One Step Forward on Deforestation in Poland…But More Should Have Been Achieved

For the past week and half, climate negotiators have been trying to push forward agreement on important elements of the global efforts to address deforestation and forest degradation emissions.  We took one step forward (but unfortunately many hoped we could have taken two steps forward or more).  The draft agreement (available here) is touted as a: Deal struck on forests in climate talks by some (Associated Press).

Modest progress has been made on one important element — we will now be able to negotiate on the tricky political issues of how incentives will be created, to whom they will they flow, and under what rules.  This is a positive step forward as we will now be able to get down to the “nitty gritty” details on the deforestation debate (as I discussed here, a number of us were stressing this message in a joint letter).

Unfortunately, a number of us had hoped to begin to get agreement on some key details that aren’t caught up in the broader political debate.  These are extremely important elements, but not necessarily as “political” (or so we thought).  In particular, we were hoping to get agreement on:

  1. Protection of biodiversity
  2. Protection of indigenous rights
  3. Ensuring that the full emissions from deforestation were accounted and that deforestation reductions can’t be directly “offset” by replanting of forests

So, how did these important details fair this week?

Protecting indigenous rights?  Ensuring that indigenous lands are preserved and the rights of these indigenous peoples are protected has always been a key issue.  It looked like there was an emerging consensus from the negotiations in Accra, Ghana on this point.  However, some countries have legal issues with an international agreement that enshrines the rights of specific individual groups.  This seems to be the U.S. negotiators stated problem.  Some developing countries also pushed to have it either excluded or seriously watered down.  They either don’t respect the rights of indigenous communities, acknowledge that they exist, and/or want the international community to tell them what to do on this issue.

This one got very messy in the final negotiating text.  Basically, countries are to:

“promote the full and effective participation of indigenous people and local communities, taking into account national circumstances and noting relevant international agreements.”

There is clearly lots of wiggle room for different countries to interpret the outcome, but this agreement at best doesn’t decide anything significant and, at worst, is a step backwards from the consensus emerging in Accra, Ghana.

Can you replace some of the carbon lost from deforestation with tree replanting?  There has been some push by a few sizeable countries (notably Brazil) to be able to get incentives for a “net” reduction in deforestation.  Basically under this “net” approach, countries would be able to chop down forests and make up some (or all) of that forest loss from replanting tress.  If the “net” carbon from the loss of native forests and the replanting are less than their agreed “goal” then they would receive financing incentives based upon this performance.  Needless to say, this is a controversial proposal as many of the co-benefits of preserving the world’s native forests would be lost — such as biodiversity. 

So, while it is theoretically possible (although unlikely as deforestation specialists have told me this week) that the “net” carbon from the replanting could overtake the lost carbon from the deforestation of native forests, it is not a desirable approach for many other reasons.  The EU has pushed back against this position and the recent EU Environment Ministers support a so-called “gross” deforestation accounting system where you couldn’t offset any deforestation loss with replanting.  A number of environmental groups have also gone on record not supporting this position. 

The Brazil position is quite odd to me since in their recent national climate debate they had moved from a “net” approach in their draft plan climate plan to a “gross” approach in their final plan.  Further ensuring that the effort is focused on deforestation reductions will be a very strong political issue for many leaders in capitols around the world as that has been their primary focus.  Other mechanisms are of course needed for encouraging replanting of trees, but mixing them with the deforestation debate isn’t helpful.

The outcome in Poland on this one, doesn’t resolve much.  Much more work needs to be done on this one in 2009 if incentives for deforestation emissions reductions are to take hold.

Resolving these in the future…

We took one step forward in Poland…but we could have taken many more.  We have to seriously increase the pace of negotiations on the tricky issues as our “plate” remains pretty full.  So, where do we go from here?

Clearly more work needs to be done on the political and technical issues before an agreement can be reached in Copenhagen.  Many of us will be working hard to get these technical issues (e.g., indigenous rights, biodiversity, and separation of deforestation incentives from replanting) effectively designed in the international agreement and US legislation to ensure that reducing emissions from deforestation is a key part of our efforts to combat climate change.  We have our work cut out for us, but I’m optimistic it can be done.

Some of technical issues may start to shake out in the domestic debates emerging in the main countries that will likely provide incentives to developing countries that reduce deforestation emissions — the EU and US.  Each of the key legislative proposals in the US had language on biodiversity protection, preserving the rights of indigenous peoples, and keeping deforestation incentives separate from replanting incentives.  It would be ideal to get these enshrined in the international agreement, but I would strongly wager that these key criteria would be enshrined in the actual incentive mechanism designed in the US law (and probably the EU).


Cross-posted from the Natural Resources Defense Council Switchboard.

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