Forests ‘without a prayer’ if UN pact shuns tough tree talk

Climate deal set to sign off on forest-saving initiative first proposed in 2005, but strong signal to stop deforestation truer test

(Pic: CIAT/Flickr)

Emissions from forest clearance and conversion of land to agriculture account for a quarter of global greenhouse gases (Pic: CIAT/Flickr)

By Alex Pashley

Forests twice the size of Portugal were hacked down worldwide last year, from the Amazon to previously pristine jungles of Southeast Asia and Madagascar.

Together with farming practices, trees loss accounts for around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. As global demand for commodities like soy and beef rebounds, forests are facing renewed strain.

That is why an anticipated global warming accord next month must signal a deforestation crackdown, says Kevin Conrad, a climate diplomat from Papua New Guinea.

Conrad pioneered the UN-backed REDD+ (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation of forests), set to be finalised in Paris next month after ten years of talks.

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Under the initiative, donors pay forest nations to leave trees standing – locking in carbon – through a system of carbon credits.

A chief instrument to slow tree-cutting, it’s mentioned in a latest 55-page UN draft climate deal. There is no guarantee it will make the final agreement, however, with envoys under pressure to deliver a more concise document.

As governments in tropical forest nations balance the competing demands of agribusiness and conservation, a clear signal is key.

“If Paris comes out and says REDD+ is an important part of the climate solution – that the world is committed to implement it and capitalise it – it will have a chance in cabinet discussions,” says Conrad.

“If we’re silent, it’s without a prayer,” adds Conrad, who now negotiates for Panama and heads the 43-strong Coalition of Rainforest Nations bloc.

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REDD+ schemes are planned or running in 29 countries, including Brazil, Indonesia and Zambia.

Those are backed by donor governments – US$9.8bn has been pledged to date, with Norway responsible for nearly a third of all funding.

Overseas development aid alone will not deliver an estimated $20 billion a year needed to halve deforestation, says Gustavo Silva-Chavez at Forest Trends, a Washington-based NGO.

A climate pact must agree countries can deliver pledged emission cuts through buying credits in carbon markets, he argues. “We need REDD and land-use to be explicitly mentioned in mitigation and finance.”

But a market needs buyers and sellers, and REDD is not guaranteed to work. A UN-backed scheme for countries to meet Kyoto carbon cuts, the Clean Development Mechanism, languishes after a collapse in demand.

Meanwhile, who reaps the benefits of carbon-sucking forests highlights the need for clearer rules to avoid double counting.

Brazil has no plan to export credits, Bloomberg reported last month, despite Californian proposals to use credits from the Amazonian region of Acre to meet environmental targets at home.

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Forests cover just under a third of the planet’s land mass, or 4 billion hectares, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization.

Deforestation continues apace. Over the last decade there was a net loss of 6.2 million hectares, down from 8.3m between 1990 and 2000, the Rome-based UN agency says.

Forest cleared for agriculture in Acre, Brazil (Pic: CIFOR/Kate Evans)

Forest cleared for agriculture in Acre, Brazil (Pic: CIFOR/Kate Evans)

This year nearly 160 countries covering over 90% of carbon emissions have submitted contributions towards a Paris pact this December.

But slowing emissions from forests and agriculture has been neglected, says Doug Boucher of the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

“There’s a tendency to leave it out and talk about fossil fuels and energy,” says the director of the group’s tropical forest and climate programme.

“That leaves out a fourth of emissions. It’s the only sector that can lead to negative emissions in the second half of the century.”

Scientists say trees and technologies to suck CO2 out of the air will be critical to keep warming within the 2C threshold agreed by governments.

What have the world’s largest tropical forest nations (by area) pledged to a UN deal?

  1. Brazil unconditional target of zero illegal deforestation by 2030, restoring and reforesting 12 million hectares (ha) of forests, 15 m ha of degraded pasturelands.
  2. Democratic Republic of the Congo – target conditional on foreign aid to plant 3m has of forests by 2025, protect an additional 152 m ha.
  3. Indonesia – mentions benefits of 2009 moratorium on clearing primary forests and 2010-2016 ban on peat clearance, but no indication if they will continue.
  4. Peru – no explicit target for forests in pledge, though intends to end deforestation by 2021 as condition of Norway REDD funding.
  5. India – plans to create additional carbon sink of 2.5-3bn tons of co2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030. Depends on international finance.

According to a UCS report, top tropical forest nations aren’t doing enough to rein in deforestation.

Indonesia lacks solid plans to tackle its smouldering peatlands, which on some days last month generated emissions equal to the entire US economy.

Brazil is putting off banning illegal deforestation in the Amazon for 15 years. Meanwhile, India’s goal to create a “carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent” through tree-planting by 2030 is ambitious but not backed up by clear policy.

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Chris Lang, the Jakarta-based editor of website REDD-Monitor, says the forest protection initiative’s place in a new agreement is “not all that relevant.”

REDD has triggered an important conversation but its impact so far has been negligible, says Lang, an activist who set up the site to probe abuses in 2008.

Concerns abound whether it simply displaces forest destroyers and if local tribes could lose their traditional rights over lands under the scheme. It’s almost impossible to know what might have occurred without each project.

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Earlier this year Norway, the EU and Switzerland successfully demanded tougher measures to ensure environmental and human rights “safeguards”, and faced a Brazil-Africa coalition resistant to new guidelines.

But progress in technical talks hasn’t resolved these deeper questions, Lang says. Then there’s the issue of entrusting governments known for corruption with huge flows of finance.

Countering deforestation is “fiendishly complicated,” he adds, but says giving land titles and greater rights to indigenous groups is an established weapon against illegal and commercial loggers.

But for Conrad, the diplomat, forests haven’t time to wait.

“We’re arguing: get REDD+ in as safe harbour, and once we can show how it works successfully… we’ll move to the whole land sector.”

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