Before the world can harness carbon finance to save endangered forests, it needs to agree on two things: how to scientifically measure the amount of carbon that goes into and out of trees, soils, and grasses; and how to politically account for those measurements. That’s a central focus of talks this week in Warsaw, and was the subject of a course that the University of California at San Diego and WWF launched earlier this year.
COP 19 Coverage
REDD, CDM Likely To Find A Place In New Climate Agreement: UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres offers hope that the troubled CDM market and REDD projects will be included in the international climate deal expected to be finalized in 2015.
Understanding Carbon Accounting Under The UN Framework Convention is a work in progress designed to explain in simple terms the complexity of carbon accounting under the emerging “REDD Rulebook”.
In Warsaw As In California, Forest Carbon Carrot Needs Compliance Stick explores the need for compliance drivers to boost demand for forest carbon offsets.
Forest, Ag Projects Can Combine Adaptation And Mitigation: CIFOR Study highlights the missed opportunities to link multiple benefits in projects that aim to tackle the impacts of climate change.
Dutch Platform Turns Landscapes Talk Into REDD Reality examines a new platform unveiled in Warsaw that could serve as a model for future public-private partnerships for financing REDD+ projects.
US, UK, Norway Launch Next-Stage REDD Finance Mechanism Under World Bank examines a financing mechanism designed to support performance-based payments down the road.
After the talks, we began digging into the decisions and themes of the two-week talk, and will be rolling these stories out as they take shape.
Unpacking Warsaw, Part One: The Institutional Arrangements explores the last-minute deal that lays rules for governing REDD finance through 2015.
Unpacking Warsaw, Part Two: Recognizing The Landscape Reality explores the thinking behind the growing emphasis on “landscape thinking” in climate finance.
Unpacking Warsaw, Part Three: COP Veterans Ask, ‘Where’s The Beef?’ explores the reaction of carbon traders to the Warsaw outcomes and offers a peek into the year ahead.
Further stories in this series will explore the impact of individual decisions within the rulebook, the role that the rulebook can play in helping existing projects nest in jurisdictional programs, and the impact of the rulebook on the private sector.
Before the world can harness carbon finance to save endangered forests, it needs to agree on two things: how to scientifically measure the amount of carbon that goes into and out of trees, soils, and grasses; and how to politically account for those measurements. That’s a central focus of talks this week in Warsaw, and was the subject of a course that the University of California at San Diego and WWF launched earlier this year. Over the course of this week, I’ll be harvesting my notes from that course to try and re-create the epiphanies I experienced and share them with you.
Please note this is a work in progress, and will expand, contract, and crystalize in the days ahead. Although far from finished, complete, I felt it worth posting in its current form because it deals with issues that are critical to understanding this week’s talks. I apologize for any confusion.
12 November 2013 | WARSAW | Poland | India has a Constitution; Germany has a Grundgesetz; and the Terrestrial Carbon Accounting world has its Good Practice Guidance for Land Use, Land-Use Change, and Forestry (LULUCF) – a 5,000-page compendium of science-based rules for measuring, monitoring, and accounting for the carbon captured in forests, farms, and prairies. Every standard that harnesses carbon finance to save endangered rainforest and Reduce greenhouse gas Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) is built on these Guidelines, and any agreement forged under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) must adhere to them.
If you don’t know the relevant sections of the Good Practice Guidance, you don’t really know carbon accounting – and most of us don’t know them.
That’s bad news for anyone looking to rationally explore these issues, and it’s especially bad news for developing countries looking to harness REDD income to save their rainforests. That’s because developed countries have set aside billions of dollars for REDD, but they won’t start spending it in a big way until they see trustworthy reference levels that tell them both how much carbon is captured in the forests, farms, and prairies of recipient countries and how that carbon content is changing. To earn the trust of investors and environmentalists, those reference levels must have been developed in accordance with the Good Practice Guidance.
To date, however, no developing countries have published reference levels – largely because few people outside a very small cadre of scientists, negotiators, and project developers understand the Guidance. Without that understanding, developing countries can’t establish trustworthy reference levels; and without those reference levels, developed countries won’t start paying for REDD.
In the end, we all lose – because carbon finance is emerging as one of the most powerful tools for reducing greenhouse gasses in the near term and saving endangered rainforest in the long term. In fact, our most recent “State of Forest Carbon Markets” report shows that carbon finance is being used to support the conservation of more than 26.5 million hectares of rainforest. That’s more than all the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo combined, and it’s based only on voluntary markets.
