Payments for ecosystem services

This is almost becoming a theme. The commodification and market-formation of carbon-trading has been discussed previously (here and here). So, too, the idea that the environment provides a service that should be supported (given that resource depletion depletes also the ability of the environment to provide that service).

Reduced Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries, or REDD, did well at the climate talks in Bali, a short while back. REDD is a deforestation-reduction trading scheme – paying local landowners not to cut down their trees (or not to sell their land to those who will cut down their trees). This follows, say, regulation that prevented the same (hence all the burning of the land – no trees, no trees to cut down, no law broken. The Asian “Brown Cloud”, of course, somebody else’s problem).

Deforestation of this type, one way or the other, accounts for an estimated 18 percent of global human-induced greenhouse (GHG) emissions – the second largest source of anthropogenic emissions, behind energy consumption. So the need to do something is acknowledged (more or less).

China Dialogue has an article running through criticism of the REDD model:

REDD and its closely allied “Payments for Ecosystem Services” hope to put a price on standing forest by tying forest protection to market mechanisms. The logic is that if the price is set high enough, there will be more interest in protecting forests than in logging or selling plantation rights. However, there are several problems with this logic.

First, the scheme depends primarily upon carbon trading to generate its funds; a system which has proved to be so inherently dysfunctional that after eight years of the World Bank Prototype Carbon Fund and two-and-a-half years of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), Joint Implementation (JI) and European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) the global rate of emissions increases from fossil fuels has doubled and emissions are rising in virtually all developed countries. Using markets does not deal with the drivers of destruction or put in place adequate safeguards to ensure ecosystem protection.

The Kyoto Protocol left rainforests out of carbon trading for well-founded reasons that have still not been addressed. These include the illegitimate transfer of land rights and the displacement (or “leakage”) of logging into new, often pristine regions.

Needless to say, they are not fans. The authors are from Biofuel Watch – a UK-based campaign “against the use of bioenergy from unsustainable sources, i.e. biofuels linked to accelerated climate change, deforestation, bio-diversity losses, human rights abuses, including the impoverishment and dispossession of local populations, water and soil degradation, loss of food sovereignty and food security.”

So – there is a bias here. The signal is not the message, and the message is not the information that would have been to hand. A couple of things about the complaint. First:

There is evidence that deforestation bans and moratoria can work: China, Thailand, Costa Rica and Paraguay have all implemented at least partially successful bans or moratoria. Paraguay achieved an 85% success record in its eastern territory within a single year. Logging companies and some governments are even now calling for payments for non-deforestation. One reporter writing for the Jakarta Post in Bali responded by describing REDD as a set-up for “blackmail”.

Deforestation bans, however, will only work comprehensively if the underlying causes of deforestation are addressed at the same time. The over-consumption of agricultural and forest products, the current rush to biofuels, the corruption and the lack of guarantees for protection of land rights of indigenous and other forest peoples all need to be addressed.

The first part is fine, as far as it goes – which isn’t far. I can police my backyard, sure – but that hardly means me and a cricket bat, or a dozen people so armed, can handle a few blocks. Or the alley full of pimps and dealers. Expansion of the system into meaningfull levels of reduction is the key.

The second is also fine, as far as it goes – again, though, we cannot wish away the tendency of people (in worlds 1st to 3rd) to want more than resources can sustainably supply. The external costs are too far from home. We need to figure out a solution, given that people are, on aggregate, trying to kill their own planet.

Following this:

Bali saw a strong call for a systemic approach to stabilising climate and protecting forests by Friends of the Earth International, the Global Forest Coalition, the World Rainforest Movement, Via Campesina and nearly 60 other organisations who signed the Forest Declaration. The declaration calls for a genuine solution, which combines the twin needs of verifiable fossil-fuel emissions cuts and the total protection of old growth forest ecosystems.

This is also fine, as far as it goes – but you’re not impressing me by telling me that Friends of the Earth International signed such a declaration. White supremacy doesn’t work because KKK-freaks sign a declaration – it fails because the rest of us, with the power, refuse. For a system to work the biggest, worst polluters/emitters have to be on-board. It just won’t work without them.

We don’t like hearing this. We don’t like knowing that the best system for global emission reduction is held hostage to the favour of the people least-inclined to acknowledge or address the problem. Sometimes, though, that’s the way it goes.

There is another flaw in these arguments, which – although I criticise such models, often – is worth pointing out. This is new technology; these markets are young and quite small, relatively speaking. We weren’t killing children born in 1941 because they could fight the war, were we?

This is a similar problem with the Copenhagen Consensus (and that is a link worth following, even though I disagree with some of the outcome): its assumptions. First, that the solutions to climate change are the one’s listed: we know, now of newer and better solutions. Why? New technology, new information.

Similarly, the assumption that a technology will do a certain amount of good, for so long, is flawed. Technological change is endogenous. Reward it, and you promote technological innovation. Increase innovation, and you will most likely get a technological change that increases the effectiveness of achieving the solution. Keep pursing renewables, and you’re likely to hit upon an energy harvesting/storing method (see the latest in batteries) that lets us base-load a grid. Keep trying markets and, through information and synergy, one that works the most efficiently (since all markets are inefficient) will, eventually, emerge.

As Bjorn Lomborg explains in the afore-linked TED talk, the problem at the moment is that we persist in doing nothing, or doing nothing very well.

These authors are correct: such schemes as these are designed to foster economic growth, and economic growth leads to greater resource use. However (a) it doesn’t need, necessarily, to lead to greater resource depletion, and (b) any scheme designed to foster economic decay, decline or atrophy has zero chance of success. So.


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