Debate Over Bolivia Carbon Project Spotlights Risks

The New York Times published an article highlighting questions surrounding a major forest preservation project in Bolivia sponsored by American Electric Power, BP and PacifiCorp, known the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project.

Greenpeace claims it found that from 1997 to 2009, the estimated reductions from the program had plummeted by 90 percent, to 5.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, down from 55 million tons. It also questioned the “additionality” of the program, which says that a specific forest area would not have been preserved without the program.

What is striking about this matter is not the debate of the project’s effectiveness (given the on-going controversy surrounding the use of forestry in climate risk management).  The surprise was a comment made by Glenn Hurowitz, a director of Avoided Deforestation Partners, a small nonprofit organization that claims to “advance the adoption of U.S. and international climate policies that include effective, transparent, and equitable market and non-market incentives to reduce tropical deforestation”:

In the proposed climate legislation, you can’t get credit for conservation or any other type of offsets until you’ve delivered the offsets. So inaccurate projections would not affect the issuance of credits.

This statement clearly demonstrates a critical business risk in using forestry for carbon management.

While “inaccurate projections” may not impact the issuance of credits, the sequestration calculations/projects have a significant impact on the upfront project support and financing.

It is reasonable to foresee that a failure of forestry to deliver on its projections will have a severely negative impact on the perception of forestry projects as a financially successful and viable carbon risk management tool.

As with any business investment, financial analyses are based on projections about what an investment will deliver in terms relevant to the investment.  In the case of forestry projects, calculations are completed to determine the amount of carbon that is projected to be absorbed and therefore generate the amount of credits/offsets.  These offsets create a financial return in terms of both cost avoidance and potentially revenue.  Financial analyses may be completed for different carbon management options and an investment is made in accordance with the option judged to be the “best” as defined by the criteria applied by the investor.

So what happens if the projections are inaccurate?  Sure, some offsets will likely be delivered by the project.  But will the investment deliver the anticipated return?  Will a shortfall trigger the need for pollution control investments and/or non-compliance penalties?

There continues to be a critical need to reduce risk in forestry-based carbon management investment.  As we have discussed before, it is advisable to take a deep dive into to uptake calculation methodologies, delivery milestones and scenario planning in advance of such investments.

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