A Bolivian rainforest conservation project Noel Kempff comes in for a bit of kicking in The Guardian's Greenwash column. This picks up on John Hari's piece in The Nation earlier this month. And Chris Lang also mentions it in a recent REDD-Monitor. The basic premise of The Guardian piece, and the parts of The Nation piece that mention Noel Kempff, is that the project is a scam because it promised to avoid lots of CO2 emissions but didn't.
The Guardian says, "Last autumn Greenpeace dubbed the Neol [sic] Kempff project a 'carbon scam'."
The Nation says, "The project had to admit it had saved 5.8 million tons or less--a tenth of the amount it had originally claimed. Greenpeace says even this is a huge overestimate. It's a Potemkin forest for the polluters. "
So given that no carbon offsets have been created, where exactly is the scam?
Let us back track. Last year, Greenpeace did an investigation into the Bolivian project known as Noel Kempff. The Noel Kempff project was led by US conservation organisation The Nature Conservancy (TNC). TNC wanted to save an area of rainforest, work out the greenhouse gas emissions savings made and potentially generate carbon offsets which could be sold to its partners (two energy-producing companies).
When the project began, over a decade ago, the idea of forest offsets were new and nobody had any idea the extent of the emissions savings that might be possible---so a guess was made. The project was going to have to do some seriously investigative carbon accounting. It did. It found that only a tenth of the carbon was saved. This isn't suspicious. This is the way science works.
Before I continue, I need to declare a conflict of interest. Last year, The Nature Conservancy paid my economy ticket flight to talk to a group of their scientists about science journalism at their centre on Santa Cruz island. (I was there with some other journalists doing the same thing, including Juliet Eilperin from the Washington Post, and Ken Weiss from the LA Times. I met some of TNCs people, although none that connect to this story as far as I am aware.)
More importantly, though, later in the year I found myself researching something on palm oil and talking with Greenpeace. And it was Greenpeace that introduced me to the Noel Kempff project, told me that TNC was involved, and said a report was coming. At some point, when I came to write on REDD-related issues, I was told about its concerns over Noel Kempff in more detail. Interesting, I said but I need to put these questions to TNC. (Greenpeace were hesitant about doing this, but I went ahead anyway.)
In an email on August 25th I wrote to one of TNC's press officers:
"One thing I wanted to ask TNC about was the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project in Bolivia, which TNC funded to 2.6m along with a bunch of energy companies. It was an early avoided deforestation scheme started in 97, with an eye on Kyoto. But avoided deforestation didn't get approved in Kyoto as we all know, so it generated voluntary credits under some 1605B scheme in the US.
I understand Greenpeace are working on something about Noel Kempff and they are going to say that auditors found massive amounts of leakage (15-43%; quite a large error however on this) and while the project promised benefits of about 60m metric tons, this has been reduced to only 5.8m, a reduction of 90% in the carbon benefits--which means all the power companies are using much higher figures for their offsets than are actually being offset albeit voluntarily.
They also tell me, something that is hard to believe, that seems to be some idea that these credits could now be revived and put through as a REDD type project. Would you be able to comment on any of this?"
The answers I got from TNC were good ones (all pasted below). This seemed most significant, "To date no certified offsets (credits) have yet been issued to any of the partners. Until that happens, the project partners cannot report or use certified offsets in any voluntary or compliance carbon credit regime.
Sadly, TNC's answer also showed that the issue was far too technical to resolve in the few lines I had----so Noel Kempff ended up as overmatter. It was irritating at the time but TNC said its carbon policy people were trying to talk to Greenpeace, and I figured that a number of these technical issues could get ironed out prior to the report, or at least discussed in some scientific context.
How wrong one can be. A few months on and I don't think either the readers of The Guardian, The Nation, nor (sorry Chris) REDD-Monitor, have had really much chance to hear from TNC about what it thinks of the project, which is a shame because it is pretty interesting.
The Guardian's Fred Pearce described it as "the ultimate greenwash nightmare", and he goes on to write "Both BP and AEP [American Electric Power] referred questions about the progress of the project to The Nature Conservancy." There is a reason for this.
And John Hari makes it quite plain what he thinks of TNC and Conservation International when he writes, "They are not part of the environmental movement: they are polluter-funded leeches sucking on the flesh of environmentalism, leaving it weaker and depleted."
The question of whether business is having an influence on these groups is an important one. But I'd only say that organisations are made up of individuals, and based on the employees of these organisations that I've met, I would be hard pushed to describe any one of them as "sucking on the flesh of environmentalism". But, then, I would freely admit that I'm probably quite biased towards having a positive view of the contribution that business can make to conservation. I spend a lot of my time writing about economically rational use of the environment and why business will be part of the solution. For one thing we need businesses to put a fair price on the environment, which they can pass to consumers so that we can all pay the real costs of our consumption and lifestyle. If putting a price on CO2 means that the energy companies pay for some forest carbon offsets this is not bad if they actually work.
Is there a risk that some businesses will be looking towards short-term goals of promotion rather than long-term goals of sustainability? Of course.
Rights and wrongs
Now at this stage I'll be brutally honest. I'm not sure I know who is right over Noel Kempff Greepeace or TNC. But I do fear that Greenpeace is turning Noel Kempff into a political football.
There are several things going on. Firstly, at a simple level, the science of carbon accounting has moved on quite a lot from 1996. That isn't surprising or interesting. Secondly, Greenpeace does not like projects such as Noel Kempff, which account for carbon at a local level. Because deforestation has shifted, the benefits of the project may be negligible. Having said which, hindsight is a wonderful thing and one might imagine that if Noel Kempff was created today, that it would involve other national-level policies to discourage deforestation.
