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Leaders Discuss Private Sector's Role in Mitigating Climate Change at REDD+ Talks: NYC

Image credit: Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.com

Last Thursday at the Bronx Zoo, the United Nations hosted an event to celebrate the five-year anniversary of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program and its offshoot REDD+.

For the uninitiated, The REDD mechanism exists to incentivize developing nations to better protect and manage their forest resources to help mitigate climate change. The main thrust behind this is to create a financial value for the carbon that is stored in the trees. When forests are harvested for timber or cleared for farmland, the carbon stored there is released into the environment, contributing to global warming and the greenhouse effect.

As the REDD+ program continues and seeks long-term sustainability, the UN is beginning to seek out partnerships in the private sector. The private sector here is divided into two parts: those companies involved in the production and sale of verified emissions reductions (VERs) and those involved in the supply chains of forest-risk commodities, such as the agricultural industry. The funding and incentives required to carry on a program as ambitious as REDD+ relies on the involvement of the private sector.

Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program briefly opened the REDD+ Talks with a call for leadership. In a room full of leaders from all sectors, this was the perfect way to excite the speakers. With the focus set squarely on the private sector it was Todd Stevens, Executive Director of Global Initiatives at the Wildlife Conservation Society who noted that REDD is at an “inflection point,” moving towards private funding.

This change will start slowly, though. As Mike Korchinsky, CEO at Wildlife Works, pointed out, there is a need to prove that the concepts of private sector engagement work on a small scale first — only then can it be expanded. Many of the other representatives of the private sector agreed with him. Marie-Claire Daveu, Chief Sustainability Officer at Kering, noted, “Sustainable business is smart business.” She expounded that having a vision is not enough. Corporations need to show that they anticipate the future by identifying new risks. Using Kering as an example, she noted that the company is setting competitive carbon emissions targets for itself for 2016 — a decrease of 25%. However, these are just targets. She asserted that being carbon neutral does not push the issue enough; companies must measure its carbon footprint through the entire supply chain.

Both Daveu and T.J. DiCaprio, Senior Director of Environmental Sustainability at Microsoft, discussed the need for a fair price for carbon in the future. However, if corporations are smart, they will not wait. Stevens reminded us that taking action in the next year will cost less than taking action in the next 5, 10 or 20 years. Dr. Assheton Carter, an investment advisor at Althelia Climate Fund, said he sees the need for the private sector to facilitate the flow of capital for social impact. But what is the return on investment of environmental assets? If we listen to Stevens (and we should), that return on investment will only diminish as time passes.

Fortunately, private and public stakeholders who weren’t the only ones given a platform at this event. Representatives from the communities in which active REDD+ programs are in effect also attended to give a larger context to the issue. This included Almir Narayamoga Suruí, Chief of the Paiter Suruí in Brazil, and Mama Mercy Ngaruiya, the Chairlady of the Tumaini Women’s Group in Kasigau, Kenya. It was Mama Mercy who praised REDD+ for the opportunities the program has given to support women and children. In her community, a committee of locals decides how the funding for their program is allocated, allowing the most informed stakeholders to make decisions. These local representatives enforced the theme that there is still a need to show the private sector that there is knowledge to be gained from the local and indigenous communities.

A highlight of the event was hearing from actor Edward Norton, who was then acting in his capacity as UN Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity. As a major supporter of the Masaai Wilderness Conservation Trust (MWCT), he was able to translate these larger concepts, such as carbon sinks as capital, and provide a case study for success. In short, the protected lands of Southern Kenya have seven million downstream dependents and host some of the most exciting and diverse wildlife in the world. Since much of the land is locally owned and susceptible to cheap buyouts from foreign pressures, the MWCT helps fund the local sustainable management and protection of this area. Norton used this case to show the members of the audience in the private sector the value of conservation through innovative resource management.

As inspiring as many of the speakers may have been, moving forward will not be easy. In order to secure investment, private supporters will need to see success in the field, and Stevens worries there are too few examples out there. Carter added that there needs to be trust built between the private and public sectors. The main way to achieve success depends on a few simple factors, according to Korchinsky. With good verification, independent standards, and independent, third-party checking and certifications, success will be easy to monitor and pass along to private corporations. He added that technological innovation will also be necessary, something that DiCaprio assured the audience is part of the current solution, alongside the increased transparency good verification will bring, reduced leakage, and a future with an accelerated low-carbon economy.

Before Norton closed the event, it was Norway’s Minister of International Development, Heikki Eidsvoll Holmås, who stole the show. His impassioned speech reminded everyone that it is possible to continue to make money while being mindful of our natural environment. International climate and forestry initiatives such as REDD+ can be mutually beneficial in the right framework. As he reflected on the forests of Norway and our posterity, he sagely imparted, “The forest is our lungs, our treasure chest, and our home.” 

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