The Green Numbers Game: Deforestation Emissions Data Disputed

Alan Oxley, Bangkok Post

The strategy by Western aid donors to resuscitate the stalled UN climate change negotiations has ignominiously flopped at Cancun. The reason is unusual. A climate change orthodoxy – that deforestation is a major cause of emissions by developing countries – has been disproved.

Lord Stern, the British government climate scientist, was largely responsible for establishing as mainstream thinking the proposition that deforestation in countries such as Indonesia, Brazil and Congo causes 17% of global climate emissions. Greenpeace conflated this to 20%, without evidence.

Soon afterward, Indonesia and Brazil were cajoled by large European aid donors, climate research institutes, modelling by McKinsey and NGOs such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to commit to dramatic strategies to reduce emissions. On this basis, Indonesia’s President Yudhoyono committed Indonesia to reducing emissions by 26% – and even 41% if wealthy donors would finance the cost.

The idea was always troubling to the forest and economic ministries in developing countries: stopping conversion of forest land for other more productive uses threatened to slow economic growth and retard the necessary expansion of agricultural production demanded by the expanding global population. They suspected the Stern numbers were exaggerated.

They were. And this was poignantly revealed at the 2010 Climate Conference.

As Lord Stern stood in front of delegates and NGOs in Cancun telling them that a ban on deforestation necessary to achieve deep cuts in emissions will not impede efforts to increase food production (instead of using more land, productivity could be increased), a research display in the foyer outside said it all.

The rates of the contribution of deforestation to emissions used by Lord Stern are more than twice as large as they should be. They are between six and eight percent of global emissions, according Winrock International, a reputable US-based research consultancy.

Winrock forecasts that the final numbers will be lower. The methods used by Lord Stern and others did not include sequestration of carbon by forest regrowth.

Stung by the failure to budge India and China from their resolute opposition to commit to reduce emissions, leading European nations and the US have actively sought to cajole the developing countries with large tropical forests to join a forestry emission reduction strategy.

If they would halt and reduce deforestation, they would receive hundreds of millions of dollars of aid. This became known as the REDD strategy (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation).

What disturbed development economists about REDD were the ramifications for expanding agriculture, which is a major driver of growth in most developing countries and has to be part of any global response to meet the rapidly rising demand for food.

And agriculture is now recognised the leading cause of deforestation. Donors appear to have dismissed the importance of this by demanding that cessation of forest conversion be a condition for receiving aid under the REDD programme.

The Cancun meeting was built up to deliver a deal on REDD – to show the negotiations were alive and that some important developing countries were ready to cut emissions.

The Winrock numbers are a game-changer. Robert Houghton of the World Resources Institute – the doyen of deforestation emissions – had already reduced his estimate of 17% of emissions from deforestation, on which Lord Stern had relied, by about one fifth.

The Winrock research now decisively points out conversion of forest to other uses is not a major source of emissions.

Where does this leave things? There is no steam whatsoever in the Cancun negotiations and they offer no prospect of laying a platform for getting global agreement on mandatory strategies to reduce emissions in South Africa next year, no matter how UN officials and European donors dress up the outcome.

It also undermines the demand of aid donors and environmental NGOs such as the WWF that the REDD strategies must include a moratorium on any new approvals to convert forest land to plantation or other commercial crops.

This has generated a tug of war between forestry and climate change officials in Indonesia. A green target is to halt expansion of pulp and palm oil plantations. Greenpeace has produced reports, often baseless, claiming environmental damage.

Now there is an interesting challenge to Indonesia’s climate-change officials who urged their president to adopt a bigger commitment to reduce emissions than any other developing country.

How can this be justified now that the numbers upon which the estimate up which Indonesia’s assessed its rate of deforestation are now shown to be overstatements by at least fifty percent?

Alan Oxley is chairman of World Growth, a “free-market NGO” that released a report at Cancun demonstrating that the costs of REDD deforestation emission strategies has been significantly underestimated,