Over the past week in Bonn, thousands of people have been working on the draft version of a global climate deal, which could be agreed in Copenhagen in December. A big part of what's being discussed is how to stop deforestation globally - as you're probably aware, deforestation accounts for just under one fifth of human-caused carbon emissions into the atmosphere, and it's those carbon emissions which the REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) talks are trying to stop.
Not surprisingly, they're being heavily lobbied by all sorts of different interests - from countries rich in tropical rainforests, to countries which don't have much forest but want to be able to benefit from money earmarked for preventing deforestation, to environmental organisations, to the logging industry.
Deforestation accounts for just under 20% of human-caused carbon emissions into the atmosphere
It might seem perverse that the logging industry would be working to prevent deforestation, but there are ways they could benefit from whatever is agreed. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, there are a variety of different ways of structuring policies which seek to halt deforestation. The system that the loggers are generally lobbying for would allow ‘sustainable' logging of rainforests to continue, and would seek to balance this logging by creating new tree plantations. The thinking that backs this up is that in carbon credit terms a plantation has the same monetary value as a rainforest. This despite numerous scientific studies showing that plantations don't hold a fraction of the carbon of tropical rainforest, and that logging rainforests is devastating for wildlife and local people.
According to a report from Global Witness, an NGO who work on resource exploitation issues, even the most benign form of commercial logging - the most ‘sustainable' - kills 5-10 non-target trees for every 1 tree that it cuts down. That releases 10-80 tonnes of carbon per hectare, from even the ‘lowest impact' form of logging. Where logging is intense, according to Global Witness, one cycle of logging can remove up to 40% of the carbon stored in a forest, with most of that lost carbon ending up in the atmosphere.
If you have trouble comprehending how the logging industry is going to be part of the careful management of carbon stocks, you're not alone. It seems unlikely, based on past evidence - logging is well known for not being the most carefully regulated or sustainable industry.
But policymakers are predictably keen of anything that makes it look like they're being environmentally responsible and which doesn't inconvenience big business - and so suddenly there's a lot of talk around about ‘sustainable forest management' (SFM) - a coded name for schemes which bring the logging industry into the tent.
It's probably a good thing that people are thinking about how to make the loggers part of the solution. But it's difficult to see how, under current arrangements, they should be benefiting from money put towards preserving carbon in forests. Gordon Brown, who has previously gone on record as an advocate for dragging forestry into the world of carbon trading via REDD, used the phrase in a significant speech where he set out Britain's agenda for Copenhagen:
... we are working with both donor and rainforest country partners to see whether a mechanism such as forest-backed bonds could be established to bring significant early finance into sustainable forest management.
Ed Miliband, in announcing the government's climate strategy a few weeks later, had this to say:
A key part of this is to find a way of incentivising people who live in the forests to manage them sustainably... There are good examples of sustainable forest management, but there are also difficult questions around the governance of these issues.
Again that phrase, but not much clarity, and so SFM is ringing a few alarm bells.
Maybe the Prime Minister's use of the phrase ‘Sustainable Forest Management' was a casual reference. But there's not much clarity around the issue, and when you look at the wider context, there's a lot at stake: Logging companies are scrambling to try and secure a wad of cash out of any global climate agreement, and even the most ‘sustainable' logging can be disastrous from a purely climate-related viewpoint - quite apart from the impact of poorly-regulated logging on biodiversity and local people.
So ‘sustainable forest management' is a phrase that's being seeded through major government policy speeches, without being unpicked or detailed. It could mean just about anything, from giving carte blanche to the logging industry to continue trashing tropical rainforests, to a well-nailed down international system that will preserve carbon, biodiversity and the rights of those who live in the forests of the world. At this stage we have no idea. But we will watch this one closely.