Deal On Forests Likely, But…

Posted on 05 December 2009 by editor

Credit: Fabricio Vanden Broeck

Credit: Fabricio Vanden Broeck

Servaas van den Bosch

WINDHOEK (IPS/TerraViva) – As debate ratchets up ahead of working out a climate change deal, a Dutch study says emissions from deforestation and land degradation are far lower than has been assumed. Will this have an impact on a deal to protect forests in Africa?

Emissions from deforestation and forest degradation had been assumed by parties in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to be around 20 percent of global CO2 output. But a team of Dutch researchers from the Vrije Universiteit (VU) calculate that the true total is closer to 12 percent.

“A recalculation of this fraction using the same methods, but updated estimates on carbon emissions from both deforestation and fossil fuel combustion suggests that in 2008, the relative contribution of CO2 emissions from deforestation and forest degradation was substantially smaller, around 12 percent,” write the researchers.

“As a consequence, the maximum carbon savings from reductions in forest decline are likely to be lower than expected,” they conclude.

Greenhouse gas emissions from trees are caused by logging and converting forests into farmland, releasing the stored carbon. After combustion of fossil fuels, it’s the largest single source of emissions caused by humans – and the easiest one to cut back on.

“Even with lower emissions, avoiding deforestation remains the cheapest and quickest way to realise huge reductions,” says Herbert Christ from the Congo Basin Forest partnership (CBFP), a platform of ten Congo Basin countries.

Reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), which would see funds flowing to developing countries in exchange for forest protection, has been on the negotiating table for a while and is widely expected to be formalised in one form or another in Copenhagen.

African countries, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) host 16 percent (635 million hectares) of the world’s forests. In Zambia, forest degradation is the largest source of CO2 emissions and REDD holds the promise of tens of billions of mitigation dollars annually.

In its narrow form, REDD would mostly benefit the Congo Basin, which is the largest carbon sink after the Amazon. But scientists and negotiators are pushing for an extended deal, dubbed REDD+, which would ideally include forest management, reforestation and carbon sequestration in other landscapes.

With 70 percent of Africans being dependent on agriculture and 80 percent deriving their domestic fuel from biomass, the continent is a major driver of deforestation.

But will the latest figures have a negative impact on the REDD negotiations? Scientists and civil society organisations seem hopeful.

“Initially it may dampen enthusiasm of some for REDD, but on deeper reflection 12 percent is still quite a huge amount for one sector,” says researcher Rodel Lasco from the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. “It will not really weaken our negotiating position. In fact, it points to a need for a wider REDD+ agreement.”

“It’s still a very large amount, comparable to the total emissions of the EU, and greater than the global transport globally,” adds Doug Boucher, director of the Tropical Forests and Climate Change initiative at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “So I think that the urgency for REDD+ remains very great. I do not think that the negotiating position of forest countries will change much because of the new figures.”

“The debate should, with time, increasingly include all key land-based sectors,” argues Professor Godwin Kowero, director of the African Forest Forum (AFF). It’s not just about lowering emissions, but also about increasing capacity to sequester carbon. For Africa this means involving our natural forests, plantations, trees on farms and trees outside forest.”

The various regional constellations in the African Group of the G77/China have repeatedly stressed the importance of an agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU) approach in connection with REDD.

“We need to have an AFOLU kind of arrangement that safeguards both REDD+ and adds trees through the Kyoto protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Africa can manage and benefit from both,” says Kowero, who believes Copenhagen will decide on a REDD+ mechanism.

“The needs of African countries have to be recognised in Copenhagen,” says Herbert Christ. In the Congo Basin deforestation rates are low compared to the Amazon. How will these historical conservation efforts be reflected in a deal?

But there is also concern that the relative optimism surrounding REDD will be used to conceal a wider failure of the 15th Conference of the Parties.

“That REDD is seen as a ‘non-controversial’ issue, while most negotiations stalled in Bangkok and Barcelona should alert us all,” says Simone Lovera, head of the Global Forest Coalition.

“These latest negotiation rounds make it clear REDD is seen as a potential way to greenwash a Copenhagen failure by a growing number of countries that are willing to accept any kind of soft deal in Copenhagen.”

It’s the prevailing mood Lovera fears. “Let’s not make this too controversial, folks! Let’s keep it simple! After all, we all want a deal in Copenhagen, no?”

REDD: Plantations or rainforests

Most experts think that REDD will move forward in Copenhagen, but there are also concerns.

In Bangkok a passage in the negotiating text that would have made the conversion of tropical forest into plantations eligible for REDD funding was struck out. The EU blocked reinsertion of the passage which has forest NGOs up in arms.

“We are particularly concerned that the negotiating text for REDD does not explicitly include any language for protecting intact natural forests, despite this being widely understood to be the aim of the mechanism,” said Peg Putt of the Ecosystems Climate Alliance (ECA), a worldwide alliance of forest organisations.

“This will be a major issue in Copenhagen. Will REDD subsidise the introduction of logging to intact natural forests or pay to protect them?”

The Dutch study of Guido van der Werf and colleagues seems to lend credit to this line of reasoning. “For example, replacing peat forest with oil-palm plantations may not change the tree cover density, but it does lead to a large pulse of CO2 emissions because of reductions in both tree biomass and soil carbon,” write the Vrije Universiteit scientists.


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