An “Unfathomably Large Business Opportunity”: The Promise of REDD+

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In Durban, South Africa delegates from around the world are examining the options to mitigate carbon emissions. An option on the table: REDD+ (for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, plus co-benefits -- like conservation and poverty alleviation). REDD+ has been seen as a potentially powerful solution to solve both poverty and deforestation—in one fell swoop.

How do they work?  Essentially, these programs would be funded by developed nations to help pay for community forestry projects in developing countries, if the communities can demonstrate—with verifiable data—that their efforts are saving forests that would have been destroyed or if they are planting trees that would permanently sequester carbon.

The “godfather” of the UK hedge fund industry, Lord Stanley Fink really likes REDD. In a speech made at a banquet hosted by Prince Charles in 2008 to benefit The Prince’s Rainforest Project, the former hedge fund manager elucidated the “almost unfathomably large business opportunity” of REDD:

With an estimated 610 billion tonnes of CO2 sequestered by our tropical rainforests, a vast $18 trillion business opportunity is before us . . . [I]t is increasingly clear that the solution to this problem lies not only within a free market system but also within our field of expertise. What the people of Rainforest nations need is a system that values the services locked up in their land...To seize this $18 trillion business opportunity, valuing the services of our rainforest will not only require innovation in market-based mechanisms but also unprecedented global cooperation between the brightest minds of the nations of our world. Many structures and mechanisms will need to be created, but it should be our expertise that defines them, and our appetite for these markets that forces political support for them. (quoted by Dan Brockington and Rosaleen Duffy in their essay, “Capitalism and Conservation: The Production and Reproduction of Biodiversity Conservation”)

So at the heart of the REDD+ system is an alliance between conservation and the banking system.  Is this a good thing? Many other systems have tried and failed to reduce deforestation. In Indonesia, where an area of forest about the size of Nevada has been destroyed since 1990, activists have participated in demonstrations, legal actions, blockades and destruction of property to protest timber production. Many international NGOs have joined them in their campaigns against the forestry practices in Indonesia, releasing report after report on the “State of the Forest.” The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have attempted to regulate forestry as conditions of their loans. None of it worked, and Indonesia continues to see massive amounts of illegal logging and deforestation.

REDD+ is a natural outgrowth of conservation’s movement to create programs that help alleviate poverty and promote conservation. You see this work everywhere, from Fairtrade Certification, Rainforest Alliance Certification to the Forest Stewardship Council. Norway’s agreement with Indonesia to develop REDD+ projects is a step in the right direction. They are focused on building the foundation of a responsible system before rushing into certification projects.

But even the best ideas can go wrong in execution, especially when combined with haste. A report released this week at the Durban climate talks, leaders from the Peruvian Amazon tell a story about REDD+ project developers rushing to get community leaders to sign contracts in English and with serious flaws:

We live here in the Peruvian Amazon where there is a new boom, a new fever just like for rubber and oil but this time for carbon and REDD. The companies, NGOs and brokers are breeding, desperate for that magic thing, the signature of the village chief on the piece of paper about carbon credits, something that the community doesn’t understand well but in doing so the middle-man hopes to earn huge profits on the back of our forests and our ways of life but providing few benefits for communities. We denounce this ‘carbon piracy’ that is one side of the reality of REDD in the Peruvian Amazon.

What’s in tension here is the convergence of the fast-paced, quick-to-ROI banking system, with the slow and consensus-based community conservation systems. Bankers aren’t inclined -- and typically don’t have the expertise -- to do the slow work of educating villagers, hosting community meetings and building consensus. But, the world community could use some players who won’t cut corners. We’re looking at Durban to see.