Sub-national accounting is problematic, lets be honest, Greenpeace do have a point. But if asked, TNC would probably argue that you have to start from somewhere and end up with national-level accounting. As the article in The Nation reflects, there is a lot of suspicion about such a viewpoint. Is it really coming from TNC or its business sponsors who, in reality, don't intend for national-level accounting to happen? Finally, there is the ultimate political football, forest offsets for US domestic emissions. For those that don't want sub-national accounting to be part of future plans in America, creating controversy over this US-backed project seems an obvious strategy.
Overmatter: Questions were put to Karen Foerstel, at The Nature Conservancy press and publicity department about Noel Kempff project. Her response, on 26/8/09:
"We have not seen any report from Greenpeace, nor has Greenpeace contacted us about the Noel Kempff project, so we can’t respond to what may be in that report.
However, below you will find answers to your specific questions.
Overall, the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project was launched as a pilot project with the intent of testing and refining the science of forest carbon accounting and monitoring, and developing best practices for future REDD activities. Already, the Noel Kempff project has resulted in the creation of a set of methods that are being used in other projects (such as the World Bank BioCarbon Fund projects) and in standards (such as the Voluntary Carbon Standard).
Since the beginning of the project, the Conservancy and its partners have strived to be fully transparent, documenting carbon monitoring, accounting for leakage, and continually updating our methods based on lessons learned. As the world’s first REDD project to be certified by a third party, all partners understood that this was a pilot project that would test different methods and provide valuable lessons learned for future REDD projects.
Noel Kempff has allowed us to learn by doing and to pave the road for future REDD projects. We and our partners are working hard to make sure that any REDD regime created in the future is based on the highest standards of accountability and science.
Below are answers to your specific questions. I can set up a phone interview with our climate experts working on this projects if you have any further questions.
1) “auditors found massive amounts of leakage (15-43%)”
In verifying the carbon benefits of the Noel Kempff project in 2005, SGS (Societe Generale de Surveillance), a Kyoto Protocol Clean Development Mechanism approved verifier/auditor, found that leakage for the Noel Kempff project is 11%.
The 15 to 43% figure you refer to comes from a preliminary analysis that was conducted by Brent Sohngen, a professor in the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics at Ohio State University. Sohngen created a model of the Bolivian timber market and applied that model to estimate the change in logging across Bolivia that would result from the cessation of logging on the three timber concessions that were retired as part of the Noel Kempff project.
Sohngen’s model predicted that logging would increase in the remaining Bolivian timber concessions, and that leakage could range from 14% to 43%. The higher leakage estimate was based on an assumption that timber prices in Bolivia would be highly sensitive to supply changes.
But, because timber prices in Bolivia are not highly sensitive to supply changes (the country is considered a “pricetaker” not “price-setter”), a final estimate of 14% was used to calculate leakage! from 1997‐ 2005. But, again, when SGS verified carbon benefits in 2005, it found overall leakage for the program to be 11%.
2) “While the project promised benefits of about 60m metric tons, this has been reduced to only 5.8m.”
Noel Kempff was designed as a pilot project and proposed for inclusion in the US Initiative for Joint Implementation (USIJI) in 1996. (The USIJI has since become obsolete with the US’s failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol). In the USIJI proposal an initial estimate of the carbon benefits of the project was made, based on the best data available at that time. That estimate was that 53 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent would be prevented from being released over a 30-year period.
However, in the USIJI proposal and in the agreement signed by the project partners, it clearly stated that this initial estimate would be refined as targeted research was carried out during the course of project implementation. The project partners, including the energy companies, understood that this was a pilot project and no guarantees (or promises) were made as to a set amount of carbon benefits that would result from the project, nor whether the avoided emissions from forest protection projects would even be eligible in future compliance regimes.
Over the past 13 years, the Noel Kempff partners have pioneered methods to determine the carbon benefits of reducing degradation (stopping logging) and reducing deforestation. This work has created a set of methods that are being used in other projects (such as the World Bank BioCarbon Fund projects) and in standards (such as the Voluntary Carbon
Standard) today. The project partners have documented and reported on the advancements made and the revisions to the carbon estimates over time. We and the other project partners are very proud that other projects and programs are now applying the methods developed for Noel Kempff.
As new methods were created, tested, and applied, the carbon benefits of Noel Kempff were revised, with updates to the numbers occurring approximately every two years. In 2005, the Government of Bolivia selected SGS to verify the project benefits. SGS applied the applicable standards for afforestation and reforestation projects created under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism to verify the project benefits. The verified results are that between 1997 and 2005 1,034,107 metric tons of CO2 equivalent were prevented from being released. SGS estimates that over a 30-year period (1997-2026) 5,836,961 metric tons of CO2 equivalent will be prevented from being released.
3) “All the power companies are using much higher figures for their offsets than are actually being offset albeit voluntarily.”
To date no certified offsets (credits) have yet been issued to any of the partners. Until that happens, the project partners cannot report or use certified offsets in any voluntary or compliance carbon credit regime.
Also, as you know, how - and if - forest carbon credits will be accepted under future markets is still being debated. It is unclear if the carbon benefits from the Noel Kempff project would be eligible under a future climate/carbon compliance regime. Such regimes usually have a cut off dates for project inclusion. For example, under the Clean Development Mechanism, afforestation and reforestation projects must have a start date after January 1, 2000. It will all depend on the rules of the regime.