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Calculating the value of carbon in trees | Nature Conservancy Exploitation

Thursday, February 25, 2010

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Calculating the value of carbon in trees

Biologist Ricardo da Britez measures stored carbon Delegates at the global climate summit failed to figure out a way to stop the destruction of the world’s forests. But some lawmakers think they have a solution, and it relies on financing from some of America’s biggest polluters. Michael Montgomery reports in collaboration with Mark Schapiro.

Biologist Ricardo da Britez and a fellow worker measure the carbon stored in a tree in Brazil. (pbs.org)

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TEXT OF STORY

Bob Moon: The recent global climate summit left a lot of issues hanging at the end of last year. So the world is still trying to settle on a way to stop the steady destruction of the world’s forests. That’s a critical question, since the clearing of forests leads to more greenhouse gases worldwide than all the cars, trains and planes combined. But hold on. Some lawmakers think they have a solution. And it relies on financing from some of America’s biggest polluters.

Michael Montgomery brings us this story in collaboration with Mark Schapiro of the Center for Investigative Reporting.


Michael Montgomery: It’s a basic equation: forests pull carbon from the atmosphere. But when trees are burned or chopped down, that stored carbon goes back into the air.

Jeff Horowitz is with the nonprofit coalition, Avoided Deforestation Partners. He says one way to fight climate change is to change the economics of forests.

JEFF Horowitz: What we are trying to do is make forests more valuable alive than rainforests that they would be as rainforests that have been slashed and burned.

In Brazil’s vast Atlantic Forest, some big U.S. companies are already investing in this idea. Several years ago, the U.S. Nature Conservancy brokered a deal between American Electric Power, Chevron and GM. The companies gave a Brazilian nonprofit money to create a 50,000-acre nature reserve. What’s unusual about the deal is what the U.S. companies get out of it — credit for carbon stored in the trees to cancel out their industrial emissions back home.

Some of America’s biggest polluters, like American Electric Power, like the idea. Mike Morris is CEO.

MIKE Morris: If you think about biodiversity and you think about the capacity of forests to do the things that they do, and you know that they are a very effective carbon sink, it just makes sense.

But companies like AEP have to know how much carbon the trees are storing to qualify for credits. Deep inside the reserve, biologist Ricardo da Britez is helping them do just that.

Da Britez drives a small nail into a Guaricica tree. He wraps a metal measuring tape around its white trunk. Then, with some quick math, he calculates the tree is storing around 220 pounds of carbon. Maybe enough to cancel out a week’s worth of emissions from a Hummer.

Da Britez explains that credit for the carbon stored in this tree belongs to General Motors. If the amount of carbon doesn’t sound like much, supporters of the plan say this: If you multiply that one tree by millions of others, it could help America hold down its own greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s got some U.S. companies really interested. Here’s why. Legislation pending in Congress would put a cap on the heat-trapping gases companies can release. But the plan also allows companies to get around these caps by investing in projects that cut emissions somewhere else. And preserving a forest could be a lot cheaper as a first step than modernizing power plants.

American Electric’s Mike Morris.

Morris: What I’m trying to do is make sure that the cost of electricity to my customers stays as low as we can have it stay during the period of the technology rolling out.

Electricity prices may stay cheaper, but Greenpeace forest expert Rolf Skar isn’t so sure that letting companies buy up carbon stored in trees is the best way to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He says saving forests this way could amount to sidestepping needed regulations.

ROLF Skar: There’s no way to ensure that we will avoid the worst effects of climate change — catastrophic climate change — if we allow polluting companies to continue to pollute here in the U.S. and simply side step their obligations to clean up their act by paying for avoided deforestation elsewhere.

Skar says this way some companies will never invest in cleaner technology. And there are other issues: Can anyone really guarantee that these trees will store carbon forever. What if there’s a fire, or a blight?

Back at the reserve, Ricardo Da Britez finishes his analysis of the Guaricica tree. So how much is the carbon in this tree really worth?

RICARDO Da Britez: One dollar.

But that tree, and the thousands more here, could become a lot more valuable if U.S. legislation passes. Then, the price of carbon could skyrocket. And that means U.S. corporations would set their sites on buying up forests like this one around the world.

With Mark Schapiro, I’m Michael Montgomery for Marketplace.

MOON: Our story was produced in collaboration with the PBS newsmagazine Frontline/WORLD. Tomorrow we’ll look at how the project is affecting local populations in Brazil’s Atlantic forest.

http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2010/02/25/pm-brazil-one/

Conservation projects displace locals | U.S. Nature Conservancy Exploitation

Friday, February 26, 2010

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Guarani people walk around their island village Several years ago three U.S. companies sank millions of dollars into a forest reserve in southern Brazil to earn credits to cover some of their carbon emissions back in America. How does the scheme work on the ground? Michael Montgomery reports in collaboration with Mark Schapiro.

Guarani people walk around their island village. (pbs.org)

Links

  • Frontline/WORLD: Carbon Watch
    A project tracking the new currencies of global warming.
  • Center For Investigative Reporting: Carbon Watch
    A project looking at some of the key issues of climate change with a special focus on the trillion-dollar carbon trading market it has created.
  • Calculating the value of carbon in trees
    Delegates at the global climate summit failed to figure out a way to stop the destruction of the world’s forests. But some lawmakers think they have a solution, and it relies on financing from some of America’s biggest polluters. Michael Montgomery reports in collaboration with Mark Schapiro.
  • A green police trooper rides a boat in Brazil.A green police trooper rides a boat in Brazil.
  • Guarani tribal leader Leonardo Wera TupaGuarani tribal leader Leonardo Wera Tupa

TEXT OF STORY

BOB MOON: How about this idea: Save a tree in Brazil, keep polluting here at home. A plan pending in Congress would allow some of America’s biggest polluters to cancel out their emissions here, if they buy up endangered forests around the globe. Some U.S. firms have already been doing that by sinking millions of dollars into a forest reserve in southern Brazil. And how has that gone over with the locals down there?

