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Is 2019 Summer the Season of Trees and Climate?

Steve Zwick

Natural climate solutions are finally beginning to get the kind of media attention they need, but that can be a double-edged chainsaw if certain nuances are lost. We take stock of the last few months’ coverage in our latest edition of the EM Insights Newsletter, which went out this morning.

This story is reprinted from the latest edition of the EM Insights newsletter. Click here to subscribe and receive the next edition in your inbox.

7 August 2019 | This is shaping up to be a pivotal summer in a pivotal year in the critical race to meet the climate challenge, and today we’ll examine the surging but overdue awareness of natural climate solutions – and why this can become a double-edged chainsaw.

The newfound awareness comes as Ecosystem Marketplace begins gathering data for our 15th annual State of Voluntary Carbon Markets Report (SOVCM) and our parent organization, Forest Trends, prepares to celebrate its 20th Anniversary. Click here to learn how you can celebrate with us at the Anderson House


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The SOVCM remains the only comprehensive analysis of the voluntary carbon markets, and it will be launched at the Forest Trends and AEMI Environmental Markets & Finance Summit on October 29-31 in Washington, DC. That’s just a few short months away, so if you sold voluntary offsets in 2017 or 2018, we encourage you to share your data with us by clicking here. Time needed? 15-30 minutes. And as a reminder, all responses will be kept confidential. We only share aggregated data, and only if we have data provided by at least 3 organizations.

 

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Trees in the News: a Double-Edged Chainsaw

Now to the news, starting with the good part: in July, a team of European researchers drew massive media attention after arguing that the planet could absorb two-thirds of all the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted since the Industrial Revolution just by covering those lands in trees.

Suddenly, for a few brief moments, media outlets were scrambling to write about tree-planting efforts from India to Ethiopia, which is great!

Tragically, however, the coverage erupted just as wildfires were incinerating more than 1.2 million acres of climate-baked Alaskan forest and deforestation was accelerating in the Brazilian Amazon – a clear reminder that we now live on a managed planet, and that planting trees will come to nothing if we fail to end deforestation.

This requires the deployment of myriad solutions that save forests by helping companies purge deforestation from their supply chains and save farms by helping land managers shift to climate-smart agriculture – activities that carbon finance can accelerate.

It’s in coverage of these interlocking solutions that mainstream media continue to struggle, as we saw when ProPublica opened summer with a piece called “An (Even More) Inconvenient Truth.” The article – which we’ll loop back to below – was heavily hyped but tragically flawed, which gave new life to the same misconceptions that have long prevented carbon finance from delivering on its potential.

In the coming months, we’ll be rolling out a series of explanatory articles designed to help mainstream readers understand the role of carbon finance in supporting natural climate solutions.

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We hope that you find our content insightful and enjoyable. We invite you to share your thoughts on our work, support or contribute to any of our forthcoming series, submit ideas for other topics that we can cover.

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How You Can Explain Forest Carbon in Context

We’ll begin rolling out the new series later this month, but we’ve also been producing an intermittent series on the broader history of land use within the Paris Climate Agreement, and we’ll be posting the next installment soon. If you find yourself struggling to either understand or explain the evolution of this sector, we encourage you to read or share this series as it unfolds. You can find the first installment here, but we also published a short-and-sweet summary that you may find worth sharing:

A Brief History of Planting Trees to Save the Environment

Published in mid-July, this story puts the recent spate of mainstream coverage into historical context by tracing the evolution of forest carbon all the way back to Jean Senebier’s discovery of photosynthesis in 1796. It then moves through Charles Keeling’s measurements of atmospheric CO2 in the 1950s and the early experiments with forest carbon in the 1980s. Short and sweet, it provides links to the series we are rolling out – a series that is clearly a work in progress, and one we hope you will find just as fascinating to read as we’ve found it is to research.

Another piece that offers some perspective is this even shorter one, which will direct you to some research on how carbon pricing impacts conservation:

A $50 Price on Carbon Will Boost Forest Carbon Sink 15 Percent: Study

The generally-accepted social cost of carbon is roughly $100 per ton of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but voluntary carbon prices rarely top $10 per ton. New research shows that a price of just $20 per ton can dramatically slow deforestation, especially in Africa, and mop up nearly 6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide.

How Carbon Markets Can Boost Biodiversity And Slow Climate Change

Research shows we can get 37 percent of the way to meeting the Paris Climate Agreement’s 2-degree target by improving the way we manage forests, farms, and fields, and carbon markets offer a way of funneling money into these activities. Here’s where markets stand now, and how we move them forward quickly.

 

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The Need to Counter Misperceptions

Picking up the earlier thread regarding mainstream coverage of carbon offsetting, we should point out that ProPublica isn’t the only credible news organization to get REDD wrong (see “To The Atlantic: Don’t Let Conservation Finance Go The Way Of Obamacare And Climate Science” for an earlier example). Indeed, the story recycles several misperceptions that we will be proactively countering in our upcoming series.
For now, here’s a look back at the ProPublica story and the rebuttals that followed.

An (Even More) Inconvenient Truth

Published in May, the piece points out, rightly, that carbon finance has not ended the climate crisis, and it also pushes the daunting issue of additionality into the public eye. Unfortunately, it does so in a way that we found heavy-handed and counterproductive.
Several rebuttals emerged, and here are the ones that either originated or emigrated to Ecosystem Marketplace:

Critiques of Carbon Credits Aren’t Asking the Right Question

Written by Indonesian forestry expert Agus Sari, this piece first ran in MongaBay and aims to reframe the question raised by carbon finance critics. Instead of asking whether this one mechanism has solved the climate crisis, he argues, we should be asking, “Is there any way to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement without protecting the world’s forests?”

Americans Deserve Better Coverage of Carbon Finance

Originally published on The Hill, this rebuttal by Ecosystem Marketplace editor Steve Zwick and COTAP founder Tim Whitley focuses on the need to properly frame the issues underlying carbon finance.

What ProPublica Gets Wrong – And Right – On Forest Carbon Finance

Originally published on the EDF blog and reposted on Ecosystem Marketplace, this piece by climate veteran Steve Schwartzman argues that the critique failed to adequately distinguish between isolated projects and jurisdiction-wide programs.

Opinion: ProPublica’s Inexcusable REDD+ Belly Flop

Posted on Ecosystem Marketplace in the hours after the story broke, this piece offers a point-by-point rebuttal to some of the issues raised

Steve Zwick is Managing Editor of Ecosystem Marketplace and produces the Bionic Planet podcast. Before joining Ecosystem Marketplace, he covered European business for Time Magazine and Fortune Magazine and produced the award-winning program Money Talks on Deutsche Welle Radio in Bonn, Germany.

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