Posts Tagged ‘UNFCCC’

Bottom up thinking points the way for REDD

More good stuff from CIFOR, this time a survey of 23 different pilot REDD+ projects from around the tropics. The variety of approaches on show just goes to show, again, the benefits of Bill Easterly’s ‘seekers’ over ‘planners’. At both national and international levels I fear there is not enough flexibility in how government officials expect REDD+ to be delivered. And while there is plenty of justified scepticism about the prospects for REDD+ itself, I reckon a lot of that would go away if the price for carbon climbed up to the $20-30 per tonne of carbon dioxide that many experts think is required to push the global economy into making the necessary changes to head off catastrophic climate change. Less faffing around in negotiations and a clearer regulatory landscape would no doubt help too.


Zero sum games in a positive sum world

Charles Kenny of CGD has got a new book out: The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest Is Good for the West. I haven’t read it, and am not sure when I might find the time, but there’s a handy CGD wonkcast which summarises the main points.

“The US will lose some global influence, as China’s GDP overtakes it, maybe as India’s GDP overtakes it; but Britain has much less global influence today than it had at the height of the British Empire and it’s also just a much nicer place to live [for the majority].”

I.e. economic development is a positive sum game: one person getting richer does not diminish the amount of wealth available to everyone else. Add in some nifty technological innovation and the quality of life can improve out of all recognition.

So why fear the rise of China? In particular why do Western elites (as opposed to the ‘working classes’ who have seen jobs migrate eastwards) appear so wary? Is it because the unipolar world that emerged after the collapse of the USSR seemed so cosy, and they fear losing that?

Diplomacy, at least in the context of superpower rivalry, often seems to be treated as a zero sum game. My guess is this is why so many international negotiations – and especially the climate change ones – are utterly bogged down at present. The US feels it can afford to be magnanimous to Chad but not to China, and with that thought we kiss goodbye to the notion of altruistic global leadership.

I have a little theory. You know those studies that suggest after a certain level becoming richer does not make us happier? (Yes I know they are not without their critics.) Could it be that we are not so much made happy by increasing material wealth, but by how we compare to our peers? By this logic it matters little if we cook the planet so long as at the end of it we are still richer than the Chinese.

Depressing, huh? Have a little listen to the resolutely optimistic Charles Kenny, and maybe you’ll cheer up a bit.

Would you CoP that?

So, busy as I am, I could hardly let pass the fact that the most recent UNFCCC Conference of Parties (you know: those endless climate change negotiations) both plumbed new depths and yet actually achieved something that might be worthwhile.

The bad news:

  1. No-one can find the off switch for the global oven.
  2. Worryingly many people actually appear not to want to find it.

Such conclusions always remind me of Al Gore’s boiling frog analogy (which sadly appears to be not 100% true).

Are the heads of the Polish coal industry an amphibious race of secret infiltrators sent to bring the human race down? We deserve to be told the truth!

But, the long awaited agreement on REDD+ was finally concluded. This was expected about two years previously but had gotten bogged down, just like everything else. Exactly what it contains I cannot tell you: I’m waiting on the policy analysts just like everyone else. But it should be something of a fillip to the whole REDD+ sector. In the long term it needs a global agreement on the bigger questions to provide the market, but in the meantime the World Bank and some other donors have set up a couple of funds to buy carbon credits from REDD+ national initiatives. This, then, may bring us to the crunch, about which I have been warning for a couple of years; the even bigger challenge of operationalising REDD+ on the ground, and how the various architectural elements of REDD+ work against it*.

For now, however, it might just have given everyone working in REDD+ the renewed hope they so desperately needed, and will hopefully persuade donors to keep the faith on various projects they are developing. Whilst on the bigger picture, can we take comfort from the notion that things surely cannot get any worse? Or maybe they can: try asking the WTO.

*See here and here for previous rants on this subject.

Peace for our time?

For all the claims by some diplomats about important steps forward and new concessions, the total inadequacy of the UN climate change negotiations are there for all to see in the continuing rise in carbon emissions, with many climate scientists now of the opinion that any chance to keep the global temperature rise to within 2°C has now vanished, and the terrifying prospect of a 4 or 6°C rise is now being actively contemplated.

The craven surrender to bullying self-interest reminds me of the infamous 1938 Munich agreement between Hitler and the Allied Powers that handed over half of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. Neville Chamberlain’s then claim of delivering “Peace for our time” has been utterly ridiculed ever since. The UNFCCC train crash seems destined for the same fate. Whatever their constraints, history will not judge this generation of leaders kindly. We can but hope for some Churchillian heroes who can help humanity turn this mess around before it kills many more people than Hitler ever did.

The inevitability of international climate change politics

Happy New Year to you all! In between all the various merry making this is something I pondered over the holiday period.

If you frame your starting point appropriately, almost anything can look inevitable, I suppose. Certainly, given the powerful and enduring head-in-the-sand strands of parochialism and “I’m alright, Jack” in American politics, it is perhaps no great surprise that the US has not been a constructive player in UNFCCC negotiations. Even less surprising is the naked self interest of states sitting on major reserves of fossil fuels such as Saudi Arabia, Australia (previously) and Canada (more recently). But in the really big picture these are details, accidents almost, of history and geography. However, that the confrontation between the developed West and emerging powers such as China and India should play out also in climate change politics recently struck me, in a rather Fukuyama-ish and Jared Diamond kind of way, as almost a pre-ordained outcome of the great historical forces and economic interplays.

