March 23, 2011
Rainforest in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett Butler
AN INTERVIEW WITH JOHN O. NILES
mongabay.com: How did you get involved with international forest policy?
John-O Niles: I've been at this game for almost two decades. It all started in 1992 when I had a quasi-religious experience after throwing up in Nigeria's Afi Mountains while tracking monkeys.
mongabay.com: Where do international efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation stand now? Has there been much progress since Cancun?
John O. Niles
mongabay.com: We heard some big numbers being pledged by rich countries--is any of this money actually flowing yet? If not, what is the hold up?
John-O Niles: Some of the money is flowing. All in all, donor governments pledged around $5 billion for REDD+ for the years 2010 to 2012. Some of these new funds are in fact making their way to developing countries. There are ongoing debates about how these funds are being directed, whether the funds are additional, and whether they are having an impact. I think overall, donor countries are doing a good job trying to honor their REDD+ pledges given the global economic situation. But there can always be more transparency, more coordination and more rigorous efforts to get REDD+ funds deployed rapidly and equitably to where they make a difference. National government REDD+ programs are necessary, but alone they are inadequate.
mongabay.com: What needs to happen to move REDD+ forward?
Deforestation in Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett Butler
mongabay.com: What does an effective UNFCCC REDD+ mechanism look like?
John-O Niles: In our report, we identify 15 key principles for a UNFCCC REDD+ Mechanism. In essence, there needs to be global agreement and coordination of REDD+ technical guidelines, baselines and the application of safeguards. We think any UNFCCC REDD+ Mechanism absolutely must also bring in efforts already underway. For instance, national governments are already providing substantial information to bilateral and multilateral REDD+ funds. Another effort, the REDD+ Partnership, is already identifying costs for REDD+, REDD+ donors, and funding gaps. Still another group, the Governors' Climate and Forests Task Force is already coordinating sub-national REDD+ frameworks. To be successful, a new UNFCCC REDD+ Mechanism must build on all the on-going REDD+ efforts.
mongabay.com: REDD+ should be a huge opportunity for forest dependent people--yet they seem to be among its staunchest critics. What went wrong?
John-O Niles: Many forest dependent communities have seen the most egregious impacts of markets. Land stolen, governments corrupted, lives lost, whole cultures punished. And from the beginning, a key aspect of REDD+ has been to access carbon markets. The Kyoto Protocol fundamentally centers on carbon markets and was reached through a strident effort at global consensus building. So carbon markets are essential to the Kyoto Protocol and are considered essential to REDD+. But after Copenhagen's setbacks, there is serious doubt as to if there will be an international carbon market any time soon. There are still concerns that REDD+ could be another example of globalization destroying local ways of life. I personally think REDD+ has forced very hard conversations about local peoples' rights, land tenure, governance and equity. But there are vocal groups in the UNFCCC process that simply do not like markets. Full stop. These groups have done a good job of highlighting all the risks of REDD+. They tend to ignore the positive things REDD+ has done and can do. For REDD+ to work there has to be an absolute commitment to the transparency of the policy process, of national REDD+ programs, and of finance. Otherwise there will be continued distrust of REDD+ and its market orientation. Most forest dependent communities, at least the ones I've visited, when presented with the full range of potential risks and benefits associated with REDD+, are keen to explore financial payments to maintain their forests. I'm sure others would rather steer clear of anything to do with carbon. Ultimately, these are choices each community, government and donor must make. The key thing is that communities should have a choice and that choice should be based on as much information as possible.
mongabay.com: What's your outlook for REDD+? Is it still possible to correct course?
John-O Niles: The concept of REDD+ will be the dominant paradigm for this generation in terms of global cooperation to stem tropical deforestation. Whether the UNFCCC will be relevant to this paradigm is uncertain. I think it's time to consider alternative ways to organize REDD+ in the name of better cooperation, better safeguards, benefit sharing, and coordinated technical work. If we add up all the effort of REDD+ programs outside the UNFCCC - the REDD+ Partnership, UN REDD, the World Bank's Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and the Forest Investment Program, the Governors' Climate and Forests Task Force, the commodity roundtables, and other public and private partnerships - there are sufficient resources and an abundance of ongoing REDD+ cooperation. But without a coordinating mechanism, current REDD+ efforts are starting to dissipate and come up with different frameworks. With limited funds and massive pressures on forests, simply put, the whole sphere of REDD+ needs coordination. I think it's time to look into a global REDD+ Protocol or Mechanism that is not beholden to the UNFCCC.
mongabay.com: Is it wise to give up on the very process that helped inspire REDD+ in the first place and that also happens to be the largest, most respected global framework for coordinating climate change policy?
John-O Niles: It's not ideal, no. But the original REDD proposal, submitted in 2005 by ten countries, explicitly notes two options. One is a REDD+ process under the UNFCCC. And the other is a REDD+ Protocol outside the UNFCCC. It is now five years later and the world has lost another 50 million hectares of tropical forests. I think it's time to recognize the UNFCCC may not be the best option or the best use of time and energy.
Can RED Hot California Heat Up A Sedated Cancun?
(12/07/2010) In his concession speech after the 2010 mid-term elections, President Obama said that prospects for meaningful U.S. climate change legislation are doubtful and will be for years. With the US and the international community unable to take even modest steps to combat global warming, the State of California has stepped up in a big, big way. Despite record unemployment rates, deficits and unemployment, California voters trounced a measure that would have suspended AB 32, California's landmark climate change law. California's AB 32 cap and trade program will soon be the biggest market for compliance emission reductions outside of Europe. In the wreckage of the Copenhagen talks and the new political landscape in America, California is the most dynamic jurisdiction for climate change implementation.
Chaos and the Accord: Climate Change, Tropical Forests and REDD+ after Copenhagen
(04/06/2010) The Copenhagen Accord, forged at COP15 upended international efforts to confront climate change. Never before have 115 Heads of State gathered together at one time, let alone for the singular purpose of crafting a new climate change agreement. Even though the new Accord is still in intensive care, two things are already clear. First, we have entered an entirely new world. And second, tropical forests have the greatest potential to breathe life into the new agreement.
A New Idea to Save Tropical Forests Takes Flight
(06/29/2009) Every year, tens of millions of acres of tropical forests are destroyed. This is the most destabilizing human land-use phenomenon on Earth. Tropical forests store more aboveground carbon than any other biome. They harbor more species than all other ecosystems combined. Tropical forests modulate global water, air, and nutrient cycles. They influence planetary energy flows and global weather patterns. Tropical forests provide livelihoods for many of the world’s poorest and marginalized people. Drugs for cancer, malaria, glaucoma, and leukemia are derived from rainforest compounds. Despite all these immense values, tropical forests are vanishing faster than any other natural system. No other threat to human welfare has been so clearly documented and simultaneously left unchecked. Since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit (when more than 100 heads of State gathered to pledge a green future) 500 million acres of tropical forests have been cut or burned. For decades, tropical deforestation has been the No. 1 cause of species extinctions and the No. 2 cause of human greenhouse gas emissions, after the burning of fossil fuels. For decades, a few conservation heroes tried their best to plug holes in the dikes, but by and large the most diverse forests on Earth were in serious decline.