A big winner in the Paris Agreement: Forests

forest in YUS Conservation Area, Papua New Guinea

Rainforest in Papua New Guinea. The world’s tropical forests store as much as a quarter of global carbon; their protection is vital to fight climate change. (© Trond Larsen)

Forests scored a crucial victory in the Paris Agreement.

While its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, did not create or endorse any specific method for incentivizing reductions in deforestation, the new agreement explicitly endorses a nature-based initiative called REDD+.

Short for “Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation” — the “+” stands for additional features including the role of conservation and sustainable forest management — REDD+ provides financial incentives for communities, regions and countries to keep forests intact, preventing carbon emissions caused by deforestation. Since the world’s tropical forests store as much as a quarter of global carbon, keeping them standing is critical to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

Before the climate talks commenced, Steve Panfil, technical advisor of REDD+ initiatives at Conservation International (CI), explained that such an explicit reference to REDD+ in the agreement text was not necessary; in a follow-up interview, he shares that the inclusion of REDD+ in the final agreement sends a strong signal that countries are ready to take the concrete steps needed to end deforestation.

Question: What role does REDD+ have in the final Paris Agreement?

Answer: It is even stronger than what we hoped going in, and that’s because in the final agreement, REDD+ got a really explicit call-out. In fact, REDD+ is included as a standalone article (Article 5).

CI started these negotiations saying that while specific mentions of REDD+ and the role of forests in the new agreement would be great, it wasn’t actually essential. And that’s because the key decisions around REDD+ had already been made before.

In the end, we got a very explicit mention of the role of forests and other ecosystems in mitigating climate change. It was really striking in Paris that many negotiators wanted a strong political signal to show decision-makers in their countries that forest protection and restoration can play a significant role in national efforts to reduce emissions.

It almost didn’t happen, though, because there was a strong insistence from a number of countries to have the Paris Agreement define a new formal mechanism for REDD+. But for many countries, that proposal brought fears of new negotiations, new bureaucracies, and opening up some of the past decisions that have already been made, all of which would delay action on the ground to slow deforestation and reduce emissions.

In the end, the insistence to include this new formal mechanism was dropped, but the other language reiterating the importance of reducing emissions from forests remained, and that’s how we ended up getting this really strong reference to REDD+.

Q: What does this mean in the context of the entire Paris Agreement?

A: The whole agreement is built around countries making “nationally determined contributions.” In some countries like the U.S., the emissions from forests or from the broader land-use sector are a relatively small part of their total emissions. Here in the U.S., emissions overwhelmingly come from burning fossil fuels. In other countries, especially in the developing world, a lot of the emissions come from land-use activities, including clearing forests. So when those countries go to make pledges about how they are going to be fighting climate change, they naturally should be turning to the forest sector and other types of land-use activities. Having this kind of specific mention about the value of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation is really important for those countries that have a lot of their emissions from the land-use sector.


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Q: When we spoke before Paris, you said, “With the methods and the general approach to REDD+ agreed upon, the critical issue moving forward is how will it all be paid for.” Did the negotiations address and answer that question?

A: It was partially answered. One of the big things that is keeping countries from moving forward is the concern about whether there will actually be financial compensation for the costs incurred if they implement the kind of sweeping reforms needed to stop deforestation. Having predictable and sufficient funding down the road is really key for them.

On the first day of the conference, Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom really stepped up with a big pledge, saying that during this five-year period before the agreement is put into effect in 2020, they intend to support countries that can reduce deforestation with up to US$ 5 billion. They also wanted to send a signal that after 2020, they remain prepared to support REDD+ activities at the level of $1 billion or more per year. This announcement was intended to say that if countries can slow deforestation, there will in fact be financial rewards for it.

In terms of long-term funding, $1 billion a year is great, but it’s actually not enough to stop deforestation. One important part of the Paris Agreement says that countries can cooperate in order to reduce emissions, meaning a developed country may be able to, through supporting actions to reduce deforestation in developing countries, use some of the emissions reductions from the developing country at home. Agreements like that are the kind of thing needed to scale up REDD+ financing far beyond the current levels.

Q: What are the next immediate steps for REDD+ now that it is explicitly mentioned in the Paris Agreement?

A: Everyone recognizes that most countries are still trying to build the kind of local capacity they need in order to reduce deforestation and also to be able to measure it. There’s also broad recognition that REDD+ will only really work if it is done in all countries, and that’s to try to avoid the situation in which we may stop deforestation in a country like Brazil but that pushes the drivers of deforestation next door to Guyana or Suriname, places that haven’t had much deforestation in the past. But if all countries have the capacity to address deforestation, then REDD+ really could be a major success.

So one immediate step is building the capacity everywhere so everyone can be implementing REDD+, and the other is helping countries actually be able to access these financial pledges. Germany, Norway and the U.K. are providing this carrot that if developing countries can stop deforestation, there will be this reward, but there’s still a lot of work to be done on the ground so that they can actually be able to get the carrot.

Q: How is CI helping countries take these two steps?

A: We work closely in a number of countries with governments in order to build the capacity to stop deforestation. This means training for government staff, and also training for people outside of government, including indigenous groups so that they can participate in the REDD+ process. We have also supported some of the technical work in order to actually be able to measure the reductions in deforestation and to ensure that REDD+ also generates other social and environmental benefits.

At the COP, it was also interesting to see that there is a clear recognition that this isn’t just about governments stopping deforestation; the private sector also has a really important role to play. CI works with some of the big companies that source coffee or palm oil or other commodities from tropical regions to ensure that their sourcing can be sustainable and that it comes from areas that aren’t driving additional deforestation.

Cassandra Kane is a staff writer at CI.

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