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Susan Williams
University Communications

Last modified: Monday, December 14, 2009

Ostrom for forest advocates: Sounding good is not enough

Dec. 14, 2009

COPENHAGEN -- Elinor Ostrom sounded a note of caution Sunday (Dec. 13) at World Forest Day 3, a gathering of nongovernment organizations and environmental advocates working to keep forest protection at the forefront of the agenda for the United Nations climate change talks taking place in Copenhagen.

Ostrom World Forest Day 3

Photo by Steve Hinnefeld

Reporters crowd around Elinor Ostrom to ask questions after a news conference at World Forest Day 3 in Copenhagen.

Print-Quality Photo

"Beware of simple formulas," she told an audience of 500-plus in the opening plenary session of the conference at Copenhagen's Radisson Blu Falconer Hotel. "Sounding good is not enough."

Ostrom, the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science at Indiana University and the co-recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, shared the plenary stage with another Nobel Laureate: Rajendra Kumar Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

Also speaking at the opening plenary session was Gro Harlem Bruntland, the UN special envoy on climate change and chair of the commission that, with the "Our Common Future" report in 1987, introduced the concept of sustainable development. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton greeted the conference participants via recorded video.

Some 1,600 people, including several hundred delegates to the UN climate conference, were registered for the forest conference, which is sponsored by the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, the Collaborative Partnership on Forests and the Denmark Environment Ministry. Booths for 38 NGOs and government agencies lined the hotel lobby, and participants, students and journalists crowded the halls and stairways.

The conversation focused on the climate-change tactic called REDD -- reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, deforestation accounts for 17 percent of global emissions of greenhouse gases.

Ostrom said she favors the concept but worries it could be implemented in a way that does more harm than good. She said she is skeptical that top-down government protection of forests is likely to be effective, and she cited research that shows forests may be best protected when local users of forest products are involved in creating and enforcing rules for how the forests are governed.

"If local users and indigenous peoples are not recognized and given clear rights, REDD could lead to more deforestation," she said.

Pachauri said reducing deforestation is "by far, the most cost-effective mitigation that can be adopted" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change. But he agreed with Ostrom that there will be right and wrong ways of implementing REDD policies.

"I believe what Professor Ostrom says is actually correct," he said. "This is an area where top-down policies are not going to work."

Ostrom, Pachauri, Bruntland and CIFOR Director General Frances Seymour fielded questions from news media after their talks, and then they attended other sessions of the conference. Ostrom returns to Stockholm tonight and travels Monday to the Swedish university town of Uppsala to meet with faculty members.