Something is better than nothing

A blog on conservation and development surely cannot let the Cancun summit on climate change pass without any comment. On the other hand it does all seem a rather long way from the day to day work in which I am involved. Many of my colleagues made the trip over but I cannot say I am sorry to have missed the whole jamboree. Apart from the odd publicity stunt, I’m really not sure what is the value of all the NGO presence at these summits. Fine, if a government official has invited you along because they actually value your input, but most NGOs seem to go just to be … er … well … seen.

After the complete disaster that was Copenhagen, expectations were so low that any kind of achievement was going to be applauded. And if it weren’t for that chastening experience I would expect far louder complaints about the huge number of holes left to be filled in the Cancun agreement.

Of course, I am disappointed at where we are now; the various pledges made don’t seem to amount to much more than a finger in the dike. But I am also a realist, and too often the environmental movement can sound far too shrill in demanding the infeasible. Sometimes the important thing can be to establish the principle, and then ratchet up the numbers later. The European Carbon Emissions Trading Scheme came in for huge criticism early on for being far too generous, but is now, gradually, making up for lost ground. Yes we need strong incentives to drive the sorts of investments necessary to avert catastrophic climate change, but there is also something to be said for getting the ball rolling; as it picks up steam, and technological improvements come through, the harder challenges will not seem quite so daunting.

REDD+ is one of the few real successes on the UNFCCC negotiations since Kyoto. Here Cancun has at last provided some solid ground for things to start to move forward. However, from where I sit, there is still one major problem if REDD+ is going to make a big difference in Africa; the extremely government centric approach. I think this might work in South America and SE Asia where management capacity is higher, and maybe even some other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, but where I work I see a big problem. It goes like this:-

Natural resources and environment have hitherto been under-resourced sectors here; not top priority for the government and not top priority for donors. So let’s compare with a sector which is relatively well resourced: health. The health sector in theory reaches into every village with its drug provision programme, but in reality most village drug dispensaries are extremely poorly stocked. This ought to be the easy side of health care provision (in contrast trained employees can get easily tempted by better paid jobs), but the leakage and basic mismanagement are massive and endemic. Why then should we have any confidence that a government-run fund to disburse REDD money to villages protecting their local forests will provide money on time and without taking a huge cut?

Although I well understand the reasons for working at the national level – many drivers of deforestation are best addressed here – I think REDD will have much more impact on actual forest cover in Africa if the regulated market were to be opened up for direct access by the private sector. See also my previous musings about keeping REDD a transaction-based system.

ps. Beyond REDD, am I skeptical about how effective will be those huge sums being bandied around to help developing countries adapt to climate change? You betcha! But that’s just the same old story.

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