How will capitalism—or can it—stop global warming? But to the most vulnerable developing countries, and the advocates who represent them, climate change is a matter of basic human justice, and policies meant to cut carbon also need to address unfair patterns of development—hence the push for “climate justice,” a term attendees at the summit hear over and over again, usually from activists as they exit or enter the conference. Climate change and social justice are intertwined—mathematically so, given that rich countries like the U.S. are disproportionately responsible for global warming even as poor nations will disproportionately suffer. But trying to solve it all under the umbrella of climate policy risks a continuation of the paralysis that has virtually frozen these talks over the past several years.

To me, that’s one more reason to consider breaking up the global approach to climate policy and focus first on the issues where progress can be made now. REDD is one example, and it shouldn’t be held back by the larger problems with the global climate talks—though REDD may not move as fast as Jagdeo would prefer unless there’s political progress in recalcitrant countries like the U.S. That’s the truth—even if it’s a little bit uncomfortable.

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