in Panama, Papua New Guinea

REDDheads: How Kevin Conrad took REDD from New York to the UNFCCC

Kevin Conrad was born in the USA. His parents were missionaries living in Papua New Guinea. Conrad grew up in Wewak in East Sepik province on the north coast of the country. “I grew up deep in the jungles of Papua New Guinea”, he says. “I didn’t consistently wear shoes until I was 16. Forests are a very real part of who I am.”

After finishing secondary school in PNG, Conrad studied finance in California. He worked in investment banking. He lives in New York.

The birth of REDD

Here’s how REDD was born, according to Conrad. In 2003, Conrad and Papua New Guinea’s prime minister Michael Somare were walking on a beach in Wewak. Somare was worried about his country’s forests.

That year World Bank had offered a US$17 million loan if PNG would shut down its notoriously corrupt logging industry.

Conrad decided the World Bank was right to offer money, but that more was needed. After all, the government received US$50 million in royalties from the logging industry every year.

Conrad headed off to Columbia University in New York, where he studied International Finance. For the final project of his Executive M.B.A. Conrad looked at whether the money from carbon credits could equal the revenue from logging in Papua New Guinea.

With his M.B.A. finished, Conrad and his supervisor at Columbia, Geoffrey Heal, persuaded Somare to start the Coalition for Rainforest Nations.

In November 2005, Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica presented an 11-page proposal to the UN climate meeting in Montreal: “Reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries: approaches to stimulate action”.

REDD and carbon trading

Also in November 2005, Heal and Conrad wrote a piece in the Financial Times with the headline “A solution to climate change in the world’s rainforests”.

REDD was always intended to be a carbon trading mechanism. Here’s what Heal and Conrad wrote in the Financial Times:

To help level the playing field, the rules must be revised to make carbon credits from reduced deforestation tradable in carbon markets on a par with other offsets.

This would value them at present in the range of $25 (€21) per ton of CO2. Such a price is high enough to transform the economic incentives to conserve forests and is quite competitive with the lumber prices currently received by local communities from logging companies. Recognising carbon credits from avoiding deforestation makes standing timber an income-earning asset worthy of conservation.

Heal and Conrad don’t mention what might happen if the price of carbon offsets were to collapse. Of course, that’s precisely what has happened. Carbon credits are currently on sale on the EU Emissions Trading System for €0.28.

Heal and Conrad note that corporations will “welcome the additional source of carbon offsets” generated through REDD. True, polluting corporations prefer the option of buying carbon credits instead of restructuring their operations to avoid burning fossil fuels. But as Conservation International pointed out in a desperate plea to bail out REDD, one of the failures of REDD has been too many carbon credits and too few buyers.

That could change with the aviation industy’s crazy plans to use carbon offsets to create the impression it is addressing climate change while allowing emissions from flying to increase dramatically. Predictably, Conrad is in favour of this plan to fry the planet.

REDD means emissions caps for all countries

Part of the REDD deal from the beginning was that REDD countries would accept caps on their emissions. Here are Conrad and Heal again in the Financial Times:

In what could be crucial to current climate negotiations, coalition countries may accept binding caps on their emissions levels in exchange for tradable emission reduction credits. In fact, these countries are being drawn toward pledging “voluntary reductions” by the prospect of access to now viable emissions reductions markets. This is the first time for any developing countries to consider mechanisms to cap carbon emissions, and the first real global move to address the growing and critical issue of deforestation.

Heal and Conrad comment that, “The US should see this as a positive move as it brings some developing countries into climate change agreements as active participants.”

For years in the UN climate negotiations, the global South has accused rich countries of burning more than their fair share of fossil fuels, setting us on the road to runaway climate change. The global South asked for financial compensation for this destruction. Rich countries (lead by the USA) argue that most greenhouse gases now come from the global South. But this argument ignores historical emissions. The USA has always refused to agree to emissions targets until all countries agree to reduce their emissions.

