Forests are the hidden agenda in the world’s efforts to curb climate change. Deforestation is responsible for up to a fifth of the global greenhouse emissions that are warming the planet. And yet, when delegates from almost 200 nations gather in Paris to thrash out a long-awaited new deal to curb those emissions, few will be talking about this terra incognita.
Perhaps this is because for the three biggest players at the talks – China, the US and the European Union – forests are a small part of their current emissions story. But for other major nations, such as, Brazil and Indonesia, forests are the dominant factor behind both their current emissions and future plans to curb them.
Most nations attending the talks have submitted in advance pledges for how they will help fight climate change: in the jargon, these are their Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions (INDCs). But according to an analysis by Climate Focus, a Netherlands-based climate consultancy, only 40 submissions include specific actions for cutting emissions from forests. Most INDCs focus largely on fossil fuel burning.
This is a missed opportunity. An end to deforestation could bridge the gap between the 2.7C warming calculated as the likely outcome of implementing the INDCs and the UN goal of halting warming at 2C, says Stephen Donofrio of the Washington think tank Forest Trends, a co-author of the Climate Focus report.
And it could be done.
There has been an orgy of tropical deforestation in the past half-century. Many have got the blame: smallholders looking for land to farm, logging companies and the predominant villains today, agribusinesses clearfelling forests to grow commodities like palm oil and raise cattle.
Yet, in the country once synonymous with deforestation the carnage is much reduced. Brazil has cut the annual rate of forest loss by 80% over the past decade, and so reduced its total greenhouse gas emissions by around 40%. No other nation has achieved a bigger cut. It has so far kept an estimated 3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
Next up could be Indonesia, currently the largest deforester and the world’s fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter. During the recent forest fires there, its emissions briefly exceeded those in the US. But since 2011, Indonesia has had a moratorium on issuing new logging licences in primary forests, so the tide may be turning there too.
In fact, there is a growing global effort to halt the loss of the world’s remaining tropical forests. Many manufacturers of branded goods are fearful of gaining a reputation as forest destroyers. Giants such as Unilever and Nestle joined governments in September 2014 to sign up to the New York Declaration of Forests, pledging to achieve “zero net deforestation” in their supply chains by 2030, and to halve it by 2020. Though so far their Chinese and Indian counterparts have held back.
Could the world as a whole achieve zero net deforestation? How would we know?
It is harder than you might imagine to measure “net” deforestation – the difference between what is lost and what is gained. Because while forest loss is quick and visible from year-on-year comparisons of satellite images, regrowth is much slower and less visible, says Peter Holmgren, director of CIFOR, an international forest research institute.
But there is substantial regrowth going on. Much of it is in middle latitudes – from the US state of New England to Japan – but it is also happening in tropical countries, often as farmers leave their land and move to cities for work. The 2015 UN Global Forest Resource Assessment, which collects national land-use data, reported that regrowth reduced the annual 7.6 million hectares of forests being cut down to a net loss of just 3.3 million hectares. That is down from five million hectares just five years ago.
If that trend continues, the world could indeed achieve zero net deforestation by 2030. Whether the Paris talks help to achieve that will depend less on the minimal formal emissions pledges from forested countries than on the financial incentives put in place to encourage the preservation and revival of forests. There are two elements here.
One is the programme known as REDD, for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. It offers rich-world money to protect poor-world forests. Pilot projects are under way, mostly funded by aid budgets – notably from Norway.
REDD will likely “go live” after Paris. The original idea was to fund it through a global carbon market, in which polluters “offset” their emissions by buying into REDD projects. That hasn’t happened much yet. And carbon markets may not be mentioned in the final Paris text. But as limits on industrial emissions begin to bite after the Paris agreement enters into full force in 2020, corporate funds may queue up to buy into what is likely a cheap option for meeting emissions targets.
The second potential source of funds for protecting forests is the Green Climate Fund. At the abortive Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, rich nations agreed to establish a fund to help developing countries “mitigate and adapt” to climate change. They promised to pay in US$100 billion a year by 2020. That remains the promise, but details remained hazy in the run-up to Paris.
How much of the money will come from governments, and how much from the private sector? Will funding for REDD projects be regarded as part of the overall “pot”? How much money will go to “mitigation” projects to reduce emissions, and how much to “adaptation” to help people cope with the consequences? (In theory, forests could qualify for both, since they both store carbon and help ameliorate the effects of climate change by reducing local temperatures, retaining floodwaters and buffering storms.)
None of these questions are answered, as yet. Many observers believe that if the talks ultimately fail to reach an agreement, it will be because of money, not carbon targets.
Promising to protect forests begs the question of who can do it. Governments may want to set up protected areas, and the private sector will queue up to be involved. But the evidence is that indigenous peoples and other forest communities are actually the forests’ best stewards. The dramatic reduction in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, for instance, has been achieved mostly in 300 indigenous territories, covering a fifth of the region, where tribes such as the Yanomami and Kayapo have domain.
Last year, in a review of 130 local studies, the World Resources Institute, a Washington think tank, concluded that community-run forests suffer less deforestation and store more carbon than other forests.
As the institute’s director, Andrew Steer, put it: “If you want to stop deforestation, give legal rights to communities.” Heeding that advice, the Paris meeting is likely to see announcements aimed at funnelling international money for forest conservation directly to indigenous people.
Many governments of forested countries are reluctant to cede international oversight of their forests. So we are unlikely to see anything beyond voluntary pledges on forest protection during the Paris talks. But money talks, emitters will want forest offsets, and consumer pressure on deforesters is growing. Forest communities want their land back. The worst days of the chainsaw massacre may be drawing to a close.