Uncharted Territory

October 9, 2009

Researching and Reflecting on REDD

Filed under: Forests, Global warming, International climate deals — Tim Joslin @ 3:15 pm

My last post was in response to a spread in the Guardian on REDD – Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation.  (The last D doesn’t stand for “in Developing countries” as I suggested last time.  I can’t identify the exact source [later: actually it was Friends of the Earth who repeat the mistake all over their output], but I can see why I made the error, as the UN appends this clause when it expands the abbreviation – more about this idiocy later).

Yesterday, though, I found myself delving into two numbers that were quoted by the Guardian:

– the estimate of 160 tonnes of carbon an acre stored at Rukinga ranch in Kenya;

– John Vidal’s note en passant that “(T)here are 32 REDD proposals”.   The link in the previous sentence is to a different version of the same Q&A that appeared in the print version of the Guardian on Tuesday (6th Oct).  The number “32” led me to understand that “Redd could be the cornerstone of a Copenhagen deal, putting forests at the frontline of tackling climate change for the first time”, as Vidal puts it (not in the print version which had the negative organised crime spin I criticised last time).  If this happens it will have profound consequences for a large proportion of the world’s population and have wide-ranging indirect effects on the rest of us.  And so it should, if we’re going to tackle global warming.  But you’d never believe we could be on the threshhold of such change from the level of media coverage (this informative article in the Economist is an exception).

It seems REDD is coming into being both from local action and as a global initiative.  Are the bottom-up or top-down approaches compatible?  Which yields the best model for a global solution?

REDD on the ground: the Rukinga case

First, where does that figure of 160 tonnes of carbon an acre lead us?  Before we can do too much we need to clarify the units – I’m going to have to assume that what is meant is 160 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2eq) per acre, i.e. the carbon in the trees and soil doesn’t weigh 160 tonnes, but if burnt the CO2 would weigh that much.  This makes sense as 160 tonnes of carbon (tC) per acre is way too high and the Rukinga owners would be interested in the tonnes they can trade – the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) operates in tonnes of CO2eq.

Now, it turns out that Rukinga ranch is owned by a private American company, Wildlife Works.  In fact a 30% holding is advertised (pdf) as for sale.  (Where the 80,000 acres drops to 75,000 and then 74,490 – hey, why not round up to 100,000? – Rukinga is also described as on the boundary of the 22,000 km2 Tsavo National Park – my suspicions aroused lead me to check Wikipedia which gives Tsavo East as 11,747 km2 and Tsavo West as 7,065 km2, a total of 18,812 km2 – actually 20,812km2, since the Kenya Wildlife Service [who are to blame – you can see the 7,065km2  in broken links returned by Google from their old page about the reserve] now gives 9,065km2 [I’ve just corrected Wikipedia], leaving us 1,188km2 short – though Wikipedia’s maps show adjacent reserves in Kenya and over the border in Tanzania).

All that delving into numbers has made me lose the thread of my argument!  Perhaps I should move on now to the point that the Rukinga case study shows how much bureaucracy is going to be required if we try to implement precise carbon accounting.  If we want to get money quickly to those who deserve it – who, more to the point, we are relying on to preserve “standing carbon” (trees) – then it seems to me that it would be much more intelligent to start with quick and dirty estimates and gradually refine them over time.  Vidal notes that the Rukinga owners have spent $400,000 (rounded up, perhaps, he says cynically) measuring the trees.  Not everyone is going to have access to this amount of up-front capital.  Tsavo National Park, uncertain though its exact size is, is some 65 times the size of Rukinga, even at the figure of 20,812 km2 I arrive at [20,812 km2 is 2,081,200 hectares against Rukinga’s 32,000], so it would presumably cost $26,000,000 to measure its trees.  In the Amazon we’d be talking about millions of km2 (some inaccessible), so at over $1000/km2, we’d need $billions before we even get started!  No, embarking on exact accounting is to put the wrong foot forward.  We’ll do a Stephen Fry and end up in the water!

But what of that figure of 160 tonnes/acre?  Now, I just happen to be familiar with the numbers for this sort of thing.  Let’s first convert into some acceptable units.  I want tonnes of actual carbon per hectare (tC/ha).  As I said, pending clarification by the Guradian, I’m assuming the real estimate is 160 tCO2eq/acre.  There are approx. 2.5 acres (American or otherwise) in a hectare.  So ~400 tCO2/ha.  Converting to tC requires multiplying by 12/44 giving us about 109 tC/ha.