REDD helped drag the global South into committing to make emissions reductions. Papua New Guinea was happy to reduce its emissions by cutting deforestation, as long as it was paid sufficiently. What Conrad presumably didn’t tell Prime Minister Somare was that if the payments came from carbon credits, the emissions reductions would belong to whoever bought the carbon credits, not PNG. Otherwise, the reductions would be counted twice.

“If you’re not willing to lead, then get out of the way”

Conrad’s fifteen minutes of fame came two years after the Montreal meeting. In 2007, he was ambassador and special envoy for the environment and climate change for PNG at the UN climate negotiations in Bali. Conrad said,

“We all came with high expectations. The world is watching us. We left a seat for every country. We asked for leadership — and there is an old saying: ‘If you’re not willing to lead, then get out of the way.’ I would ask the United States: we ask for your leadership. We seek your leadership, but if for some reason you’re not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us; please, get out of the way.”

During the meeting in Bali, the World Bank launched its Forest Carbon Partnership Facility. REDD was incorporated into the Bali Road Map – the series of decisions that came out of COP13 in Bali.

It’s fascinating to see how Conrad, who lives in New York, talks about the population of Papua New Guinea as if he lived in Port Moresby. Here he is in 2009, talking at a Business for the Environment Summit in Paris:

ConradOur observation in Papua New Guinea is that you have to start with the people. You have to understand what it is that the people need, as we have discovered in Papua New Guinea, just using the case of deforestation, people are cutting down forest because they have dreams for their children. They want their children to have health. They want their children to have education. They want their children to have a future. And all that they see around them are forests.

Conrad blames poor people for cutting down PNG’s forests. He doesn’t mention corruption. He doesn’t mention the devastation of PNG’s forests resulting from by 40 years of Rimbunan Hijau’s logging operations. But REDD has never had a mechanism to address the root causes of forest destruction.

Goodbye Mr Conrad

In 2011, with Sir Michael Somare no longer prime minister of PNG, Conrad was fired as the country’s climate change ambassador.

PNG’s Deputy Prime Minister Belden Namah announced Conrad’s departure at an official handover ceremony for the Ministry of Environment and Conservation at the Holiday Inn in Port Moresby in August 2011. He said,

“I want the office of climate change to be restructured and there will be no ambassador living overseas, I want to replace the ambassador for climate change Kevin Conrad, the office must be here and the ambassador must live in PNG, not in overseas. Let some of our own men who know landowner issues very well take on the responsibility so that they can address the issues easily, we want change and have PNG on the safe side, the old regime is gone and this is a new regime.”

Conrad has been fairly quiet in REDD discussions for several years. He now represents Panama at the UN climate talks – hardly a major REDD country.

Conrad’s return

With the aviation industry’s proposals to offset its ever expanding emissions, Conrad is back. “We believe that we should also engage globally and at scale with the aviation industry,” he said at a side event at the UN climate meeting in Paris in 2015.

This has nothing to do with addressing climate change, because it allows emissions from flying to continue growing. It’s just about raising finance for REDD. This is a double whammy for the climate. There are the increasing greenhouse gas emissions from flying, plus, as climate change gets worse, the emissions from increasing numbers of forest fires around the world.

Oliver Phillips, a geographer at Leeds University, co-authored a paper titled, “Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink”. It was published in Nature in March 2015. Phillips explains the implications of the research for REDD:

“All across the world even intact forests are changing. Forests are doing us a huge favour, but we can’t rely on them to solve the carbon problem. Instead, deeper cuts in emissions will be required to stabilise our climate.”

Unfortunately, Kevin Conrad and his new friends in the aviation industry are just not listening.

This post is part of a series based on a report I wrote in 2017 for the German NGO Stiftung Asienhaus. Download the report here: “REDDheads: The people behind REDD and the climate scam in Southeast Asia”.

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  1. I wish kevin conrad is back for his job representing PNG in the world.