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As Cancun rumbles on, a closer look at the deforestation text

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Issue date: 
December 09, 2010
Publisher Name: 
Blogs Nature
Jeff Tollefson
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We're now heading into crunch time in Cancun, and suffice it to say that the ultimate fate of everything remains utterly unclear. More on that in a moment, but first let's take a more-detailed look at what is happening within the deforestation talks, where things are either going rather swimmingly or hitting a brick wall, depending on your perspective.

The first thing we need is the latest text from the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action, which is the group that is trying to negotiate a new global treaty (as opposed to a new commitment period under the existing Kyoto Protocol). As of this afternoon, the latest public text could be found here. Everything except the Kyoto Protocol is in this 36-page text, from programmes to promote adaptation and technology transfer to a new climate fund to help poor countries cover their costs (for a more complete list, see Reuters).

The avoided deforestation text falls under the section on "reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation" or REDD. It occupies 2.5 pages (p. 14-17) and looks remarkably clean. There are a few brackets signifying disagreement here and there and exactly two places where environment ministers can play multiple-choice.

The key is in paragraphs 67 and 68. Paragraph 67 basically says that developing countries either "should" or "may voluntarily" (question unresolved) contribute to global climate mitigation efforts by reducing forestry emissions or increasing forest carbon stocks; paragraph 68 describes what they need to do to set up a program so that they can get paid for doing so.

First and third on the list of things they need to do are developing a national plan and establishing a "robust and transparent national forest monitoring program," but it's the second item on the list that has John O. Niles excited. Niles heads the San-Diego based Tropical Forest Group and first appeared on this blog two years ago during the talks in Poznan. He has been pushing negotiators to address how a country actually sets a baseline for emissions from deforestation; the second item does just that by calling for some kind of national or even sub-national "forest reference emission levels" (details to be worked out later).

This reference level serves as the baseline against which all reductions in emissions and deforestation are measured. "Even though it's way down-in-the-weeds technical stuff, it’s really really important," Niles says. "Until we make that call, everybody is just writing papers."


The fact that the current text would allow sub-national reference levels as "interim measures" is just as significant, because that would allow regional programmes to get going while countries gear up. California has already signed an agreement with the Brazilian state of Acre and the Mexican state of Chiapas and is poised to institute a trading system that would define reference levels and enable a limited number of REDD offsets. Such bilateral agreements could move forward either way, Niles says, but an international agreement would open the door wide.

Now for a quick reality check. Some are still raising concerns that the text doesn't do enough to protect the rights of indigenous groups and small landholders, and Bolivia's Evo Morales has threatened to block the entire deal if it includes access to carbon markets. Most REDD advocates back markets because they view government aid as limited and unreliable, but this issue does not necessarily have to be resolved right now.

More importantly, the question in Cancun is whether countries can figure out a way to sidestep the big disputes and frame an incremental agreement on things like deforestation and adaptation and finance. Kyoto negotiators have now begun round-the-clock talks, and everything else may depend on whether they can find a way forward.

We'll see. One theory on these negotiations is that everything always gets done at the last minute simply because the negotiators are so tired that they can't think straight and want to go home.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut