In Amazonas, Brazil’s largest state, children and adults are going to school for the first time, families are paid $25 a month and startup businesses and community organizations are getting funded. The money comes from the state government and corporations including Marriott International, two Brazilian banks, Bradesco and Banco de Planeta, and Coca-Cola’s bottler in Brazil.
In return, the Amazon dwellers simply agree not to cut down trees.
This deal—in which companies and governments pay people who pledge not to destroy rainforests—is the essence of a concept known as REDD, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation.
REDD is an important element of the UN climate negotiations unfolding this week here in Copenhagen, as well as a vital – and potentially controversial – plank of the climate bills pending in Congress.
“We will only win this deforestation battle if we can find ways to make the forest worth more standing that they are when cut down,” says Virgilio Viana, direct of Fundacao Amazonas Sustentavel, which oversees the project in the Juma Preserve of the Amazon. Juma is a 1.8 million acre region—about the size of Delaware—which is 98% forested.
Today, I went to a briefing by Marriott about the Juma project and REDD. If REDD projects can be made to work, in a verifiable and lasting way, they can be potent weapons against climate change. [Disclosure: I am hosting an event this week sponsored by the Coalition of Rainforest Nations, which paid my way to Copenhagen and strongly backs REDD.]
The arguments for REDD are environmental and economic. Between 15% and 20% of the world’s carbon emissions come from cutting down forests, burning wood or peat. These forests are destroyed for timber or to make way for farming and ranching. Because of deforestation, Indonesia and Brazil are the No. 3 and 4 ranked all countries in carbon emissions. Deforestation causes more carbon emissions that the world’s transportation sector—a stunning fact, when you think of all the attention paid to (and money invested in) electric cars or fuels.
The other appeal of REDD is that it’s cheap. REDD projects cost an estimated $5 t0 $15 to eliminate each ton of carbon emissions, far less than it costs to, say, substitute solar panels for coal plants. They can also be done quickly, compared to, say, the time it takes to permit and build a nuclear plant.
The Juma Project being touted by Marriott is a voluntary offset. No one requires hotel chains to reduce their carbon emissions. but Marriott has committed $2 million to the effort as part of its sustainability program. It also asks hotel guests to contribute $1 per night to offset their own carbon emissions when they stay in a Marriott hotel.
Marriott’s contributions have, among other things, built the first school in one community. The Amazon foundation has also helped finance such alternative livelihoods as the harvesting of Brazil nuts, the development of fish farms and sustainable logging, where tress are planted as quickly as they are cut down. “It is quite moving to see lives being changed, while the rainforest is being preserved,” says Mari Snyder, who oversees Marriott’s sustainability work. (You can watch a Marriott video here about Juma and REDD.) Even critics of offsets regard voluntary ones like this as benign.
But REDD will only have a major impact if offsets are incorporated into legally binding cap-and trade regulations like those being debated here in Copenhagen and in Congress.
This is where things can get sticky. Some critics—most prominently, Friends of the Earth—say offsets are dangerous gimmicks and trading schemes are subject to abuse. REDD projects in particular are hard to measure and verify. One problem is described as “leakage”–the notion that if forests are protected in one place, rangers or farmers who want land will simply tear down trees elsewhere.
The other argument against REDD is that cheap overseas offsets will allow coal and oil companies in the U.S. to buy their way out of carbon controls, rather than reform their own practices.
I asked Glenn Hurowitz, who works for a coalition called Avoided Deforestation Partners, to respond to the criticisms. He said verification of forest projects had become easier with the democratization of satellite technology, like Google Earth. As for leakage, rules can be written to prevent it by only allowing credits to go to countries or large regions that agree to limit deforestation on a broad basis.
As a practical matter, Hurowitz said, without offsets like REDD, passing a strong U.S. climate regulation bill will be difficult if not impossible becausethe costs of reducing emissions without them would be much higher. (As much as 89% higher, an EPA analysis says.) “IF you didn’t have the inclusion of offsets, particularly forests, you would see weaker emissions caps,” he said.
The Avoided Deforestation Partners coalition includes carbon emitters like American Electric Power and Duke Energy and such big NGOs as Environmental Defense, The Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club. The coal burners like REDD because they’d rather pay for offsets that shut down their plants; the enviros like it because, done right, it works.
Two other interesting things to know about REDD:
First, REDD advocates say that protecting the Amazon will help U.S. timber and agriculture interests who now compete with loggers and farmers who use deforested Brazilian land. Backers of REDD will use that argument to try to persuade senators from farm or timber states to support climate legislation—as a way to protect jobs in their home states.
Second, REDD is a form of what activists call climate justice. They argue that rich countries are responsible for most of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, so they should finance the solutions to the climate crisis. Under the REDD provisions, an estimated $12 to $14 billion in government and corporate money will be dedicated to forest protection.