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ZDF is Wrong to Claim Magical Thinking Will Meet the Climate Challenge

In its June 21 episode of Frontal, German broadcaster ZDF fundamentally distorts the role that carbon finance plays in promoting sustainable land management, thereby undermining efforts to meet the climate challenge that the producers purport to be supporting.

This distortion flows directly from the misstatements of two campaigners whose opinions featured prominently in the piece – despite the fact that they run contrary to the overwhelming preponderance of scientific thought and available evidence. This tendency to “magnify the minority” is exactly the kind of coverage that has undermined trust in climate science and delayed climate action for decades.

The piece takes aim at a project that successfully leveraged carbon finance to turn degraded cattle land into a sustainably-managed timber project, which pulls carbon from the atmosphere and locks it in harvested wood products. The most egregious and obvious error involves the claim that carbon finance played no role in creating the project. This claim is actually proven false by another interviewee, Dan Guapura of Agroempresa Forestal SA.

Guapura explains, on camera, that carbon finance de-risked the project and attracted investors, but the ZDF narrator’s dismissal of Mr. Guapura’s statement illustrates the production team’s lack of understanding of carbon finance. The project’s audited documents not only explain the rationale behind the project but list the relevant methodologies and identify the auditors as well as their credentials while including notes from their investigation.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) oversaw the creation of this particular methodology through the Clean Development Mechanism, and it did so because investors were leery of the higher costs and lower returns associated with sustainable timber projects. The goal, in other words, was to improve the financial viability of sustainable forest management – an objective one of the featured campaigners has long opposed on ideological grounds. While such outlier voices should be heard, they must not be amplified above those of people with bona fide expertise in the field.

Any change in land use involves risk, and timber projects incur higher costs and risks than does the cattle grazing which dominates the region. Those risks increase when longer rotations are layered in to accommodate sustainable practices. Both the project design document and the audited verification report quantify the degree to which the internal rate of return (IRR) fell short of that needed to attract investors without carbon finance, and one section of the project area generated only half the rate that less sustainable practices would have generated.

The documents further show that the project was part of a larger and very successful effort to attract investment into such activities. Indeed, they show that carbon finance supported a staggering 94 percent of the timber plantations created in Uruguay from 2006 through 2011, and that it did so by helping to overcome multiple challenges that ZDF either ignores or scoffs at: namely, the lack of access to long-term credit, the nervousness among land owners and local communities about abandoning cattle ranching and embracing something new, the lack of local workers who could perform the task, and the cost of transporting timber from remote areas.

Accounting procedures have certainly advanced since the project began, and healthy scrutiny is needed to ensure continued improvement, but simplistic opinions built on false premises and devoid of evidence aren’t healthy scrutiny. They are magical thinking of the worst kind.

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