"The term carbon offsetting is scientifically absurd".
To stabilize global temperatures, the Paris agreements promised a transition to a world with zero net emissions by 2050, and a 45% reduction by 2030. To achieve these goals, forests are our best allies, but they are also the key to a genuine geopolitics of carbon. Alain Karsenty, a CIRAD economist and specialist in this field, explains.
Read the first part of this interview on deforestation in the next LUM magazine, due out in February.
Can we speak of a geopolitics of forests?
Forests and all vegetation absorb around a quarter of the carbon released by human activities, and the oceans another quarter, while the other half remains stored in the atmosphere, causing global warming. We can therefore speak of a geopolitics of carbon in the sense of the ecosystem services provided by natural environments.
Yet global deforestation continues to rise, +4% in 2022 (Le Monde 23/10/2023). Are forests still carbon sinks?
Estimates are difficult to make, but it is thought that the Amazon is no longer a net carbon sink. In Asia, deforestation has been such that forests are net emitters ofCO2. The last tropical carbon sink is undoubtedly the Congo Basin.
What about French forests?
We have the fourth-largest forest in Europe after Sweden, Finland and Spain, and the 3rd-largest stock of wood in Europe after Germany and Sweden. We're counting heavily on our forests to help us meet France's 2050 carbon neutrality targets, but we've found that in 2021, French forests absorbed 31.2 MtCO2, or around 7.5% of national emissions. This is almost half the figure for ten years earlier (57.7 MtCO2). France's forests are indeed expanding, but due to fires, droughts and heatwaves, pathologies and parasites, the carbon sink is becoming less and less powerful. With French Guiana, France has a large area of tropical forest and therefore a large stock to preserve, but it is probably no longer a carbon sink, including for reasons of temperature, which is often too high. The forests that absorb the most carbon today are the young boreal and temperate forests.
Although the international community has been mobilized since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the mechanisms put in place are not working?
The Kyoto Protocol launched the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) in the early 2000s, a system enabling companies in industrialized countries to purchase carbon credits from projects in developing countries. The latter could offset their emissions by financingCO2 reduction or absorption projects in developing countries, such as installing wind turbines or planting trees. A carbon credit thus corresponds to one tonne ofCO2 avoided or removed from the atmosphere. Many of these credits are considered dubious, as it is extremely difficult to verify the reality of these reductions and their permanence. Moreover, as the number of projects likely to generate carbon credits is very high, the excess supply has led to a fall in prices, with the majority of transactions taking place at less than a dollar a credit. Today, over a billion credits have yet to be sold, and many of them never will be.
In 2005, the UN launched the REDD+projects , which you are also fairly critical of. Why is this?
This mechanism consisted of allowing countries that reduced their deforestation to apply for remuneration, or to sell carbon credits. The problem is that we need to agree on the benchmark: what do we calculate the reduction in deforestation against? The choice of reference scenario adopted to measure this reduction has been left to the discretion of individual countries. As these are counterfactual scenarios, they are neither verifiable nor debatable by payers. For example, Brazil chose a period in the 2000s, when deforestation in the Amazon was in full swing, as its benchmark, so as to be able to claim a maximum reduction in deforestation. Many Central African countries, which consider that they are only just beginning to deforest, use forward-looking scenarios and want to be paid for "avoided deforestation", i.e. relative decreases (compared with the scenario), which generally mask absolute increases in deforestation.
REDD+ is a mechanism between States, but it also includes private companies wishing to offset their emissions?
Unlike the Clean Development Mechanism, in the UN system only States can sell REDD+ carbon credits. The priority at this national level is to avoid deforestation simply being displaced from one area to another ("leakage"), and to encourage states to put in place policies conducive to the conservation and sustainable management of forests. This has greatly frustrated carbon investors who wish to make a profit from the sale of their credits, and certain NGOs who use the REED system to finance biodiversity conservation.
So they've set up a kind of parallel market?
Yes, projects that use the REDD+ name, but which are private and have nothing to do with the UN mechanism. They are certified by private labels, the best known of which is VERRA-VCS, which certifies avoided deforestation projects. In fact, the vast majority of forestry credits you'll find on this voluntary market are certified by VERRA.
What's wrong with these avoided deforestation projects?
