Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Making forest preservation worth more than forest destruction

In amongst the stories of pessimism, pranks, and angry mobs of frost-bitten delegates, there was a little ray of hope in the news from Copenhagen today.

An agreement has very nearly been reached on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), a mechanism by which developing nations would be compensated with cash or carbon credits for preserving their carbon-storing forests. The idea is to make the world's forests worth more alive than dead, thus giving developing nations a strong financial incentive to favour forest preservation over mining, grazing, or other less carbon-friendly land uses.

Think of it as the carrot side of the carrot-and-stick approach to carbon pricing.

One criticism of the agreement is that it is somewhat limited in scope. REDD began life as an agenda item at the 2005 Montreal Conference that specifically referred to developing countries, and even now the agreement is aimed almost entirely at preserving tropical forests in poorer nations, although word is that peatlands are now to be included as well.

This expansion has caused some to argue for the inclusion of other natural carbon sinks, particularly the boreal forests. Boreal systems are unique in that the comprise both forest and peatland, and thus store twice as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests.

While the current agreement only applies to developing nations, if expended this approach to carbon pricing could eventually have profound implications for Alberta's tar sands, which sit right in the heart of Canada's immense boreal region.

By placing a dollar value on the forests and peatlands being destroyed to get at the bitumen below, the Canadian government - or even just that of Alberta - would have a strong incentive to restrict tar sands development. And instead of forever cutting deals for the oil companies, they would be compelled to recoup the lost credit for forest preservation directly from them, making the already costly extraction process that much more expensive and therefore less appealing.

Combined with other forms of carbon pricing tied to more obvious emissions, the environmental costs of tar sands operations under such a regime would become apparent in terms that even our government should be able to understand.

(cross-posted from Canada's World)

1 comment:

  1. A research paper "Bitumen and Biocarbon" prepared by Global Forest Watch Canada, was referenced on the Greenpeace website 2 October, 2009 as follows:

     "when emissions from the destruction of the Boreal Forests are factored in, greenhouse gas emissions from Tar Sands operations are significantly higher than reported.   The research shows that under full development the annual average release of carbon from the removal of natural ecosystems would be 8.7 megatonnes of carbon dioxide with wide fluctuations over time.  Current reported greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands operations which do not account for these additional emissions, are about 36 mt a year.  Planned expansion is expected to increase emission levels from operations alone to 120 to 140 mt a year."

    IMO, even if boreal forests do not presently qualify for carbon credits under REDD, the oil industry and Canadian government should at the very least be required to report these additional emissions as a result of Tar Sands operations.  Either way, the economic and environmental cost of boreal forest destruction seems unacceptable to me. 

    I think Ignatieff really got it wrong - the Boreal Forests, not the Tar Sands, are the national treasure -  a valuable carbon sink, much needed wildlife habitat, and a nursery for 300 different species of songbirds.