Some rare good news for the world’s beleaguered forests emerged from the environmental conference in Cancun, Mexico, in November 2010. Environment ministers – some more willingly than others – committed to paying developing countries to stop cutting down their rainforests. At last, it seems, a deal is in place to replenish our global stock of forests, protect biodiversity and recognise the work that forests do to bolster the planet against climate change and support local indigenous people. After all, we can all surely agree that planting forests is a Good Thing.
Optimists argue that this is a firm step in the right direction in the battle against climate change; there’s little dispute that carbon emissions from forests that have been logged and cleared – mainly for palm oil, pulp, cattle and soya – need to be hauled in swiftly. Forests cover 30 per cent of our planet’s land area, and deforestation and forest degradation are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that logging contributes to roughly 17 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than transport and third only to the energy (26 per cent) and industrial (19 per cent) sectors.
The Cancun framework agreement, known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), is a scheme under which developing countries would be paid not to cut down trees, and to replant and regenerate some that have already been felled. This includes reforestation, the re-establishment of forest on land where forest or plantations have been cut down (and which brings about no change in forest area), and afforestation, the planting of new trees where there were none before.
All of this goes beyond merely planting trees, however, and aims to enhance carbon stocks, sustainable forest management and forest conservation. REDD+ is backed by the UN and the World Bank, and has secured agreements with 29 countries in Africa, the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America. So far, US$97million has been committed – the major part of it, US$83million, from Norway – and at first glance, it reinforces the perception that the fortunes of the world’s rainforests, after decades of abuse, have taken a turn for the better.
If only things were that straightforward. In this, the UN-designated International Year of Forests, REDD+ has divided national governments and alarmed environmental organisations. Forests find themselves in a paradoxical position: they’ve never had so many people trying to protect them but, equally, they’ve never been so endangered. The good news is that logging rates are declining in many areas. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), annual logging rates decreased from around 16 million hectares during the 1990s to 13 million hectares in the past decade. At the same time, afforestation and natural expansion of forests in some countries have reduced the global net loss of forest area significantly. The net loss of forest area between 2000 and 2010 was estimated at 5.2 million hectares per year (an area about the size of Costa Rica), down from 8.3 million hectares per year between 1990 and 2000. These net changes, however, include the replacement of plantations, which critics argue artificially lowers the real figures.
There is also quite a high degree of uncertainty about the actual situation on the ground. ‘Despite all the technology, it’s still very difficult in many parts of the world to know what the true position is,’ says Peter Holmgren, director of the Climate, Energy and Land Tenure division of the FAO, and FAO coordinator for the UN-REDD Programme. ‘In many nations, the monitoring systems we need don’t really exist. Deforestation remains very high in several regions. It continues in Africa at a high rate, but this is also the continent with the lowest quality of information. It seems that the rate there has been exaggerated, and the real figure may be half of what has been reported.’
But the figures do point to progress. Brazil has reduced its recent historical annual logging rate from 2.7 million hectares a year to 645,000 hectares, with a cut of 70 per cent in just five years. An afforestation drive in China has seen its forest cover increase by two million hectares per year during the 1990s and by an average of three million hectares per year since 2000. ‘By no stretch of the imagination can you say that the battle has been lost,’ says Stewart Maginnis, global director of environment and development at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). ‘We still face considerable challenges, but there has been a lot of good progress. The rate of deforestation is still far too high, and we are still losing valuable primary forests, but the rate of deforestation is slowing down.’ There has also been a significant increase in the past couple of decades in the amount of protected forest – from two per cent to 12 per cent, according to the IUCN.
That’s the good news. But the FAO figures mask vast differences between temperate and boreal regions, where forest cover is increasing, and tropical regions, where logging continues apace. Madagascar’s forests are recognised as the world’s most critically endangered, followed by Brazil’s Atlantic forest and the forests of the Congo Basin. ‘If you fly over the tropics, you will still see a lot of large, pristine forest areas,’ says Dr Mark Wright, a science advisor for WWF. ‘But we are still losing good-quality forest at high rates. My interpretation is that the news on deforestation is “less bad”, rather than “better”. You read that deforestation rates have dropped to, say, six per cent and you instinctively think that that’s brilliant news. But it means the forests are still being cleared; you’re still logging a shedload of forest every year.’
In political circles, the argument that increasingly influences forest-conservation policy is a utilitarian one: namely that the ability of trees to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and wood is a key tool in the mitigation of climate change. No-one disputes that this is the case, but environmental organisations are anxious because REDD+ places less emphasis on the kind of trees that are planted, and more on the quantity.
