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Guest Post: Presenting the Great REDD Perpetual Motion Machine – Part 1

Dominic Elson is an economic development consultant specialising in forestry and natural resources. REDD-Monitor invited him to write a guest post explaining his views about REDD. Part 1 is posted below and Part 2 will follow tomorrow.

Presenting the Great REDD Perpetual Motion Machine – Part 1

An informal disquisition on the origins of grand yet impossible dreams (in two parts), by Dominic Elson.

The British tribes, and I understand other countries that inherited our culture, have a rich communal tradition of solving the world’s problems while inebriated. These community gatherings happen in what anthropologists call ‘The Pub’. One of the time-honoured traditions is that a group of us will discuss a knotty problem, with raised voices and periods of incoherence, until a solution arises from the group’s combined intellectual prowess. This process is possible because our natural optimism, when combined with beer, eliminates confusing detail and confounding facts, making way for lucid insights of blinding clarity. This cultural practice is so common we even refer to a night in the Pub as ‘putting the world to rights’, whereby we derive satisfaction from our ability to calm the turbid sea of troubles and organise humanity’s crooked timber into an orderly pile.

It was during such a drinking session with some colleagues (in Ouagadougou, funnily enough, but it could easily have happened in Oxford), that it struck me that the whole concept of REDD was clearly conjured up in a Pub. Like perpetual motion, it has all the features that a pub debate needs: seductive simplicity, selective reductionism, fancy technical terms and a claim to be able to ‘put the world to rights’. Firstly, we frame the problem: forests are threatened, and yet they are a huge store of carbon. Climate change threatens all of us, but game theory (cue side-debate about ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ versus Tragedy of the Commons) indicates forest resources will be exhausted before societies have travelled far enough along the Kuznets curve to realise their own peril and take action. The solution is to raise the price and correct the opportunity cost problem. These forests have ‘global utility’, and it is time we paid the bill. REDD could monetise the carbon, drawing in revenue that will raise the value of standing forest and thus prevent deforestation. Imagine the adoring glances as REDD revealed her charms to the happy throng. This was an idea you could live with forever, and maybe start a whole family of inspiring development projects. REDD is bewitching, and many were brought under her spell.

But of course morning must come. Once again, it was in Ouagadougou that I was reminded of the full force of a real ‘putting the world to rights’ headache. It struck me that the hangover from that REDD pub session must have been especially punishing. As the full absurdity of the idea hit home, REDD’s charms melted away, and the cold morning light reveals a less comely sight. What were we thinking? How could we have been seduced by this snaggle-toothed crone? As our cheeks burned from the scalding tears of shame, we should have put the matter behind us and got back to the tough, yet rewarding, business of trying to make the world a better place through hard work and random acts of kindness. But of course we did no such thing. Instead, we went back to the Pub, perfected our machine, and called it REDD+.

How ingenuous are we, that evidence does not deter us from our search for utopia. For instance, in order to make a perpetual motion machine work, our colleague in the pub conjures up all kinds of deus ex machina: benign vacuums, capricious magnets, gates controlled by demons and so forth. These enhancements simply add more complexity and of course invalidate the whole experiment, as they require more energy than the machine would ever generate.

Similarly with REDD, it becomes quickly apparent that we need a scaffold of ingenious apparatus to keep the edifice on its feet. For instance, monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) systems are needed to ensure trust in the project and thus protect the revenue. But to be credible these systems need to be comprehensive, and thus expensive. The thinking seems to be that the more credible the MRV, the more comfortable the market will be to invest in the carbon. This has become technical fetishism dressed up as a market-based solution. The problem with the obsession with MRV is that is presumes to know the needs of a market that does not exist yet, and believes that a country’s consent to receiving MRV investment can be interpreted as enthusiasm for all REDD has to offer. And just as the vacuum chamber for the perpetual motion machine uses more energy than the machine generates, so too does MRV rob resources without a proportionate benefit.

Perpetual Motion is an attempt to get free work out of nature by using machines. Its failure is galling because it reminds us of the limits of our ability to bend nature to our will. But at least it is an admission that using nature for energy is unsustainable. REDD+ is an attempt to get free work out of forests (and people) to reduce overall GHG emissions. We hope, just as the architects of national parks hoped, that we can achieve stasis in large rural areas, where nothing changes and nothing moves. Perpetual motion fails as it ignores entropy, REDD+ fails because it ignores people.

While we are soberly eating our breakfast, there are many reasons to deplore REDD+ and its continued presence at our kitchen table. These arguments have been exercised by many experts and can be found throughout and in other sensible fora and reports (e.g. The Munden Project). But these are often technical rebuttals, which just seem to stimulate more elaborate technical responses and patch-ups: more MRV, more FPIC, better governance, market guarantees, less gravity etc. This is just more clutter which fails to address the core concern with REDD+, which is this: when in history has a top-down development intervention – however benign – actually succeeded in altering the course of human progress? This conundrum will be discussed in part two.

Dominic Elson is an economic development consultant specialising in forestry and natural resources. He is the author of the ‘Guide to Investing in Locally Controlled Forestry’ and a founder of the Singapore consulting firm Seventy Three Pte.Ltd. The views expressed here are very much his own.

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