Forests Look Set To Play Big Role In Paris Patchwork Climate Accord

Steve Zwick

Contrary to popular belief, developing countries do contribute to climate change – but more by chopping trees than burning coal. That’s why almost 30 of them explicitly aim to use carbon finance to save forests. Here’s how that’s shaping up in the climate talks and around the world.

23 October 2015 | Indonesia surprised the climate community last month when it shifted the focus of its climate action plan from saving forests to generating clean energy. It was a shift that made perfect sense on paper, but not on the ground, where the country’s forest fires have been pumping more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than do all the planes, trains, and factories of the United States, as the World Resources Institute (WRI) pointed out in a blog post called Indonesia’s Fire Outbreaks Producing More Daily Emissions than Entire US Economy.

“We keep hearing that deforestation is responsible for 10 or 15 percent of global emissions,” says WRI’s Fred Stolle, who co-authored the piece. “But in developing countries, the figure is more like 60 or 70 percent.”

For that reason, he welcomes the Coalition for Rainforest Nations (CfRN) insertion of provisional definitions of REDD+ into the negotiating text that emerged from talks tonight in Bonn.

The definitions are just a bit longer than the words in the acronym itself, which stands for “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, plus sustainable agriculture”. The proposed verbiage (see “For Wonks Only”, right) explicitly ties REDD+ to developing countries and to previous and future decisions made under year-end climate talks.

“It’s a very good reminder that developing countries play a part in this whole climate change thing,” he says. “It’s symbolically important.”

Pipa Elias, however, says that symbol has a dark edge to it. A Senior Policy Advisor for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), she’s worried that an explicit reference to developing countries could actually revive old demons that Paris is supposed to put to rest.

“What we’re hoping for out of Paris is an agreement that applies to all countries and moves away from differentiation,” she says, referring to the Kyoto Protocol’s division of responsibilities between developed and developing countries. “REDD+ will obviously continue to be a results-based payment approach for mitigation action in developing countries and the forest sector, so why mention something that clearly points to differentiation?”

The Action Plans and Beyond: Staying Below 2°C

Coming into Bonn, country action plans were officially called “INDCs”, or “Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions” to the climate challenge. In Bonn, the name changed to  “NDMCs”, or “Nationally Determined Mitigation Contributions/Commitments/Components.”

“Which ‘C-word’ applies varies from country to country,” writes Gustavo Silva-Chávez on the Forest Trends Blog. “For developed nations the ‘C’ is considered to signify something binding (Commitment); for developing countries it is meant to be less mandatory (Component).”

He also echoes Elias’s concerns over the developed-country/developing-country divide.

“Chances are that different country blocs will be pushing back on such differentiation in order to not fall back unto a mindset that defines responsibilities differently according to a country’s development status, based on their development status in the 1990s,” he writes.

Are you confused by the negotiations. If so, check out: 

Next week, attention will shift to individual NMDCs, as the United Nations publishes its official “synthesis” of all national proposals on September 30. The idea is make sure they add up to activities that will prevent global temperatures from rising 2°C before the end of this century, but analysis by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) says the proposals to-date show an increase of 2.7°C. That’s a dramatic improvement from the 3.6°C estimate they had published earlier in the year, but still far short of the 2°C threshold negotiators set at the 2009 talks in Copenhagen, based on projections showing catastrophic changes above that level.

Beyond the climate talks, scores of efforts – such as the Forest 500, Supply-Change, and successful efforts to implement moratoriums on products sourced from farms that chop trees – are underway to track and purge deforestation from corporate supply chains. If all goes according to plan, these efforts will converge at year-end talks in Paris.

At the same time, Ecosystem Marketplace analysis of existing action plans – to be published in early November, in this year’s State of Forest Carbon Markets Reportshows at least 29 developing countries explicitly plan to implement a national REDD framework or sell REDD offsets, while more than 50 of them have proposed more aggressive targets contingent on international financing flows.

Few of the contingent targets offer details on how much funding will achieve how much reduction, but REDD+ clearly offers one means of providing funding tied to specific outcomes.

Market Mechanisms and REDD+

The proposed definitions explicitly recognize previous agreements on REDD+, as well as the any future agreements that may be reached in Paris.

“The REDD-plus mechanism consists of relevant decisions of the Conference of the Parties, including decisions 9 to 15/CP.19 and decision XX/CP.21,” states one – referring first to the “REDD+ Rulebook” (decisions 9 to 15) that high-level negotiators enshrined in Warsaw at the end of 2013 (CP.19), as well, presumably, as to agreements that negotiators made earlier this year in Bonn, which should be enshrined in future decisions (XX) at this year’s talks in Paris (CP.21) which begin at the end of November.

One issue that negotiators never got to in Bonn is whether market mechanisms can be used to support REDD+. Pervious decisions obviously kept that door open, but the specifics are vague – largely because of opposition from Bolivia and benign neglect from Brazil.

Most observers – including many who have historically been pro-market – say the specifics can be left to individual country action plans, and Elias says new language emphasizes cooperation among countries in a way that will support market mechanisms.

“It’s still vague, but there is language in there about how countries can bilaterally or multilaterally pronounce a mitigation outcome that they want to achieve jointly,” she says. “It makes sure we’re achieving more ambition by promoting cooperation, usually by expressing outcomes in dollar terms, so that they can be moved from country-to-country via markets.”

Stolle also sees little need to reach explicit agreement on the role that market mechanisms will play.

“It’s not a deal-breaker if markets aren’t explicitly mentioned, because most of the finance will be direct transfers from A to B instead of via a marketplace,” he says. “By that, I mean government-to-government or from companies to specific projects, without an intermediary market.”

Silva-Chávez says private finance is likely to flow more readily if the final text is more supportive of markets, and he says he wouldn’t be surprised to see countries converge in that direction in Paris.

“If Brazil wants to make a name for itself at this COP, it will go from being anti-market based REDD to something more friendly,” he says. “Brazil’s submission was carefully written to say, ‘We’re not in favor of this now,’ but it didn’t say, ‘We won’t ever accept it.'”

NOTE: this story was updated on Monday to include quotes from Silva-Chávez.

Steve Zwick is a freelance writer and produces the Bionic Planet podcast. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Ecosystem Marketplace, and prior to that he covered European business for Time Magazine and Fortune Magazine and produced the award-winning program Money Talks on Deutsche Welle Radio in Bonn, Germany.

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For Wonks Only

The new draft negotiating text is available here and offers the following definitions, all of which are provisional. For clarity, we have removed the brackets that identify text that isn’t yet official.

“Emission reductions” means the sum of all reduced emissions and increased carbon stocks.

“REDD+” means a mechanism aimed at reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries that is based on the Warsaw Framework for REDD+ and relevant decisions of the Conference of the Parties.

“JMA” means a mechanism for the implementation of joint mitigation and adaptation actions for the integral and sustainable management of forests alternative to REDD+ and to results-based payments.

Further language for what can and cannot be included in climate action plans does explicitly mention REDD+, as well as carbon sinks in general.

A separate section devoted to forest-based mitigation restates much of the above:

The REDD-plus mechanism consists of relevant decisions of the Conference of the Parties, including decisions 9 to 15/CP.19 and decision XX/CP.21.

The purpose of the REDD-plus mechanism shall be to incentivize the reduction of emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and to promote conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries, while enhancing the non-carbon benefits derived as a result of the multiple functions of forests, including alleviating poverty and building ecosystem resilience.

The Joint Mitigation and Adaptation Mechanism (JMA) is established to support the integral and sustainable management of forests as an alternative to results-based payments, in accordance to decision X/CP.21

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