In most cases, afforestation means planting large areas with eucalyptus, pine or other non-native species. The FAO doesn’t recognise a palm oil plantation as a forest, but it does recognise eucalyptus plantations; however, palm oil is recognised by the Kyoto Protocol. ‘It makes a huge difference what trees you plant, where you plant them and whose land they are on,’ says Saskia Ozinga, campaigns co-ordinator for Fern, an NGO that keeps track of the EU’s involvement in forests. ‘Planting a forest of eucalyptus – which has as much value as a field of potatoes – carries as much weight as primary forest in the heart of Borneo. REDD means different things to different people. For some, REDD means you offset your emissions here by planting trees elsewhere – that seems to me a very bad idea. REDD needs to improve forest governance and land tenure, but it’s actually doing the opposite.’
Within REDD+, there are many tensions. Holders of licences to convert forests into palm oil plantations are proving reluctant to give them up at any price. And REDD+ can easily be abused, as Sarah Shoraka, forests campaigner for Greenpeace, points out. ‘The whole carbon cycle of the land is important,’ she says. ‘Primary forest is cut down, a plantation grown in its place and the owner gets paid for planting the trees. That involves a net loss of carbon – you are losing the higher carbon value of the primary rainforest, which a plantation can’t match.
‘The priority for REDD should be protecting the natural, standing forests,’ she continues. ‘It’s difficult right now to be categorical and say whether REDD is good or bad. If it’s done well, REDD could be a success. But the devil is in the detail – it could go quite badly wrong.’ Much depends on the financing of REDD+, which will be decided at the turn of the year. Norway has already committed US$1billion in return for a commitment from Indonesia for a two-year moratorium on commercial deforestation. ‘If carbon trading becomes the mechanism for financing REDD, then it will be doomed to fail,’ says Ozinga. ‘Other financing methods could be positive. Carbon trading would be totally misguided – even financial investors have argued against it. Carbon derivatives will never take off – they are seen as too risky.’
Instead, the key to reforestation that has genuine benefits for the carbon cycle, argues Ozinga, is to involve local people, and recognise the importance of forests to them. ‘There’s an enormous amount of evidence that the best way to keep forests standing is to have local control and use,’ she says. ‘Reducing deforestation is a good thing for many reasons – climate change is just one of them. In order to address climate change, you have to deal with the forest crisis. The biggest cause of deforestation is not logging – it’s the demand for agriculture, the building of dams and roads.’
According to the IUCN, up to 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods. Most of those people, 1.4 billion, live in the developing world, and one billion of them live in extreme poverty. A recent IUCN study found that roughly 1.2 billion hectares of deforested or degraded areas could be restored through better, locally-controlled management. But only a small fraction of the US$12billion spent on the forest sector each year by governments and aid agencies goes to help communities that are heavily dependent on forests to control and manage their resources.
‘We have some decisions to make,’ says Shoraka. ‘Are we going to tackle climate change and give funding to those people – who have played no part in creating the problem – to keep their forests standing? But if we do, the governments of such countries have to keep their side of the bargain and uphold local people’s rights.’
Instead of REDD+, Ozinga supports of an EU initiative, Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade, which aims to reduce illegal logging and the importation of its products into the EU. Bilateral and voluntary – yet legally binding – agreements have been signed with Ghana, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and the Republic of the Congo; and negotiations are advanced with several others, including Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Gambia. ‘This could easily have been a narrow agreement, but the European Commission and the governments involved have signed wider agreements, working with local community groups and NGOs,’ says Ozinga.
Another risk, however, is that tree planting becomes little more than a way to salve the world’s conscience, as we’ve seen with the trend to ‘offset’ the carbon emissions generated by a holiday on the other side of the world. ‘People tend to see protecting forests as an “instead of” – as an offset, rather than reducing emissions in the first place,’ says Shoraka. ‘We need to be doing both these things. Then, reforestation – done properly – can be a real benefit.’
Describing reforestation alone as ‘the lazy man’s option’, Wright agrees. ‘You would have to plant an awful lot of trees somewhere to suck up all the carbon – where is that “somewhere”? Land is in huge demand, you can’t just magic it up. It’s not a long-term solution. The reckoning is that for every two hectares we lose, we plant one, and you are not replanting like with like – you can’t replace primary rainforest and mangroves with primary rainforests and mangroves. It’s good that you’re planting wood, but you’re not per se replacing biodiversity and the other benefits that forests bring.’
