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Does sustainable forestry pay?

Does sustainable forestry pay?Study shows benefits far outweigh the costs.

It is a no-brainer that indiscriminately chopping down trees on a large scale is terrible for the environment. But just how much better is sustainable forestry management?

At least a billion cars’ worth of emissions, reckons the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based think-tank.

Ahead of next month’s landmark climate change talks in Paris, the WRI has conducted what it believes is the first cost-benefit analysis of forest exploitation by communities with secure land rights, based on case studies in Guatemala and Brazil.

It analysed the costs and the benefits of setting up and maintaining land concessions, the net economic benefits possible from community forests and the cost-effectiveness per tonne of carbon dioxide saved from deforestation.

Amazon forests store 90bn to 140bn tonnes of carbon — as much as nine to 14 years’ worth of the carbon emissions triggered by humans globally every year. Cutting or burning down forests releases their carbon stores into the atmosphere, fuelling climate change. The WRI says deforestation contributes about 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

If all that sounds tough to quantify, it is: the WRI noted it may well be underestimating both the costs and the benefits in its study, because of a lack of data or the difficulty of pinning down some of the factors, such as the cost of changing legislation to allow secure land tenure for communities.

Nonetheless, it believes the trend is clear. Our chart shows the WRI’s estimates for the cost per hectare of secure land tenure versus the benefits over 20 years.

The WRI found that across Brazilian indigenous territories controlling a quarter of the Amazon — or 13 per cent of the whole country — the benefits from carbon capture and averted emissions added up to $162bn over 20 years.

In the nine much smaller community forest concessions of Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve that were studied, the benefits were $605m over 20 years.

As Juan Carlos Altamirano, one of the authors put it, distilling the report’s detailed number-crunching, costs “would have to be 200 times higher to wipe out the gains”.

The WRI reckons secure forestry rights would prevent the release of 5.4bn tonnes of carbon dioxide in 20 years from the areas they studied in Brazil and Guatemala — equivalent to the emissions from more than 1bn cars a year.

It based its estimates for carbon mitigation benefits on a value of $41 per tonne of carbon dioxide. This is what the US government estimates is the “social cost of carbon” — that is, the cost of damages to human health, infrastructure and ecosystems that are avoided when one tonne of carbon dioxide emissions is averted.

The estimated cost of achieving such benefits in Brazil is $0.39 and in Guatemala it is $2.26 per tonne of carbon dioxide — way below the $41 per tonne gained, the WRI said, meaning secure forest tenure could be hugely effective in the fight against climate change.

Now for the caveats. Even though the WRI says the Guatemalan and Brazilian models could be replicable, it is hard to extrapolate the global impact of all world forests being managed sustainably.

More to the point, legal land tenure is one thing, while enforcing it — amid illegal logging mafias — is quite another.

Furthermore, although the land in the areas the WRI studied is, on the face of it, too poor for crop cultivation, experience in the Amazon has shown that chopping down trees, burning them and using the ash as fertiliser provides sufficient fertility to raise cattle for some years. The cleared land can then be used for soya because yields are high enough to warrant using commercial fertilisers.

Pie in the sky, then? The WRI does not think so.

It believes community forestry management is a low-cost solution that could also work in Indonesia and parts of Africa, and although it means cutting down trees that take decades to grow, it is ultimately better for communities to do that with legal title as they take better care of the forest and get more benefits from their activities.

In the community studied in Guatemala, locals are now negotiating selling carbon certificates, Mr Altamirano said.

“Independently of what is agreed in Paris, countries need action to implement their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions [their post-2020 climate action plans],” he told EM Squared.

“The next step after Paris is how to reach those objectives. We want to promote, or underline, this type of institutional solutions so that they can be considered feasible ways to reach the objectives,” he added.

Source: Financial Times
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