For green bonus

Print edition : December 18, 2009

According to Ministry of Environment and Forests estimates, the forest carbon stocks are increasing in India, but they do not provide the full picture.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

THE Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) has concluded that the forest sector is critical for addressing climate change and that reducing emissions from tropical deforestation is the dominant, immediate and low-cost mitigation option. According to estimates made by the panel, the forest sector contributes about six billion tonnes, or 20 per cent, of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, more than that from the transport or industry sectors.

Recognising this, the United Nations Framework for Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed to the Bali Action Plan aimed at Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). During the pre-Bali negotiations, the focus was largely on REDD activities, which would enable countries with high forest cover and high deforestation to benefit most. However, countries such as India and China with low or no deforestation rates insisted on the inclusion of conservation and sustainable management of forests leading to an enhancement of forest carbon stocks.

The Bali Action Plan included policy approaches and positive incentives on issues relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries; and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.

Currently, these activities are referred to as REDD-Plus. Indias interest is largely in the Plus activities, on the assumption, on the basis of estimates made by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), that the area under forests in India has not only stabilised, but is increasing. Further, an estimation released by the Ministry of Environment and Forests states that the forest carbon stocks are increasing in India.

The estimates provided by the FSI do not provide the full picture since they assume that if an area of 5,000 hectares is cleared or deforested and an area of 6,000 ha is planted and if it achieves a crown cover of more than 10 per cent, the net forest area is reported to have increased. Only area change estimates are considered and not the carbon stock changes.

The recent report of the Ministry does not account for the loss of carbon stocks owing to fire, grazing and fuelwood and timber extraction, which contribute to forest degradation and loss of carbonm.

The key issues under negotiation at Copenhagen, requiring agreement, include i) objectives, scope and principles of REDD-Plus; ii) means of implementation, in particular financing of REDD-Plus activities; iii) measurement, monitoring, reporting and verification of carbon stock changes or reduction of CO2 emissions in a transparent and reliable way; and iv) institutional arrangements for planning, financing, implementation, monitoring, verification and reporting.

Further, there are some additional issues of detail. What is the right scale for REDD-Plus activities national, sub-national or nested (cluster)? How should REDD be financed? Should projects or countries or both be rewarded? How to support capacity-building and technical assistance or transfer addressing institutional needs of developing countries? How to ensure that REDD payments are distributed in an equitable manner and benefit the poor? How to maximise REDD co-benefits (such as biodiversity conservation)? And how to ensure that the rights of indigenous and local communities are not sacrificed? No serious agreement has emerged on most of these issues since Bali 2007, despite seven meetings of the REDD Contact Group of the Convention in different cities of the world and hundreds of hours of negotiations.

These issues are indeed technically complex and also political, eluding consensus or agreement. Only some of the critical issues and their implications are presented in the following paragraphs.

Firstly, regarding the objective and scope of the potential REDD-Plus mechanism, should it be restricted to the forest sector alone or expanded to include land use change and agricultural sectors? In order to meet the immediate and urgent goals of the convention of reducing CO2 emissions, the priority should go to the forest sector, to be followed by other sectors. Further, which activities to be included, whether the focus should be on reducing deforestation or include forest degradation (more difficult to quantify and estimate), conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks?

In the context of the urgency of addressing climate change, priority should be given to reducing deforestation, which provides a large mitigation potential and immediate CO2 emission reduction benefit, unlike, say, sustainable management or afforestation activities, which may take several decades to give equivalent carbon benefit on a per hectare basis. Though India has focussed on Plus activities, practically no research has been initiated and hardly any scientific publication has emerged on them.

In contrast, hundreds of research institutions are working on REDD issues and hundreds of papers detailing the methods, guidelines and implications on REDD are published. Finally, India must ensure that under no circumstances should natural forests converted to artificial (often monoculture) plantations gain carbon revenues and, further, that no biodiversity loss occurs. Secondly, forest (and carbon) conserved today, for which payment will be received, could potentially be deforested at a later date, leading to emissions of CO2, which is called non-permanence or reversibility of carbon benefits.

A deforested area in the rainforest in the southern Para state in Brazil. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the forest sector contributes about six billion tonnes, or 20 per cent, of global CO2 emissions, more than the emissions from the transport or industry sectors.-AFP

Further, deforestation may have been halted in the project area, but deforestation could be shifted to other regions or even other countries, leading to what is called leakage of carbon benefits. Finally, the quantity of reduction in deforestation or the CO2 emissions avoided should be compared against a baseline or reference level deforestation or emissions levels, which would have occurred in the absence of the REDD-Plus project and carbon payments.

Surely, some complex accounting procedures or guidelines will be developed to address issues such as non-permanence of carbon benefits, leakage of carbon benefits and baseline or reference level CO2 emissions or carbon stock gains. But these are most likely to be suspect and liable to be misused or abused.

Thus India should ensure that guidelines and methods of the highest standards or scientific rigour are developed and, more importantly, rigorous and transparent measurement, monitoring, verification and reporting procedures are incorporated in any Copenhagen deal on REDD-Plus issues. Many countries are likely to push for simplified and lax guidelines for measurement, monitoring and verification procedures, leading to no genuine net CO2 emission reductions or carbon stock gains.

Thirdly, one of the key questions is how the potential REDD-Plus mechanism should be financed. The options include public (government) financial support (which is additional to ODA Official Development Assistance) or market mechanism or sale of carbon credits to rich countries with CO2 emissions reduction targets and commitments.

India should push for a combination of government and market funding arrangements for the REDD-Plus mechanism. Surely, India or other countries will not be able to stop the utilisation of the carbon credits from REDD-Plus mechanism in developing countries, which are used to meet the emission reduction commitments of rich countries.

However, India should ensure that an upper limit is fixed on the extent of utilisation of carbon credits in meeting its emission reduction commitments, in order to ensure domestic actions in those countries to address climate change. The limited public funding from rich countries should be used more to support actions such as promoting renewable energy technologies, which provide permanent, sustainable and reliable CO2 emission reduction, to address climate change.

Finally, there is a need for appropriate participatory institutions to ensure a sustained flow of funds to REDD-Plus activities, and, more importantly, to ensure that the rights and access of the poor or forest-dependent communities are protected and the carbon revenues flow to the poor, given the poor governance structures in many countries.

In the face of doom and gloom over the outcome of the Copenhagen Climate Convention, many believe the likely deal on REDD-Plus issues will be a silver lining, a poor consolation indeed. India, which is unlikely to be a large beneficiary of the REDD-Plus agreement, must ensure only genuine, transparent and verifiable reduction in CO2 emission or that carbon stock enhancements are financially rewarded in an equitable way.

N.H. Ravindranth is Professor, Centre for Sustainable Technologies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

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