Now just to compound my frustration, the latest IPCC report (the 4th, published in 2007) doesn’t follow the same chapters as the previous report, so where, if anywhere, among the 3,000 odd pages, they’ve put the latest estimates of carbon stores, I simply don’t know.  I would have thought the data should be fairly prominent, so I downloaded and searched numerous pdfs yesterday evening – to no avail.

Anyway, in 2001, the IPCC did publish a number of tables, and this morning I’ve found a hard copy of Table 3.2 from Ch.3 (of the Scientific Basis) on the Carbon Cycle.  Lucky I occasionally file things in a sensible fashion.   Now, Table 3.2 gives 2 sets of estimates for the carbon density of different biomes (ecosystem types). Much may hinge on this, but a look at the pictures on Rukinga’s site suggests we’re talking about “tropical savannah and grassland” rather than “forest”.  And we’re proposing to pay to stop this turning into “desert or semi-desert” (I’m being generous here – “croplands” might be a more realistic comparison).  We can average the numbers for these biomes given by the IPCC:

– “tropical savanna & grassland”, according to the studies cited by the IPCC,  typically holds 29 tC/ha in the plants (to show how clever they are the IPCC scientists use MgC/ha, but a megagramme is just a big word for a tonne), both estimates being the same and (117+90)/2 = 103.5tC/ha in the soils, a total of 132.5 tC/ha.  This is in fact higher than the 160 tonnes [CO2eq] an acre – 109 tC/ha – estimated at Rukinga, though their figure makes some sense as, according to John Vidal, it’s “only a decade” since “cattle were banned”.

– “deserts and semi-deserts” typically hold, says the IPCC, (2+4)/2 = 3 tC/ha in the plants and (42+57)/2 = 49.5 tC/ha in the soils, a total of 52.5 tC/ha.

Subtracting these two figures suggests that, as a very rough estimate, we should expect to be paying the owners of Rukinga ranch for safeguarding about 132.5 – 52.5 = 80 tC/ha.

How much is this going to cost us, per tonne of carbon saved?

Annoyingly, carbon is traded in tCO2eq, so let’s convert back to that unit.  We can estimate that, very roughly, the continued existence of Rukinga will prevent the eventual emission of 80*44/12 = 293.3 – call it 300 tCO2eq/ha. (The original claim of 160 tonnes an acre translates to 400 tCO2eq/ha, so we’re not miles out!).

Now, an annual income of $2m is anticipated.  I’d dearly love to know how this is arrived at, but let’s see how much it is per tonne of “carbon” (CO2eq).  Multiplying Rukinga’s 32,000 hectares by 300 gives a total of 9.6 MtCO2eq saved.  Call it 10 million tonnes, what the hell!  The reckoning therefore is that maintaining a store of 1 tonne of CO2eq that would otherwise be emitted to the atmosphere is worth $0.20 per year.  Bargain!

Or is it?

Let’s compare this to the price of carbon which right now is €13.40 equivalent to $13.40*1.4757 (the rate quoted by the FT at the moment) = $19.77438, call it $20/tCO2eq.

I have to say that the payment of, apparently, 1% (20 cents is 100th of $20) of the price of carbon per year is less than I anticipated.

There are 2 problems, though:

– the current carbon price is way too low.  It needs to rise to $100s/tonne (a typical car emits 125 gCO2/km, or would have to travel 8,000 km to emit 1 tonne!  Who’s going to change their driving habits for $20/8000 = 0.25 cents/km?).  Tying remuneration for preventing deforestation/degradation to the carbon price may therefore not necessarily be a great idea.

Further, Vidal notes:

“Rukinga is on the frontline of global deforestation: every month, dozens of large gangs of commercial charcoal-makers are caught cutting down trees and building crude fire pits to make cooking fuel for the port city of Mombasa 100 miles away.”

True, we have to get away from using wood-based fuel (even though it has become bizarrely virtuous in the UK), but one man’s REDD is another man’s sustainable harvesting of firewood; one man’s looter is another man’s indigenous person.  In other words, the REDD revenue is worth fighting over.  And wouldn’t we have more plant biomass if we had fewer elephants eating it all day?  Maybe we’d better introduce such income streams gradually so that we can deal with the problems.

– we need REDD all over the world for it to be effective.  How much would that cost?  Well, accurate estimates are hard to come by, but the world’s forests hold around as much carbon as the atmosphere – say 750GtC (my estimate of what could be emitted from plants and soils if we lose the lot – the 2001 IPCC report estimated total stored carbon in global ecosystems to be >2000 GtC, i.e. 2 TtC) or 2750, call it 2500 GtCO2eq.  At 20 cents/tCO2eq we’re talking about $500bn/year.  Hmm.  And if we put a realistic price on carbon – say 10 times the current price – then we’re already in credit crunch territory – trillions of dollars a year!

