According to a press release from the Ministerio de Ambiente, Energía y Telecomunicaciones, Costa Rica plans to propose at the upcoming U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development that other tropical countries also implement the model to protect their rain forests.
The conference, more commonly known as Rio+20, will be held in Rio de Janeiro from June 20 to 22.
The national program, set up in 1997, gives direct payments to farmers who choose to conserve forests on their land instead of clearing them for raising livestock.
While it appears to be a general consensus that rain forest protection is vital in reducing greenhouses gases in the atmosphere, the exact workings behind it are not often explained. According to Florencia Motangnini, professor in the practice of tropical forestry at Yale University, forests “account for about 80 percent of carbon exchange between terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere” and can absorb up to 3 billion tons of carbon per year.
However, one may still wonder why an acre of grass or shrubs does not capture as much carbon dioxide as an acre of trees.
“It’s a size issue,” said Larry Godsey, an associate researcher and economist at the Agroforestry Center at the University of Missouri. “Trees take in and sequester more carbon simply because of its larger volume. The trunk, limbs, root, they’re all carbon.”
Steve Siebert, professor of tropical forest conversation and management at the University of Montana says that tropical forests are particularly important because the amount of carbon sequestered is related to the rate which the trees grow. “Growth rates in the humid tropics are high because growth is not limited by temperature or precipitation, in contrast to higher elevations or altitudes,” Siebert explained.
This is also evidence in the payment system of the Chicago Climate Exchange, which rewards landowners for planting vegetation according to the amount of carbon dioxide that can be sequestered. The amount credited to tree planters per acre can be up to seven times of that credited to grass planters.
“Sure, grass does the same thing, but the process for trees is just so much larger,” Godsey said.
While trees store carbon dioxide when they are alive, they also emit it back into the atmosphere when they die naturally. Godsey said that these two processes don’t exactly offset each other. “When a tree decays and falls to the ground, a lot of the carbon actually goes into the soil,” he says. “It’s no longer in the tree, but not in the atmosphere either.”
Sarah Doty, a conservation biologist who works for the non-profit CarbonTree Conservation Fund, said that while sequestering and decaying are part of the natural carbon cycle, the problem is human activity. “Dead trees don’t decay right away. It happens slowly, and there are enough other trees around to suck up the carbon emitted,” she says. “What throws that balance off is when humans step in and increase the release rate by either burning or cutting or clearing.”
According to Montagnini, up to a quarter of all carbon emissions from human activities has arisen from deforestation. Ms. Doty points out that a 100-year-old tree has 100 years worth of carbon stored inside it. When it is set on fire, which is a common method to clear tropical forests, emissions from all 100 years are released in one day.
However, the story doesn’t end there, Ms. Doty said. She explained the negative feedback loop that occurs when a forest is cleared. The cleared land is often used to raise cattle, which produce methane that contributes to climate change even more than carbon dioxide, she said.
According to an article by the late New York Times science desk editor Bayard Webster, “the release of water from the trees and other plants accounts for half, or even more of all moisture returned to air.” Ms. Doty said that this often leads to a decrease of rain in the cleared area, which leads to drought that affects the remaining surrounding forests, causing more trees to die and more carbon dioxide emitted.
However, not all governments in tropical areas can afford to implement an internal system like pago de servicios ambientales, which gives rise to the the notion that richer countries with high greenhouse gas emissions should be the ones paying poorer tropical countries for maintaining their rain forests.
This international payment model has been funded and promoted through Conservation International’s REDD+ initiative. According to its Web site, “currently, most forest carbon investment takes place through the voluntary market, in which corporations, other institutions, or individuals pay to ‘offset’ all or part of their greenhouse gas emissions to meet some voluntary goal for reducing their carbon footprint.”
The Web site also states, “a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions anywhere in the world is equally valuable no matter where it is produced,” as incentive for countries with high emission rates to participate.
This model has been implemented in several areas of the world, with Norway being the biggest funder, according to Mongabay, an environmental news Web site. In 2009, the Scandinavian country, which, according to the article has one of the highest carbon emissions per capita in Europe, announced that it would pay a result-based US$250 million to Guyana and also announced in 2010 that it would pay Indonesia US$1 billion.
Ms. Doty thinks that the payment model is a good idea. “We are the ones creating the demand that depletes natural resources in those countries, and it is our responsibility to look at helping to solve that problem and giving financial incentives.”
Siebert doesn’t agree. “It detracts attention from the primary CO2 emission problem, which is reducing fossil fuel emissions,” he said. He also doesn’t think that the money would trickle down to the poor households or communities in the countries.
Moreover, results from REDD+ have yet to be seen. In late 2011, reports surfaced that Guyana had made little progress, due to lack of experience and transparency, bureaucracy, enforcement problems and other issues. It has been even worse in Indonesia, where, according to environmental Web site redd-monitor.org, a court case is currently ongoing where the government has been giving concessions of protected areas under the deal to a private company, which has resulted in rampant burning of forest areas.
Other critics of the model also state that it is an easy way for developed countries to avoid making any changes back home. “The dream could turn into a nightmare, in which western polluters use their carbon credits to evade cutting emissions at home, while the promised benefit to the atmosphere is lost in a mire of conflict and corruption,” writes Fred Pearce, environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine.
For example, a 2007 report by Rainforest Foundation Norway and Friends of the Earth found that despite the money Norway has pledged to conservation, it has $13.7 billion invested in industry sectors in 73 companies that operate “in precisely the industry sectors that constitute the greatest threats to the same forests.”
Another problem with the model is that it only rewards offending countries. “Nothing for Costa Rica, the only country in the tropics to have curbed rampant deforestation and increased its forest cover,” writes Pearce.
It is a much tougher task to implement the Costa Rican system on an international scale, where the two parties are not in direct contact. Nevertheless, the REDD+ model is still relatively new, and more time will be needed to determine its efficiency.