COP15 Primer (part 4): Stemming Global Deforestation Emissions

The World Comes Together in Copenhagen There was an extensive debate in the lead-in to the Kyoto Protocol (and after) about whether incentives for reducing deforestation would be recognized as a part of the agreement.  For a number of reasons countries didn’t agree to include deforestation incentives, but did agree to allow increased forest cover to count.  Unfortunately a lot of the world’s forests were lost in the meantime.
But things changed…

In 2005, Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica proposed that deforestation incentives be included in the future international agreement to address global warming.  And thus launched the formal negotiations on reducing emissions for deforestation and forest degradation (REDD).

This was a very positive step as deforestation accounts for an estimated 15% of the world’s global warming pollution — an amount equivalent to the emissions from all the cars, trucks, ships, and airplanes in the world.  And its loss has untold ramifications on water, stability of countries, forest dependent people, etc. (as I’ve discussed here and here).

This negotiation has gone through its normal ups and downs and there is still disagreement on some key issues (as you can see here).  But we’ve seen some very positive movement to: turn the corner on efforts to combat global deforestation (my “key element” 3).
There has been a huge amount of consensus on deforestation in the global warming negotiations:

  1. All key countries — developed and developing countries — are supportive of efforts to address deforestation. It has been quiet a surprise at how many countries have now signaled that they support efforts to address deforestation.  It is a diverse group, which makes it more likely that clear support will be provided in the Copenhagen agreement and the final legal agreement.
  2. Key deforesting countries have shown willingness to curb their deforestation rates.  Brazil and Indonesia two of the largest deforesting countries have sent clear signals that they’ll curb their deforestation (as I discussed in Part 3).  And countries ranging from Peru to Guyana and Costa Rica to Vietnam (and many more in-between) are beginning to take steps to reduce their deforestation rates.  Is it all smooth?  Of course not, but you can’t solve this challenge if you don’t have the will to take action of key deforesting countries.
  3. Recognition that there is a need for a variety of incentives. There has been an extensive debate on whether funding should come from market (e.g., carbon offsets) or non-market (e.g., public funding and set asides of revenues from a climate bill).  While there are still some disagreements, there is an emerging view that the answer is both.  We need to leverage sizeable investments and both market and non-market funding can tap into different aspects of the solution to addressing deforestation.  This was recognized in the climate bill that passed the US House of Representatives (as I discussed here) and will hopefully be retained in the Senate.

So this is why there is optimism that the agreement that is reached in Copenhagen will include a separate accord on deforestation (as I discussed here).  And given that there is agreement on such important overarching issues around deforestation, there is an expectation that this portion of the agreement will likely be further progressed than other aspects of the Copenhagen agreement.  That is good news as it will make it easier to translate these agreements into legally binding commitments that have all the “i’s dotted” and “t’s crossed”.  And that is good news for the loss of the world’s tropical forests — as it will hopefully unleash all our efforts to solving this critical challenge.

But there are some important details that will have to be resolved before the final legal agreement is done.  And these will be the subject of intense negotiation in Copenhagen (and beyond), so here are some key issues to watch:

  1. The scope of the incentives.  The debate around deforestation has increased focus on other sources of emissions and sequestration (e.g., reforesting) from the land-use sector.  So REDD has now been extended to REDD+ (where the plus means agriculture soil, tree planting, etc. depending on who you talk to).  This is very positive as we’ll need to “reduce all the emissions and suck all the carbon out of the air that we can” if we are to solve this challenge.  But we think it is critical to keep a very sharp focus on deforestation and forest degradation and develop separate incentives for other aspects of the “+”.  Trying to create a single incentive mechanism that solves everything through one set of rules sounds good on paper, but will be too dependent on every rule being defined exactly right (a situation that never actually works in the real world).
  2. Avoiding incentives to convert native forests. We don’t want to create an incentive program that on the one hand is supporting efforts to reduce deforestation and on the other hand is providing incentives for converting native forests.  It would be like paying for car insurance that covers damage only from hitting other cars and then driving your car off a cliff.   It would be like paying for car insurance that rewards drivers who stay within speed limits and rewards drivers that text while on the road.
  3. Methodologies to ensure robust measurement and accounting of the emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.  We have come a long way towards having a system to track the loss of forests throughout the world and to assess the carbon impact of that loss.  But as they always say “the devil is in the details”.  There are some proposals floating around that won’t provide the necessary level of assurance on measurement and accounting.  We need to have a program that creates a clear “gold standard” on this front.  If the system doesn’t pass the laugh test then it won’t be able to attract the necessary public and private investment.  As one movie put it (sort of): “they built and no one came”.
  4. What kind of “safeguards” are included? There are critical issues around ensuring protections for biodiversity and indigenous and forest dependent peoples that need to be addressed before this whole thing is completed.  And we need to have clear safeguards that the investments are going to real, concrete actions on the ground.  I believe that we can address these issues, but we can’t rely on the “good faith” of all players — we need clear rules and standards.

Two (maybe three) steps closer to finally turning the corner.  As NRDC’s President Frances Beinecke has discussed, we are hopeful that we’ll see some agreement in Copenhagen on deforestation.  We’ve made huge progress since the negotiations on deforestation began in earnest.
Let’s make sure we don’t lose the forest for the trees.
Jake Schmidt is the International Climate Policy Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, this article is cross-posted from his blog at NRDC’s Switchboard

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