Environment & energy, International relations | Southeast Asia, The Pacific, Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia

22 January 2016

Forests are seen as a relatively cheap and easy way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The reality is much more challenging, writes Rod Keenan.

The Paris Agreement on climate change at COP21 is a major landmark in climate policy, providing a comprehensive and inclusive framework for action with ambitious long-term targets to avoid dangerous anthropogenic global warming. Forest-based measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions such as reducing deforestation and increasing sequestration through better management of existing forests and restoring forests have long been considered a valuable climate policy measure that, if fully achieved, could cut greenhouse gas emissions by almost a third.

So what did the Paris agreement say about forests?

The good news is that forests have been formally recognised in the Agreement. Article 5 requires Parties to take action to conserve and enhance sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases, including forests. It also encourages parties to implement and support activities to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and highlights the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon (ie. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) and other forest-related actions).

Clause 55 specifically recognised the need for financial resources to support forest-related activities, with particular mention of joint mitigation and adaptation approaches for the integral and sustainable management of forests.

This recognition comes nearly a decade after the Coalition of Rainforest Nations brought the need for support to reduce deforestation emissions to the climate policy agenda with the development of REDD+. Combined with the Warsaw Framework that agreed key requirements to receive funding to reduce forest related emissions, this positions forest-based activities in all countries as a core element of the global climate regime.

The wording has been carefully crafted to avoid REDD+ becoming a formal mechanism under the Convention. This would require new administrative arrangements that have been barriers to approving afforestation projects under the existing Clean Development Mechanism.

While the focus is on results-based payments, there generally appears to be less desire for market-based approaches that involve the transfer of emission reduction credits from developing to developed countries, leaving the likelihood that finance for forest activities will be through bilateral funds (like the agreements Norway has with Brazil and Indonesia) or multi-lateral funds such as the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility or the Green Climate Fund.

Over 60 countries made reference to REDD+ in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions and, as part of the Lima Paris Action Agenda, heads of government from major forest countries and partners committed to action prior to the COP meeting to promote equitable rural development, reverse deforestation and massively increase forest restoration. Brazil and Norway renewed their US$1 billion partnership to reduce deforestation until 2020 and Germany, Norway and the UK announced US$5 billion to support country-based REDD+ programs between 2015 and 2020.

The past 12 months has also seen other forest-related agreements, such as the Bonn Challenge on forest restoration and the New York Declaration on Forests. These have included the private sector with large companies such as Marks and Spencer and Unilever committing to a zero net deforestation pledge.

So where to from here? The rate of forest loss is declining in some countries, most notably and encouragingly in Brazil, but rates of forest loss remain high or are increasing elsewhere in the world.

The big issue is money. While the new funding commitments are very encouraging, the key issues are whether the Green Climate Fund will meet the overall objective of US$100 billion per year and to what extent it will prioritise, or commit specific funding to, forest-related actions.

There is a strong link between low income and high rates of deforestation at the national level and local evidence that forest loss is highest where people are poor. Reducing poverty can reduce deforestation.

More on this: Sharing the global climate finance effort | Jonathan Pickering & Frank Jotzo

It is also increasingly recognised that reducing emissions and increasing carbon stocks needs a landscape approach. At the Global Landscapes Forum held prior to the COP, participants emphasised the need to engage multiple stakeholders from across different tenures and land uses and consider the multiple benefits and services that people want from the landscapes in developing climate solutions.

The Australian Government is tapping into international sentiment with a proposal in 2014 to mobilise countries in the Asia-Pacific region to support a regional Rainforest Recovery Plan. This was expanded to a Global Rainforest Recovery Initiative in the lead up to COP21 in Paris. However, there appear to be no real financial resources for this initiative and activities are limited to plans and summit meetings.

Apart from long-term finance, countries need to establish scientifically robust emission baselines against which they can demonstrate future emission reductions. Capacity to report on forest change is still poor in much of Africa and in parts of South America. Forest monitoring has improved elsewhere. At the international level the commitment to coordination of forest data collection is declining, with reduced funding from the UN-FAO directed to this activity, as it refocuses on other aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals.

In  Australia, there are some concerning recent trends. While Australia largely met its Kyoto Protocol commitments between 2008-2012 through reducing deforestation and expanding forest plantations, the most recent update shows energy and transport emissions increasing in 2014-15, after a declining trend in the previous five years. Land Use Change and Forestry emissions, which from 2013 have included the broader activity of ‘forest management’, also recently increased by 33 per cent after a strong decline in 2011, due to increases in land clearing.

Forests are still seen by some as a relatively cheap and easy way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The reality is much more challenging. There have been relatively limited results from nearly half a century of international efforts to reduce tropical forest loss. Addressing poverty, resolving land tenure and forest ownership, increased demand for land for agricultural production, poor coordination between different levels of government and infighting and differing objectives between government agencies are major impediments to reducing deforestation and restoring forests.

Effective forest-based measures to meet the Paris objectives will need strongly supported and coordinated policy frameworks and solutions that mobilise and meet the needs of local actors across multiple-use landscapes. Hopefully, the Paris Agreement can provide the platform for large-scale, long-term investment in sustainably managed forests.

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Keenan, Rod. 2017. "The Paris Climate Agreement And Forests - Policy Forum". Policy Forum. http://www.policyforum.net/the-paris-climate-agreement-and-forests/.