Today, Greenpeace released a new report, Carbon Scam, on the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project (NKCAP) in the forests of Bolivia.
NKCAP — funded by American Electric Power, BP-Amoco and Pacificorp, and supported by The Nature Conservancy — is often held up as a success story, but that's not what Greenpeace sees.
The report uses the project to instead illustrate the failures of a carbon offset system, particularly one that relies on sub-national offsets to avoid deforestation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
NKCAP is a REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) project. It is similar to the United Nations' UN-REDD program, which is designed to give developing countries financial incentives to preserve their forests, while giving businesses a way to pay rather than reduce their own carbon emissions.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is a big proponent of the process and considers REDD to be a critical component of any international climate change solution. Deforestation accounts for 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and it eliminates a valuable carbon sink — tropical forests store 25 percent of terrestrial carbon.
Greenpeace see serious problems, though, particularly with sub-national projects.
In its new report, it first points to The Nature Conservancy's own data on the effectiveness of the Bolivian REDD project to reduce atmospheric CO2. From 1997 to 2009, the estimate for NKCAP's potential emissions reductions dropped by more than 90 percent, from about 55 million to 5.8 million metric tons of CO2.
The Nature Conservancy, responding to that criticism, says that the initial 55 million-ton estimate was just that, an estimate.
"We came up with that number before anyone had much familiarity with what was possible with a project of this type," says Karen Foerstel, explaining that the numbers were amended once they had some experience on the ground. "It was 13 years ago, before the term REDD was even being used."
Greenpeace also argues that there is no tangible evidence that deforestation practices stopped in one area weren't simply shifted to another. In fact, Greenpeace reports that Bolivian deforestation has increased nationally during the years of the project. The Nature Conservancy doesn't dispute that, but it counters that Bolivian deforestation rates might have been even higher without NKCAP.
Rolf Skar, Greenpeace USA Senior Forest Campaigner, says it was just such problems with REDD offset projects that kept them from being included in European carbon trading systems.
In response to the Greenpeace report, The Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Defense Council and a number of other organizations are defending NKCAP, calling it an important learning project to establish the science and methodologies needed to move toward district-wide and, ultimately, national level REDD implementation with funding through both private and public mechanisms (more details on The Nature Conservancy's position are available here).
"Sub-national REDD efforts — such as those discussed at the recent Climate Summit in California — are a critical part of protecting the world's forests and combating climate change," says Eric Haxthausen, director of U.S. climate policy for The Nature Conservancy.
"The ultimate goal is to have countries implement national-level activities that can protect forests on the scale needed to effectively halt climate change. We need to get there as quickly as we can. Sub-national programs - at state, provincial and other scales — can be essential stepping stones that help countries quickly and effectively build the experience they need to launch national programs."
Greenpeace's Daniel Kessler also believes NKCAP was a good learning experience, but he comes to a different conclusion: Sub-national offset projects will not deliver real and permanent emissions reductions. "We don't have years to experiment and tinker with these projects anymore. We need to invest in projects that we know work and independent funding for forests works."
"Is this a learning process?" Greenpeace International Political Advisor Roman Czebiniak asked, adding "$10 million and 10 years, and there have been no permanent emissions reductions."
To be clear, apart from arguments over the quality and effectiveness of NKCAP, everyone agrees that REDD must be part of an international agreement, but how REDD should be funded and credited is a whole other, very contentious, issue.
The Nature Conservancy supports cap-and-trade and the forest carbon standards in the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill that passed the House of Representatives. The organization also takes the position that offsets must be part of any bill, though not the only revenue stream for REDD projects.
"Allowing REDD investment is key to keeping climate legislation affordable," says Sarene Marshall, deputy director of the Climate Change Program for The Nature Conservancy. "It keeps the price tag low for businesses."
Greenpeace, on the other hand, believes the 2 billion tons of offsets specified in both the House and Senate bills, including sub-national REDD offsets, render any actual CO2 reductions inadequate and might even lead to an increase in emissions. Greenpeace takes the position that REDD should be financed through pollution permits in order to ensure that funds are being used efficiently and effectively (more on the group's position here).
Czebiniak, of Greenpeace International, calls the push for sub-national REDD offsets a situation of "companies hijacking momentum for REDD for their own purposes." Jake Schmidt of the NRDC sees REDD offsets as a bright spot where government, business and activists can agree. Some activists, that is.