[This figure is so high I feel I should calculate it a different way as a check.  Rukinga’s 32,000 hectares (or 320 km2) is expected to yield $2m p.a.  But we need to protect billions of hectares (10s of millions of km2) from deforestation/degradation worldwide – say 50m km2 as a rough guess.  At $2m for 320 km2 Rukinga’s REDD costs $6,250/km2 to protect each year.  50m km2 will therefore cost $(50m * 6,250) = $312bn/year.  The discrepancy from $500bn is attributable to the fact that other areas of forest – think Indonesia, Congo, Amazon – store rather more carbon per km2 than Rukinga, which is not densely forested].

Now, I do happen to think we’re going to eventually have to pay these sorts of sums to protect natural carbon stores (“forests”), but this sort of money is not available right now.

It makes no sense to spend all the available money on protecting a few small areas of forest.   The problem is known in the trade as “leakage”.  Demand e.g. for timber, will simply move to areas outside REDD schemes.

The Rukinga case suggests at least 4 major issues with the bottom-up approach:

– leakage – a show-stopper;

– the up-front cost of estimating carbon content – and authenticating such estimates;

– too little cash to create enough schemes;

– the need to make an accommodation with land-users.

Surely what we should be doing is designing a global scheme that takes account of these problems from the outset?  Could it be that that is actually happening?

Global REDD: Copenhagen and all that

My first port of call to find out what is actually happening globally was Friends of the Earth. When I last gave my presentation “Save the Forests, Save the World” or whatever I called it that day, a woman in the audience was shaking her head vigorously while I spoke.  Certain cues in her appearance suggested she might be an FoE  stalwart.  Well, I’m a “Supporter” too (not very democratic are they, these NGOs?), and receive regular mailings.  I was curious to discover what I might have said that was so evil…

Soon I found an article, “Into the woods” by Henry Rummins, Earthmatters 74, autumn 2009, Friends of the Earth’s Newsletter (not apparently available online, though a rather more thorough FoE discussion is available here).

Rummins says:

“Government plans to preserve rainforests are a con…  There are much fairer alternatives – like local people deciding how to protect them”.

Dreamland, IMHOP.

First, sustainable forestry – e.g. removing certain trees or “timber that has fallen naturally” (which Rummins mentions) – IS degradation.  Fallen trees store carbon for decades and are one way it ends up in the soil.

Second, indigenous people have to make tough choices to raise money.  Did anyone else see that episode of the BBC’s “Into the Volcano” where they went to the village in Papua New Guinea?  The elders explained that they needed to pay for medical care and education, so felt under pressure to deal with the loggers.

Third, it’s simply not going to happen.  Governments and those who think they own land or rights over it now are not about to simply sign it over to someone else.

Some money is going to have to change hands.

I agree with FoE though, that tying REDD into the current (dysfunctional) carbon market is probably not going to work.

Next I tried the UN.  When in doubt go straight to the top, I say.  It turns out that bureaucracies have already been established.  But what’s the plan?

A few clicks later I found a page referring to something called “The Little REDD Book”.  And this document, dear reader, is where you will find the “32 proposals”.  But don’t download from the UN.  You need “The Little REDD+Book” from the Global Canopy Programme.

What a nightmare!

The chance of reaching agreement on a comprehensive REDD framework at Copenhagen seems small.  There are too many areas of disagreement.  Especially when all the energy is going into spats over reducing fossil-fuel emissions.

For what it’s worth, it seems to me that we need a two-pronged approach at this stage.  My cunning plan is that we need to:

(1) Keep as much fossil fuel in the ground as possible;

(2) Preserve as much as possible of the world’s natural stores of carbon, for which we can use the shorthand term “forests”.

Now, I don’t see much hope at all of a meaningful deal on emissions at Copenhagen, for inter alia the simple reason that I think the US is right.  There’s no point in simply continuing to move industrial emissions from one part of the world (the so-called “developed” countries) to another (China and other developing countries).

If I were the UNFCCC I’d use Copenhagen to try to make an agreement on REDD, and design an agenda to ensure the solution is global and comprehensive – the piecemeal approach which is evolving will cover nowhere near enough land to prevent “leakage”.

In particular, a few minutes thought will expose the fatal flaw of dividing the world into increasingly artificial groups of “developed” and “developing” countries. There’s plenty of forest we need to preserve in Russia, Canada, Europe, Japan and so on, even the US – and opportunities for reforestation in these countries.