Last year The Guardian(18/01/2023) caused a stir by citing a study (PNAS 14/09/2020) carried out in Brazil where scientists observed that the decline in deforestation was similar in areas with REDD+ projects and in non-REDD+ areas. The decreases were not due to avoided deforestation projects, but to Lula's policies, which since 2004 have led to a 75-80% drop in deforestation in the Amazon. Several NGOs also point to the risk of green colonialism. Blue Carbon LLC, a company based in the United Arab Emirates, has bought exclusive carbon rights to 10% of Liberia's surface area(Le Monde 2/09/2023). Are they going to make protected areas? Logging concessions? We don't know yet.
There are also tree plantations for carbon offsetting?
The term carbon offsetting is scientifically absurd: at best, it's a contribution to a collective effort, not a compensation that would "erase" emissions. In an era of megafires and poor overall forest health, forest conservation activities or plantations can be a partial, temporary solution, but they can in no way achieve carbon neutrality, given the very long residence time (around a thousand years) of a significant proportion of theCO2 in the atmosphere. That said, some projects are useful and provide welcome funding in certain regions, which can also benefit local communities. The problem lies in the claim made by offset mechanisms to promise "emission neutrality", which gives a clear conscience to the buyers of credits or consumers of proclaimed "carbon-neutral" products.
What type of company is involved in these REDD+ projects?
Large companies that practice carbon offsetting over and above their regulatory obligations (when they have any). We'll find most of the big listed companies, from Microsoft to Shell, Delta Airlines and others. Among them, we need to distinguish between those that are making genuine efforts to reduce their emissions and companies that are not changing their activities and are simply buying carbon credits to claim they are "carbon neutral". The latter is clearly greenwashing. From 2026, the EU will virtually ban companies from calling themselves "carbon neutral".
Since the Paris agreements, article 6 is in danger of bolstering these private projects?
Article 6.4 of the Paris agreements, the main principles of which were adopted but not the rules - delegates at CoP 28 were unable to agree on them - would basically allow certain private projects to enter the UN compliance market. This is a more open version of the Clean Development Mechanism, which would incorporate certain forms of avoided deforestation. We'll have to be careful, because once you're in the compliance market, a carbon credit is an emission permit.
What would be the most effective mechanisms for encouraging countries in the South to preserve their forests?
First of all, you have to invest in order to achieve results. We know what we need to invest in: clarifying land tenure, transforming unsuitable agro-sylvo-pastoral practices, energy systems (the charcoal problem), land-use planning, strengthening the rule of law and delaying the demographic transition in several countries, to name but a few. We can then reward the quality, coherence and implementation of policies and measures aimed at curbing the drivers of deforestation. Organizations and institutions spending billions to curb deforestation should set up independent scientific committees of experts to help them with these assessments. In a world where financial resources are scarce, it makes no sense to tie our hands to unsuitable payment procedures and rules, which all too often lead to countries being paid for fortunate circumstances rather than for efforts, translated into public policies.
Which countries or institutions are putting money on the table?
Norway is the best example. This country has developed numerous bilateral agreements with countries in the South. They were the driving force behind CAFI (Central African Forest Initiative), a coalition of donors to which Norway is contributing more than $500 million ($6 million for France) to finance investment. But Norway is putting conditions on the disbursement of the promised sums. When Bolsonaro dismantled environmental policies in Brazil, Norway stopped its payments to the Amazon Fund, as did Germany. But the Green Climate Fund, a multilateral institution, paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to Brazil at that time for less deforestation than in the past, when deforestation was on the rise again and laws protecting forests were being systematically undermined. It's almost impossible to set conditions that deviate from agreed rules in a multilateral framework, where the money you put in no longer really belongs to you.
Some countries in the South are asking the international community to pay for the environmental services provided by their forests. What are your thoughts on this?
We've heard mainly from African countries on this subject, as they are the only developing countries that still have carbon sinks. But Brazilian President Lula made a somewhat similar proposal at CoP 28(Le Monde 24/11/2023). It's all about rents, except that there aren't necessarily many people willing to pay these rents. The international community has always refused to pay for carbon stocks (standing forests). Once again, it's better to invest in effective policies, and there are a huge number of financial transfers to be made. But let's do it on an intelligent basis.