Environmentalists warn the global fund would give rich nations a cheaper alternative to cutting their own greenhouse emissions and put at risk the human rights of a billion people who depend on forests for their livelihoods
Tuesday October 14 2008 15.58 BST
A proposal for a giant global fund to pay the owners of the world's forests not to cut them down has received a guarded welcome from environmental groups. They warn of the risks of giving rich nations a cheaper alternative to cutting their own greenhouse gas emissions and to the human rights of the tens of millions of people who live in or who depend on forests for their livelihoods.
The independent report, revealed by the Guardian, was written for the prime minister, Gordon Brown, and states that an international carbon market could prevent the deforestation that is a major contributor to climate change and inject much needed funds into poor countries.
The report calls for an international agreement to halve the carbon dioxide released through deforestation by 2020. It acknowledges this will be costly but estimates such action could be worth $3.7tr (£2.1tr) to the world's nations in net benefits over the long term. If nothing is done to slow rampant deforestation, the report states, the resulting climate change will cause impacts costing governments nearly $1tr a year by 2100.
The report was written by Johan Eliasch, a businessman appointed by Brown to be his special adviser on forests. Deforestation is responsible for at least 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing it is seen as one of the quickest and cheapest ways of cutting emissions.
The report recommends that forests be included in the emerging global carbon market. By giving standing trees a carbon value, it says, "the cost of halving global carbon emissions could be reduced by up to 50% in 2030".
The Eliasch review acknowledges it could take at least five years before the global carbon market is operating and that not all countries would currently agree to such a system.
It notes that countries that would benefit from international payments to protect their forests should be required to comply with international agreements that require them to respect human rights and to protect the environment.
The countries that might benefit are some of the most politically volatile, and – in many cases – corrupt in the world. It says that in the short term the international community should pay up to $4bn to 40 forest countries to help them reach acceptable standards of governance.
Environmentalists welcomed the report as a sign of deforestation being taken seriously by governments, and agree the issue must be tackled, but urge caution over how it is done. "Sufficient and long-term funding is needed to act as an incentive to protect forests," said Emily Brickell, climate and forests officer for WWF-UK.
But protecting the needs of people was also paramount, she said: "More than one billion of the world's poorest people rely on forests for their livelihoods, so any measures to reduce emissions from deforestation must ensure that local communities enjoy continued access to, and benefits from, forest resources."
Andy Tait, Greenpeace's head of biodiversity, expressed concern over the effect the plan would have on emissions in rich nations. "If Gordon Brown accepts these proposals he will give a green light to companies to use forest protection abroad as a cheap alternative to making the dramatic cuts in the industrial and energy sectors that we need here in the UK. Allowing forests to become a get-out-of-jail-free card for the big polluters would be extremely bad news in the fight against climate change."
The reliability of the carbon market is also a key factor, said Simon Counsell, director of the Rainforest Foundation UK: "There is a serious danger of placing excessive hope in what might be very unreliable and speculative forest protection carbon credits.
"Avoided deforestation carbon credits might well turn out to be sub-prime, as weak tropical country governments fail to deliver actual reductions in deforestation, or as forests increasingly become susceptible to fire and disease because of the warming effects of climate change itself. Trading off our own emissions against hoped-for reductions in deforestation could be a catastrophic lose-lose strategy."
According to Friends of the Earth's international climate campaigner Tom Picken, the plan does not address the deeper causes of deforestation: "Financial packages are needed – but we must also address the underlying causes, such as biofuels, excessive meat consumption and industrial logging."
Under the proposed scheme countries would be rewarded with carbon credits, which could be exchanged for cash on the global market, for not cutting down forests and for reforesting previously logged areas. While the international community would monitor forest loss via satellite, it would be left to national governments to decide how money earned would be distributed and what measures would be needed to prevent illegal logging.
The review says countries could tackle deforestation in different ways. The most controversial would be to pay logging companies not to fell trees, or subsistence farmers not to clear land. In addition, countries could greatly increase their policing of forests or could tax heavily anyone who clears forest.
But it accepts that halting deforestation will be difficult. "Such delegation [of responsibility] will involve significant costs ... which may be very challenging for many forest nations in the short term. Demonstration activities to test these approaches will be needed." It accepts there are significant human rights and land-ownership risks.
"Risks include increased state and outside expert control over forests, support for anti-people conservation and land speculation", says the report.