Monday, July 13, 2009

Barcoding Tropical Forests to Save Them

LONDON - Deep in the world's tropical rainforests, workers are hammering thousands of barcodes into hardwood trees to help in the fight against illegal logging, corruption and global warming.

The plastic tags, like those on supermarket groceries, have been nailed to a million trees across Africa, southeast Asia and South America to help countries keep track of timber reserves.

Helveta, the British company behind the technology, says the barcodes will help firms comply with tough laws on importing sustainable timber into the United States and Europe.

They could also play a role in fighting deforestation, which accounts for about a fifth of global emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide. The issue will feature in global climate talks in Copenhagen in December.

"We bring transparency and visibility where historically that has probably been limited at best," Patrick Newton, Helveta's chief executive officer, told Reuters.

The company, which has just secured another 3 million pounds ($4.88 million) in funding from investors, has put barcodes on trees across the world, including in Bolivia, Ghana, Indonesia, Liberia, Malaysia and Peru.

The computerized system is less prone to fraud than traditional paper records, carries live data and can help governments to collect more timber taxes, Newton said.

While the barcodes can't prevent criminals from chopping down trees, the system makes it hard for them to process, sell or export the wood, Newton said.

Officials in remote forests use handheld computers to scan the tags from the moment a tree is felled to its processing and export, and the live data is put onto Helveta's secure database.

Every tree above a certain size in a plantation is given an individual barcode. When a tree is cut down, another barcode is attached to the stump and more tags are nailed to the processed wood to allow customs officials to audit exports at the docks.

Government officials and companies can track individual trees through the supply chain and view computerized maps of forests on the database. Timber leaving a forest or factory without tags will immediately be viewed as illegal, Newton said.


Illegal logging costs timber-producing countries 7 billion euros ($10 billion) a year in stolen wood, lost taxes and lower prices for legally-sourced products, the World Bank estimates.

It also takes an environmental toll. Damage to forests raises the risk of fires, flooding and damage to plants and trees that act as a "sink" to soak up carbon dioxide, Britain's Meteorological Office said in a report last year.

Helveta hopes its technology could help countries taking part in a proposed scheme to protect the world's forests as part of the fight against global warming. That is likely to form part of any global climate deal agreed in Copenhagen in December.

The scheme, called Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), aims to increase forest cover to soak up carbon dioxide emissions blamed for rising seas, extreme weather and melting glaciers.

It may include a market-based element where traders buy and sell REDD credits from forestry projects that lock away carbon.

However, trading based on the number of trees in a forest needs close auditing if the market is to work, Helveta says.

"The problem with forests is that it is very hard to validate what is truly out there," Newton said. "If you are trying to back that need to be able to make sure that what you think is securitized is really there."

© Thomson Reuters 2009 All rights reserved

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Major Economies Forum (MEF) Advance Text of Agreement

The UK Guardian paper has received and published an advance text of the MEF agreement in L'Aquila.

If anyone had any doubt as to whether REDD and international forest carbon is on the main countries' agenda, it is the only specific mitigation that is mentioned in the first point of the communique. It also clearly marks out space for reducing emissions and enhancement of sequestration in forests. Here's the language:

"We will take steps nationally and internationally, including under the Convention, to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and to enhance removals of greenhouse gas emissions by forests, including providing enhanced support to developing countries for such purposes."

In other areas, the text uses highly ambiguous language on the overall goal for international collaboration. "We recognize the scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2 degrees C."

There was also a strong shout-out to the Mexican proposal on funding.

There was one key date (November 15) for "lead countries" to report on action plans and road maps and to suggest recommendations for further progress. (Note - this could be an important date if the suggestions are coordinated; in other words, this could be a powerful opportunity to inject some clarity in the the final lap of UNFCCC talks).

And at the end, thankfully, the group said it would be meeting over the coming months in order to "facilitate agreement in Copenhagen". Phew.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

BIG REDD - great article by Rhett Butler in Washington Monthly

Rhett is a great writer (and nice guy to boot). His piece in the Washington monthly is an excellent article on REDD.

The piece is called "Big REDD" and starts...

Right now, there’s more money to be made cutting tropical forests down than leaving them standing. Environmental policymakers are trying to reverse that equation.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Obama will chair MEF climate change session

If BusinessGreen reporting and BBC reporting (in title link) are true, then this Thursday we will find out how weak or strong President Obama can be on climate change. According to both stories, President Obama has asked to chair a key climate change session in the MEF (which is running parallel to the G20 meeting). Hopes are running high for an agreement on key climate change issues this week in Italy. There is a growing sense the UNFCCC process needs some clarity and direction from either the G8 or G20 and the MEF is where that will happen. Maybe these talks in Italy will be President Obama's first (and quite dramatic) foreign policy success? Imagine if he could get all the countries to agree on the basic ambitions and language to help the UNFCCC focus?

We shouldn't get our hopes up too high - other news outlets are reporting major diplomatic problems and low expectations. And the diplomatically unappealing talk of a "chairman's summary" if things can't get hammered out. Such a summary would indicate there wasn't agreement...