REDD in Copenhagen: Picking the Low Hanging Fruit vs. Saving the Tree

by | Dec 16, 2009

Tensie WhelanTalks on REDD and “REDD plus” are moving forward at the Copenhagen climate treaty conference of parties (COP 15). The basic idea of REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) is to pool funding from developed countries to reduce forest loss in developing countries, where most of the carbon emissions from deforestation and degradation occurs. “REDD-plus” includes conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.

Negotiators are working to forge consensus for an agreement on REDD rules and definitions before the conference turns to the heftier issues of emissions targets, setting baselines, and financing to make REDD possible. How REDD and REDD-plus get included in a broader agreement will be one of the key yardsticks to measure success of COP15.

REDD is often touted as a kind of “low hanging fruit” for climate policy. The IPCC has estimated tropical forest loss alone causes 20 percent of CO2 emissions worldwide, and that deforestation generally accounts for 17.4 percent of all global GHG emissions — more the whole global transport sector.

Even with increasing fossil fuel usage shrinking deforestation as a proportion to the total GHG emissions, deforestation continues at alarming rates and is a huge contributor to emissions. We currently lose over 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest (with another 80,000 acres significantly degraded) each day, which is a land area bigger than Alabama (33 million acres) each year. Slowing and stopping deforestation is an immediate, relatively cost-effective action that requires no new technology (but a lot of political will) to cut emissions.

Compared to wide spectrum of opinion on whether and when developed and developing countries will agree on binding emissions targets, common ground on REDD is welcomed. News coverage of Copenhagen so far has emphasized REDD issues in a positive light, a significant front on which real, concrete progress is in sight.

This is true, and the deeper truth is that conserving forests by stopping deforestation must happen soon if the world is to avoid worsening critical disruptions to climate. But it would be an oversimplification to say REDD negotiations are without difficulty. There are some hurdles to clear, and even when they are cleared, REDD can only realize its potential if it is integrated into a broader, binding agreement on emissions and financing.

That’s the Copenhagen Catch-22: picking the putative “low hanging fruit” of REDD and REDD-plus is important to helping make the conference a success despite continuing controversy over emissions targets, baselines, and financing. Yet for REDD to work, we can’t separate the fruit from the whole tree – REDD needs to be part of a robust agreement. REDD is one of five critical elements that it has to include. The other four are:

1. Developed nations agree to set aggressive targets for emissions reductions over the next 10 years;

2. Developing countries commit to their own reduction pathways;

3. Rich nations commit to significant, predictable financing to fund the technology transfers to enable a low-carbon economy for developing countries;

4. Accountability mechanisms to monitor and verify that commitments are being met.

If and when these are in place, REDD has the potential to be a major factor in meeting treaty commitments and cutting emissions. To put the world in a position to realize that potential, we need a decision on REDD from COP15 on that is ambitious enough to significantly cut emissions, conserve forests and build up forest carbon stocks on a global scale, but that is also well governed enough to do justice to the complex set of interests and needs involved. REDD will need adequate, sustainable and accountable financing, safeguards against conversion of forests to plantations and ways to protect affected communities’ and indigenous peoples’ rights.

Early into COP15, there is reason to hope. Current negotiations make it look likely there will be a decision on REDD at Copenhagen. During the first week of COP15 , the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (the body handling technical matters), worked to resolve some remaining ambiguities, for example by signaling that plantations will not be considered the same as a natural forest.

The details of how to set the baseline deforestation rate, accounting rules for forests as carbon sinks vs. harvested timber, and financing for REDD remain contentious subjects of negotiation. But the overall mood of the discussions is upbeat, and could produce agreed upon language soon, hopefully in time to set the stage for building a decision on REDD into a broader agreement in the second, critical week of COP15.

Tensie Whelan is President of the global sustainability non-profit Rainforest Alliance, whose representatives are now at COP15 pushing for a strong REDD agreement.

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