For most of the developing world, endless climate change summits and accords are as welcome as droughts and floods. The wealthy industrialized countries spent two centuries using the atmosphere as a carbon dump and the result is potentially runaway climate turmoil that could turn Earth into a sizzling, lifeless blob.
To prevent that scenario, or at least buy some time before parking can be found on another planet, the principle of collective punishment is being deployed. Every country, rich or poor, must reduce carbon emissions because emissions are borderless—no sense reducing them in one region and not another.
The poor countries can't be blamed for crying: Hypocrisy! Their argument—entirely valid—is that it's unfair for the rich world to deny the poor world the right to belch carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with abandon, because that's the easiest way to create jobs and eradicate poverty.
But what if a "mechanism"—to use a term beloved by United Nations climate change gnomes—could be found to keep both sides happy? What if the stick were replaced by a carrot?
For inspiration, look to Norway, which has a pleasing habit of nixing the purely ideological and going for the practical. At the climate change summit in New York last September, when leaders from government, business and civil society met to "galvanize and catalyze climate action"—the UN's words to describe a process that pretty much did the opposite—little Norway was busy doing a deal with little Liberia. It will see Norway pay Liberia up to $150 million (all currency in U.S. dollars) to stop the rapid destruction of its ample forests. The amount is a fortune for the West African country, a perennial economic basket case with a gross domestic product of less than $2 billion and practically no money to fight the Ebola crisis.
The agreement does not prevent Liberia from cutting down trees. It is designed to replace the wholesale forest destruction with a trim job. The highlights: placing a moratorium on new logging contracts and going after illegal contracts; ensuring that protected areas cover at least 30% of Liberia's forests; developing a monitoring and verification system (otherwise Liberia doesn't get its postdated cheques); and teaching communities the principles of sustainable forestry development.
On paper, at least, it looks like a win-win-win solution. Norway will get an emissions credit of some sort (and good PR), while Liberia might take a step towards poverty reduction and not see its carbon emissions soar. Forest loss is a big climate-change trigger, because forests absorb carbon dioxide—they are carbon "sinks." Cutting and burning trees contributes about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Protection has the pleasant side effect of biodiversity preservation. Liberia's lush forests, which form a big chunk of the Upper Guinea ecosystem, are home to western chimpanzees, forest elephants, rare leopards, zebra duikers and pygmy hippopotamuses.
Norway's Liberia deal is not unique. The Norwegians have been swapping bucks for forestry preservation for years through the UN-REDD Programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). REDD was launched by the United Nations in 2008, and it has made some good progress, but it is still in the development stage.
For Norway, whose oil revenues have created the world's biggest sovereign wealth fund, with $860 billion in assets, backing REDD is also paying guilt money. "It's Norway's way of giving the world something back after building an economy as one of the world's top oil exporters," says Ottawa's John Drexhage, an independent consultant on sustainable development and climate change.
The problem with rich-world payments for poor-world forestry protection is that it doesn't work well in countries where it is needed most, such as Brazil and Indonesia, whose vast forests are shrinking rapidly as cattle ranches and palm oil farms chew through the landscape. Those countries often consider international agreements an assault on their sovereignty. Programs similar to REDD helped slow forest destruction in Brazil for a while, but the rate is climbing again. In Indonesia, they have had a negligible effect. There, forests are disappearing at twice the Brazilian rate.
A new global initiative to reduce deforestation, last year's New York Declaration on Forests, was hobbled from the onset because it failed to secure signatures from the national governments of Brazil, China and India. The new Republican Congress in the United States probably would rather fund gay pride parades than authorize spending to fight climate change in countries that most lawmakers couldn't find on a map.
All of this makes Norway's efforts all the more compelling and inspiring. As global emissions rise, it broke away from the pack and negotiated a deal that should produce quick results. Bravo. Better that it works in small countries than in no country, and maybe it will catch on.