Under the LEAF Coalition, tropical forest nations will be paid for effective conservation - but participating companies also must cut their own emissions in line with climate goals
* LEAF Coalition rewards nations for lowering deforestation
* First round aims for 100 million tonnes of emissions reductions
* Purchasing companies must cut own emissions in line with science
By Megan Rowling
BARCELONA, May 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Few people, nowadays, would disagree the world's forests need better protection.
But many conservation projects that offer carbon credits have an image problem, with critics saying they allow buyers to offset their planet-warming emissions without actually cutting them and have limited climate benefits.
Former U.S. president and global-warming sceptic Donald Trump turned heads by signing up to the 1t.org tree-planting initiative in 2020, citing the need to conserve "the majesty of God's creation and the natural beauty of our world".
And at the 2019 Madrid climate conference, oil giants raised eyebrows when they backed an effort to build a global market for carbon credits generated from projects to protect forests, soil and wetlands.
The LEAF Coalition, a new $1-billion forest conservation programme backed by the United States, Britain and Norway alongside multinational companies including Amazon, Unilever and Nestle, is hoping it can put the shine back on paying for nature-based emissions reductions.
On its Earth Day launch last month, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg emphasised tropical forests are indispensable to fighting climate change and biodiversity loss, "and have received far less attention and finance than they deserve".
The coalition is "a first, crucial step to change that", as businesses and donor governments will reward tropical forest nations for positive results in lowering deforestation.
"I am delighted that big companies are now stepping up to provide this finance in addition to cutting their own emissions," Solberg said in a statement.
LEAF, which stands for Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance, differs from earlier schemes in that participating companies must prove they are already making efforts to reduce their emissions in line with science, and the fact that it will apply across entire countries or regions.
Manish Bapna, interim CEO of the U.S.-based think-tank World Resources Institute (WRI), which is not part of the coalition, said it "offers an important new approach that can help scale forest protection finance, without diluting emissions reductions elsewhere".
Forests can provide over one-fifth of the emissions reductions needed before 2030 to keep planetary heating to relatively safe levels, but efforts to protect them account for less than 3% of climate funding, Bapna noted.
Meanwhile, tropical forest loss increased by 12% from 2019 to 2020, releasing emissions equivalent to those of 570 million cars last year alone, WRI-backed research showed in March.
'NOT AN EASY WAY OUT'
Gabriel Labbate, who leads work for the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) on reducing emissions from deforestation in Latin America, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the LEAF Coalition had "stringent requirements" to ensure it "is not an easy way out of the problem for climate polluters".
To join, companies must use approved standards to set, measure and publish near- and long-term targets to cut emissions from their operations and products that will bring them to net zero by mid-century, a call for proposals shows.
The alliance, which aims to sign the first contracts between tropical forest nations, donors and companies by the end of the year, also has rules to guarantee the emissions reductions from the forest projects being funded will only be counted once.
In most cases, those reductions will help meet the targets set by forest nations in their national climate plans under the Paris Agreement to curb global warming.
Companies and governments have until July to submit proposals to LEAF, with the aim of securing at least 100 million tonnes of emissions reductions in the first round, priced at $10 per tonne.
Discussions are so far taking place with about a dozen tropical forest "jurisdictions" - countries or sub-national regions - while Costa Rica, Guyana and the Brazilian states of Amapá, Tocantins and Maranhao have already taken steps to qualify, said Emergent, a nonprofit managing the initiative.
Its executive director, Eron Bloomgarden, said companies would sign contracts with jurisdictions that will receive annual payments on delivering an agreed amount of independently verified emissions reductions over a five-year period.
Those contracts will send a "long-term demand signal" to governments "to provide the confidence to increase their ambition on forest protection", with donors guaranteeing to buy any credits not purchased by the private sector, he noted.
"This on its own isn't sufficient to deliver zero deforestation, but it's an important starting point," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
UNEP's Labbate noted the price of $10 per tonne for the first tranche of emissions reductions is double what other large-scale financing efforts have delivered so far, including those led by the Green Climate Fund and the World Bank.
But, he added, it is still below what countries say it costs to deliver effective forest protection - about $16 per tonne in Costa Rica - and the $30 UNEP estimates would "change the economics of forest conservation and restoration".
U.N. agencies, Emergent, the Environmental Defense Fund and others are working on a new global effort to catalyse funding for one gigatonne (1 billion tonnes) of high-quality emissions cuts a year from forest-based natural climate solutions by 2025.
LEAF is kick-starting the "Green Gigaton Challenge", but its first contracts will deliver just 10% of the mid-decade goal, which needs to rise to 5 gigatonnes a year by 2030, in order to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, Labbate said.
"I hope that in 10 years, we will look back ... and realise this was the moment the boat started to change course," he said.
Emergent director Bloomgarden said another prerequisite for LEAF's success was involving forest and indigenous communities, whose views and input will be sought in the next few months before any purchase agreements are concluded.
Tuntiak Katan, an indigenous leader of the Shuar people of Ecuador, gave his support to the initiative in a joint commentary in Newsweek magazine, but said it would only succeed if the United States and coalition partners "work closely" with indigenous and forest-dependent communities.
Other green groups, too, have sounded a note of caution about how LEAF will work in practice.
Gilles Dufrasne, policy officer at nonprofit advocacy group Carbon Market Watch, said finance for forest conservation was needed on a large scale, "but we cannot use this as an excuse to continue polluting".
"Today, too many companies are planning to offset their emissions with reductions that are already being counted by other countries," he added.
(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Jumana Farouky. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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