The Fight over Deforestation: REDD vs. Green

The UN-REDD Programme is trying to unite economic and environmental interests in the deforestation debate by encouraging a sustainable industry.

Deforestation in the Atlantic Forest near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The global rate of deforestation has begun to decline in recent years, but each year, an area of forest the size of Costa Rica, approximately 50,000 sq km, is still destroyed, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

“For the first time, we are able to show that the rate of deforestation has decreased globally as a result of concerted efforts taken,” said Eduardo Rojas, Assistant Director-General of the FAO’s Forestry Department, following the release of the agency’s Global Forest Resources Assessment 2010.

While the extent of deforestation still occurring is alarming, the fact that the pace has begun to slow is encouraging to forest and wildlife protection advocates.

The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals contain general commitments to “integrate the principles of sustainable development” in order to “reverse the loss of environmental resources” and work toward a “significant reduction” in biodiversity loss. But with such generality, the Millennium Development Goals on environmental issues tied to deforestation are not as measureable as other goals, such as universal, free primary education, or reducing by half the number of people without access to clean water.

At the heart of the challenge in the deforestation debate is the relationship between environmental and economic issues. In some countries, destroying the environment is big business. The United Nations seems to realize this interplay between environmental and economic issues in developing countries, and the UN-REDD Programme seeks to find a balance by creating economic value in furthering sustainability goals. The United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) Programme seeks to find an economically viable solution to fight greenhouse gas emissions and the threat to biodiversity caused by deforestation.

Environmental advocates, such as the World Wildlife Fund, put more of a focus on the extensive cost of allowing deforestation to continue and call for zero net deforestation worldwide by 2020. They advocate taking a hard line against the world’s worst offenders; Brazil and Indonesia alone account for more than 51 percent of the world’s emissions from forest loss.

While most of the focus is on deforestation in developing countries, the formula for successful, sustainable forest management is perhaps best exemplified in Canada. Home to 10 percent of the world’s forests, a collaborative council engaging federal and local governments has been working to ensure forest sustainability for close to 30 years. The country is a world leader in sustainable forestry, even though forest products are a leading component of the Canadian export economy.

REDD alert

According to the United Nations, deforestation and forest degradation “through agricultural expansion, conversion to pastureland, infrastructure development, destructive logging, fires, etc.” account for 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — more than the entire global transportation sector.

However, a team of scientists at VU University in Amsterdam has calculated emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation are actually closer to 12 percent. The academics presented their findings in the November 2009 issue of Nature Geoscience, and explained that emissions result not just from the burning of harvested lumber, but also from the natural decomposition of the biomass that remains after the forest has been cleared.

“Deforestation and forest degradation contribute to atmospheric greenhouse-gas emissions through combustion of forest biomass and decomposition of remaining plant material and soil carbon. Within the science and policy communities, carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation have been estimated to account for about 20% of global anthropogenic CO2 emissions. A recalculation of this fraction using the same methods but updated estimates on carbon emissions from both deforestation and fossil fuel combustion suggests that in 2008, the relative contribution of CO2 emissions from deforestation and forest degradation was substantially smaller, around 12%. As a consequence, the maximum carbon savings from reductions in forest decline are likely to be lower than expected,” the article by G.R. van der Werf and his colleagues stated.

Ideally, emissions resulting from decomposing biomass result in no net carbon gain because the carbon dioxide released naturally fuels new trees as part of the planet’s carbon cycle. However, when the rate of trees being destroyed is greater than the rate of new trees growing, the result is carbon emission. Regardless of whether the actual percentage of emissions caused by deforestation is closer to 20 percent or 12 percent, the contribution is substantial.

“Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is an effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development,” says the website for the UN’s REDD Programme.

UN-REDD was launched in September 2008 and supports 42 partner countries in Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America. Funding of $59.3 million has been approved for national programs for fourteen of those countries – Bolivia, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ecuador, Indonesia, Nigeria, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, the Phillippines, Solomon Islands, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia. The program has received the most funding support from Norway, Denmark, Spain and Japan.