In any case, increasing tree cover may be doing little more than pushing the problem elsewhere. A study of six developing countries – China, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, India and Vietnam – that shifted from net deforestation to net reforestation between 1961 and 2007 found that in all bar India, this led to a reduction in domestic timber harvests and a rise in demand for imported wood and agricultural products. The five countries were effectively outsourcing logging to other countries: for every hectare of reforested land, a half-hectare was used elsewhere.
‘Our study found that strengthened forest-conservation policies and economic expansion often increased the demand for imported timber and agricultural products, which contributed to deforestation abroad,’ said one of the study’s authors, Eric Lambin of Stanford University in California and the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium. While Vietnam has become a net reforester, its huge wood-products industry now imports 80 per cent of its raw materials from neighbouring Laos. A 2010 report on this trade between the two countries by the UK’s Department for International Development found that Lao villages – in whose regions most of the timber was extracted – hardly benefited from the trade. Local officials sought payments from the timber companies, causing livelihood and environmental problems. The report concluded that ‘continuing timber extraction at the local level in Laos is the result of a relentless search for timber by Vietnamese companies due to the high market demand for timber products’.
The focus of reforestation efforts until now has been on the primary forests, such as those in the Amazon and Congo basins. But some experts – while not downplaying the value of this strategy – argue that other areas of forest are just as important. ‘The wilderness forests of the Amazon and Congo basins need to be prioritised, but the world’s secondary forests need to be considered more,’ says Dr Dan Bebber of the Earthwatch Institute, who points out that primary forests only represent one third of the total forest area. ‘Most of the lowland dipterocarp forest in Borneo has been logged and logged again. It’s seen to have no value, and when that happens, it gets turned into oil palms. Our research in China, India and Brazil indicates that disturbed forests, often regarded as the poor relations of pristine forests, can still harbour high levels of tree diversity. They have an important ecological contribution to make and should be afforded protection, too. When disturbed forests are unvalued, conversion to agriculture is all too easy.’
It seems that the world’s forests – and how we deal with them and climate change – are approaching a historical juncture, with much to play for. ‘Brazil has done quite a lot to tackle deforestation; its rates of logging are decreasing,’ says Shoraka. ‘But that reduction isn’t happening in the other main intact basins. There are countries with lower deforestation rates that could become the Brazil of the future. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has large standing forests, mainly because of the civil war. They’re now at a crossroads. Are they going to go down the same path as Brazil or keep their forests intact?
‘Before Cancun, I was in the depths of despair, but it was great to see a forest agreement there, with lots of positive signals about safeguards to protect forest peoples and biodiversity,’ she continues. ‘It was a step forward, but at the same time, the climate debate isn’t going so well. The likelihood of getting an international agreement on limiting carbon emissions doesn’t seem near, and without that, the picture – even with some better news for forests – doesn’t look hopeful.’
Holmgren, however, is more optimistic. ‘We can’t offset or compensate by planting trees in the long run,’ he admits. ‘But if we assume overall emissions will be reduced dramatically, then reforestation can play an important role in rapidly taking carbon out of the atmosphere.
‘REDD has made a lot of progress, he continues. ‘The question is how to implement it. The worry is that now that the agreement has been made, the media attention moves elsewhere. At the strategic, national level, we know that the level of interest in many countries is high. It’s the most ambitious commitment to reduce the destruction of forests we have ever had.’
Given the slow pace at which trees break down CO2, and the difficulty in calculating how much they actually convert, we may never be entirely sure about the role that reforestation plays as climate change kicks in. And no-one argues that tree planting alone will do the trick. ‘Any use of forests needs to be a complement to deep cuts in fossil fuel use,’ says Maginnis. ‘Thinking we can carry on with business as usual by simply using forests to absorb carbon won’t avoid dangerous climate change. We need to stabilise our carbon emissions by 2020. That means we need to prevent 17 gigatonnes of carbon from being emitted by then. Agreements at Copenhagen and since would cut between eight and 11 gigatonnes. This is where forests come in. They can provide a bridging mechanism while countries put in place their decarbonising systems.’
Instead, Maginnis points to the need for a radical overhaul of global land-use and forest management. ‘This goes way beyond managing ecosystem services – it’s about a transformative change in land-use practices that has proved elusive for several decades,’ he says. ‘Forests can play a critical role, but they can’t do it by themselves. They can be the most cost-effective option. It may not close that gap completely, but it will make quite a contribution.’