Seeing REDD in Copenhagen

By Nicole Heller

Yesterday, I walked the complex maze of halls and booths at the Bella Center, where the COP-15 negotiations are taking place, with Odigha Odigha and Tunde Morakinyo—both members of the Nigerian delegation—and John Niles of the Tropical Forest Group. They were trying to track down possible donors to provide preliminary financing for a project under the UN’s program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD.  REDD is widely acknowledged as one of the least controversial proposals on the table in Copenhagen. Trees and forest soil store tremendous amounts of carbon, and when you cut down the trees, that carbon is released into the atmosphere. In fact, deforestation accounts for an estimated 15 - 20% of annual carbon emissions.

Keeping forests intact not only helps reduce carbon emissions, though: it also preserves biodiversity and helps maintain watersheds. Plus it’s a relatively cheap way for nations to meet emission-reduction targets in the near-term. The REDD program would provide a mechanism for countries with tropical forests to reduce deforestation, and to be paid by developed countries to do so.

The idea my companions were selling is something they describe as a “poster-child REDD project.” Odigha comes from Cross River State, one of the last forested parts of Nigeria, on the border of Cameroon. The area is rich in biodiversity—particularly in primates, including the Cross River Gorilla, which is the most endangered ape in Africa. Odigha was a mathematician prior to becoming a grassroots activist in the mid-1990s. He stopped a massive deforestation project in his state and later won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. In a surprising twist, he now works directly for the government, as the chairman of the Cross Rivers State Forestry Commission. Recruited by Governor Liyel Imoke, whom Odigha describes as an emerging climate leader in Africa, Odigha now straps on a gun and bulletproof vest and goes out with a task force of former police officers to guard the local forests from illegal logging.

This work is being done under a 2-year state moratorium on logging, and under Imoke’s declaration that instead of logging concessions, the government will now offer carbon concessions—that is, paying landowners to save carbon. The hitch is that there is not yet a carbon-concession market that Nigeria can tap into. The REDD market will not appear until 2012, when the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol expires. Projects like Cross River will not be likely to get much investment to prevent deforestation if they can’t first create the institutions, capacity, monitoring, and other essential requirements to make investors feel secure and qualify for REDD funds. This stage of planning has been dubbed “REDD readiness.”

A few countries have been able to secure funding and implement programs to prepare for REDD—Panama and Guyana, for example. But Nigeria has had difficulty attaining resources for forest conservation, says Tunde Morakinyo. That is because donor funds tend to go for education, HIV, and governance, not environment.

At a REDD event sponsored by Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, another Nigerian complained that the stringent requirements to qualify for REDD funds will limit the involvement of poor African nations. CI’s spokesperson responded:  “If the mechanism excludes countries, it must be flawed.” It’s the hope of the Tropical Forest Group that when Governor Imoke arrives at COP15 on Sunday, they will have succeeded in arranging some meetings and that Cross River will be able to get the financing they need to prove the governor right—that preserving carbon can pay.

See Climate Central's photos from Copenhagen on Flickr.