Also see the article in the WRM Bulletin: www.wrm.org.uy/english/plantations/material/carbonshop.htm
Climate Panel Charged with Conflict of Interest
An expert UN panel on climate change is guilty of "intellectual corruption" for telling diplomats that it is scientifically legitimate to use tree-planting as a substitute for cuts in fossil fuel use, charges the World Rainforest Movement.
The World Rainforest Movement (WRM) says that many of the authors and editors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's "Special Report on Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry" (LULUCF) -- unveiled in June before international climate negotiators -- were businesspeople in a position to profit financially from the tree-planting schemes likely to follow in the report's wake.
This conflict of interest, says Ricardo Carrere, WRM's coordinator, undermines the credibility of the report, which international negotiators are using as a "scientific" basis for making decisions about how to tackle global warming.
The report was designed partly to assess the scientific validity of the idea that trees can "compensate" in a quantifiably determinate way for industrial emissions. The report's authors returned a positive verdict in May despite the warnings of many scientists and environmentalists that efforts to calibrate tree carbon with industrial emissions were scientifically bogus. Delegates to the Framework Convention on Climate Change were briefed on the report in early June in Bonn at the twelfth session of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice of the Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The WRM's charge of conflict of interest is particularly stinging since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change responsible for the report prides itself on being an independent body providing "neutral" scientific, technical and economic information to the parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol.
Established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the IPCC assesses the state of knowledge regarding climate change every five years in addition to producing technical papers, special reports and methodological work. The IPCC's Bureau, which consists largely of physical scientists, was responsible for choosing members of the LULUCF panel from lists of nominees provided by governments. The panel was headed up by climate scientist Robert T. Watson, who chairs the IPCC as well as serving as director of environmentally and socially sustainable development at the World Bank.
Among the authors and editors who stand to benefit financially from the report's conclusions, Carrere said, are the following executives, all participants in a rapidly growing sector which seeks to make money out of designing and monitoring projects which use trees to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or selling certified carbon credits to corporations, governments and individuals.
* Richard Tipper of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management (ECCM), a consulting company which earns money from designing, assessing and monitoring forestry projects to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. ECCM works closely with Future Forests, company which contracts with Mazda, Avis, British Telecom, Access Freight, J. Walter Thompson and other firms to plant trees to "compensate" for their emissions. ECCM staff have also been involved in a forestry project financed in part by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile in Mexico. Using lands inhabited by highland Mayan Tojolobal and lowland Mayan Tzeltal communities, the project is designed to "offset" the 5,500 tons of carbon emitted annually by Formula One car racing at a price of approximately $60,000 a year. Tipper helped form ECCM some months after being appointed to the LULUCF panel.
* Mark Trexler of the United States, who runs Trexler & Associates, Inc., a pioneer "carbon firm" poised to make millions of dollars by promoting and monitoring carbon sequestration and other "climate mitigation" projects.
* Pedro Moura-Costa, an executive of Ecosecurities Ltd., a consulting firm specializing in the "generation of Emission Reduction Credits" from activities including tree-planting. Ecosecurities has offices in the UK, Brazil, Australia and The Netherlands as well as the United States.
* Gareth Philips of SGS Forestry, a division of the Societe Generale de Surveillance (SGS) of Geneva, the world's largest inspection, auditing and testing company. SGS Forestry earns money from designing, monitoring and certifying carbon forestry projects. SGS certifies the certified tradeable offsets offered by Costa Rica and hopes to expand its work elsewhere in the carbon forestry field.
* Sandra Brown of the United States, a senior Program Officer for Winrock International, an Arkansas-based nonprofit organization which accepts contracts from "public and private" sources. Winrock provides forest carbon monitoring technical services to U.S. government agencies and a wide range of private sector and non-governmental organizations.
These and other panel members, Carrere says, "had vested interests in reaching unrealistically and unjustifiably optimistic conclusions about the possibility of compensating for emissions with trees."
"They should have been automatically disqualified from serving on an intergovernmental panel charged with investigating impartially the feasibility and benefits of such 'offset' projects," he says.
Other figures on the IPCC panel have also benefited from funding aimed at developing ways of using forestry to compensate for fossil fuel combustion. Gregg Marland of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US and Bernhard Schlamadinger of the Joanneum Research Institute in Austria are both part of a consortium supported by the US Department of Energy's Centre for Research on Carbon Sequestration in Terrestrial Ecosystems. The Department investigates ways of using trees to make possible "continued large-scale use of fossil fuels".