Michael Montgomery has that story, in collaboration with Mark Schapiro of the Center for Investigative Reporting.


Michael Montgomery: If you want to save a forest in Brazil, you might call on the services of the state’s Force Verde, or Green Police.

Recently, five Green Police troopers set out on a patrol of a nature reserve in the vast Atlantic Forest. Three big U.S. companies — American Electric Power, Chevron and GM — invested millions of dollars to protect 50,000 acres of land here. It’s a very 21st century idea: these companies don’t own the land or the trees. They own credit for the carbon stored in the trees, and someday, they hope to use it to cancel out some of their greenhouse gas pollution back home.

Sound of Green Police commander speaking

The team’s commander leads us through tall grasses and into the forest, where orchids grow wild and jaguars prowl. The Green Police are here to make sure that no one is cutting down trees. They’ve chased off land developers and poachers. But locals complain the green police are also targeting them.

Jonas da Silva: If I go there, I’ll be humiliated in front of my family, because I’ll be arrested. I’ll be called a thief.

That’s Jonas da Silva. He grew up on the reserve’s border. The subsistence farmer says now he can’t hunt or fish or even use the forest paths that the community has relied on for generations. Da Silva lives among some 10,000 farmers, fishermen and Indians who eke out a living from the land.

Sound of children singing

On a small island near the reserve, we meet up with Leonardo Wera Tupa. The Guarani tribal leader has watched with apprehension as American companies cordon off the land here, in the name of fighting climate change.

Leonardo Wera Tupa: When those lands end up in the hands of environmentalists who say they want to preserve them, it ends up limiting many things for the people around and the local population suffers.

Jutta Kill: It is denying them access to land that they have used for many generations and which they have maintained and preserved.

Jutta Kill of the British environmental group FERN has compiled extensive testimony from dozens of locals who complain about abuses by police and park rangers.

Kill: We heard of people being arrested, we heard of people having their produce confiscated and we heard of the increasing difficulty of sustaining families. And therefore, a number of families have also had to leave the area.

Kill says some people fled to Antonina. That’s a small town a few miles outside the reserve. Carlos Machado is Antonina’s mayor.

Carlos Machado: Directly or indirectly, it was through these conservation projects that the population came here and created a ring of poverty around our city. It’s caused a big social problem here.

Machado calls these displaced people “carbon refugees.” But environmental groups managing the reserve see it differently.

U.S. Nature Conservancy promotional video: Forests are the lungs of our planet.

In a promotional video, the U.S. Nature Conservancy, which brokered this deal, says its forest projects in Brazil are:

U.S. Nature Conservancy promotional video: Offering local communities economic alternatives that are compatible with forest protection.

Duncan Marsh directs international climate policy for the conservancy. He says the group’s work in the reserve has given the community dozens of new jobs with health benefits, where before there were virtually none.

Duncan Marsh: Most of those jobs are jobs with the full range of benefits, whereas a lot of these people were not necessarily employed in a full and fully compensated way prior to the existence of the project.

Marsh described retraining locals to sell things like organic bananas and honey. But the Nature Conservancy’s own manager in Brazil told us that most money for job programs ran out a couple years ago. Now, even some of the project’s own corporate backers concede that mistakes were made.

Mike Morris: I wasn’t there in the early go, but I would imagine that we came in as American companies frequently do, “Everybody get out of the way, we’re going to do this.”

That’s Mike Morris, CEO of American Electric Power, one of the country’s biggest utilities. Morris says he’s still excited about the idea of preserving forests to cancel out some of AEP’s greenhouse gas emissions, but he says moving forward the company will do things differently.

Morris: Our effort will be never to repeat those endeavors but to go in as a willing partner and participant, after conversations with the local folks and the governmental folks involved, to make certain there’s agreement with what we’re doing.

Climate legislation making its way fitfully through Congress now includes a provision to respect the rights of people who live off forest land. But it remains to be seen whether companies only pay lip service, or find a way to protect the forest’s people as fiercely as they do the trees.

With Mark Schapiro, I’m Michael Montgomery for Marketplace.

Moon: Our story was produced in collaboration with the PBS program Frontline/WORLD.

Comments

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  • By Olga Swarthout
    From Holly, MI, 02/27/2010

    These relatively small tribes of indiginous people have suffered throughout history like the American native Indians.
    In the 16th century they were victimized by European geo-political machinations that gave Brazil to the Portugese and the rest of S. America to Spain ( see the award winning 1980’s movie THE MISSION, starring Robert DeNiro, Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson ). In the 20th century they were again disenfranchised by Brazil’s massive agricultural development. The government ultimately gave them safe haven deep in the high forests bordering Argentina. Today, even that land is not safe for the Indians.

    By Larry Tobos
    From MI, 02/26/2010

    Nothing new here: “civilized” people taking advantage and forcing “savages” to remain that way so we can have “big oil” enjoying the same old bonanza. Just appaled by the story, and you categorizing it as a “green” story. Sincerely,
    Laurentiu (Larry) Tobos

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