Thursday, October 27, 2011

An End to Forest Offsets?

A group of European environmental NGOs is calling for "an end to forest offsets!" in an eponymous new manual designed to forestall the integration of REDD+ into international carbon markets. The six organizations (Amis de la Terre; Arbeitsgemeinschaft Regenwald und Artenschutz, ARA; Euronatura; Norges Naturvernforbund; Rainforest Foundation UK; and Stichting FERN) together argue that forests should be excluded from carbon markets because,

"From a scientific point of view, planting a tree to compensate for the release of fossil carbon in the atmosphere doesn't work on several levels. For example, the territorial scales are wrong - there is not enough land on the planet to plant the amount of trees it would require to soak up current fossil carbon emissions. Secondly, the timescales are wrong - oil and coal are compressed fossil carbon, whose development has taken millions of years, whereas the lifecycle of a tree represents a millennium at best after which time any stored CO2 is released back into the atmosphere" (p. 3).

This rationale is flawed in numerous ways. It is absurd to suggest that proponents of linking REDD+ to carbon markets are seeking to substitute conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks for cuts in emissions. Proposals to slow deforestation and promote reforestation/afforestation are clearly intended to complement, not replace, conventional mitigation. This is why carbon markets generally set ceilings on the use of offsets. Reforestation and afforestation would result in negative emissions, a possibility this booklet overlooks entirely. Permanence is a central principle of forest offsets, and indeed all carbon offset projects, and offset methodologies address the timescale issue in a variety of sophisticated ways.

There are plenty of problems associated with forest offsets--monoculture plantations, baseline calculations, procedural complexity--that are legitimate targets of criticism. But these problems are manageable, and are not the focus of this newly published diatribe. Instead, this manual attacks a straw man forest offset which ignores widely accepted standards of offset project design and management. Notably, this document was produced with the support of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Education and Culture, in one more sign of growing European inconsistency on the subject of climate engineering (see European Parliament Comes Out Against Geoengineering, 10/11).

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