Some environmentalists also question the presence of Robert Watson on the panel, since he is employed by an institution which backs a massive expansion of fossil fuel power plants in the South and also hosts the Prototype Carbon Fund, set up to "mitigate" such activities' climatic effects.
Carrere of the WRM says that tree plantations designed to "fix" industrial pollution would expand the "ecological footprint" of the rich, industrialized world by annexing land used by the poor.
"If U.S. citizens use 20 times more of the atmosphere for CO2 dumping than their counterparts in India, does that mean they are also entitled to use 20 times more wooded land in order to compensate?"
He described large-scale industrial tree plantations as an ecological menace rather than a boon, citing damage to water tables and biodiversity as well as displacement of farmers. Such plantations also would be used to SANCTION ongoing operations by polluting factories and oil wells, whose ill effects are felt most strongly by the poor.
According to members of the IPCC Bureau, the affiliations of the authors named by WRM were generally known before they were appointed, but were not felt to be grounds for ruling them out.
"It's impossible to flush out everybody," says John Houghton, a climatologist and Bureau member. "You'd be cutting out important experts."
Adding that "everyone has an axe to grind, whether they are involved in politics, business, or NGO work," Houghton emphasizes that "it was made very clear to the authors that they were there in their personal capacities and that they had to be neutral."
"We tried to ensure a wide review process which would pick up any 'special pleading'," Houghton says. "IPCC reports have the most comprehensive peer review process you'll find anywhere."
Mark Trexler of Trexler & Associates, who was a review editor of one of the report's chapters, concedes that the report could help create a market for carbon "offsets," but denied that its conclusions would help his company make profits.
"It doesn't make any difference to us," he says, noting that only 15 percent of his firm's activity centers on forestry "offsets."
Richard Tipper says that the charge of conflict of interest was "short-sighted and damaging" and could lead to reciprocal accusations being made against NGOs.
"If you start accusing people associated with the IPCC then you would have to give up efforts to control climate change," Tipper said. After all, "you could say all scientists have vested interests when they participate in such a panel because they're interested in advancement or research money."
"If you disagree with somebody then you should be able to make a coherent argument, not just slag off people."
The LULUCF report would have negligible effect on his firm's profitability, Tipper says. Regardless of its conclusions, governments and private corporations committed to combatting climate change would still need "to slow deforestation, which is our business."
Paleoceanographer David J. Verardo of the Technical Support Unit of the IPCC Secretariat, who helped edit the report, says that it had never occurred to him that the panel's credibility might be compromised by perceptions of vested interest.
"How could I be worried about conflict of interest?" Verardo says. "The process was completely transparent."
The only people to have raised the question of possible conflict of interest, Verardo says, were environmentalists associated with Greenpeace, World Wide Fund for Nature, and WRM.
The controversy over the IPCC comes at a time when ties between the private sector and the scientific establishment, government and international agencies are coming under increasing scrutiny in fields ranging from genetic engineering to pharmaceutical development.
Folke Bohlin of the Department of Forest Management at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, who derides carbon "offsets" as an "unfeasible" approach to climate change, suggests that the money being made available to scientists to develop carbon forestry methodology disables more useful and effective types of inquiry.
"The only way to get rid of carbon sequestration from the agenda is for researchers to say no thanks to such research grants," Bohlin said. "It's difficult, but necessary".
SIDEBAR: The Science at Issue
Experts are deeply divided over the IPCC's bold claim that the idea of trading trees for emissions on a global scale is scientifically coherent.
While everybody agrees that trees can convert the carbon dioxide created by the burning of fossil fuels back into carbon through photosynthesis, no consensus exists about whether it is possible to calculate a precise numerical climatic equivalence between units of coal or oil safely buried underground and units of biotic carbon constantly interacting with both the atmosphere and unpredictable social systems.
Figuring out how to equate the climatic effects of the two kinds of carbon is a prerequisite for establishing a "carbon shop" -- a place where companies or countries who do not wish to cut their emissions can go to buy carbon sinks or stocks which will safely "cover" their pollution.
Some businesses, unwilling to wait for the outcome of the scientific controversy, have already opened such "carbon shops." A British tree-planting firm called Future Forests, for example, offers to certify companies and individuals as "carbon-neutral" (for a price) by planting and tending trees for them. According to Future Forests,
7 trees = 5 London-New York airline flights for one person
5 trees = 1 year's driving of an ordinary car
2 trees = 4 pots of tea a day for 6 years
Other carbon theorists conjecture that the entire UK's carbon-dioxide emissions could be absorbed -- at least temporarily -- by planting trees on an area 1 1/2 times the country's size.
