As Climate Negotiations Slow, Forests Won't Wait

November 9, 2009

Experts warn that any international climate treaty or national climate legislation that fails to address forest and land use issues thoroughly and without delay will not be effective. To drive that point home, representatives of the nonprofit sustainability group the Rainforest Alliance will attend the Copenhagen climate treaty conference December 7 - 18, 2009.

REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and LULUCF (land use, land use change and forestry) were among the issues to be addressed this week in the United States Senate committee's discussion of climate change legislation and in climate treaty talks in Barcelona, both marked by boycotts and walkouts. Amid slow progress and setbacks, British and European Union diplomats now say they cannot reach a legally binding treaty at Copenhagen next month, and at best can hope for a political agreement this year. Progress on United States climate legislation has also slowed. Prospects for pending agreements on REDD and LULUCF in Washington and Copenhagen are therefore uncertain, even as the case for them continues to build.

A spate of recent studies, including from the Rainforest Alliance, the World Bank, the Brookings Institution and the Commission on Climate and Tropical Forests, underscores the central importance of forestry and land-use practices, particularly in tropical countries, to achieving effective climate policies. The studies show that sustainable land use and forestry can significantly cut carbon emissions while helping economies and balancing stakeholder interests, including those between developed and developing countries.

"Climate negotiators are downplaying expectations and talking about incremental steps, but meanwhile, we're continuing to lose tropical forests at an unacceptable rate," says Jeff Hayward, manager of the Rainforest Alliance's climate initiative, who is attending the Copenhagen meeting. "We need robust commitments from both developed and developing countries to finance and implement REDD now, in order to stop deforestation, help keep all parties at the negotiating table and to be effective at cutting emissions. That's the message we need to get through to climate policymakers."

Tropical Rainforest

Each day, over 80,000 acres (32,000 hectares) of tropical rainforest are destroyed, and another 80,000 acres (32,000 hectares) are significantly degraded. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says overall tropical deforestation rates this decade are 8.5 percent higher than during the 1990s. Researchers believe the loss of primary tropical rainforest has increased by as much as 25 percent since the 1990s.

The clearing of tropical forests accounts for 20 percent of carbon emissions worldwide. Deforestation negatively impacts climate in a number of ways. First, when trees are cut down, they stop sequestering carbon. Second, they release carbon as they decompose or burn, adding to greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere. Even more carbon is emitted from agricultural activities on cleared forestlands. Combined emissions from land-use change and forestry represent a quarter of middle-income countries' GHG emissions and half of GHG emissions from low-income countries (those proportions are higher in tropical countries). Deforestation accounts for 18 percent of global GHG emissions -- more than all the world's cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships combined -- so preventing it is as indispensable as curbing tailpipe and smokestack emissions.

"The jury is in on the importance and urgency of getting forest and land-use issues right at Copenhagen," says Hayward. "Many studies and a range of informed opinions agree that REDD has to be a priority. The Rainforest Alliance has pioneered on-ground projects that demonstrate how it can work."

For example, at the recent World Forestry Congress in Buenos Aires, the Rainforest Alliance presented a new report on its REDD pilot project in the forests of the northern Petén region of Guatemala, known as GuateCarbon. Led by the Rainforest Alliance, with support from USAID and the InterAmerican Development Bank, GuateCarbon sets up payments to local communities to keep forests standing. The project is part of a larger program that includes Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for responsible forest management. GuateCarbon helps local communities maximize the value of the forests they manage by enabling them to market a newly-valued forest service -- carbon sequestration -- in the competitive international market.

Toucan

The additional income that forest-dependent families will earn for forest conservation will make their livelihoods more sustainable, improve the local economy and counterbalance pressures that in the past have led to forest clear-cutting and burning. It is a cost-effective way to avoid emitting huge amounts of carbon. When GuateCarbon is fully implemented, it will include 1.2 million acres (470,000 hectares) and the resulting avoided deforestation is expected to prevent an estimated 16 million tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere during the project's twenty-year lifetime.

Many millions more tons of atmospheric carbon savings, and a wealth of practical, on-ground experience on how to incentivize reduced carbon emissions through forestry and land use, are coming from a wide range of Rainforest Alliance programs. Covering 140 million acres (57 million hectares) of forestlands in 70 countries and nearly 50,000 farms worldwide, the programs include responsible forest management, pilot projects for quantifying and verifying carbon stored on coffee farms in Latin America or in working forests in the southern United States, independent verification and validation of forest offset projects around the world and implementing sustainability standards for biofuel crops.

Draft elements of the Copenhagen treaty and pending United States climate legislation do envision major REDD and LULUCF provisions that provide for such mechanisms as forest carbon offsets, but given increasingly rocky negotiations, it's unclear how robust or effective the eventual agreements will be.

Compared to Waxman-Markey, the climate bill that passed the House, the Kerry-Boxer Senate proposal offers fewer international offsets and could reduce incentives to help tropical countries conserve forests and adopt sustainable land-use practices. Meanwhile, amid a Republican boycott of the Kerry-Boxer markup, separate-track negotiations on a more limited alternative Senate climate bill have begun.

A new study in Science magazine points out that both the Kyoto protocol and proposed United States legislation use a carbon accounting system that ignores deforestation occurring in order to grow biofuels and the carbon emissions from burning them -- a loophole that could provide a perverse incentive for developing biofuel plantations at the expense of rainforests. In Southeast Asia and the Congo Basin, palm oil plantations are a leading cause of deforestation.

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