Forests and agriculture | Opinion

More focus on the forests in Paris at COP21

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Must be on the agenda

There’s a ready-made solution that can go a long way to tackling climate change, but will halting forest destruction get a proper hearing in Paris?

We’ve been here before. Tackling deforestation is a route to win the fight against climate change. Effective forest protection would make a big impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

Halving the global rate of deforestation by 2020 and stopping it by 2030 could reduce emissions by between 4.5 billion and 8.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2030, according to the New York Declaration on Forests, a non-binding United Nations-brokered agreement signed in September 2014. This could represent about 20% of annual global emissions.

The New York Declaration on Forests was signed by countries from Belgium to Vietnam, by NGOs, and by companies including Asia Pulp and Paper, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Wal-Mart and Wilmar. Signatories agreed to an “action agenda”, which for companies included promises to eliminate deforestation from supply chains and to support sustainable commodity production and trade.

Forests also feature in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which go even further than the New York Declaration on Forests and say deforestation should be halted by 2020.

Forests not foremost

So why haven’t forests featured more prominently ahead of the United Nations climate summit in Paris? Measures on deforestation have been included in only some of the pre-Paris emissions-reduction pledges made by countries (known as intended nationally determined contributions, INDCs).

According to an assessment of the implementation of the New York declaration by consultants Climate Focus, only 40 out of 122 INDCs “have included specific actions on land use and forests” (the number of INDCs has since increased to 149, and more might contain forest-related measures).

The Climate Focus analysis also finds that, despite the New York declaration, there is no sign of any slowing in the rate of forest clearance – though the analysis also notes that only one year after the declaration, it is “too early to draw conclusions about progress in most areas”. Certainly there is a lot more to do.

REDD minus?

It is unlikely that the main UN-level instrument to protect forests – known as REDD+ – will be a prominent part of the Paris outcome. REDD stands for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and is an innovative scheme for incorporating forest protection into carbon markets.

Speaking in an online conference previewing Paris, Gustavo Silva-Chávez of Forest Trends, a non-profit group working on forests and ecosystem services, said that it would be a “huge political symbol” if REDD+ is included in the Paris outcome, but it is by no means certain.

Action lag

The reality is that global action to curb deforestation is still lagging. Tom Bregman, a project manager with forest thinktank Global Canopy Programme, says that while a number of corporate “powerbrokers” have made individual commitments that “ensure the time-bound removal of deforestation from their supply chains, many are yet to put policies in place and most are currently unable to implement them due to supply chain complexity”.

“Progressive industry is willing,” according to Hannah Mowat, a campaigner at NGO Fern. She points out that current commitments capture only a small percentage of the market. Political action is required, including more robust measures against illegal logging, and tighter sustainability standards on commodities such as palm oil to reduce the pressure on forests.

Meanwhile, REDD+ remains to be fully developed, and it is unclear how effective it will be in curbing deforestation-related emissions.

So the route to climate change alleviation through tackling deforestation is not really on track. More work will is needed – whatever happens in Paris – to develop the tools to ensure forest sustainability, and help tackle the ultimate climate challenges.

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