(08-29) 17:34 PDT Mill Valley — Rangers patrol a dusty forest in southern Kenya, keeping a watchful eye out for poachers.
Although they roam near the borders of two national parks, their salaries don’t come from the Kenyan government. They’re employees of a small Mill Valley company, Wildlife Works.
And the rangers don’t just protect the local wildlife. They’re trying to protect the Earth’s climate as well.
Wildlife Works sells a kind of “carbon offset,” one of the more controversial weapons in the fight against global warming. Companies concerned about climate change pay Wildlife Works to keep the forest intact, since chopping down and burning trees releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the air.
The companies pay to keep specific amounts of carbon locked in the trees and out of the atmosphere. They then use those purchases to offset their own greenhouse gas emissions – hence the term. For the companies it’s strictly voluntary, a way of building customer goodwill by showing concern for the planet.
Funds go to communities
Wildlife Works uses some of the money to pay the rangers. But the majority of the cash goes to communities near the Kenyan forest. Local committees pick development projects to fund, usually building schools or systems for collecting rainwater.
In addition, Wildlife Works has built three small clothing factories in the area, their walls made of pounded earth. Inside, villagers crank out T-shirts sold worldwide by Puma, as part of the apparel company’s Wilderness Collection.
The whole point is to save the climate by saving forests, while giving communities nearby a way to develop their economies without razing trees. “The only way to protect a forest that’s under economic threat is to remove the economic threat,” said the company’s founder, Mike Korchinsky. “And the only way to do that is to give the community another way of achieving their goals. Because they’re not going to not develop.”
Wildlife Works belongs to a field known as Redd, short for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Korchinsky’s business model is referred to as Redd+, with the plus sign signifying that community development is one of the key goals.
Redd has been the subject of a sometimes fierce international debate.
Critics say Redd projects do little to slow global warming. It’s hard to prove, they say, that a particular forest would disappear without the intervention of Wildlife Works or some other, similar company. And even if a Redd project does save one forest from destruction, the loggers or farmers who might have been tempted to cut it down may simply move on to another forest elsewhere, a problem known as “leakage.” In the end, the same number of trees may be lost, just in a different location.
Most importantly, critics contend that Redd gives big companies in the developed world an excuse for not curbing their carbon emissions. It’s like paying penance while continuing to sin.
“The idea that it’s a ‘Get Out of Jail’ card just isn’t tenable,” said Rolf Skar, forest campaign director for Greenpeace USA. “You have to do both – you have to protect forests and cut emissions.”
Demonstrate forests in peril
Keenly aware of those criticisms, Wildlife Works and other Redd+ companies use a shared methodology to demonstrate that the forests they promise to defend are indeed in peril. They look at nearby forests that have already been destroyed or degraded – typically by loggers, farmers or people burning trees for charcoal – and use those real-life results to calculate the risk.
Leakage, meanwhile, can be addressed by expanding Redd projects to cover larger areas. Wildlife Works is working with the Democratic Republic of the Congo to develop a project that would encompass a swath of forest nearly as large as England, said Gerald Prolman, the company’s executive vice president of business development.
“The fact that we’ve proven the model on a local scale means we now have the attention of national governments trying to design national programs,” Prolman said. Doing otherwise – starting at a national level instead of local – would be “almost like trying to swallow an apple without taking a bite first,” he said. The Kenya project protects a forest and wildlife corridor connecting two national parks, Tsavo East and Tsavo West. Since 2010, the project has returned about $3.5 million to the local communities, Prolman said.
About one-third of that money went to community development projects selected by committees of local residents. Another third took the form of direct payments to the 4,500 people and families who own the land. The final third went to the project’s overhead, including salaries for the factory workers and the rangers. The company counts roughly 300 full-time local employees, plus another 400 seasonal workers.
Offsets sold by the ton
Like other Redd+ businesses, Wildlife Works sells its offsets by the ton. Client companies, such as Microsoft and Barclays Bank, buy the offsets to compensate for some of their own carbon emissions.
Microsoft, for example, pledged last year to make its operations carbon-neutral. T.J. DiCaprio, the company’s senior director of environmental sustainability, said Microsoft meets that pledge in part by cutting the amount of energy its offices and data centers need. But Microsoft also relies on offsets, buying 8,308 metric tons from Wildlife Works to date. She doesn’t consider that penance.
“I’d pivot that around,” DiCaprio said. “I’d say it’s an opportunity for Microsoft to help create a low-carbon economy in the developing world.”
So far, Redd and Redd+ offsets are a strictly voluntary market. They can’t be used in Europe’s cap-and-trade system, in which companies buy and sell permits to emit greenhouse gases. They also aren’t part of California’s new cap-and-trade market, although that might change in the future. The state agency that created the market is monitoring Redd projects in Brazil and Mexico to see if they could someday be included.
“That’s all we’re doing – observing,” said Dave Clegern, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. “It’s going to be a long time before we’re going to deal with any Redd projects.”
Korchinsky said that inclusion in California’s market – if it comes – would transform the Redd+ market.
“It would send a signal,” he said. “The signal is critically important, because it sends a message to buyers that these credits are real.”
David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @DavidBakerSF