Forests Stand Taller after UN Climate Negotiations in Cancun
The challenge to delegates at United Nations (UN) climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico was to “Show Cancun Can!”. And for forests, Cancun did! To rousing applause, UN negotiators from more than 190 countries took steps towards a global climate treaty, including agreement on long-sought language for forests.
Developing countries in the tropics now have guidance to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from forest loss, capture more carbon from the atmosphere, protect biodiversity, provide safeguards for local communities and indigenous people, and share the benefits of new revenue from climate protection. But the cheering in Cancun now flips the mirror back towards the United States – how well do our own forest carbon policies match up?
The carbon emitted from global forest loss almost equals the emissions from the entire transportation sector, so we can’t ignore it. In 2007, UN negotiators agreed to forge a program for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) to combat the alarming loss of tropical forests. Since then scientists and forest advocates, development banks and UN agencies, financial investors and coalitions from civil society have been debating how to counter the forces that drive deforestation.
At a basic level, forests are converted to other uses simply because they are more valuable as “something else.” Whether it’s space for industrial agriculture, a source of fuel wood, a cache of illegal logs or a frontier for urban development, the monetary value of the standing forest is often simply less than whatever the alternative may be. Fighting forest loss thus means putting the full value of forests and their environmental services – including climate change mitigation – back into the analysis.
But creating incentives for conserving and stewarding forests isn’t a simple matter. Just offering money to developing countries isn’t sustainable – building the foundations of government capacity must come first. Hence a big part of forest negotiations has centered on requirements to develop national forest policies, track forest cover and ensure local participation in design of forest-based projects to reduce carbon emissions and enhance forest co-benefits. Two key players have funded the first phases of capacity building, the World Bank’s “Forest Carbon Partnership Facility” and UN-REDD, a coalition of UN development and environment agencies.
Methods for measuring forest carbon have blossomed as well. What was once thought impossible is now doable, thanks to advances in interpreting satellite imagery combined with ground sampling. At the COP 16 “Forest Day” event, Google Earth Engine announced a contribution of free access to all global Landsat images covering the past 25 years, free computing time to developing countries to assess land use change, and a free application for local communities to enter ground-truth data on handheld recorders.
So hurrah! Tropical deforestation is in the international spotlight. Government institutions are building to create forest-based climate solutions, forest carbon accounting data is becoming available and people are empowered to engage.
But here in the United States? We still have much work to do to reduce loss of our temperate forests. Sixty percent of US forestland is in private ownership. Researchers increasingly recognize these cool temperate forests as a powerful climate defense. But landowners here at home are under steady pressure to convert and develop their lands, and few policies address the resulting climate impacts. This year’s stalled national climate and energy legislation held important forest provisions, but there’s little optimism for revival soon.
Most industrial timber owners plan for conversion when the time is right, and value their land at development prices. Family forest owners are especially affected by carrying costs, probate taxes and depressed timber markets. And just like the tropics, the spiral of deforestation emits stored carbon, destroys future sequestration potential, shrinks biodiversity and changes rural livelihoods.
Brighter prospects are seen in the states. California’s move to include forests in its cap-and-trade market is a success that started in 2002, when PFT introduced the first legislation to develop protocols for tracking forest carbon sinks as well as emissions. The state’s subsequent “no net forest loss” policy, combined with statewide accounting of forest emissions and gains, helps California track progress towards the emissions reduction target in its comprehensive climate plan . Several other states also offer specific funding for working forest easements and incentives to keep owners on their land.
The fantastic technical capacity of our federal agencies (including NOAA, USGS and USDA) to display climate impacts with floating globes and eye-catching media was the highlight of the U.S. Centers at international climate talks in both Copenhagen and Cancun. Obvious by its silence, though, were discussions of U.S. climate targets and policy.
The solar-powered engines of our forests stand right in line with the high-tech research and development for a climate-friendly economy. Cancun and California demonstrate the proof of concept for forests. Now it’s time for the United States to scale up.
Pacific Forest Trust Board Secretary
Ms. Tuttle served as Director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) from March 1999 to June 2004. She has also served as Chair of the California Fire Alliance, member of the National Association of State Foresters (NASF) and Western States Forestry Leadership Coalition. In addition to her work with PFT, she has served on the California Coastal Commission and Northcoast Regional Water Quality Control Board.