The UN-REDD Programme’s framework document outlines the extent of ongoing deforestation and its impact on larger issues of development:

Tropical forests are continuing to disappear at an alarming rate: between 1990 and 2005, the rate of deforestation averaged about 13 million hectares a year, occurring mostly in tropical countries. Planting of new forests as well as natural expansion of forests in some countries have resulted in a decrease in the net loss of forests. Yet we are still losing about 200 sq km of forest each day. These trends are a result of land use change, mainly the expansion of agricultural land, which in turn is closely connected to the conditions of rural livelihoods, the increasing demands for food, feed and fibre and the overall economic development. Addressing deforestation and forest degradation goes beyond the forest sector and is an important item on the general development agenda.

A logging road in East Kalimantan, Indonesia.

As the framework document points out, one of the challenges in formulating unified policies to combat deforestation and forest degradation is dealing with the variety of activities that threaten forests.

“In many developing countries, deforestation, forest degradation, forest fires and slash and burn practices make up the majority of carbon dioxide emissions. There are many causes of forest degradation and they vary from place to place,” the report stated.

“They include, among other things, poor forest management practices in production forests, forest fires, overgrazing, overharvesting of fuelwood and other non-wood forest products, illegal cutting of timber, forest pest outbreaks and forest disease.”

The United Nations positions UN-REDD as an integral component in the fight against global climate change in the coming years. The Kyoto Accord had the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels over a five-year period between 2008 and 2012. However, the United States never ratified the agreement, and China — whose emissions have increased 73 percent over 1990 levels — was never party to the agreement. With two of the world’s largest super-powers refusing to participate, other member nations such as Canada said they would not participate in a renewed Kyoto Accord, and that a new global strategy must be adopted with the participation of the U.S. and China.

With no consensus on a global climate change strategy going forward, the U.N.’s attempt to make environmental solutions economically attractive is not surprising; neither is the rising voice of environmental advocates who say measures have not gone far enough in solving the problem.

Zero Net Deforestation

The World Wildlife Fund Zero Net Deforestation initiative seeks to unite existing international efforts such as the Millennium Development Goals, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity Programme by establishing consistent benchmarks and working toward a single common goal — zero net deforestation by 2020.

The WWF states its goal as “conserving as much of the world’s remaining natural forest as possible, to maximise the conservation of biodiversity and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”

The organization wants deforestation goals translated into quantifiable greenhouse gas emission goals, and calls on all countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from forests by 75 percent by 2020 and by 100 percent by 2030.

The WWF is also very clear about what countries deserve blame and what countries have taken steps to help solve the problem.

“Eighty-seven percent of global deforestation occurs in just 10 countries, with Brazil and Indonesia accounting for 51 percent of emissions from forest loss,” a WWF report states. However, initiatives such as the Amazon Region Protected Areas Programme and the Heart of Borneo initiative represent significant progress in other countries. An agreement between Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, and Malaysia, the Heart of Borneo initiative, protects 220,000 kilometres of equatorial rainforests, representing almost one-third of the island of Borneo. Likewise, Paruguay introduced a Zero Deforestation Law in 2004, and by 2006 the rate of deforestation in the country had been reduced by 85 percent.

The WWF draws a distinction between zero deforestation and zero net deforestation, insisting the latter provides sufficient flexibility to accommodate necessary changes, including those created by the economy.

In a briefing paper on the initiative, the WWF acknowledges that without such flexibility, opportunity could be lost. The paper states:

“Zero net deforestation” acknowledges that some forest loss could be offset by forest restoration. Zero net deforestation is not synonymous with a total prohibition on forest clearing. Rather, it leaves room for change in the configuration of the land-use mosaic, provided the net quantity, quality and carbon density of forests is maintained. It recognizes that, in some circumstances, conversion of forests in one site may contribute to the sustainable development and conservation of the wider landscape (e.g. reducing livestock grazing in a protected area may require conversion of forest areas in the buffer zone to provide farmland to local communities).

The WWF initiative involves a range of measures, but the first is reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). They also call for integrated land-use policies and planning processes, protection and sustainable management of forests, socially and environmentally responsible afforestation and reforestation, and promoting responsible consumption and production of forest-related goods and agricultural commodities.

If the international community is hoping to find a country that can do all of these things successfully, they should look to one of the largest forest countries on the planet — Canada.

The Canadian Model

Canadian forests at the Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Riviere-Malbaie National Park in Quebec.

