Leveraging Forests for Climate Change Promises
Forests can emit carbon dioxide when the land is cleared, especially through burning, or when trees are left to rot. On the flip side, forests can soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates about 20% of global carbon dioxide emissions come from deforestation, which is roughly the same as transportation. The world has tried before to develop a global deforestation treaty, with very limited success. The new treatment of forests as carbon emitters and sinks, however, created an agreement in Cancun.
Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) is a simple concept, until you start to work out the details. In essence, REDD provides payments to keep forests intact and healthy so they stop emitting carbon dioxide and start soaking it out of the atmosphere. Many activities will qualify, including forest conservation, sustainable management and replanting. Six countries (US, UK, Australia, Norway, Japan and France) announced US$3.5 billion to kick-start REDD+ activities. Over another billion has been added since. These funds will add to efforts already underway by the World Bank and the UN. REDD is, perhaps, the most substantive part of the Cancun Climate Accord.
A year ago in Copenhagen, REDD was also considered ripe for agreement. However, the agreement didn’t come and parties spent another year wrestling over contentious topics, particularly funding. Over the summer, the REDD+ Partnership was created to oversee the funds. It became mired in controversy for its lack of inclusion and slow pace. Governments, notably Bolivia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, started to backtrack on previous progress, introducing fundamental changes to REDD, including removing the word “emissions.” The previous promise of REDD retreated among fears, and some cautious optimism, that REDD would again fail in Cancun.
We have an agreement, signed by all states except Bolivia. The agreement tasks developing countries, who voluntarily participate, to develop national REDD plans that include environmental and social safeguards. These safeguards, although in an annex, specify natural biodiversity and local communities are to be protected. The agreement lays out three phases for activity. Phase one is a capacity building stage to help developing countries develop monitoring capacity, information about forest stocks and national plans. Phase two involves implementation and continued capacity building. Finally, results are measured against the baseline created in phase one and credits are earned. A key component is that REDD is results-based. All avoided emissions must be monitored, reported and verified.
There are important pieces missing. The two standouts are financing and monitoring. It may cost$17-33 billion to halve emissions from the forestry sector by 2030 according a review commissioned by the UK government. Some countries want a market system where developing countries can sell their REDD credits to developed countries. Other states, such as Bolivia and Brazil, want a fund-based system, where developed countries would provide financing for REDD activities as part of their overseas development assistance. The current agreement is silent which option is preferred, although a fund is established for the short term. The other important missing piece is monitoring. Currently, there is no standard way to monitor carbon emissions from forests, although there is guidance from the IPCC and private sector initiatives. Substantial technical work remains to make REDD credits based on actual, measured results.
How did we get from fear in September to an agreement (albeit an incomplete one)? By linking deforestation and climate change, new leverage points and incentives created political will in developed and developing countries. Developing countries can create a new source of income by conserving or rebuilding their forests. Developed states might be able to earn credits, but more importantly, earn leverage over each other. The U.S. has stated developing countries must shoulder some of the burden and reduce emissions. This reason is often used to justify American inaction. REDD provides the opportunity for developing countries to reduce their emissions. With developing countries on board, the EU can claim the US no longer has reason to avoid reducing its emissions.
Countries that threw up roadblocks earlier, such as Saudi Arabia, might have also been appeased in the broader climate change accord. The Cancun Accord leaves the door open to carbon capture and storage becoming part of the Clean Development Mechanism, once leakage and other technical issues are resolved. Saudi Arabia argued for this technology’s inclusion because it allows oil production to continue while emissions reduce, meaning demand for Saudi oil can continue.
While the world failed to address deforestation in a global treaty before, we now have one in the guise of a climate agreement. Until funding and monitoring are addressed, the merits of the agreement cannot be fully assessed. The ability of the REDD to translate into meaningful reductions by developing countries may spell out the likelihood of a more substantive climate agreement. If REDD fails to lead to reductions in developing countries, old excuses for inaction remain. If REDD succeeds, then the world is hard pressed for diplomatic reasons to refuse a meaningful agreement. Linking these issues has linked their successes and failures. Success in global climate governance may hinge on the details of REDD.
Jennifer Allan is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of British Columbia. Her interests are the global environmental politics of forest governance.