Right now in Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, a day's drive over rutted tracks northeast of the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz, they're counting the trees. Members of nearby indigenous communities, with help from the Bolivian green group Friends of Nature Foundation (FAN) and the American nonprofit the Nature Conservancy (TNC), have fanned out across the Noel Kempff's 4.2 million acres (1.7 million ha), which range from Amazon rain forest to dry savanna. In the footsteps of howler monkeys and endangered black jaguars, they follow mapped plots in the forest, drive stakes into the ground and measure out circles with diameters of 13 ft. (4 m) to 46 ft. (14 m) — and then within that area they chart the diameter of every tree. But it's not the number of trees they want to discover. They're really measuring carbon, and FAN and TNC can use those calculations — together with sophisticated satellite data — to work out precisely how much potential greenhouse gas is locked within Noel Kempff.
That matters, because in 1997 TNC, U.S. utility companies American Electric Power (AEP) and PacifiCorp, and oil major BP Amoco paid Bolivia $10.8 million for the credits represented by all that carbon. In return, the government simply has to ensure that the forest remains standing and healthy for the next 30 years. It's called avoided deforestation, and projects like this may represent one of the most promising ways to simultaneously slow the destruction of tropical forests and the pace of climate change — if we can get it right.
An estimated 50,000 sq. mi. (129,500 sq km) of forest are lost to the logger's ax or to fire every year, and that hurts the planet in two very important ways. Rare plants and animals, many still undiscovered, depend on the forests — especially the rich rain forests that encircle the earth either side of the equator. When the forests disappear, all that wildlife disappears as well. But trees also contain carbon, and while they live, they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, compensating in part for the greenhouse gases spewed into the air from cars, power plants and factories. When trees are cut down or burned, that carbon is put back into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change. At least 20% of annual global carbon emissions come from deforestation. If we can't stop forest loss, we'll struggle to stop climate change. That fact was recognized by the British government's recent Eliasch Review on forestry, which estimated that failure to halt deforestation could increase the cost of damages caused by global warming by $1 trillion annually by 2100. "If we're going to solve climate change we need to take advantage of the opportunity to reduce deforestation," says Duncan Marsh, TNC's director of international climate policy. "We have no choice."
That's the promise of avoided deforestation, in which rich countries pay to keep rain forests standing and receive carbon credits in return. Currently, the international carbon cap-and-trade system organized by the Kyoto Protocol only recognizes industrial projects — such as a rich country paying to improve energy efficiency at a power plant — or programs to actively reforest land already cleared. It doesn't recognize avoided deforestation — also known by the acronym REDD, for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. With timber and biofuel plantations so valuable, that means "rain forests are worth more dead than alive," says Andrew Mitchell, director of the Global Canopy Programme, an alliance of forestry institutions. But a handful of pilot projects, like the one in Noel Kempff and others in nations such as Belize, Indonesia and Madagascar, are proving the logic of paying to keep forests standing. Supporters are confident that when the world meets for the annual U.N. summit on climate change in Poznan, Poland, this month, avoided deforestation will be one of the main topics of discussion. "This is too important not to be front and center on everyone's minds," says Jake Schmidt, head of international climate policy for the New York City-based Natural Resources Defense Council. "It will be a major focus."
For international companies looking to invest in REDD projects, there's another reason for signing up. Not only can they bank carbon credits for future use, but there's a p.r. benefit that comes from protecting an endangered tropical forest that might not come, say, from cleaning up a chemical factory in China (even though the value to the climate is identical).
That bonus appeals to corporations like AEP, which provided the bulk of the funding for Noel Kempff. "It's not just about the greenhouse gases, but the habitat preservation and the watershed enhancement," says Diane Fitzgerald, AEP's managing director of environment and safety. But as long as avoided deforestation isn't recognized by the Kyoto Protocol or the European Union's greenhouse gas-trading system (the two main mandatory programs in the world) there is a limit to how useful it can be for companies that need credits to meet a carbon cap. AEP plans to take its credits to the Chicago Climate Exchange, a voluntary U.S. trading system — but if Washington doesn't include REDD in any future carbon cap, the credits would have little more than symbolic value. "I think there won't be real action until we see domestic and international policy that recognizes avoided deforestation," notes Fitzgerald. "We'll compare forestry offsets to projects like renewable energy, and we have to make the best financial decision." Until then, REDD will remain a boutique carbon investment.
