Heading into the Paris climate talks, there was serious doubt about the long-term viability of REDD+, the UN program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, without a major breakthrough.
The conventional wisdom, so to speak, was that REDD+ would not survive as originally envisioned if a strong deal wasn’t signed at COP21.
We now have the final Paris Agreement, and it is being hailed as a substantial, even historic, step in the right direction that just might signal the end of the era of fossil fuels. The international community is getting serious about lowering emissions to stop global temperatures from continuing to rise unabated — and negotiators in Paris did indeed include mechanisms for addressing deforestation as a major means of accomplishing that goal.
The new Paris Agreement calls for limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] above pre-industrial levels and for making every effort to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C [2.7 degrees F]. Since the world’s tropical forests store as much as a quarter of global carbon and are home to 96 percent of the world’s tree species, keeping them standing will be crucial.
So does the agreement also spell doom for the global slash-and-burn economy that sees forest destruction as a worthy tradeoff for more cattle pasture land or palm plantations? Reviews are mixed, of course, as they would be for any initiative haggled over and ultimately agreed upon by 195 different countries with different sets of national commitments and priorities.
It’s important to note that there has been plenty of research demonstrating that market-based initiatives, which REDD+ focuses on, are unlikely to be the solution in and of themselves. But just about everyone seems to agree that the Paris Agreement and its inclusion of REDD+ are likely to be game changers.
Article 5 of the Paris Agreement
Many forest experts and conservationists are saying that the inclusion of REDD+ as a standalone article — Article 5 — in the final agreement out of Paris sends a strong signal that the era of blithely chopping down forests for agriculture and other economic development projects is officially drawing to a close.
“What we really needed coming out of this meeting was a political signal that REDD was going to be part of the new climate regime,” Gustavo Silva-Chávez, who manages REDDX, the REDD+ Expenditure Tracking Initiative at Forest Trends, told Mongabay. “We’ve done that. We’ve got a standalone article. It wasn’t just a couple sentences or a paragraph about mitigation, it was a standalone article. Countries were looking for that.”
The agreement includes the necessary technical and scientific rules to provide a blueprint to countries looking to build forest protection plans, Silva-Chávez said.
Many experts echoed his view that the inclusion of REDD+ is a potentially historic breakthrough.
“The Paris Agreement embraces forests for the first time in the history of climate negotiations,” Donald Lehr, a consultant to the REDD+ Safeguards Working Group, a coalition of civil society organizations, said in a statement. “This universal agreement mandates all countries to ‘conserve and enhance’ ‘sinks and reservoirs’ – code for forests and other ecosystems including oceans that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”
But by including REDD+ and its “related guidance and decisions,” Lehr adds, the agreement goes much further than simply acknowledging the key role of protecting forests as part of broader efforts to combat climate change.
“Dive into this guidance and you find the critically important REDD+ safeguards – designed to protect natural forests and their biodiversity as well as the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities,” Lehr said. “Most importantly, it includes a system to report on how those safeguards are addressed and respected. This sets a precedent for protecting rights in all climate actions, and for the protection of natural forests.”
The inclusion of these safeguards is important because land tenure was one of the big challenges for REDD+ that negotiators in Paris had to contend with. Establishing who has control over forests and forest resources has been a consistent hurdle in trying to making REDD+ work on the ground.
A group of Indigenous leaders traveled to COP21 to essentially make that exact point, as well as to present an analysis showing that more than 20 percent of carbon currently sequestered in the world’s tropical forests is on Indigenous land.
More financing needed, especially from private sector
Indigenous peoples and other local forest communities are known to be excellent stewards of their land, but according to the Indigenous leaders assembled in Paris, their ability to protect the forests they call home is often limited by lack of legal and financial support, especially when they lack title to their traditional lands.
The provisions on human rights and ecosystem integrity in the Paris Agreement are aspirational, however, meaning they are not binding requirements and must be implemented on the ground before they begin to make any kind of difference — and while it’s easy to make commitments on paper, it’s often far harder to make them a reality.
“So it’s only a beginning,” Lehr concluded. “The Agreement will be proven by the actions countries take.”
One of the major actions rich countries will be required to take is to supply adequate financing to the program, which was another major question left to be answered in Paris. So far, after more than a decade of REDD initiatives, large-scale financial flows have yet to materialize.
Norway, already a leader in providing funds to forest countries like Brazil as they struggle to develop their economies while lowering deforestation, announced it was extending its forest finance program from 2020 to 2030 and expected to provide as much as $30 billion to countries to keep tropical forests standing.
Even counting that money, however, according to Per Pharo, head of Norway’s climate and forests initiative, there is still a need for “predictable, sustainable, large-scale pay-for-performance finance.”
The private sector also has to be involved for forest protection schemes like REDD+ to work, but Forest Trends’ Gustavo Silva-Chávez said that his research had shown that the private sector only accounted for 10 percent of all financing provided through 2014, which suggests that companies were hesitant about REDD+ when there were so many questions left to be answered.
Now that those questions were mostly answered in Paris, there’s hope that companies and governments alike will start committing more money to REDD+ initiatives as a means of offsetting their own emissions.
Scott Goetz, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center, says that he’s encouraged by the language calling for REDD+ financing that made it into the final agreement.
“I think a major strength of the agreement is the call for ‘adequate, predictable and sustainable financial resources’ (for REDD+) as well as language that payments be results-based,” Goetz told Mongabay. “In other words, payment for performance, which is an incentives-based approach that rewards successful efforts to reduce deforestation over time.”
Of course, that means that implementing REDD+ will require accurate measurements and consistent monitoring of emissions associated with deforestation and forest degradation.
Goetz was part of a research team that published a paper prior to the Paris talks finding that we already have the technology to measure and monitor forest carbon stocks in the service of such pay-for-performance schemes, and that our capabilities in that regard are only going to get better as newer technologies come online, particularly in terms of satellite observations.
Given that we have the technology to make it work, Goetz says he is encouraged by the inclusion of REDD+ in the Paris Agreement, even if there is a lot of hard work left to be done before the world’s forests and the global climate are no longer under threat.
“I was very pleased with the inclusion of REDD+ after so many years of effort by so many, and especially for the advances on REDD+ financing,” Goetz said. “It’s not as much as I would have liked in terms of ambitions to drive tropical deforestation to zero, but of course all negotiations are compromises between many parties with different interests, and especially so in terms of the tradeoffs between development and forest conservation.”