Hard sell

Saving the rainforests is an effective and cheap way of cutting carbon emissions. But is buying trees to stop deforestation the answer? Guy Shrubsole reports.

Gold first lured outsiders to claim the rainforests. Later, medicines became the prize, then land for ranching cattle, soya and, more recently, biofuels. Now a different part of the Amazon is ours to buy: its massive stocks of carbon. A new scheme launched in the United Kingdom this month aims to exploit the surge in interest in saving trees to save the planet, and offers individuals the chance to pay to protect swaths of rainforest. 

Called Cool Earth — and set up by the Swedish entrepreneur Johan Eliasch and the British member of parliament Frank Field — the scheme says it will “price deforestation out of the market” by securing forest in local trusts, and watching it “around the clock to keep the carbon where it belongs”.

It might sound familiar; schemes to buy up and protect the rainforests have been around since campaigns to highlight their plight peaked in the 1980s. But climate change has brought those concerns into new focus, and the organisers of Cool Earth hope to capitalise on the recent boom in ethical consumerism, carbon labels and offsetting services. 

The problem is clear. Deforestation releases massive amounts of carbon. The recent Stern review (for the UK government) into the economics of climate change said greenhouse gas released from the 150,000 square kilometres of tropical forest destroyed each year now accounts for 18% of global emissions — more than from any single nation.

Conversely, this makes tackling deforestation a cheap way of fighting global warming. A recent report from the international consultancy firm McKinsey identified forest conservation as the “single largest opportunity for cost-effective and immediate reductions of carbon”. And the most recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that “forest-related mitigation activities can considerably reduce emissions from sources, and increase CO2 removals by sinks, at low costs.”

Each square acre of Amazon rainforest absorbs and stores up some 260 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). To protect it, Cool Earth will charge £70 (US $140) per square acre (0.836 square metre), which works out as 27 pence (54 US cents) a tonne. As far as saving carbon goes, that is at the very cheap end of the scale. Offset companies, such as Climate Care, will typically charge £7.50 (US $15) per tonne of CO2.

Cool Earth operates as a charity and denies it is in the offset business (although its website offers companies the chance to go “carbon neutral”). “We are not offering an offset or any guilt alleviation mechanism,” says Matthew Owen, a spokesman for Cool Earth. “If people want to use Cool Earth as one, there is not much we can do, since we think it’s important to advertise how much CO2 an acre stores.” Field calls Cool Earth’s work “offsetting plus”.

So who is buying? So far, outgoing British prime minister Tony Blair, magazine editor Ian Hislop, rock star Jarvis Cocker and Mark Ellingham, founder of the Rough Guides series of travel books, number among supporters. Donors are almost entirely individuals, with donations ranging from £5 to £5,000, says Owen. The travel agency First Choice says it is planning a large investment. Field talks of getting philanthropists to unite to buy land tactically, so that “buck for buck [dollar for dollar], you’re making a bigger impact”.

Others have tried before to sell the British public shares in the rainforest. The World Land Trust has bought 142,000 hectares (350,000 acres) of endangered habitats with individual donations since 1989. sells “tree kits”, the deluxe editions complete with a framed certificate of ownership. But certificates are seldom guarantees against chainsaws. WWF’s figures for land ownership in the Brazilian Amazon show 35% to be “public or private lands in dispute”, which, they say, shows “why any initiatives to encourage land purchase as a strategy for conservation are likely to be limited”. Cool Earth says it will place microchips in protected trees and display the location of preserved areas on the Internet.

Perhaps more worrisome to potential investors is the sense that Cool Earth is taking land from native Brazilians. Eliasch was accused of “green colonialism” in 2006 when he bought up a piece of rainforest the size of Greater London to protect it, forcing the closure of a sawmill and putting 1,000 people out of work.

He says: “You either keep the forest standing, which takes jobs away from indigenous people who need to feed themselves, or you cut down the trees, which affects the climate. In the long term, you have to protect the forest.”

Contrary to such criticisms, says Field, Cool Earth’s policy aim is to “disadvantage the west”, forcing polluting nations to compensate rainforest states for the ecological services they perform. The resultant source of income has “huge potential” which, he says, “will begin to make overseas aid redundant”.

The US-based Rainforest Action Network discourages direct purchase of tropical forests, as “most ‘buy-an-acre’ programmes ignore the fact that there are people who live in and depend upon the rainforest”. Cool Earth insists it works in a different way, by leasing land from the Brazilian government. It says this will ensure “full access for local people to protected areas for rubber tapping, nut and fruit extraction and other traditional trades”.

Whether or not Cool Earth succeeds in its ambition to price deforestation out of the market, the idea of paying countries such as Brazil not to chop down their forests is gaining momentum. Negotiations continue on how rainforest nations could be compensated for such “avoided deforestation” in a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, and deforestation will be a key issue on the agenda at the United Nations climate talks in Bali in December.

British chancellor of the exchequer – and incoming prime minister — Gordon Brown announced last autumn that the UK would work with rainforest countries to “explore ways of mobilising international resources to assist in sustainable forestry management”. In this year’s national budget he proposed an “environmental transformation fund”, to deliver £50 million (US $100 million) to protect the Congo Basin forest.

Field claims that while these initiatives will take time to get off the ground, schemes such as Cool Earth can act immediately. “Acting in consort takes time,” he says. “And the one commodity the world no longer has is time.”


Copyright Guardian News & Media Ltd 2007

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