Putting a Price on the Ecosystem With Carbon Credits

How much is a forest worth? A newly evolving policy mechanism, supported by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is beginning to put a price on one ecosystem service that we tend to forget about in large tracts of forest land — carbon uptake.                                            

REDD+, or Reducing Emissions through Preventing Deforestation and Degradation, is a policy framework in its infancy being tested in forests around the world in an effort to prevent forest loss and ensuing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. It is also being touted as a potential sustainable financing mechanism for loads of social and environmental disparities in the developing world. Although ripe with potential for climate change mitigation, without responsible, thoughtful implementation, this policy could do more harm than good.

As COP 17 approaches in Durban, South Africa, in late November, carbon trading and the now-voluntary carbon market may be a logjam issue. The world must be sure to see REDD as a climate change mitigation strategy and to be both patient and exceedingly careful when using this framework to attempt to solve the environmental and social ills that plague so many resource-rich, developing places.

Carbon released into the atmosphere from cutting trees down (which comprises more than 20% of global carbon emissions) contributes more to the greenhouse effect and global climate change than all the pollutants spewed out the back of every car, truck, plane, and motorcycle on the planet. Trees are one of nature’s most essential carbon cycle regulators. Tropical forests are the most productive forests in the world, taking up massive amounts of carbon to store in their “biomass” — the leafy, woody matter that trees are made of.

These tropical forests are also the most at risk. Deforestation proceeds at a wild rate of 13 million hectares a year, the vast majority occurring in tropical forests, often illegally, for timber trade, large-scale development, or agricultural expansion purposes. REDD begins with a baseline survey (often with satellite, aerial, and ground components) of carbon stocks and a comparison with satellite data from the past 10 years to understand the trend of deforestation and degradation. Periodical carbon monitoring of these same tracts of forested land will ensure protection and mitigation activities to avoid deforestation and degradation that would otherwise occur. These carbon credits can then be traded on the market, like any other commodity, to offset the emissions of a company or country and help them to meet their emission limits. If a carbon cap becomes mandatory in some of the Western nations that create the most pollution (Australia is working on it), buying carbon credits from forest dwellers in developing nations may be capitalism’s best retort to the problem of deforestation in high productivity tropical forests.

No doubt, there are many dangers to this kind of policy. Although it seems in a way perverted to allow western companies to "outsource" their pollution mitigation, putting an economic value on the service that tropical forests provide to society is, at this point, the most promising way to assimilate widespread conservation into globalized capitalism. 

An even more daunting challenge — how to help villages and local forest management get compensated by states and corporations on the other side of the globe — is one that needs to be handled very cautiously. At the moment, an independent organization, The Climate, Community, and Biodiversity Alliance, certifies carbon credits that can be then be sold at a premium if the projects are in line with promoting sustainable development and biodiversity conservation. Although an adequate start, there are loads of complex questions about how real people living and relying on these tropical forests will actually be compensated for protecting their resources and potentially modifying their livelihoods. 

While there is amazing potential to use REDD as a sustainable financing tool to solve some of our biggest development problems, this one-stop solution to so many issues also poses many questions and potential hiccups. REDD, at its core, is a strategy to make a market out of an ecosystem service that provides carbon regulation to the entire globe. It is an attempt to mitigate carbon emissions and ensuing climate change by allowing anyone to ensure the conservation of a tract of land in another part of the world with a scientifically verified amount of carbon being stored. This progress, if undertaken thoughtfully and responsibly, with clear and active dialogue at the local level, could be the sprouting seedling to a green economy that begins to truly value the ecosystems upon which we all rely.

Photo Credit: NASA