After the Fairtrade coffee-break we might be ready to accept that a comprehensive solution to protect all the world’s forests will be impossible if we rely on deals with individual landowners.  We need to create a funding stream into one big kitty and from there pay out to everyone responsible for some forest.

Assuming the UN can silence the cacophony of vested interests for long enough to engage in some intelligent thought, the advantage of focusing on REDD would be twofold:

– it would provide a “quick win”.  We could all reconvene in a few years time with visible evidence of success.  I believe the deforestation juggernaut can be stopped in its tracks and left to rot on a half-built road to nowhere in the jungle.   The graphs of atmospheric CO2 increase would start to level off.

– we’d learn some lessons.  Maybe carbon-trading isn’t the best way to monetise carbon emissions or ecosystem services on a global scale.  Maybe carbon-trading will only be effective (the track record isn’t very good so far) within contained, delimited sectoral markets or geographic areas.

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3 Comments »

    • Fascinating. Thanks, friend.

      The arithmetic in this document is summarised on p.30 and in an apparently identical table on p.44.

      Wildlife Works claim a store of (rounding) 7 mTCO2eq in 30,000 hect. (the Guardian’s 32,000 hect. was apparently converted into acres and converted back – the unit wars are driving me nuts!). This is approx. 230tCO2eq/hect. or ~64tC/hect., so I’m still baffled where the Guardian’s “160 tonnes of carbon per acre” (~109tCO2eq/hect.) comes from.

      The figure is less than my estimates based on IPCC data because the soils are apparently poor in carbon. Dead wood has also been ignored.

      Now, Wildlife Works argue that, in the absence of the project, about half the carbon would be lost over 20 years, i.e. around 175ktCO2eq/yr. My (cruder) “baseline” was that the land would turn to semi-desert as implied by the original Guardian article.

      I still don’t understand where the $2m/yr income comes from, though, as one would have thought that on their logic the income would be worth $175,000 * today’s approx. $20 price of carbon, i.e. $3.5m pa. (Though it appears the authors propose 10% is deducted for “leakage”).

      But this is the wrong logic! What happens after 20 years? You can’t simply set up another 20 year project, because Rukinga has already been paid for the cost of the carbon emissions had they occurred – they can’t occur twice!

      The correct logic is to conceive of the project as continuing in perpetuity, or until the emissions occur. What we’re saying is that the emissions have value to the landowner. But they can only cash in once. They should therefore be rewarded for forgoing “spending” the carbon, on the basis that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow. i.e. they should be paid interest on the value of the full carbon store (possibly subtracting a baseline of the desert case, on the basis that it is impossible/impractical to emit all the carbon).

      The interest should be the risk-free rate, as the landowner is free to cash in at any time. So instead of basing the income on what might be lost over a 20 year period, it’s more logical for Rukinga to be paid (say) 5% of the total value of the carbon in perpetuity. (Note that both the risk-free rate and the value of the carbon vary in their different markets, so the income will vary over time). (Note also that if REDD carbon is valued the same as actual carbon emissions that this logic would give Rukinga even more income – it’s the logic I’m questioning, not the cash amounts).

      This thought-experiment suggests difficulties in tying REDD into the carbon market, e.g. by offsetting. The units are different: the carbon market is in tonnes of actual emissions, but REDD is in tonne-years of deferred emissions.

      Of course, aside from a lack of clear logic in the pricing process, the problem with REDD as exemplified by Rukinga is that it doesn’t scale. The project is too labour intensive and there is simply not enough dosh available (or emissions to trade) to apply it on a large enough scale to affect the global rate of deforestation/degradation, which is the aim.

      This is not to say that the Rukinga project (I mean the creation of a nature/wildlife reserve) is not worthwhile. In fact, it’s quite clear from their proposal document that they should be paid for maintaining biodiversity and an important ecosystem (and probably other services) as well as a carbon store.

      Comment by Tim Joslin — October 10, 2009 @ 9:44 am

  1. The labor intensity is basic forestry….it costs money to inventory a forest to an acceptable standard error. Then add in training of field personal that often have NO experience in forestry from undeveloped countries…you’re costs go up.

    As a forester in the US, we (my old company) had spent over $1 million to inventory 120,000 acres. And that was just the trees, not shrubs, dead lying wood, soils, etc.

    So, I feel the cost driver is getting and acceptable standard error of inventory plots. Maybe when LIDAR (google it) becomes cheap enough it will provide a cost effect method of estimating forest biomass for large tracts of land in remote locations.

    As far as the monetization of carbon, that is not my niche.

    Comment by noname — October 10, 2009 @ 8:53 pm


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