Most of the corporate executives on the IPCC panel see no problems in principle with such equations.
The calculations "may be difficult," says Richard Tipper of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management, "but I don't see why the problems should be insurmountable."
"If you know that saving the Amazon is better for the atmosphere than keeping one car off the road," Tipper argues, "then you ought to be able to calculate how many cars are equivalent to saving the Amazon."
The issue of whether such calculations were actually possible or not was "never considered" during the deliberations of the LULUCF panel, Tipper says. "It's not an issue."
This assessment is contested vigorously in a report released Thursday (24 August) by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria. The report says that the Kyoto Protocol, by allowing the biosphere to be included in greenhouse gas calculations, is a "cheat's charter" for the US and other governments and multinationals in particular since it will be "impossible to either prove or disprove" claims that planted trees are compensating for industrial emissions.
"We cannot compare the effectiveness of fossil fuel or land-use change and forestry activities with respect to reduced emissions", the IIASA report flatly states. The report is based on a detailed 100-page scientific case study of the uncertainties involved in accounting for flows of carbon in Russia. The uncertainties, the report argues, are simply too large.
Environmentalist critics such as Ricardo Carrere, a forester who coordinates the World Rainforest Movement agree that the IPCC's theory of carbon "offsets" is riddled with scientific absurdities.
"What the IPCC is telling us is that a giant coal-burning corporation which establishes hundreds of thousands of hectares of industrial plantations can, with the right techniques, be certifiable as climatically exactly equivalent to a swidden farmer who farms and plants trees on a single hectare," Carrere says.
"That's like trying to calculate a numerical equivalence between apples and oranges."
By unearthing and burning huge quantities of fossil fuels, Carrere notes, a large corporation will introduce uncertainties into a climate system which go far beyond anything undertaken by a swidden farmer.
Carbon plantations set up by such a company, he says, will probably be on cheap land previously used by local people in other ways. Displacing the residents will have incalculable effects on CO2 emissions and climate change if forests are cleared elsewhere, agricultural techniques changed, consumption patterns altered, conservation knowledge lost, and political resentment stoked.
Plantations also tend to increase releases of greenhouse gases from soils, Carrere points out, and, like global warming itself, make catastrophic fires such as those seen recently in Indonesia and the United States more likely to a degree which resists precise quantification.
"Carbon sequestration in biomass is a dead issue," agrees Folke Bohlin, a researcher in the Department of Forest Management at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. "The one thing which keeps it on the agenda is politics and poor advisers."
Addressing climate change through planting trees, Bohlin said, amounts to building "CO2 bombs" which are bound to go off eventually, are "exceedingly expensive," and are "totally inadequate to halt or change the direction" of the carbon economy.
Alan Thatcher, a New Zealand researcher on climate, adds that carbon "offset" projects are likely to "work against the adoption of better energy technology."
Older plants whose emissions have been supposedly "compensated for" by trees can always undercut newer ones, Thatcher says, reducing incentives to invest in better generation technology. The need to quantify such incentives makes it even harder to calculate the net climatic effects of forestry projects.
Defying such critical voices, however, carbon "offset" technocrats are fighting back hard.
Ken Newcombe, who heads the World Bank's Prototype Carbon Fund, concedes that how much carbon any particular project keeps out of the atmosphere "can't be clear-cut." Newcombe admits that the question, "Which group of experts has the right to decide whether the project stores more carbon than what would have been stored otherwise?" is a contested political one inseparable from the "technical" economics. "We don't know how to solve this problem yet," he confesses.
"But with the help of all parties, we can work it through," he insists.
Some private-sector members of the IPCC's panel on LULUCF take a more extreme position, denying the existence of serious questions about calculability.
"If there had been relevant articles in the literature," Tipper says, "we would have taken account of them."
Mark Trexler of Trexler & Associates, one of the report's Review Editors, emphasizes that panel members "reviewed hundreds of pages of comments" on early drafts. "There are no technical problems left," Trexler says.
Biologist Jutta Kill of Fern, a UK-based non-governmental organization tracking the EU's involvement in forests, suggests that many of the report's authors may have been unable to see that social and political issues are part of the technical questions.
Only a tiny handful of the authors and commentators "had any background in social science," she notes, adding that hundreds of relevant peer-reviewed references are absent from the report.