by Theo Stanley
As greenhouse gas concentrations reach record highs, delegates at the UN climate talks in Madrid (COP25) are discussing how to ramp up ambition on action on climate change. Today is Forest Day at COP25 and delegates should be looking at how forests can be part of their climate solution.
Protecting and restoring forests can contribute more than one-third of the total carbon dioxide mitigation required by 2030, to achieve the Paris Agreement’s pledge to keep temperatures below a two degree rise. But forests are often sidelined in international climate negotiations. As representatives take part in Forest Day it is timely to ask, what is being done to conserve forests?
The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) sit at the heart of the COP (UN climate change) negotiations. NDCs set out how each country will reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. Pledges reflect the common but differentiated responsibilities and respected capabilities of individual countries.
As it stands, following the current NDC pathway is likely to increase temperatures by 3.2 degrees. But crucially, countries are required to progressively increase the scope and ambition of their commitments every five years.
Enter COP25. Discussions in Madrid will directly inform the second round of NDCs, due to be published in 2020. With less than a year until they are updated, now is a critical time to review existing forest commitments in NDCs — and analyse their success.
National tropical forest contributions
Brazil’s current NDC is ambitious: “to commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 37% below 2005 levels in 2025,” with the land and forestry sectors playing a key role.
In 2015, Brazil announced it would introduce “large-scale measures relating to land use change and forests”, to improve forest regulation and reduce deforestation. It pledged to have zero illegal deforestation, and to reforest or restore 12 million hectares of land, by 2030.
But Brazil’s NDC is unlikely to be delivered. President Jair Bolsonaro, inaugurated in January 2019, has undermined the legal frameworks imposed to fight deforestation. According to the independent research institution Climate Action Tracker (CAT), which analyses governmental action on climate change, Brazil’s Forest Code has been weakened rather than strengthened, and 95% of the Ministry of the Environment’s climate change budget has been axed.
Most alarmingly, deforestation — rather than restoration — has become rampant. Rates are the highest since 2008, having increased by 29% in 12 months.
CAT stresses that to achieve its NDC commitments, “Brazil will need to reverse its current trend of weakening climate policy by sustaining and strengthening policy implementation in the forestry sector”. In the current climate, the chances look slim.
Indonesia’s first NDC pledged a 29% decrease in emissions by 2030. This relies on a radical shift in the land sector, from which a staggering 63% of Indonesia’s 2015 greenhouse gas were emitted — mainly from peat fires (48%) and forest fires, which are generally caused as land is cleared and burned for agricultural space.
Palm oil production in particular shapes this deforestation — between 1990 and 2015 the total area of palm oil plantations increased ten-fold, and forest-cover fell by 20%.
Indonesia declared a moratorium on clearing primary forests in 2011, made permanent in 2019. And in 2018, President Joko Widodo introduced a three-year moratorium on granting permits for new palm oil plantations.
Yet fires continue to blaze. Scientists at CIFOR have estimated that 1.64 million hectares of Indonesian land, including 670,000 hectares of peatland, burned in 2019. In fact, according to the EU’s atmospheric observation programme, Indonesia’s 2019 forest fires emitted more carbon dioxide than the Amazon’s.
CAT labels Indonesia’s 2015 NDC ‘Highly Insufficient’, unambitious and inconsistent with holding warming to below 2 degrees, let alone the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degree limit.
Deforestation is a global issue
The NDCs of the two biggest tropical forests countries look unlikely to be fulfilled. And while NDCs capture national action from forested countries, they hide the international demand for commodities shaping deforestation.
In Brazil, land clearance is taking place under Bolsonaro’s watch. But the global demand for beef, leather and soy is its driving force. Research has shown that roughly a third of deforestation-related emissions between 2010 and 2014 were embedded in internationally traded commodities, most notably soy and palm oil. According to a recent article published in Global Environmental Change, imported deforestation emissions rival or exceed emissions from domestic agriculture for many developed countries.
Forest and policy experts are calling for advances in trans-national forest conservation initiatives. According to Javier Godar, Senior Research Fellow at Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and co-founder of Trase, internationally embedded deforestation emissions underscore “the need to include extra-territorial emissions in national accounting, and for consumer countries to support and finance anti-deforestation policies and more sustainable farming practices in producer countries”.
In short, consumer countries can cooperate with tropical forest countries. For example, Norway provided significant funding under the REDD+ scheme, and was joined by Germany and the UK in promising further funding for 2020.
More broadly, negotiators at COP25 could harness the powers of international markets to make conserving forests financially attractive, and the ongoing negotiations discussing the carbon market mechanism (under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement) provide an opportunity.
Clearly, the ambition in NDCs must be ramped up. But climate change negotiations must also extend beyond national confinements, to establish truly global mechanisms for conserving our vibrant and vulnerable carbon sinks.