Taking stock of carbon: Accurate measurements vital for REDD+ impact

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James Maiden/CIFOR.
James Maiden/CIFOR.

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BOGOR, Indonesia (23 November, 2012)_In a conversation with Forests News, Louis Verchot, CIFOR’s lead climate change scientist, talks about the importance of accurately measuring greenhouse gas emissions for the success of strategies, such as reducing deforestation and degradation, or REDD+.

Q: Can you give a brief summary of what REDD+ is?

A: REDD+ is an international mechanism to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Forest emissions in tropical countries represent between 12 and18 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions globally. In 2005, a coalition of rainforest countries came to the UNFCCC, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and proposed an international programme with support from developed countries to support developing countries in reducing emissions from forests in there own countries.

So it is essentially rich countries compensating poorer ones?

No, it is not set up as a compensation scheme necessarily. There are some people who are formulating it that way, others are looking at it more as a system of assistance to help protect their forests. This is something that developing countries want to accomplish and they are looking for technical assistance as well as financial assistance from developed countries to be able to do this.

What are scientists doing in terms of REDD+ and what is your work  doing on carbon accounting and inventories?

One of the technical challenges in implementing REDD+ is determining what your impact is: How much you have reduced your deforestation emissions. In order to do that, you have to be able to quantify the transfer of carbon and other greenhouse gases from the ecosystem to the atmosphere. This is technically challenging, particularly in countries where you don’t necessarily have forest inventories that go back over time, so you don’t know how your forest stocks have changed historically. If we project from the past into the future, forest-rich countries will need to know whether we have made a change in this trend, or whether we still following the business as usual emission trajectory? So, we need to be able to quantify this.

It is technically complicated to determine how much area is deforested, but also more importantly, how much carbon from the area that has been deforested ends up in the atmosphere – and that’s where our work in the peat lands in particular is very important right now. Peat lands are found in parts of South East Asia and are changing rapidly, yet we know very little about their carbon density.

The reason that this is difficult is because the emissions released from peatlands are persistent.  For example, peat is anaerobic – there’s no oxygen there – the microbes in the soil have problems decomposing the organic matter found in peat. Once you drain it and it becomes an oxygenated environment, the microbes can decompose the peat, and every year that it is drained an additional 10 to 20 tonnes of carbon per hectare travels from the peat into the atmosphere.

So what we are trying to do is nail down those numbers and come up with proxies or global defaults, so that developing countries that want to implement an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions can do so without having to measure the carbon loss in each particular ecosystem. We are trying to come up with these numbers, so that countries can better quantify the effect of changing forest cover and changing land management in these peatlands on the atmosphere.

Mangroves are also classed together with peatlands as wetlands. In terms of carbon storage why are mangrove ecosystem so important?

Mangroves are an interesting case because there is such a rapid rate of deforestation particularly here in South East Asia. We have already lost about 60-70 percent of mangrove forests and we are losing them at 3-4 percent of the remaining mangroves per year. Mangroves store 6 to 10 times more carbon compared to tropical forests in the uplands.  They have very deep sediments that bury carbon for a long time and once you remove the vegetation those sediments begin to erode. The carbon released is then re-suspended in the water column in the coastal in-zones and then oxidised and is transferred into the atmosphere.

Why is important to understand these quantities and changes in carbon stocks from these wetland forest ecosystems?

It’s particularly important to understand these because these ecosystems make such a large contribution to the national emissions from Indonesia, from Malaysia, from other countries here in South East Asia.  If, as a forest-rich country, you are going to figure out your total emissions, and then determine emission reductions, you have to understand what’s happening in these ecosystems. If you don’t understand what is happening in these ecosystems you are missing maybe 20 to 40 percent of the story from these countries.

Why are these types of forest ecosystems so under threat?

There are a couple of reasons these ecosystems are being cut down. Growing oil palm and fast growing trees for pulp is lucrative, but companies have problems getting access to land to plant these crops near their mills.  As populations grow, the land is taken up for subsistence farming.  Also many lands have been allocated to private forestry companies through a concession system.  Often times in areas near settlements, land ownership is contested.  So it is difficult for these industries to expand production.  Peatlands are traditionally not owned, so industries can expand there without creating conflicts over land ownership.

In mangroves, there is a lot of pressure from shrimp farming.  Shrimp can be the most carbon intensive meat product on the market.

What is the story with carbon debt from forest ecosystems?

The idea behind carbon debt is that once you deforest an area, you’ve produced large level of emissions. Now if you are going to conduct activities in that area and try and claim emission reductions, you actually have to first pay off that debt – these carbon debts can take tens, to several decades, to several centuries, to pay off.

For example, in the case of peatlands or mangroves, if you wanted to produce biodiesel to reduce fossil fuel emissions, the carbon debt would take you at least 100 and perhaps 250 years to repay.

So carbon debt is a big part of the equation for understanding the effect of land use on the atmosphere. If you are going to invest in emissions reduction interventions, you have to understand your total impact on the atmosphere. You have to do a full lifecycle analysis and you have to account for the emissions that were created as you converted these ecosystems and created your new ecosystems, not just count what you are able to sequester or remove from the atmosphere by this new ecosystem.

What is an example of this carbon debt in Indonesia?

In Sumatra there is an lot of conversion of peatlands to produce oil palm.  Palm oil can be used as biodiesel and this biodiesel is being sold as a biofuel. This fuel is considered ‘greener’ when compared with fossil fuels and can help reduce fossil fuel emissions. When you convert peatlands, you remove a large amount of biomass, then you emit 8 to 10 tonnes of carbon per hectare every year that you are producing oil palm from the peat decomposition. You have to then balance that against what the fossil fuel offset would have been. If you don’t balance it, you are having a negative impact on the atmosphere while you are telling yourself you are having a positive impact on the atmosphere by not burning fossil fuels.

The atmosphere doesn’t really care where the carbon comes from. If it comes from fossil fuels, or from peat, it is still carbon in the atmosphere and you still get climate change.

Why is this research important for policy makers and decision makers in forest management?

This research is particularly important for policy makers and for decision makers because understanding carbon emissions is fundamental to actually having an impact on the atmosphere. If you undertake policy processes or make policy decisions and you don’t actually quantify what your impact on the atmosphere is, you could have unintended consequences – you could be telling yourself that you are having a positive impact when you are not. By doing this research and coming up with real numbers, and understanding the uncertainty around these numbers, you can have a certain degree of confidence that your policies and practices are having an impact on the atmosphere.

Why does this work need to continue for the implementation of REDD+?

For REDD+, this is going to continue to be important because it will, over the next seven to 10 years,  remove the obstacle of greenhouse gas inventories and carbon accounting for developing countries. There are many obstacles for implementing REDD+ effectively. This is a technical obstacle that we can solve or make significant progress on in the next seven to 10 years. This research will also help target your emissions interventions, so you get most bang for your buck. So when you invest some money, you actually get the highest emissions reductions possible or the lowest cost emission reductions possible.

For more stories from the UN climate talks in Doha, click here.

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