Avoiding tropical deforestation – or REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) in the parlance of the emerging policy dynamic – is the most mind twistingly complex endeavor in the carbon game. The fact is that REDD involves scientific uncertainties, technical challenges, heterogeneous non-contiguous asset classes, multi-decade performance guarantees, local land tenure issues, brutal potential for gaming and the fact that getting it wrong means that scam artists will get unimaginably rich while emissions don’t change a bit. You can understand why back in 1997 in Kyoto everybody threw their hands up and just decided this was too hard to try.
But the unfortunate failure to ascribe any economic value to living carbon storage means that forests – mainly tropical – still account for 20% of the world’s emissions annually, about the same as either the US or China. In other words, since Kyoto, tropical forests have fully contributed 2.5 years total of global emissions. That’s a tragedy of unspeakable dimension – and right now it seems the only thing that will slow it is when we actually run out of trees to cut down. Which is apparently not out of the question.
I’vehad the opportunity to think about REDD a lot in the last week. Last weekend, I got invited to the UN to participate in the Forest Dialogue’s (http://research.yale.edu/gisf/tfd) two-day session on REDD financing mechanisms, together with the breadth of interests that define the immensely complex issues around tropical forest resources. Sitting around a table with everybody from indigenous peoples groups, the World Bank, industrial foresters, Conservation International to some governments gives you a good view of how complex the issues and different perspectives really are.
At the Tribeca Film Festival a day later, I saw “The Burning Season” –www.theburningseasonmovie.com – a documentary that followed my friend Dorjee Sun and his start-up company Carbon Conservation on his year-long quixotic journey around an endless planet of boardrooms, plane rides and hotel banquets. All to save crucial forestlands in Aceh, Indonesia, through the sale of avoided deforestation carbon credits, which are currently unrecognized by the Kyoto world. It’s a moving and challenging piece juxtaposed against scenes from an orangutan rescue center overwhelmed with orphans from the forest carnage and the struggles of a local farmer seeking to feed and educate his family at ground zero of the controversy– I highly recommend it.
And then in Washington on Thursday, I was invited to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of one of the most effective and under the radar organizations you’ll ever come across – Forest Trends (www.forest-trends.org). If you don’t know who they are – you should. When Jonathan Lash and Al Gore drop by to give the keynote of thanks of your celebration dinner, you’re certainly doing something right.
When you look at the McKinsey climate wedges or the Stern Report on the needed forward curve for atmospheric stabilization, its blindingly obvious that REDD’s 20% of current GHG emissions has to be part of the solution. And the sooner the better- it’s an asset that is diminishing right in front of our eyes. At the same time, despite its immediate potential, REDD is not a panacea to the climate issue, getting to the required 80% global emissions reduction by 2050 is going to take multiple technology step-downs of heroic proportions. We need to transition major chunks of the global economy to CCS, hydrogen, plug-in hybrids running on next generation biofuels, hyper efficiency, new waves of renewables, nuclear and maybe even fusion. Who knows – but no matter what, it’s a big nut to crack. At best, REDD is only a fraction of that need. Which means we have to weigh our desire for immediate REDD and its ancillary benefits against our desire to accelerate technology development and uptake.
This is where REDD is potentially problematic. Given REDD’s 7 billion ton per year current emission baseline, a one percent shift in REDD emissions per year potentially puts 70M tones of emission credits into the system. To give some perspective, in the current supply and demand balance driven by the EU Trading scheme, that 70M tones per year alone would have dramatically impacted the price for a ton of emission rights. Approximately 4% per year of REDD would have equaled the entire production of the CDM in the Kyoto period. Now contrast against the goals of the Stern Report which sets out a target of reducing REDD by 50% within a decade.
If we were even fractionally successful with that goal, an enormous supply of emission rights might enter the market. If demand were not precisely calibrated to absorb that supply at the right time, the value of emissions would plummet, meaning that a fundamental driver for developing and implementing crucial low carbon technology would disappear.
The problem is that while there are long term aspiration goals for emission reduction (80% reduction by 2050 being a generally accepted target), the transition to that point involves a continually complex calculus of political will and gamesmanship. And with REDD’s potential range of supply ranging from zero to 3.5B tones per year, setting the short term demand curve exactly right is virtually impossible. Set it too high and if REDD underdelivers, we crater the economy. Set it too low and if REDD performs – we set back the economic drivers for emission technologies a decade or two.
Now, admittedly, that kind of runaway success is unlikely and if we truly succeed in rapidly halting deforestation’s advance, well, that is not a bad problem to have. However, one must always beware of policies with unintended consequences and this is one where I certainly see that potential, whatever its likelihood may be.
So, the irony is, we can neither afford to do – or not do – REDD under current thinking and parameters. But we need to be thinking about the future. Even after the US joins the carbon constrained world, emissions will be managed across fewer than 1 billion people. By 2050, it needs to be managed across virtually the entire global economy. Those transitions to greater carbon engagement will be an immense challenge. Every time a new country agrees to be capped – or a capped country ratchets its commitment downward – there is potential for market demand dislocation.
And that’s where I think near-term REDD may play a role. What if industrial governments and the private sector aggregated TARP-like funds – tens or hundreds of billions of dollars – to compensate developing countries and/or private groups within them for immediate and sustainable REDD on a cost-plus basis, as derived by the tonnage of carbon kept out of the atmosphere. We’ll pay a fixed, below market rate today but rather than dropping all that tonnage into the market immediately, it will be held in a global reserve that would enter the market at various points in the future (via a Board of Governors?) when demand/price for emission rights is undergoing a spike, due to new emitters join the cap or when major emission step downs occur (say when the US goes from 20% to 30% reductions). Private investors in such a fund would get a bond-like return – preferably tax free – and the differential between the price paid to the developing country per ton at the outset and its eventual price at release (after interest) into the market would be split in some fashion between the providers of the carbon and the providers of the capital. Seller countries might even get some kind of preferential access to their own credits, to incent them to come under a cap sooner rather than later.
The challenges around executing this are immense and it’s clearly not necessary if REDD only achieves a fraction of its potential. If it does not achieve that potential rapidly, we will have almost certainly lost the remainder of the world forests. It does seem to me that a “Federal Reserve” is one way to solve the conundrum of keeping as much forest carbon on the ground as possible while not allowing its potential market overhang to disincentivize technology development and implementation. But having started fifteen years ago in the forest carbon space and after seeing the same arguments reiterated again and again while the forests of the world have been felled and burned, the honest truth is that we have no time to waste.
Marc Stuart is the Co-Founder and Director of New Business Development for EcoSecurities, a global carbon trading firm. the views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of EcoSecurities