The Sierra Club and American Electric Power, the nation’s largest coal-burning utility, don’t agree on much, but there is this:
Money does grow on trees.
Along with other big environmental groups and such businesses as Duke Energy and El Paso Corp., they are part of a coalition that wants to use markets to protect the world’s forests and curb climate change.
The coalition—called Avoided Deforestation Partners, a name that will never win a branding contest—is the brainchild of Jeff Horowitz, a 58-year-old architect and newcomer to the environmental movement who has quietly become an influential player as climate change legislation inches its way through a divided Congress.
Protecting forests “is our single most important strategy, with respect to solving the climate crisis,” Horowitz says. “If we don’t tackle forestry immediately, we can’t buy enough time to get at the technological advances we need and scale them.”
I met Jeff in December at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, and visited him last week at his office in a lovely, hilly neighborhood of Berkeley. A mechanism to protect forests by steering millions of dollars from the developed world to poor countries, known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), was endorsed by governments in Copenhagen, so Horowitz felt good about the climate talks. “As far as we’re concerned, Copenhagen was a tremendous victory,” he told me.
Now he wants to make sure that forestry offsets are part of a U.S. climate bill. That will enable regulated polluters in the U.S. to offset their carbon emissions by paying to protect forests elsewhere. Protecting forests is a cheaper and quicker way to curb emissions than by switching from coal or natural gas to low-carbon energy sources like nuclear, wind or solar power.
While offsets are controversial, no one doubts is that protecting forests matters: Scientists estimate that nearly 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation, as trees are slashed and burned to make way for agriculture. Standing forests also act as carbon sinks by absorbing CO2. Environmentalists and governments from Norway to Brazil have for decades tried to stop deforestation, but they have made limited headway.
Neither afforestation (planting trees) nor avoided deforestation (stopping trees from getting cut down) were part of the Kyoto climate agreement, largely because of opposition from enviros. They argued that forest protection could not be reliably monitored and verified and that offsets would allow polluters to avoid mending their ways.
Critics of forestry offsets worry about arcane concepts known as “leakage” (paying to save one forest only to have another one nearby cut down) and “additionality” (how do you know the forests would not have been saved anyway?). They’re right that if mismanaged, offsets could do more harm than good.
Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, which released a 28-page report attacking offsets last fall, said: “Offsetting does not lead to promised additional emissions cuts in developing countries while it delays essential structural change in the U.S. economy.”
But the politics of offsets have shifted in the last year or two, in part because of Horowitz’s persistent behind the scenes efforts. Early on, he enlisted the support of Nobel Peace prize winner Wangari Matthai, the founder of the Green Belt Movement, which planted trees across Africa. Her fellow Nobel laureates Al Gore and Oscar Arias came around as well. A key turning point, in retrospect, came when Carter Roberts, the president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund U.S., spoke in favor of market mechanisms at an ADP event. The WWF had previously opposed offsets.
Last year, Horowitz and ADP — other members include Conservation International, Environmental Defense, NRDC, The Nature Conservancy among green groups, and PG&E, Marriott, Starbucks and Walt Disney among companies–developed “consensus principles” on forest offsets. They call for both public and private money to be steered to forestry protection.
Horowitz argues that the best way to overcome objections to offsets is to regulate forestry projects to insure that they are real, verifiable and long-lasting. Besides lobbying in Washington, ADP is developing a protocol to help poor communities seek financing to protect and monitor forests. “This allows indigenous groups to team up with NGOs, without hiring expensive lawyers they can’t afford,” he says.
Meanwhile, he explains, there are three categories of companies that can profit from forestry offsets.
If climate legislation passes, regulated utilities and their customers will save money by using offsets rather than shutting down coal or natural gas plants.
Branded consumer companies like Marriott, Disney and Dell, whose emissions are not regulated, use offsets to establish their green cred and burnish their reputations. (See my blogpost about Marriott and this press release from Disney, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy and The Conservation Fund.)
Finally, a entire industry of project developers, carbon traders, verifiers and regulators has emerged to create and manage offsets. “There is profit all along that food chain,” Horowitz says, “and in my view that’s good.”
A native New Yorker, Horowitz designed large-scale projects around the world as an architect and became concerned about deforestation. He previously founded a nonprofit called Urbanists International, which provides design and land planning services to developing countries, and was vice chair of Equator International, a forest carbon firm. He and his wife, Lynn, own Rio Lago Ranch and Vineyard, which produces cabernet sauvignon grapes for the Clos du Bois Winery of Sonoma.
But his energies now are focused on forestry, with the goal of making it more profitable to preserve forests than it is to cut them down.
Thereby proving that your parents were wrong.
Disclosure: I was paid in Copenhagen by the Coalition for Rainforest Nations to host a celebration of REDD.