Complex schemes to reduce emissions, save forests and develop local income are beginning to show signs of success

Kinshasa eats its way into the surrounding countryside, as if it doesn’t know when or how to stop. An uncontrolled sprawl of eight million inhabitants, it is a city with a tremendous appetite for food and fuel that extends 250 miles north along a deforested expanse that finally comes to a halt in the province of Bandundu.

Here, amid dense stands of tropical forest in and around Lake Mai Ndombe, carbon finance developers are working with 50,000 villagers to protect an area roughly the size of Luxembourg, which includes both forest and areas of savannah grassland. Commercial logging operations are one threat. Then there are the villagers themselves, prone to using overly destructive slash-and-burn cultivation techniques.

The aim is to establish a benefit-sharing mechanism with communities through local development committees that will receive $0.50 per tonne for carbon credits sold to international private investors for carbon offsetting. Revenues from the project are split roughly three ways, among landowners, the private developers and the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a participant in REDD, a UN-backed mechanism to halt deforestation through the adoption of permanent land-use policies that preserve forests.

“The project will never prevent [villagers] from using their forest. It is not the goal, nor is it feasible,” explains Jennifer Holland, director of operations of what’s called the Mai Ndombe REDD development project. “Rather, we are working with communities to help them reduce their impact on the primary forests.”

Villagers are paid for sustainable management of existing “carbon storage” (ie the forests) – a task that requires the training of locals for employment in forest inventory teams that work with more than 60 clans in measuring and monitoring carbon stocks in defined areas of forests. Not all land is set aside: through the intensification of key crops villagers can generate the same amount of food from a smaller area and thereby replace harmful “slash-and-burn” farming systems.

Carbon credits

At stake are 175m tonnes of carbon offsets over the 30-year life of the project, of which 1.1m were sold in 2013 to the Frankfurt-based Forest Carbon Group. Holland, an employee of Offsetters (formerly Era Ecosystems), a Canadian company specialising in the marketing and reselling of forest carbon credits, says the three-year-old project now has half the villages signed up into the benefit-sharing mechanism.

This has come after engagement by 17 local facilitators who live in the villages for weeks at a time and hold formal and informal meetings to explain carbon cycling science and its link to market finance and climate change mitigation.

Projects such as these potentially keep enormous reserves of carbon out of the atmosphere and are part of an emerging climate change mitigation mechanism first introduced at the UN in 2007.

REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, and today more than 30 countries with tropical forests are participating in at least one REDD-related initiative aimed at developing national programmes. The most prominent of these include UN-REDD, the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and several major bilateral programmes administered by Norway, Germany, Japan and the US, among others.

The “plus” that is sometimes attached, as in “REDD+” signifies the additional goal of sustainable management of forests, including generation of income streams for locals. “Starving people don’t make very good conservationists,” Holland says.

Governments have pledged billions of dollars to REDD “readiness” programmes, which are aimed at developing national carbon accounting strategies, though the real results so far have come from a handful of projects undertaken by the private sector and civil society. Projects such as Mai Ndombe REDD now stand ready to tap into this funding source.

The next major step, Holland adds, will be to find more funding. Target the private sector with a clear and full explanation of the REDD programme, and then it just may be possible for the chimpanzees, gorillas and elephants – along with villagers and the forest itself – to survive.

Selling REDD

In June 2012, the Code REDD Campaign launched at the Rio+20 UN conference on sustainability. Armed with the backing of five large corporations – German insurance giant Allianz, French retail conglomerate PPR, Dutch energy company Eneco and its German peer Entega, and South African bank Nedbank – and a grouping of 12 project developers, the newly formed trade association has spent the past year promoting a handful of “proven” REDD projects. These have achieved certification under both the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) and the Climate Community and Biodiversity Standard (CCB), the two leading standards for certifying credits in the voluntary forest carbon market.

Intensive corporate outreach has entailed several dozen meetings with business leaders in Europe and the US. The message of reduced risk and a payout – in reduced carbon and enhanced biodiversity and social engagement – has begun to find traction, though still the campaign faces significant challenges, chief among them the perception that offsetting is tantamount to a permit to pollute.

“In almost every single meeting, we have to explain what REDD is and why carbon offsets are not a bad thing,” says Karin Burns, executive director of the Code REDD campaign. She says that offsetting should involve unavoidable emissions that lie outside immediate supply chains and they should not be seen as a cheap compliance mechanism. Companies should not use offsetting as an excuse not to change behaviour.

Burns quotes three examples why large corporations are buying into REDD. First, companies such as Kering (the giant retail group that owns brands from Gucci to Puma) understand the real costs of natural resource constraints. Through its environmental profit and loss audit the company now quantifies unavoidable emissions to an amount that can be invested in ecosystem services.

Second, companies such as Microsoft and Disney have established an internal price on carbon to drive down emissions. Revenues from these programmes have been used to invest in the Kassigau Corridor REDD programme in Kenya, a landmark project that was the first to receive both VCS and CCB validation in late 2011.

Third, companies see the chance to go beyond avoiding deforestation to co-benefits that simultaneously protect biodiversity and reduce the poverty of forest-dwelling communities. This rationale appealed to Eneco, Burns says. The Dutch energy company chose REDD rather than more limited emissions offsetting programmes such as Clean Development Mechanism.

Amazon credits

In May 2013, the Paiter Suruí clan, in the Amazon, became the first indigenous group to generate forest carbon credits under the VCS standard – a milestone in the REDD and REDD-plus programmes.

Chief Almir Suruí, leader of the 1,300-member tribe, said at the time: “REDD-plus is a mechanism that unites our values and those of the non-indigenous capitalist world. This is our contribution to forest preservation.”

