SINGAPORE - A U.N.-backed forest preservation scheme could become too valuable and complex, raising the risk local communities, the very people seen as key to the scheme's success, could be shut out, scientists say.
Reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation, or REDD, has already attracted billion of dollars of funding pledges from rich nations keen to see the scheme established as part of a broader global climate pact from 2013.
REDD would allow developing nations to earn valuable carbon offsets for projects that preserve or rehabilitate forests, which soak up planet-warming carbon dioxide as they grow.
Rich nations would buy the offsets to help them meet emissions reduction goals at home. That demand would underpin forest investments that could reach $30 billion a year by 2020, the United Nations has estimated.
That same demand could also undermine a major shift in the way forests have been managed in poorer nations, where cash-strapped national governments have given local communities and administrations more rights and powers to run their forests.
Such "decentralized" management has been shown to boost forest carbon storage and result in better incomes in a number of developing nations, say Edward Webb and Jacob Phelps of the National University of Singapore.
The scientists, along with co-author Arun Agrawal of the University of Michigan, in a study published in Friday's issue of the Journal Science, looked at how the rush for REDD could affect local management and governance of forests.
"One of the issues has been people's rights for use and management of forests because there has been a decentralization trend over the past two or three decades," Edwards told Reuters.
The risk, they say, is that by monetizing forest carbon, REDD would substantially increase the market value of forests, including those previously considered marginal, prompting central governments to increase control.
A performance-based payment mechanism would pressure governments to avoid the risk of non-payment resulting from local failures, the authors say in the study.
'Billions at stake'
"With billions of dollars at stake, governments could justify recentralization by portraying themselves as more capable and reliable than local communities at protecting national interest," the authors say.
Deforestation is responsible for nearly a fifth of mankind's greenhouse gas emissions and curbing forest loss is regarded as a key way to brake the pace of global warming.
The key is incentivizing major forest nations like Indonesia and Brazil, which have already attracted investment to create REDD pilot projects.
Indonesia has more than a dozen.
Globally, there is now widespread support for an enhanced form called REDD-plus that also covers sustainable management of forests, conservation and enhancement of forest carbon stocks.
Draft negotiating text on REDD-plus under U.N. climate talks does not mandate the rights of local communities in forest management nor guarantee revenue from carbon offset sales, propping up fears of some green groups that REDD will trample on locals' rights.
"It is the market that is going to be coming in and serving a lot of these investments for carbon emissions reductions. And we don't see a mandate for local participation or decentralized forest management," Edwards said.
At U.N. climate talks last December in Copenhagen, the United States, Japan, Norway and three other rich nations pledged $3.5 billion as fast-start financing to ramp up REDD in poor nations. The money comes on top of other funds already pledged.
Phelps said such funding levels would drive outcomes but to develop REDD projects was complex, time-consuming and there was a danger in rushing for a result.
"There's a tension and that tension is time," he said. "To develop REDD that is going to generate long-term emissions reductions is going to be the challenge."
(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)