June 5, 2009, The New York Times
Preserving forests might make economic sense for governments and forest dwellers, and it could also help preserve the habitats of endangered mammals such as orangutans and elephants, according to a study released this week.
The study, published in the journal Conservation Letters, is part of a larger effort by conservation organizations to protect tropical forests from the industries that threaten them by using charismatic species to harness public support and generate money for conservation.
The study is also part of a battle over how to manage the world’s forests — a debate likely to be a key part of the negotiations over a successor treaty to the Kyoto climate treaty at a United Nations conference in Copenhagen in December.
“We now need to see policy discussions catch up with the science, because at the moment the potential co-benefits of linking forest protection to biodiversity are not getting the attention they deserve,” said Oscar Venter, a biologist at the University of Queensland in Australia and the lead author of the study, in a statement on Friday.
Mr. Venter and his colleagues used the example of Kalimantan, in Indonesian Borneo, to examine whether clearing the land for more oil palm plantations or paying to conserve the forest would offer greater value.
The researchers found that paying to conserve the forest was more valuable than plantations as long as poorer nations could earn between $10 and $33 for each tonne of CO2 saved. Currently a credit representing a tonne of CO2 sells for about $20 in the European Union, which has the world’s largest greenhouse gas trading system.
In addition, the researchers found that peat forest areas, where stored carbon is most abundant and thus cheapest to manage, contained almost twice the mammal species density as other areas of forest.
Buying carbon credits even “at a relatively low price could carry benefits for both climate change and biodiversity in some very important areas,” said Douglas Sheil, a co-author of the study and previously a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research.
“Now we need to see if these opportunities exist in other regions,” he said.
Indonesia is the world’s largest emitter of land-based greenhouse gases, releasing almost twice the amount as the second greatest source, Brazil, according to the study. Kalimantan hosts 40 globally threatened mammals including the Bornean orangutan and the Borneo pygmy elephant within areas earmarked for plantations, researchers said.
The idea of paying people in the developing world to preserve their forests (known in climate jargon as a global framework to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, or REDD) represents a paradigm shift.
Instead of making money by harvesting forests for wood products and for crops like palm oil, governments and citizens in the developing world would need to accept a different model based on so-called conservation payments, which could be used for education, health care, and alternative economic development.
But opponents of a payment system insist that verifying emissions reductions would be too hard. They also say such a system could rob deprived areas of the world of the chance for economic development.
Personal note: No one has yet devised a way of keeping REDD money out of the sweaty palms of government officials and REDD consultants.