The environmental movement is largely in agreement that international climate negotiators should include avoided deforestation measures in the successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol (see my Eye on Earth story, published yesterday, about environmental groups and industry applying joint pressure on the United States to support such forest policies). Groups are divided, however, on whether funding should only support national programs, such as park police and deforestation monitors, or whether an international policy known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (or REDD) should also allow for programs that provide money directly to forest communities.
Greenpeace International raised concern about “sub-national” proposals last week by questioning the emissions reductions achieved by the world’s first avoided deforestation project funded by carbon offsets. The dispute over this single project highlights the difficulties in establishing sub-national REDD projects. But such projects may be necessary, proponents say, or else a scarcity of affordable carbon offset options will lead to a sharp rise in the cost of many cap-and-trade programs.
The project in question is the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project. U.S. energy companies American Electric Power, BP-Amoco, and Pacificorp teamed with The Nature Conservancy in 1997, spending $11.35 million to buy the logging concessions in Bolivia’s Noel Kempff Mercado National Park and establish a buffer zone that surrounds the park. Communities within the buffer zone receive payments to support eco-tourism operations and other sustainable forest management initiatives. The Nature Conservancy describes the project as “an example of how well-designed forest carbon projects can result in real, scientifically measurable, and verifiable emissions reductions with important benefits for biodiversity and local communities.”
But Greenpeace, in a report released last week, calls the entire project a “carbon scam.” The Noel Kempff project was originally estimated to sequester 55 million metric tons of carbon dioxide for the next 30 years, but recent estimates ratcheted down the emissions savings to 5.8 million metric tons. The discrepancy allowed the polluting companies to overestimate how much emissions they helped to avoid. A “fixed and consistent” estimate has still not been established, the Greenpeace report said.
Jonathan Hoekstra, managing director of The Nature Conservancy’s climate change program, responded to the report’s criticisms in an email. He said the group estimated emissions reductions at a time when proper methods were not yet established. Essentially, the project had to peer into a crystal ball and predict 30 years of deforestation based on previous timber extraction rates and the forest’s carbon sequestration potential. “Initial estimates of emissions reductions were just that, estimates—based on anecdotal evidence and interviews with experts,” he wrote. “The business-as-usual baseline (the emissions that would have happened if logging continued) was lowered as methodologies improved and as monitoring data indicated.”
What’s clear, Hoekstra said, is that 1,034,107 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions were avoided from 1997 to 2005 due to the Noel Kempff project. The Bolivian government would have otherwise lacked the funds to terminate the region’s timber concessions or expand the national park, he added.
Several standards have emerged in recent years that better estimate how forests such as Noel Kempff sequester carbon dioxide. Whether any method can accurately predict future forest loss remains to be seen.