A Forest of Problems
Avoided deforestation seems like a no-brainer — so why wasn't it included in the Kyoto Protocol? Ironically, it was omitted in part due to the work of a number of prominent environmental groups, including Greenpeace. They feared that avoided deforestation schemes could flood the trading market with countless cheap carbon credits; after all, there are an estimated 638 billion tons of carbon locked in the world's forests. If even a fraction of those credits are put on the market, it could let developed countries off the hook when it comes to making the hard changes in industry and energy use needed to really dent carbon emissions.
Then there is the problem of compliance. Who can guarantee that a "protected" forest won't go up in flames in a few years, or even be logged, rendering the credits useless? And if a REDD project succeeds in preventing a vulnerable forest from being ruined, won't loggers just move down the road, or to another country — again, with no net benefit for the climate?
At first, skeptics also fretted that countries with high rates of deforestation — Indonesia, the Congo, Nigeria — tend to rank high for corruption, making them less-than-reliable partners. "The environmental community developed a distaste for forest offsets, for a lot of valid reasons," says Bill Stanley, director of TNC's Global Climate Change Initiative.
More than a decade after Kyoto was signed, however, that opposition has eased. (The holdouts, like Greenpeace, tend to be skeptical of market-based solutions to climate change in general, not just REDD.) That's partly thanks to a better understanding that "if deforestation is 20% of the problem, it should be 20% of the solution," according to Benoit Bosquet, team leader of the World Bank's Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, which helps developing countries prepare for REDD projects. Tree-spotting has improved; Japan's alos satellite uses cloud-penetrating radar to detect deforestation even in the rainy Amazon, making projects cheaper to police.
Most importantly, the tropical nations that stand to benefit most from avoided deforestation began to make their voices heard in international climate talks, thanks to innovative leaders like Papua New Guinea's Kevin Conrad, one of TIME's Heroes of the Environment. That has prompted big rain-forest nations like Indonesia and Brazil, which were initially suspicious of exposing their sovereign forests to an international carbon market, to rethink REDD. Last month, representatives from a handful of Indonesian and Brazilian states signed a memorandum of understanding with several large U.S. states — including California, which has already adopted a carbon cap of its own — to explore avoided deforestation projects. The possibility of tapping into California's rich carbon markets has tropical nations salivating. "Until now, no one has said to [rain-forest nations] 'We'll give you a market for your credits,' " says Dorjee Sun, CEO of the avoided-deforestation group Carbon Conservation, which helped broker the deal. "This is the next step."
Advocates have been busy refining avoided deforestation to answer early criticisms. Because firms investing in carbon credits need to estimate how much deforestation would have happened without a scheme, REDD projects can only work in countries with high rates of deforestation. That alleviates concerns that money will be spent to protect forests under no threat. To address fears that protected forests might be lost through a fire or logging, brokers build in reserves — selling, for example, only 80% of the carbon actually contained within a forest, and tapping the remainder if some part of the protected area should be lost. To prevent leakage — the possibility that protecting one place will only move deforestation down the road — TNC in Bolivia measured the baseline rate of deforestation in the country to know just how much difference their efforts would make, and monitors the edges of Noel Kempff for forest loss. Third-party verifiers like the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance and the Voluntary Carbon Standard help assure companies that their credits are worth the carbon and that local forest communities are helped and not harmed by the potential flood of REDD financing.
It may be that avoided deforestation's biggest obstacle will be its own success. If REDD is enshrined in the next global climate-change deal, set to be negotiated by the end of 2009, there is likely to be a sudden spike in demand for avoided deforestation projects, as developed countries angle to meet new carbon caps and tropical nations start to turn their forests into cash. But doing a REDD project right isn't easy, points out Zoe Kant, TNC's carbon markets manager and the brains behind the Noel Kempff project: experts are few, locales are remote and most countries lack the technical capacity to run schemes on their own. Some places will be tempted to take shortcuts. "We have to make sure our standards are credible, and we're not just delivering money that ends up in the bank accounts of central governments," says nrdc's Schmidt. "We need to change behavior on the ground, not just tomorrow but for the long term."
For those who care about forests and the climate, the promise of REDD is undeniable. The truth is that weaning the world off fossil fuels will be a monumentally difficult and expensive process, one that will demand technological innovations we haven't yet thought of. But halting deforestation, while not cheap — Britain's Stern Review in 2006 pegged the price at $5 to $15 billion a year — is doable now, provided we have the political will. If you want to know why, visit Noel Kempff. Its biological value was incalculable, but to the people who lived in the forest, its only financial value lay in dead logs. REDD changes that — and with 29% of the carbon revenue from the project promised to local communities, it can change their lives too. "We finally have a way to pay countries for protecting forests," says TNC's Marsh. That's good news for all.