Biodiversity.  It’s hardly a word you hear around dinner tables and water coolers in America.  It’s a wonky word, but what it stands for – the diversity of life on the planet – is the basis of human life and prosperity on Earth.  Pretty darn important!

Biological diversity is intimately linked to both cutting climate pollution and adapting to a changing climate.  While we debate the best way to save our climate, we also need to safeguard biodiversity.  In particular, we need to pay attention to how different proposals to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) affect biodiversity.

The forest habitat of orangutans is being rapidly destroyed in SE Asia

According to a new report commissioned by Greenpeace, a fund-based approach to REDD is much better suited to protect biodiversity than offset-based REDD schemes.  You can read the summary of the report here.

To understand why, we need to look at the big picture.

Most political observers believe the U.S. is moving towards a “cap and trade” system to manage carbon pollution.  The idea is pretty simple: issue a limited number of certificates to pollute, then lower that number over time so it becomes more attractive to invest in climate-friendly ways of doing business.  At the same time, let companies trade credits for flexibility and to create potential profits for those that conserve.  Cap…and trade.

But polluters want to keep polluting, and to do it at a cheap price.  This is where offsets come in.

An “offset” is a permit polluters buy to continue business as usual.  Instead of cleaning up their act, polluters “outsource” their climate responsibilities to other places, usually overseas.  In these other places, the offset activities are often very different from the polluting activities they are supposed to excuse.  Problems with quality, measurement and longevity of offset activities can actually result in more climate pollution, not less.

Offsets based on forests create very cheap offsets.  By the ton of calculated carbon value, they’re a bargain compared to solar panels or other clean technologies.

Because polluters want the cheapest offsets possible, and because only some tropical forest nations have the capacity to participate in international carbon markets, offsets would tend to protect certain forest areas, but not others.  This means other forests would be vulnerable to the drivers of deforestation (logging, agribusiness, etc) which can jump from country to country in today’s global economy.

Intact rainforest in the Amazon: a storehouse of carbon and biodiversity

This problem, called “leakage” in climate circles, can actually increase pollution since it cancels out climate benefits of offsets while the pollution the offsets are supposed to compensate for (like coal burning in Ohio) continues.

It also means big problems for biodiversity, since we could end up protecting one forest and losing another.  Saving orangutans in Indonesia and driving gorillas to extinction in the Congo?  Not a good idea.

Instead of offsets, Greenpeace supports a flexible fund approach to REDD that can be used to protect tropical forests worldwide.  The fund would minimize leakage and would achieve cuts in climate that are in addition to – not in place of – climate progress in industrialized nations like the US.  By applying incentives to protect biodiversity, a well-managed REDD fund is a real win-win for the climate and life on Earth.

-Rolf