Canada is the second-largest country in the world, and as nearly half of its land mass supports arboreal growth, the country is home to 10 percent of the world’s forests.

Because 94 percent of the forest land in Canada is owned by the federal or provincial governments, Canada was able to implement protection strategies that considered the interests of all affected parties, largely without the industrial pressures of private ownership in countries where deforestation is more of a threat.

The collaborative process of sustainable forest management began almost 30 years ago when the federal government created the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers. The council consisted of representatives from federal and provincial governments in all Canadian jurisdictions.

According to the non-profit organization Tree Canada, “the council developed a catalogue of criteria and related indicators of sustainable forest management including: the conservation of biological diversity; the maintenance and enhancement of forest ecosystem conditions and productivity; the conservation of soil and water resources; the forest ecosystem contributions to global ecological cycles, multiple benefits to society; and accepting society’s responsibilities regarding sustainable development.”

Today, the council focuses on initiatives in five strategic areas: climate change, information and knowledge, international issues, wild fires, and sustainable forestry. The council released its first framework of criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management in 1995 and has released updates in 2000, 2003, and 2006.

Canada has established itself as a world leader in forest protection with the Montreal Process. Led by the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers, and established in Geneva, Switzerland in 1994, the Montreal Process established criteria and indicators for the protection of the world’s temperate and boreal forests in non-European countries. In addition to Canada, member countries include Argentina, Australia, Chile, China, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, the United States, and Uruguay. The member countries in the Montreal Process account for 60 percent of the world’s forests.

Canada’s success in ensuring sustainable forests is even more impressive considering the forest product industry is the country’s leading exporter, and Canada is the third-leading forest products exporter in the world. The industry consists of wood products, such as lumber, panels, doors, windows, and kitchen cabinets; and paper products, such as pulp, newsprint, printing paper, and consumer paper products, such as napkins and tissue.

The forestry sector generates $20 billion in revenue annually in Canada, equal to about 1.8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Because it is such a vast country with so much of the land mass covered in forests, the forestry industry generates this amount of revenue while using only one percent of the forest. Private companies pay the government for a license to harvest lumber from government land, but, according to Natural Resources Canada, by legislation, the companies are required to ensure the forest is “successfully regenerated,” resulting ideally in zero net deforestation.

This relationship between government and private industry, however, has drawn the criticism of some non-profit environmental organizations in Canada. In a report published in 2000, Global Forest Watch Canada pointed out that Canada lacks a consistent national forest inventory. The management of natural resources falls to the provincial governments under the Canadian constitution, which presents challenges in coordinating nationwide systems and standards. The group was also critical of the fact that existing inventory parameters tended to focus on the economic value of the timber, and not on the number of trees or the geographic area of forest land.

Global Forest Watch argues that the economic value of the forest industry significantly limits the government’s ability or willingness to enforce the legislation that purports to ensure a sustainable level of regeneration. When governments enacted regulations early in the last decade that went beyond protecting the mere timber value of the land and acknowledged the environmental value of the non-timber portion of land, the organization maintained that the new regulations put too much trust in the industry to monitor its own activities.

Organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation have focused attention on the unique challenges of the coastal rainforest in British Columbia, where a simple calculation of forest regeneration fails to account for the crucial changes in the ecosystem that put entire species at risk.

As the Canadian example shows, the solution is not as simple as having sustainable forestry regulations. Protecting the ecosystem is more than just protecting trees, and It is crucial that the economic strength of the forestry industry not become an excuse for not enforcing those regulations.

But by working toward the right combination of collaborative controls, access by private industry, and enforced sustainability requirements, Canadians have found an enviable balance between responsible environmental stewardship and a natural resources-based industry that drives the economy.

Using REDD to See Green

Without the same abundance of natural resources and decades of carefully considered sustainability controls, developing countries are not immediately in a position to replicate the Canadian model.

But the UN’s REDD initiative has at its core the same principle that has made the Canadians successful. It is essential to find a way to protect the forests without removing the economic possibility for a country to capitalize upon its natural resources. By creating value in preserving the forest itself, the economic interest shifts from exploitation to conservation.

The United Nations hopes that by seeing REDD, participating countries will also begin to see green — both environmentally and economically.

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