I am talking about one of the big sticking points in the diplomatic negotiations; that whilst China may now be the number one greenhouse gas emitter in the world, with India not that far behind, the West is responsible for a much greater historical contribution, and that is what is primarily driving climate change today. More to the point, according to India and China, the West got rich off all these carbon emissions, so the West should be the first ones to front up with some cash, call them carbon reparations if you will, to put it all right.* Then, just maybe, once we’ve shown our virtuous sides, the Indians and Chinese will consider coming to the party. It is a powerful argument rooted in social justice, of the sort that evinces pangs of guilt from angst-ridden Europeans, but goes down just marvellously with all those rich and powerful conservatives in the good ol’ US of A. Comparatively ill-informed I might be, but I could detect little optimism coming out of Durban that this was still anything other than a deal-breaker.

My insight, such as it was, is simply that from what we know of the science of climate change, and the broad brushstrokes of history, the diffusion of technology and modes of economic production, that whoever first made the breakthrough into the industrial age, whether they were British, Botswanan or Burmese, that such a clash would be inevitable. The first couple of centuries of carbon emissions were never going to be enough to move the climate dial much, and certainly not in a way that could have been detected with the science we had at the time. Thus it is, with all the inevitability of a great global version of a Greek tragedy, that the spectre of climate change should be raised just as historically less developed countries are on a big drive to industrialise as rapidly as possible, and thus ill-disposed to make further sacrifices (as they see it, after centuries of economic exploitation) to the decadent rich, who just happened, however unintentionally, to have fouled up the world.

Mike Shanahan from Under the Banyan, recently mused on the deep religious underpinnings to many people’s reactions to climate change. Which got me to further thinking, is climate change not the perfect fin de siècle apocalypse for our age? The grandest forces set in motion millennia ago by whichever deity or deities in which you believe, now come together to trigger a great dénouement?

This being the case, it would be easy to take a pessimistic point of view, that we’re all doomed, but, romantic that I am, I prefer the heroic vision; of the great crisis of our time and destiny calling for humankind. For if this always was inevitable, then it is almost in some ways comforting that we have now come to this great crossroads, and have an opportunity to choose. As both a hopeless romantic and an optimist I believe that eventually we will choose the right way … I just hope not before it is too late to save much that is good in this world. (Corny, I know, but it was the season for corniness.)

* p.s. There is a potentially important counter-argument to this that I have little heard. It follows the exponential nature of growth. Of all the people who were born since the start of the industrial revolution, some one third are alive today (based on data from here), and a big chunk of them are Chinese or Indian, so it is possible that, very rapidly, that historical inequality in carbon emissions could disappear. Has anyone ever calculated, based on current expectations and models of economic growth, when is the break even point? At what point will we find that the old rich, the OECD, will not have emitted the majority of greenhouse gases? I’d wager it is probably not that many years away. Then conservative politicians in the West will not have to resort to those insidious and frankly amoral self-justifications which are little more than thinly disguised versions of the “It’s your fault that you’re poor” line of argument.

Seeing the land for the jatropha

Amongst all the kerfuffle about biofuels a couple of years back I frequently found myself sub-vocalising good ol’ Pete Townshend:

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

And now Anna Locke over at ODI has written an excellent, balanced piece dissecting the real problem: land management and large-scale agricultural investment, of any stripe. She writes:

Among the incentives is the fact that land simply does not cost very much in many ‘land-rich’ African countries such as Tanzania and Mozambique, due to exceedingly low land rentals and taxes, which do not adequately reflect the true value of the land to the users. This means that companies can hold onto large areas of land without having to think too closely about the cost of doing so. Land is allocated on a first-come, first-served basis in many countries, prompting a rush by investors to get to the head of the queue and get as much land as possible. This also means that companies often try to secure larger areas of land than they can manage initially in order to guarantee taking the project to scale or for future expansion, or to get hold of an asset that they can sell on in the future.

Despite the above, cheap land and labour are often the cornerstones of governments’ investment policies. This has been encouraged by some of the international donor agencies and is seen by governments as a way to compensate for often difficult business environments with high costs in other areas. But how can this be squared with the rights of communities and local citizens to adequate compensation for their land and decent work conditions?

I have it on good authority that considerable effort by government and some CSOs was subsequently put into developing a Biofuels Strategy for Tanzania, when the country reportedly has some excellent land laws that are just not enforced very consistently. Maybe this was clever strategy by the CSOs – taking on land law enforcement generally might be too big a challenge – but it appears to be another case of mistaking a power/politics issue for a technical problem, for which, by implication, a technical solution can be found. Given that the biofuels revolution appears already to have faded, can lessons be easily transferred to other agricultural sectors? If the issue was framed as a technical problem in the first place that might be difficult.

