“We need ambitious policies and the rule of law to stop global deforestation”

“Sovereign” carbon credits are the major subject of the Summit of the three tropical forest basins of the planet, which takes place in Brazzaville from Thursday October 26 to Saturday October 28

“We need ambitious policies and the rule of law to stop global deforestation”

“Sovereign” carbon credits are the major subject of the Summit of the three tropical forest basins of the planet, which takes place in Brazzaville from Thursday October 26 to Saturday October 28. Some states, notably those in the Congo Basin, present themselves as “net absorbers” of CO2, since their forests pump, according to them, more carbon dioxide than they emit. For this service rendered to the planet, they would like to be paid. What the sale of carbon credits theoretically allows them to do.

But today they are struggling to receive the majority of the financial income from credits generated on their territory. Gabon, for example, has so far failed to sell the 90 million “sovereign” carbon credits it claims on the voluntary market. The reason is known: to these credits sold by States, investors prefer those from privately initiated carbon offset projects, over which they have better visibility. Of course, the countries concerned often require projects to share the profits from the sale. But they feel like they are only getting “crumbs”.

They feel all the more aggrieved that an international mechanism, called REDD (Reduction of emissions linked to deforestation and degradation), was established under the aegis of the UN to encourage developing countries to reduce deforestation. The increase in carbon stock thanks to the absorption of CO2 by forests also constitutes, under certain conditions, an eligible activity, which can make it possible to sell carbon credits.

The Congo Basin, the last “net absorber”?

The problem is that the data that can confirm that a country is indeed a “carbon sink” is fraught with a very high level of uncertainty. Estimates of carbon dioxide absorption by forests vary widely, depending on models and scientific publications. One of the most recent studies, published in Nature Climate Change, indicates that for tropical forests, “net absorptions” would be 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (Gt CO2e) on average per year over the period 2010-2019. But it should be noted that this result comes with a margin of error estimated at plus or minus 8 Gt CO2e.

The Amazonian forest would no longer, or not for long, be a net absorber but a net source of emissions. The forests of South-East Asia have already been in decline for several years due to deforestation and degradation of the massifs. Only the Congo Basin would still be a net absorber. It is therefore not certain that the Amazonian and South-East Asian countries are involved in demanding remuneration for net absorptions. The attempt to set up a “forest OPEC”, announced by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Brazil and Indonesia at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh in November 2022, could come to an end due to lack of strategies convergent if not of real common interest.

In any case, basing a sovereign credit system on such uncertain estimates seems particularly risky, without taking into account the problem of the non-permanence of carbon sequestration in forests, while the residence time in the atmosphere of the CO2 emitted (and its contribution to warming) can last up to a thousand years. Furthermore, the idea that current and past policies of country governments are the cause of net absorptions is quite questionable.

International mechanisms like REDD do not aim to “pay for the services provided by ecosystems”, but to remunerate countries for forest conservation efforts linked to policies and measures leading to results (essentially a reduction in deforestation ). The difficulty is being able to attribute a result (for example, reduced deforestation) to specific policies or management actions, and not to circumstances. Actors potentially benefiting from remuneration, whether States or forestry carbon projects, take advantage of this difficulty to sell carbon credits resulting from “avoided emissions” which are often questionable, as various studies have shown.

Stopping the drivers of deforestation

To give a minimum of credibility to this mechanism, we cannot be satisfied with a “result” which can sometimes only be less destruction than anticipated by an unverifiable scenario. It is necessary to establish cause and effect relationships between the observed result and the public policies implemented to obtain it. If, for example, the decline in deforestation is linked only to the decline in the price of palm oil or soy, does it make sense to “reward” a country, regardless of the quality of its policies?

Unconditionally paying “ecological rents” to States by purchasing their forest carbon credits is not the solution. Stopping deforestation is only possible if the richest countries invest massively alongside the forest countries of the South in institutional strengthening and the evolution of the economic system, in order to be able to control the direct and indirect causes of forest degradation and loss of biodiversity. This can involve, for example, the ecological intensification of agricultural practices, the clarification of property rights over land, more rigorous application of laws, or the creation of alternatives to activities that degrade the environment.

The necessary investment does not exclude financial transfers intended to encourage countries to adopt policies aimed at protecting their forests. But the only appropriate criteria for these transfers should then be the quality and consistency of public policies which potentially have impacts on natural ecosystems, and the effective implementation efforts on the ground.

Attracting international funding, both public and private, requires strong credibility on the part of States. Banking on unconditional remuneration for ecosystem services, without the implementation of courageous public policies to curb the drivers of deforestation in large forest basins, risks proving disappointing. However, it is ambitious policies and the rule of law that we need to stop global deforestation and fight effectively against climate change.