The Wood and the Trees

The World Bank has announced the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility. This fund will pay hundreds of millions of dollars to developing countries to protect and replant tropical forests, which store carbon and keep it out of the atmosphere.

This is a timely announcement coinciding with the Environment Minister of Indonesia telling us that his country is ready to protect the forests for a payment of up to 20 USD per hectare. And with plans of President Correa of Ecuador to seek payments not to exploit oil under the pristine forests of the Yasuni National Park.

But the small print is worrying: “A lot will depend on what the global agreement will be, but we think potentially this could yield a lot of money,” Joelle Chassard, manager of the World Bank’s carbon finance unit, told Reuters in an interview.

We know those global agreements. And how long they take. And it will get bogged down in interminable rounds of scientific and technical debate to ensure that the methodologies for saving the forests are right. Then we will get something like this:

Office in Jakarta. Sun filtering in through the blind. Aspidistra needs watering. The telephone rings. Minister of Environment picks it up.

“Hello Mr Developing country, I would like to pay you to save your forest.”

“I am humbled to receive your kind offer, Ma’am.”

“But before I can do anything, I need to know exactly how much carbon dioxide you have stored in your forest.”

“Please go ahead and let me be of assistance at every juncture.”

“… Well, first I need to know how many trees you have…. I need to issue a tender for a consultant to come and count them… This may take some time.”

A few months later. Zoom in on forest. Consultant, in suit with pith helmet, sweat dripping down face. “20,356…20,357…20,358…20,359…” He stops. Looks round a bit disorientatedly. Consults his paper. “No, I’ve already counted that one … err … 20,358, 20,359…”

Meanwhile: “Hello Mr Developing Country, I also need to know how much CO2 is stored in each tree. To within 1.00% precision and a confidence level of 95%, because otherwise it won’t be an acceptable measure under ISO 3940 3278 6863 0842 7614 9506 9023 9762 6409 4509 7955 7926 0980 3769 paragraph g sub-section 8965 9838 7239 6090 0943 8727 6970.”

A few months later. Back to the forest. Consultant stumbles across an illegal logging operation. 38,652… 38,651… 38,650…” Counts faster and faster…

Phone rings again. “Hello Mr Developing Country. We are making great progress. We are almost there. I just need to issue another tender to establish how much forest you would have retained anyway if we had not been making this generous contribution to your development.”

Picture a series of conferences in large airless auditoria and impenetrable powerpoint presentations, where earnest academic types are debating rates of deforestation … shot of printing press spewing out hundreds of copies of learned forestry and development journals.

Back to our consultant in the forest. “8… 7… 6… 5… “

Phone rings: “Hello, Mr Developing Country. I am afraid I have some bad news.”

In short: saving the forests should not depend on post-Kyoto. It should not depend on the colour, shape, and creed of a CER. It should not depend on the price of carbon. It should not depend on the growth rate of this tree or that. It should not wait for the development of complex systems and procedures to measure carbon.

We live in a time where only the measurable and the measured have political or economic value. But now we cannot wait for science of measurement to catch up. We will simply end up chasing a phantom, an ever rising standard of scientific proof.

It is enough to know that there is a lot of carbon tied up there. Enough to know that there is untold biodiversity. It is enough for us that hidden in the dark depths of the forests live forest people whom we shall never see and never hear. We don’t need to know how many Taromenani there are in Ecuador’s Amazon forests. To know them and count them is to destroy them. It is sufficient to know that they are there, and forever no contactado.

To save the forests we do not need to wait for facts. Facts are by definition history. And history is too late.

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1 Response to The Wood and the Trees

  1. Randilyn says:

    Good for people to know.

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