11 February 2012

WWF scandal (part 2): Corporate capture, commodities and carbon trading

A recent article asks whether corporations have captured big conservation? The subheading could have read, “Do bears shit in the woods?”

By Chris Lang | REDD-Monitor | 9th February 2012

In the article, “Way Beyond Greenwashing: Have Corporations Captured Big Conservation?“, Jonathan Latham, takes on big conservation’s role in setting up certification schemes for commodities, including the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS), the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels and the Better Sugar Cane Initiative (Bonsucro). He points out the low and ambiguous standards, such as the request for companies to “volunteer to obey the law”, under the RTRS.

Latham argues that WWF and other big conservation organisations have become too close to corporations, including having corporate representatives on their boards. The “market transformation” that WWF is persuing through its commodity roundtables is extremely industry friendly. “The key question then becomes: did these boards in fact instigate market transformation? Did it come from the very top?”

Latham’s article is excellent and well worth reading if you haven’t done so already.

In the article, Latham refers to a presentation by Jason Clay, Vice President for Market Transformation at WWF US, given in March 2011. Clay’s presentation outlines WWF’s strategy on REDD: bundling commodities and carbon trading.

In 2010, WWF received a total of €56 million (about US$68 million) from corporations. That’s about 11% of WWF’s total income. It’s peanuts, of course, as Clay points out in his presentation. In its 50 years of existence, WWF has raised and spent more than US$10 billion, which is “less than most major companies spend on messaging within one year”, Clay says.

“Who’s gonna win that battle? It’s not gonna be the NGOs, that put all their money into a single advertisement that shows once against the onslaught of others. So we’ve gotta work out how to work with others.”

WWF has produced a map of the world showing 35 priority regions “from a biodiversity and ecosystem services point of view”. WWF then analysed the threats in terms of 15 commodities produced from these regions, including palm oil, pulp and paper, sawn wood, soy, beef and so on. (Strangely absent are oil, gas, coal or any other mined commodities.) WWF then looked at how to influence the environmental impact of these products. There are about 7 billion people on the planet (Clay calls them “consumers”), speaking 7,000 languages. There are 1.4 billion producers of the 15 commodities. But only 300-500 companies control 70-80% of the trade in each of the 15 commodities. “Working with 300-500 companies could be a lot easier than working with 7 billion consumers or 1.4 billion producers,” Clay says.

WWF spent four years researching these commodity traders and found that the 100 largest companies are involved in 25% of the trade in all 15 commodities. And that 25% of demand leverages 40-50% of production, “because producers will change to sell into those markets”, Clay says.

But contacting companies individually takes too long. So WWF decided instead to “work with groups”. Hence the “Commodity Roundtables” that WWF has been setting up, to create what Clay describes as “credible standards that companies can buy products against”.

“We developed the FSC, we developed the MSC, the Forest Stewardship Council, the Marine Stewardship Council. We’ve since done it for almost all those other commodities.”

WWF’s goal is to have 25% of global production of these commodities to be certified by 2020. Clay’s slide makes it look simple:

But as a look at some of the problems with FSC shows, there are serious problems with the certification approach. And FSC is probably the best of these certification systems. That’s not an endorsement of FSC, by the way, just a recognition that the others are even worse.

Clay and WWF are proposing making a bad situation very much worse. In his 2011 talk, Clay mentions environmental externalities. “One of the problems is that we don’t pay the price of anything we buy, because we don’t pay for environmental externalities. So how can we bring externalities back into pricing?” Clay asks. His answer is to bring carbon into the supply chains.

“Why don’t they buy carbon and commodities at the same time? Why don’t they reward farmers for actually sequestering carbon, or avoiding carbon, or changing the trajectory of carbon intensity of the products they make?”

The argument is that because the commodity roundtables include language about reducing deforestation, there exists the possibility of selling the carbon not emitted bundled into the price of the commodity.

In September 2011, a three-day workshop took place in the University of San Diego, California, USA: “The Role of Commodity Roundtables & Avoided Forest Conversion in Subnational REDD+”. It was organised by the National Wildlife Federation, the Governors Climate and Forests Task Force, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, the Agriculture Synergies Project, the Tropical Forest Group and Amigos da Terra (which has nothing to do with Friends of the Earth). Several WWF representatives spoke at the workshop.

Obviously, there are problems with the suggestion of bundling carbon and commodities, not least of which is working out how much carbon is associated with each commodity and determining what the difference might have been if the commodity had been produced outside the vague rules of the commodity roundtable. Then there’s the fact that the rules are not policed particularly closely. And the fact that trading in something that cannot be measured accurately is an extremely high risk investment. Nevertheless, WWF is ploughing on. In his presentation, Clay explained that,

“We’ve just now got some money from the Dutch government, to do assessments of these crops to see how much carbon different farmers in different parts of the world producing these would have to sell with their commodity. Is it one tonne of carbon with every tonne of sugar cane? Is it half a tonne? Is it three tonnes? We need to have an idea of what those numbers are and then we need to draft and peer review a kind of financial approach to how you would do this.”

Clay argues that we can start with carbon, because there already is a carbon market. He appears blissfully unaware of the on-going meltdown in carbon markets. Once the carbon is traded with these commodities, Clay suggests moving on to water, pollinators and biodiversity. “We can widdle away at it, and we can add more things to the price,” he says.

At the end of his presentation Clay asks “Who will manage the planet?” While Clay answers that we all have to, it is obvious from his presentation that Clay and WWF are proposing that corporations, commodity traders and carbon traders should manage the planet. Anyone else think that this is a recipe for disaster?

See also: [WWF scandal (part 1): Bears feeding on toxic corporate waste]
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