Biodiversity ‘butter towers’

AT first, Adam and Eve lived happily with God in the Garden of Eden. Then, one sunny day a snake appeared. The snake told Adam and Eve how delicious the fruit looked, hanging from the nearby tree. But both knew that God had forbidden them to eat from the fruit.

The snake had its ways and after a while managed to tempt them into eating the fruit. After doing so, Adam and Eve became ashamed of their nakedness and God expelled them from the Garden.

This is how guilt came into this world as told by the Bible. Eventually, Adam and Eve were forgiven for their sin, but they had to endure the temporal punishment of toiling in the sun.

This concept of guilt and punishment, according to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, is also true in everyday life. If you damage someone’s car, the owner can forgive you, but you still owe the debt of repairing the car.

For Catholics, guilt needs to be forgiven. If not, the consequence may be eternal punishment in hell. To be forgiven, Catholics can seek for indulgence, for instance through confession, praying the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross.

Green indulgence

MODERN-DAY sins don’t necessarily come in the form of apples. We are at risk of losing our Garden of Eden, too. Biodiversity is decreasing, ecosystems are degrading, climate is warming. Regular reminders like Typhoon Haiyan (local code  name Yolanda) ring a bell that, just like Adam and Eve, we put our paradisiacal planet at peril. Call that an original sin.

Regrettably, there’s no confessional box big enough for the entire Earth. Yet, there are options for a green indulgence.

The idea is simple. In 2013 we emitted a record 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is 50 percent more than oceans, forests and other sinks can absorb.

Since our planet has one connected atmosphere, we can reduce emissions in some part of the world to compensate for an emission made elsewhere. This so-called carbon offsets is already common and traded on two global markets.

On the compliance market, companies, governments and others buy carbon offsets in order to comply with the CO2 caps they are allowed to emit.  On the voluntary market, everybody can purchase carbon offsets to mitigate their own greenhouse-gas emissions.

For example, for your recent holiday flight, who can magically take away your emission sins? There is no carbon confession, but the so-called Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) offsets are achieved through the financial support of projects that reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, most commonly, renewable energy or planting of trees—a lot of trees. Three hundred of them are needed to compensate the CO2 of a single flight from Manila to New York for one year.

No net loss

TREES contribute to biodiversity. However, it is much more complex to compensate for biodiversity loss.

Unlike carbon emissions, biodiversity cannot simply be swapped elsewhere. It is hard to equate a banyan tree in the Philippines with an oak tree in Germany, or a jungle, or a coral reef. Apparently, they don’t even have them there.

Nevertheless, there is a sinfully steep decline in our global biodiversity Garden of Eden, largely due to land-use changes and destruction of habitats. And if biodiversity—with all the services it provides—does not get a price tag, who will consider this seemingly free good when building a highway or a goldmine?

This is especially true in Southeast Asia where a third of the world’s coral reefs and mangrove forests are threatened, together with the livelihoods for nearly 600 million people. This is a sufficient reason for the Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), together with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit to support the valuing of the services of the region’s biodiverse ecosystems.

Placing financial value on biodiversity has created a marketplace for retaining and restoring habitats. Just like carbon offsets at carbon neutrality, biodiversity offsets want “no net loss.”  If a biodiverse habitat is destroyed, let’s say a forest to build houses, a different site must be restored. This so-called receptor sites should have the same amount, type and quality of habitat at a new location.   This is already being done in 45 programs around the world with an estimated conservation impact of 187,000 hectares annually.

North America dominates with offsets worth $3 billion, things are also happening in Asia, led by Japan, Mongolia and Vietnam.

Recognizing that in forest-rich Vietnam over 800 hydropower plants and over 5,000 mineral mines compete with biodiversity, the country is in the process of introducing a biodiversity-offset policy.

Also, carbon offset policies have reached a considerable, but stagnating size, with the compliance market worth $5.5 billion in 2006 and the voluntary market accounting for $705 million in 2008.

A peculiar example at the crossroad of carbon and biodiversity offsets is provided by the Ecuadorian Yasuni National Park. Arguably, the most biologically diverse spot on Earth, the park is also home to 20 percent of Ecuador’s to crude oil reserves.  Recognizing this explosive fact, the Yasuní-ITT Initiative promised to spare the park in exchange for compensation from the international community.

If funds of at least 50 percent of the potential profits of the oil reserves were raised, the government would leave them and the park untouched.  But despite the engagement of Leonardo DiCaprio, Al Gore and many more, the funds were not sufficient.

Coldplay forests

IN addition to the “environmental sinners’” lack of willingness to pay, one can pick holes in the whole concept of biodiversity and carbon confessions. There is a long history of how confessions can be abused, starting in the Middle Ages. Greedy commissaries sent professional “pardoners” to sell indulgences to earn the maximum amount of money for their projects.

The “Butter Tower” of Rouen Cathedral got its nickname because the funds to build it were raised by the sale of indulgences allowing the use of butter during Lent.

This, and other misuse, was famously criticized by Martin Luther in Ninety-Five Theses that started the Protestant Reformation.

Perhaps not a reformation, but a word of warning is also due here. The well-known instance of the “Coldplay forest” shows why: the British band supported a tree-planting project, which unfortunately resulted in a grove of dead mango trees.

Indeed, it is tricky to guarantee for the permanence of tree-planting offsets. And even if the trees survive, they need decades or centuries to grow. Offsetting today’s loss with tomorrow’s benefit is known as “forward selling.” This is problematic to stop biodiversity loss and climate change where every year matters.

Before selling and substituting comes measuring, however, which is as difficult as ecosystems are complex. Area alone is not a good measure of the amount of biodiversity.

How many monkeys, mushrooms and maggots might live in 1 hectare of rainforest, let alone the estimated 10 million yet undescribed species? And how many kilograms of mushrooms are worth 1 kilogram of monkey, if you need to substitute them? Substituting the social, spiritual and sustenance value of biodiversity for local communities is even harder to do.

Communities can’t just simply move and live elsewhere.

Technicalities aside, offsetting schemes are also in danger of becoming biodiversity butter towers, giving the guilty a way to pay for absolution rather than changing their behavior: business as usual without social or political change, at a small cost, to solve two of mankind’s biggest problems. Sounds too good to be true? Perhaps it is!

We cannot manage what we do not value. It makes sense to speak out just how much our atmosphere and ecosystems are worth for us—and how much inaction could cost us.

To make the message heard, money might be the language of choice that everybody understands, from smallholder to big business.

The biodiversity business case is a real one. But in addition to carbon confessions, we owe the debt for real conservation and real CO2 reduction. Just like the driver at fault in an accident owes his debt.

ACB shows how real conservation can be done by promoting the cooperation of scientists, politicians, businessmen and citizens in the region.

The 33 AseanHeritage Parks are examples of how to conserve and manage Southeast Asia’s biodiversity.  On a larger scale, the World Parks Congress, to be held in November in Australia will present “Parks, people, planet: inspiring solutions.” As a landmark global forum on protected areas it will also discuss issues on biodiversity indulgences.

What indulgences are not—also not the green ones—explains the Catholic online forum Fisheaters: “They are not ‘get-out-of-Hell’ free cards; they are not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin; they are not permission to commit sins in the future.”

Philipp Gassner is a consultant for the Asean Centre for Biodiversity-Biodiversity and Climate Change Project based in Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines. The multimedia versions of his articles are on and follow

Philipp Gassner | Special to the BusinessMirror

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