In September 2013, the first sales from the Suruí Forest Carbon Project were issued to Brazilian cosmetics giant Natura. It now sits alongside 15 other projects highlighted on the Code REDD platform, all of them marketed under a “gold” premium rating owing to their dual VCS and CCB verifications.

“One key thing to say is that it was not an ideal project to start with,” says Vasco Van Roosmalen, director of Equipe de Conservacao da Amazonia, a Brazilian non-profit group which, together with five other NGO partners, helped establish the legal precedent enabling the Suruí to claim carbon ownership, despite their only having usage rights, not land title.

Van Roosmalen says an important lesson lies in deciding when to allow private buy-in. Because the “readiness” phase involved only grant and philanthropic funding, today the Suruí stand to receive 100% of the returns on the carbon sale. This minimised the risk to the indigenous community by helping to ensure CCB values around community engagement and biodiversity conservation.

“You also need governance, not just from among those in the indigenous community, but against pressures from the outside,” says Van Roosmalen. The state of Rondonia recognises the project, while at the regional level other Amazonian states are advancing forward with their own REDD legislation.

If there’s one distinct advantage Brazil has over other countries with tropical forests, it’s an advanced forest code that grants significant community access and ownership, says William Sunderlin, principal scientist and leader of research on REDD projects at the Center for International Forestry Research. By contrast, in Africa and parts of Asia, Sunderlin says it’s only a “vanishingly small share of the forest estate that’s now entered in community forestry”.

That’s where national REDD- readiness programmes have the opportunity to interface with pilot efforts to begin working out land tenure issues.

“Just about every project has to go through a very serious process of identifying boundaries and rights holders, and then linking that to expected responsibilities,” Sunderlin says.

Indonesia is a muddled example of this. On the one hand the country has its first VCS-certified REDD project on the island of Borneo. New community land use laws have also been passed. Yet within the boundaries of many REDD projects, powerful economic interests – including around palm oil production – continue to assert external claims.

African advances

In Africa, palm oil still resides on the margins. This kind of plantation agriculture has yet to arrive in central Africa – giving countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo a good chance of establishing robust REDD national frameworks.

Already DRC has one of the more advanced satellite monitoring systems in place, says Johannes Kirchgatter, in charge of Africa projects for WWF Germany. To complement this, WWF is helping the country develop a national biomass map. The two together – a functioning monitoring system and an accurate assessment of the country’s carbon stocks – could, in just two years’ time, form the basis of a certified national REDD programme that is able to draw upon funds from the World Bank’s forest carbon partnership facility.

“A stop to development is impossible,” says Kirchgatter. “Rather, what we hope to help the country accomplish is a land use planning exercise … with the government, stakeholders and interested companies so that the highest biodiversity and carbon storage areas are protected.”

To aid that effort, DRC has been working in collaboration with a host of international partners to put into operation what’s known in the UN REDD system as MRV – monitoring, reporting and verification. After measuring its forest carbon stocks and forest area changes, a country arrives at an estimate of potential carbon release saved if the forest remains intact. This number is then communicated through what is referred to as a greenhouse gas inventory, the “reporting” part of MRV, explains Danae Maniatis, lead technical officer at the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation in DRC.

If approved by the World Bank, backers of the Mai Ndombe REDD project would then possibly have a secured long-term funding source to counteract what has thus far been only limited demand from the private sector.

“Yes, we sold credits to Forest Carbon Group, but we had issued [many more] in 2013,” says Jean-Robert Bwangoy-Bankanza, the local manager of Mai Ndombe REDD.

The project has built two schools at a price tag of $200,000 and has provided a mobile medical programme for community visits. The team is also introducing crops including nitrogen-fixing beans to help improve soil fertility.

The funds are, inevitably, stretched. “The money we received [from the sale] was only enough to fund our activities on the ground,” says Bwangoy-Bankanza. “This year we will not go for verification [for more credits] because … then we would have 5m tonnes, which will not necessarily be sold.”

That, of course, is another problem.

REDD – the theory

REDD first appeared in 2007 and was immediately welcomed by conservation groups long accustomed to losing the deforestation battle. Two American NGOs in particular, Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy, quickly set about developing the Climate Community & Biodiversity (CCB) standard and the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) for verified carbon credits – a task that has advanced considerably as the two standards have worked out initial kinks.

A third US behemoth, the Wildlife Conservation Society, is considered a global REDD leader having developed more than 20 REDD projects across 12 countries. It now has two projects entering the voluntary market – both VCS- and CCB-certified. Born out of long-term fieldwork with communities that has progressed in coordination with local and national authorities, projects like these are nevertheless at great risk because of anaemic financial support.

“Now is an important inflection point for corporations and individuals to step up and signal to people in places [such as] Cambodia, Madagascar and Democratic Republic of the Congo that we support forest conservation,” says Todd Stevens, executive director of global initiatives at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Stevens says REDD works as a conservation strategy because it measures both deforestation rates and improved livelihoods on a pay-for-performance basis – a concept companies should easily relate to.

DRC biomass mapping

When completed in 2015, a national biomass map for the Democratic Republic of the Congo will enable quantitative assessments of carbon stocks and emissions in the largest forests of the Congo basin – an important test case for whether Africa can develop a long-term, sustainable development path.

The mapping system is being developed by the DRC government in collaboration with a diverse group of forest stakeholders gathering in field plot sites for calibration with satellite imagery and high-resolution data from airplane-based sensors. The national biomass map will have both a visual and data component.

“It will be extremely detailed at the level of seeing small rivers and individual tree canopies,” says Dr Sassan Saatchi, a scientist with the University of Southern California, Los Angeles who will be leading the data team In addition, there will be a carbon measure associated with every one-hectare plot, enabling government officials eventually to monetise the country’s unique forest wealth for sustainable development investments.

Carbon emissions  Carbon offsetting  Environment  forestry  REDD 

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