Double counting forest emissions threatens UN climate pact

To have a chance of limiting warming to below 2 degrees, emissions balance sheets submitted to the UN must add up

(Pic: Global Water Forum/Flickr)

(Pic: Global Water Forum/Flickr)

By Hannah Mowat

As officials from more than 190 nations work in Bonn on a draft version of a new global climate on climate change, they should heed the risks of including a mechanism that could sabotage efforts to cut global emissions.

This threat revolves around two things, the extension of UN binding emissions reduction commitments to all countries and the funding of Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+), a system to financially reward governments, companies or forest owners in the global south for keeping their forests standing, thereby potentially reducing emissions.

A new briefing by NGOs Fern and Third World Network, highlights how double-counting could occur if the trading of carbon credits is used to fund the REDD+ mechanism due to be formalised in Paris in December.

Historically the risk of double-counting was limited, since only industrialised countries  had adopted binding emission reduction commitments under the UN, but if this is extended to all countries, both funders and hosts of REDD+ projects will want to claim emissions reductions, thereby bringing the danger that they could be double-counted.

Analysis: ‘Forgotten’ forests need climate cash to halt emissions

To have a chance of limiting warming to below 2 degrees, emissions balance sheets submitted to the UNFCCC must be transparent and must add up. This will only happen if we confront and solve the problem of double-counting.

The EU’s recent submission to global climate negotations on the use of international markets and related accounting, though not specific to REDD+, gives a good idea of what the EU has in mind for trading.

They are suggesting something they have already tested themselves – Joint Implementation – where the country selling offset credits under a new UN climate agreement needs to deduct any credits the country wishes to sell from their emissions balance sheet.

Report: US, EU fall flat on cutting forest emissions

More fundamentally though, to limit global warming to within 2 degrees, we need far more ambition. This could be best achieved through two global goals, to reduce fossil fuel emissions to near zero and to protect and restore existing carbon stocks in natural ecosystems.

Twin goals are needed because of the fundamental differences between fossil and terrestrial cycles, (CO2 released from fossil fuels is a permanent emission, whereas sequestration from land and forests is reversible), it is not possible to directly compare them, so they can’t be part of the same goal.

A two-fold global vision is also the best chance we have at an equitable solution as it will enable more attention to be paid to food security.

The issue of double-counting is not a new problem, although it is one that has yet to be conclusively resolved.

Negotiators must look back at the decisions and documents relating to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change which refer to the need for accounting rules defining which country can claim the emissions reductions when there is more than one claimant. The consequences of failing to do so could be dire.

Hannah Mowat is a campaigner focussing on forests and climate issues at the social and environmental justice NGO, Fern.

Read more on: Carbon markets | Comment | Forests