Companies looking to offset their climate-warming emissions can have a bigger impact backing governments' initiatives to halt forest destruction rather than planting new trees, an environmental group said on Thursday.
Demand is growing for carbon offset credits, prompting some of the world's biggest corporations to announce tree-planting initiatives.
But a policy paper authored by Emergent, a U.S.-based non-profit partnered with organisations including the United Nations Environment Programme, argued that those efforts still fall far short of what is needed.
"Are we trying to solve climate change here or have some nice local impacts we can put on a brochure?" Eron Bloomgarden, Emergent's executive director, said.
Currently, companies mainly buy carbon credits for relatively small individual projects, many of which focus on tree planting, which make it easy to tie their investments to specific results.
Emergent said that, with an area of tropical forest the size of New York's Central Park cleared every 15 minutes, there is much greater value in helping under-resourced governments preserve the existing forests.
Tapping the private sector
Deforestation delivers a double whammy to emissions reduction, removing trees that would have absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while also releasing carbon the trees already had stored.
Few effective mechanisms allowing companies to back government efforts are available however. So Emergent wants to establish a marketplace for carbon offset credits linked to government-led tropical forest conservation initiatives.
Roughly $1 billion in global public finance is available annually to support initiatives of the mainly developing nations home to the world's tropical forests, said Frances Seymour, forests and sustainability expert with the World Resources Institute.
Seymour is also board chair at the Architecture for REDD+ Transactions, an initiative that aims to help large government deforestation programmes unlock private investment.
Tens of billions of dollars more are needed from the private sector, she said, and there was untapped demand in the global carbon market to fill the gap.
"Such demand could incentivise governments to do what only governments can do - actions to protect forests such as recognising indigenous rights, enforcing the law and regulating commercial forest exploitation more effectively," she said.
Bloomgarden and others, who pointed to the need to ensure programmes better benefit the local communities they impact, admit the approach is not perfect.
The drivers of deforestation are complex, often entwined with corruption, organised crime and poverty, making them particularly hard to address, said Giancarlo Raschio, a senior manager at the carbon offset registry Gold Standard.
"It's not only a matter of having more resources," he said.