Further growth is limited in part by the lack of understanding, and it was to end this stalemate that the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) launched an intensive month-long course in advanced terrestrial carbon accounting at UCSD’s La Jolla campus. My aim here is to try and re-create the epiphanies I experienced over the course of that month and share them with the larger world. I’ll try to go deep enough into each issue to provide a general reader with enough understanding to follow relevant discussions in Warsaw, but not so deep that I get lost. My aim is to be a conduit between the experts and the larger world, and I invite any real experts who wish to offer feedback to do so. Eventually, I’d like to harvest this to create a simple yet comprehensive and fully indexed overview of carbon accounting – one that can be freely available to anyone looking to understand these issues, and that covers both the voluntary and compliance mechanisms. Think of it as an online “Carbon Accounting for Dummies”.
Like most things related to climate science, the Guidelines were developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which gathers research from scientists around the world and distills the essence. Quick history here, segue to:
- Transparency: There is sufficient and clear documentation such that individuals or groups other than the inventory compilers can understand how the inventory was compiled and can assure themselves it meets the good practice requirements for national greenhouse gas emissions inventories.
- Completeness: Estimates are reported for all relevant categories of sources and sinks, and gases.
- Consistency: Estimates for different inventory years, gases and categories are made in such a way that differences in the results between years and categories reflect real differences in emissions.
- Comparability: The national greenhouse gas inventory is reported in a way that allows it to be compared with national greenhouse gas inventories for other countries.
- Accuracy: The national greenhouse gas inventory contains neither over- nor under-estimates so far as can be judged.
Like constitutions, these apparently simple Principles are open to interpretation and subject to debate, as I was to learn as over the course of the next four weeks.
The Basics of Measuring
For a solid introduction to the mechanics of carbon accounting, I suggest dipping into our pre-class assignment: a 2007 paper called “Monitoring and Estimating Tropical Forest Carbon Stocks: Making REDD a Reality”. Written in a year when expectation for remote-sensing were high, it lays out a procedure that combines crawling around on the ground to see what’s there and then mixing it with satellite imagery to see if the pictures from the sky tell us what’s on the ground. It’s a process called ground-truthing, and I’d written about it before. Now I was to learn how it’s done for real.
Week One: The Foundation
The first thing we learned was to differentiate between counting carbon and accounting for carbon. It’s one of those apparently obvious distinctions that still needs to be emphasized if you’re to understand anything that comes next, because it defines everything that reasonable people still disagree over when it comes to REDD in particular and carbon accounting in general.
Carbon counting deals with the science: how you measure the amount of carbon captured in forests, farms, and prairies, as well as the changes in that amount (the carbon flux).
Carbon accounting deals with the politics: how to take those measurements and the factors impacting them and create a global set of rules for translating the changes in carbon stocks and the factors impacting them into ledger entries on which people can make decisions. Like all accounting methods, it will not be perfect. Some scientific issues won’t fit into accounting methods, or some data will be too expensive or even impossible to gather.
Broadly speaking, the IPCC addresses the issue of carbon counting, but only at the behest of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCCC, which deals with carbon accounting. In other words, if the politicians who comprise the UNFCCC have a scientific question, they submit it to the IPCC, which culls the world’s scientific papers for an answer.
Lecture 1: The Basics
The first lecture offered a brief history of carbon counting, beginning with a look at late American scientist Charles Keeling’s 1958 attempt to measure the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The “Keeling Curve” begins then and slants rhythmically upward, like an ascending heartbeat.
That heartbeat reflects the rhythm of is the world’s forests, which sponge up carbon dioxide in the summer. It turns out there are more seasonal forests in the Northern Hemisphere than in the Southern Hemisphere, so the northern summer sponges up more carbon in the spring and winter, while equatorial forests sponge it up all year long and the few southers seasonal forests sponge it up in the southern spring and winter. The upward slant reflects the increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as forests decrease and the burning of fossil fuels increases.
This simple observation offers a springboard into the science of carbon sequestration and the politics of carbon accounting and why we are here – for, although scientists have a pretty good idea of how much carbon goes into oceans and the atmosphere and how much comes from factories, they’re far from sure how much comes from or goes into forests, farms, and prairies.
The Keeling Curve
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