The Omens of Offsetting Linger on REDD
As the number of public sector financial mechanisms targeting REDD+ has increased, and consequently the volume of money flowing in to REDD+, observers are increasingly pointing out that the public sector alone cannot supply the huge sums of money needed to combat deforestation. The private sector is thus needed to share the cost and supply some of the money.
The most commonly proposed mechanism of engaging the private sector is via some sort of carbon market offsetting scheme. However, the world’s largest emissions trading scheme (ETS), the EU ETS, explicitly disallows the use of REDD+ offsets as compliance units in the EU ETS, and seems unwilling to allow offsetting for REDD+ on a large scale before 2020.
This is largely because the EU ETS is concerned that monetising the huge sums of carbon stored in tropical forests could quickly flood the carbon markets with credits, pushing down the price of carbon and further compounding the EU ETS’ ongoing price issues.
Despite this objection, there is still a large drive to engage the private sector in REDD+ financing as soon as possible. Much of the discussion for attracting private finance has focused on creating investable conditions for private actors. High transaction costs, political and regulatory risk, and the absence of any clarity on the monetary value of credits within a compliance carbon market post-2012 must be mitigated, it is said, before private money will flow to REDD+.
However, much less attention has been given to the safeguards that must be put in place to ensure that private sector engagement does not compromise the environmental integrity of a project, credit, or damage the reputational issues of the financial mechanism.
Reputational and Functional Problems
The CDM is an example of how these exact problems have materialised. The reputation of the CDM has been compromised by private sector participants that previously increased the generation of pollutant gases – and subsequently destroyed them – in order to generate more credits. Moreover, the environmental integrity of the credit has been undermined since the credit is treated – although not necessarily priced – in the same way as a credit generated from a project that is genuinely contributing to sustainable development.
Although the specific problems with the CDM are not directly transferable, abstract slightly from the CDM, and the potential for similar problems with a market-based REDD+ mechanism become fairly evident.
First, should perverse incentives exist, they will be exploited. For example, assuming that REDD+ payments can override the opportunity costs of logging, palm oil, mining, etc., there still remains the possibility that virgin forest could be logged and replaced with trees that have higher carbon content, are easier to measure or have a dual revenue stream, such as plantations. The proper restrictions must be in place to ensure the forest’s existence prior to monetisation.
Second, exposing deforestation reductions to market price volatility – often subject to the whims of speculative traders – can quickly result in the revenue gained from a REDD+ project shifting in favour of alternative forms of revenue generation. This causes investors to pull out of projects and private sector funding to slow down. Indeed this is happening right now in the CDM: the exchange-traded price is dropping below the price that project developers are willing to sell the credit, squeezing profit margins for buyers of credits and halting new funding of CDM projects.
Third, limits would need to be put in place to avoid supply-induced price suppression. Limitless offsetting via REDD+ would result in an oversupply as developers attempt to monetise the vast volume of carbon stored in existing forests, causing the exact problem that the EU ETS is concerned with, and resulting, again, in alternative uses of land becoming more profitable. A REDD+ based crediting scheme would thus require a carefully thought-out limit on REDD+ offsets so as to not depress the price of carbon – and in turn deter additional REDD+ projects – simply by its inclusion.
The momentum behind the discussion on the private sector’s inclusion in REDD+ finance is gaining. However, without serious attempts to mitigate the problem highlighted above, the momentum can quite easily be turned on its head. It therefore seems sensible to posit that REDD+ will be reliant on public sector funding for some time, not just because the private sector is hesitant about investing in an unknown market, but because the regulators are unsure of how to adequately overcome these concerns.