I have some other observations cum recommendations:

  • Land is definitely cheaper in much of Africa than it is in developed countries. Any economic manager / adviser would be mad not to try to leverage that for the good of the country.
  • But navigating local community politics is hard. Investors are right to be wary!
  • Developing country governments can help most by establishing clear, transparent processes for handling this, and then following them properly.
  • Unfortunately, under misguided pressure by investors, they often appear to short-circuit their own rules which are usually put in place in the first place to protect local people from ‘evil investors’.
  • So to developing country governments I say: Yes investors may need help navigating your byzantine bureaucracy, and you should ensure no officials unreasonably hold up business. (Actually it would be great if you could do that for everyone else, but I understand you cannot do everything at once.) But please do not attempt to spike due process.
  • To investors I say: Face up to reality. This won’t be easy and you need to be prepared for the long haul. The best way to win over local people is to be good employers who respect the local environment etc. Don’t make promises of new schools etc that you cannot keep (unless/until you make millions). You’re a business not a charity, so just focus on being a good business!

That all said, any rich countries looking to trim some budget fat and maybe to make a nice deal at Durban next week should give the strongest possible consideration to ditching their “incredible and immoral [biofuels] subsidy” schemes. (Quote from Mark Lynas)

Standing on principle

If I am to believe what I read in the Anglo-Saxon press, Germany’s admirable but unbending economic principles are in danger of killing the Euro. Low politics will probably once again kill any hope of a deal at the next UNFCCC CoP which starts in Durban in a week’s time. But even if by a miracle something worthwhile were to emerge from it, e.g. a REDD agreement, I fear that, like the Euro, it may contain within it seeds of its own failure in the form of some admirable but infeasible principles.

For those not familiar with all the ins and outs REDD is built on four key principles:

  • Emissions reductions need to be real and verifiable. Fair enough. REDD would not amount to much if imaginary emissions reductions were to be allowed, but I fear just such an outcome is possible with a fund-based solution that developing countries want. They want a fund-based approach because (a) gives them much for freedom to spend the money how they want (on dreaming up new emissions reductions in endless workshops), and (b) because it gets them out of the next three principles which are much harder to implement. (See here for my previous musings on fund-based versus transactional arrangements for REDD.)
  • Emissions reductions must also be additional, i.e. claimants have to show they would not have happened anyway. This one is the real bugbear for it asks the unanswerable counter-factual question: what would have happened without the REDD project?
  • A related requirement to additionality is the stipulation that only net reductions can be claimed: if a project simply shifts deforestation elsewhere it cannot sell carbon offsets. This puts huge burdens on projects to track all the carbon leakage from their activities.
  • Finally emissions reductions must be permanent. Obviously it does not achieve very much if you pay someone not to chop down a forest today, and next year they (or someone else) go and chop it down any way. All those emissions savings are immediately lost. Except that this also places an unrealistic expectation on the forest owner. What happens if the forest is struck by lightning next year and burns down?

These four simple ideas give rise to huge complexity in project design; complexity that can rapidly overwhelm a project team. The need to really tackle drivers of deforestation in order to deliver emissions reductions that are both net and additional inevitably pushes one towards working through national governments who have the necessary policy levers rather than at the project level. But equally, anyone who has the power to cut down some trees, has a valid claim to REDD funds, and indeed could wreck an otherwise successful initiative. This pushes one instead to working with local communities who live in and around the forests. In reality there should be enough money to go around to deliver both policy changes and to secure local forest protection – indeed enforcing forest protection would itself likely be part of a successful policy mix – but that requires an awful lot of actors to work well together and to agree amicably on how the cake should be divvied up. I am not optimistic.

All of which begs the question: so what would I do with those apparently ever so reasonable principles. Here’s my answer. Firstly we could do away with the need for permanence by calculating carbon stocks as an accumulation of X years worth of growth. Simply divide the total sequestrated carbon C by X to get an annual payment. If the trees are still standing next year pay them again. A forest owner who wanted more money up front could always borrow on the strength of their future anticipated earnings. This approach would enable to local communities who do not understand carbon markets well to test the waters before committing themselves to major land use decisions.

Then net additionality could be tackled by splitting the requirement for forest protection and reducing the drivers of deforestation, which are two separate activities. A simple 50-50 cut could be used as a rough guide. There would have to be limits on how long forest protection could  be funded without equal leakage mitigation, but forest conservation agencies could make a start on protecting the forest now. In particular the much quicker rate of progress which that would facilitate could start to deliver on the overall goal as well: some forms of leakage may not travel far, so, if all the local forests are effectively conserved, then this may in itself reduce overall deforestation as well as contribute to the wider policy push to combat forest loss.

I do not pretend that the above changes do not contain risks, but I think the benefits of vastly simpler requirements for project development would be worth it. I have heard the odd suggestion that some folks in REDD policy circles are starting to wake up to these issues, but the momentum behind the original principled framing seems unstoppable. Some people I know in project development are starting to get very gloomy, and are writing REDD off before it has even got properly started. That would be a crying shame, because I do really feel that the time has come for REDD. If the world does not start to properly value its forests soon we’ll have lost something that can never be replaced.

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