Conversations about Carbon · Episode 1 · Dr Glen Reynolds

22 May 2024 by Acre
blog author

As part of the new interview series, Conversations about Carbon, Aysen Naylor, our Senior Research Consultant – APAC, will be speaking with experts to share knowledge surrounding the nature-based solutions (NbS) sector. This provides the opportunity to increase awareness, explore trends and unpack challenges, misinformation and potential backlash that may arise when trying to protect biodiversity.

Today’s first instalment features Dr Glen Reynolds, Director of South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership(SEARRP), and focuses on the conservation programmes he has been running in Sabah, Malaysia, for more than 20 years.

When Dr Reynolds isn’t running scientific research programmes, you may recognise him from his work with Dame Judi Dench on her Wild Borneo series or with Sir David Attenborough while filming in the Danum Valley (SEARRP’s HQ). The Prince and Princess of Wales also visited Dr Reynolds and the wildlife research laboratory during their tour of South-east Asia.

While these exciting opportunities are a huge privilege, Dr Reynolds’s main passion lies within the research programme he facilitates with scientists to provide scientific-based solutions for rainforest conservation, sustainability, and climate change as well as advising policy makers and those involved in managing natural resources.

The partnership also conducts work around carbon financing, through the voluntary carbon market.

Watch the interview:

How would you describe the conservation landscape in Malaysia?

Very sadly, South-east Asia still has among the highest rates of deforestation in the tropics and if we are to maintain species diversity and tackle some of the issues raised by climate change, it's crucial these natural habitats are protected and restored.

I think nature-based solutions and carbon finance have the potential to arrest some of the more pressing conservation concerns in the South-east Asian region.

Why has Malaysia not been a successful leader of carbon projects, considering it’s one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet?

Legislation across Malaysia hasn’t kept momentum around interest in forest-based carbon financing and forests are the jurisdiction of the individual states, which introduces another layer of complexity.

We are fortunate in Sabah that there is fantastic scientific data when you are trying to get a forest-based carbon financing project over the line.

We have a supportive political environment and civil society so if there’s one place in Malaysia to pilot a carbon financing project, you could do a lot worse than Sabah. We have just got a major forest-based carbon financing project over the line, with our partners and a carbon developer Permian Global. The project is now trading carbon in partnership with The Sabah Foundationand the Forestry Department.

 

Which nature-based solutions will have the biggest success in Malaysia?

In the near term it’s likely to be carbon-related solutions – you can see the attraction of carbon – one voluntary carbon unit is the same in Malaysia as it is in Peru or Plymouth. It’s a nice fungible, tradeable unit.

Biodiversity solutions are more complex; how do you value an orangutan in Sabah versus a cod fish in the North Sea? It’s very problematic and you see these solutions working with variable success.

How can we accurately calculate biodiversity improvements on carbon offsetting projects?

Biodiversity, in most cases, is not straightforward to measure or monitor and assessing gains from forest protection (or major intervention like forest restoration) takes time. A forest takes a long while to recover from damage and the biodiversity indicators of a species most sensitive to change is lengthy and difficult to monitor.

Technology will ride to the rescue – the use of modern molecular techniques, or AI-based tools and bioacoustics will help.

There’ll be a high demand in restoration-linked opportunities to demonstrate impact and provide evidence around the restoration work that carbon financing will hopefully provide.

We are seeing a big trend in the broader sustainability market surrounding technology, innovation and traditional sustainability methods. How will the team structure evolve?

Science will play a crucial role; you won’t be able to wave an iPhone around the forest to magically assess the level of supported biodiversity.

I don’t think there will be any diminution of scientists’ roles or the sophisticated analysis from university-based research academics and other conservation scientists.

The corporate sector hierarchy needs advocates and champions at all levels up to the C-Suite and board level. It is unusual to see anyone with scientific expertise sitting as a non-executive director.

It is changing though. Bigger corporations are looking to set up biodiversity research units. It would be nice to see it not just discussed at board level but informed by non-executive directors who deeply understand climate change, biodiversity and habitat loss.

What are your key highlights from your time in Sabah?

Danum Valley, where our research programme has been based for 40 years, was already an area of protected pristine forest.

It’s a priceless jewel of forest and probably the most important area of lowland rainforest left in South-east Asia. I hope our programme has contributed to the completely protected and large buffer of forest that is four times the size of Greater London. The carbon project filled in the last piece of that jigsaw.

If we have made even a modest contribution to the evidence base that has led to those decisions, that’s my highlight, along with securing and collating a fantastic team of senior staff who have been with us for 25-30 years.

What’s your secret to retention?

We make a difference and, hopefully, over the next few years, we’re working across Malaysia into Indonesia which is really exciting, with new partners including biodiversity plantation companies, forestry firms, carbon financing companies and carbon developers. Hopefully, we will strengthen our position that allows science to be translated into conservation actions on the ground.

What are the key skill sets required for building out a team for a carbon offsetting project?

No company should expect to cover the full range of science that might contribute to a project so I hope we’ve been able to plug whatever skills gaps might exist, like biodiversity monitoring.

Those science-based skills are important, but so is engaging with scientists who can translate into a form that can be understood by a CEO, a CSO, or a non-executive director.

Published science is often hard to understand. It is important to seek and nurture those skills of a scientist, conservationist or someone in the sustainability space who can pull together high-quality science research and quickly turn it into a digestible form. You won’t get a CEO to read a 30-page report on the importance of saving the lantern bug in the lowland rainforest of eastern Sabah, so having that aptitude to bring science together in a digestible form is really important.