Forests and Carbon Markets: Time for a New Argument

August 6, 2015 | 8:11 am
Doug Boucher
Former Contributor

Soon after I moved from academia into the NGO world in 2007, to work on ending tropical deforestation, I was warned about the fierce argument about whether carbon markets should have any connection with forests and reducing deforestation. Colleagues told me: this is a divisive subject and has been a constant source of tension within the NGO community and beyond. It nearly sank the Kyoto Protocol and led to the breakdown of the UN climate negotiations in The Hague in 2000. Getting involved in it is a sure-fire way to lose friends and irritate people. Avoid it as much as you can.

I soon found out that they were right. Although it sometimes manifests itself in wonky technical questions – e.g. how accurate are satellite-based measurements of deforestation, and will new LiDAR-based improve our global carbon density maps? – it’s fundamentally a disagreement about whether the natural world should be bought and sold. One side sees trading credits for forest emissions reductions in cap-and-trade carbon markets as the best way – some would say the only sufficient way, in terms of potential funding – to give standing forests a value and prevent them from being cut down. The other side sees credits for reducing deforestation as undercutting the necessary transition to renewable energy by flooding the market with dubious low-cost offsets, as well as threatening the rights of indigenous communities to their traditional lands and in general “commoditizing nature.”

The forest carbon markets issue was what caused the breakdown of the 2000 UN climate negotiations in The Hague, Netherlands

Well, the argument has now been going on for eight more years, and I’ve just published an article in the Journal of Sustainable Forestry saying that it’s time to move on. The reasons are simple, but maybe not what you might anticipate. It’s not that the debate remains unresolved (although it does), nor that organizations trying to stake out a middle position haven’t gotten much traction (although we haven’t), nor even that NGOs have found that the best way to get policies adopted  to reduce deforestation was by “agreeing to disagree” and not fighting about the question any more (although we certainly have, with substantial success). It’s that this has turned out to be a very minor issue. As I subtitled my article: “Big Argument, Small Potatoes.”

Minor in what sense? In terms of money. The best illustration of this is a graphic that I put together using data on forest funding from carbon markets compared to non-market sources, and comparing both to an estimate of the funding mobilized by the companies that are the major drivers of tropical deforestation. Here it is:

Figure 4 from the Boucher 2015 Journal of Sustainable Forestry article.

Figure 4 from the Boucher 2015 Journal of Sustainable Forestry article.


Can’t see the bar for the carbon market funding (far right)? That’s true, but it’s not a mistake. The amount is so small — $ 0.22 billion, compared to $ 7.23 billion for the public (non-market) funding, that the bar is invisible on the graph. And both of them are dwarfed by the $ 134 billion estimate (quite likely an under-estimate) of the funding mobilized by the major commodities driving tropical deforestation: beef, soy, palm oil and timber.

I argue in the article that not only is this the current situation, but that it’s unlikely to change at least before the 2020s. So this big argument is much ado about nothing, or more precisely, much ado about something that’s a mere 3% of the public funding, and less than 2/10 of one percent of the amount of money earned by the main drivers of deforestation.

I’m a realist, and I admit at the end of my article that these figures, although demonstrating the unimportance of the argument, are not likely to end it. It’s an issue of ideology, politics, and how one views humanity’s relationship to nature. But at least we could recognize that this particular fight doesn’t really matter, and move on to a more important one. I’m happy to have arguments, but in general I like for them to be about something that really makes a difference.