Johannesburg — Scientists are pushing for changes to a UN mechanism that aims to curtail greenhouse gases by preventing forest loss. Environmentalists have long argued the mechanism must also protect biodiversity and forest-dependent communities. Now, ahead of climate talks in Doha, this thinking is finding a broader audience.
The mechanism, REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) and its successor, REDD+ (which additionally aims to reverse forest loss), emerged through years of UN climate change negotiations. It is currently designed to provide financial incentives for forest preservation, attaching a monetary value to carbon captured by forests. But its implementation has long been stalled, besieged by questions over its provisions and funding.
A new assessment by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO), the world's largest network of forest scientists, may help policymakers reshape REDD+ for the better. The assessment shows that efforts to conserve forests for the purpose of reducing emissions cannot work without protecting biodiversity and the well-being of forest dwellers.
These findings bolster the arguments that green lobbyists and others have been making for years, finally helping to convince policymakers.
Stephen Leonard, president of the Climate Justice Program, a legal NGO, told IRIN in an email, "I think the dialogue has shifted quite significantly, especially in terms of recognizing that a multiple benefits approach - i.e., benefits for carbon, community and biodiversity - is important for a long-term outcome. It's a question of how you achieve and incentivize that."
Forests remove an enormous amount of carbon from the atmosphere; 57 percent of the carbon emitted by human beings is absorbed by ecosystems and the ocean.
Deforestation, on the other hand, contributes between 12 and 20 percent of the world's annual greenhouse gas emissions - about the same as the transport sector, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - making it the second-largest source of emissions caused by humans.
Environmentalists argue a biodiverse ecosystem is more effective in removing carbon from the atmosphere and regulating the climate.
Biodiversity can also help address the developmental needs of marginalized forest-dwellers, providing sources of livelihood such as fruit tree cultivation, the collection of medicinal plants, or even the sustainable harvesting of wildlife meat. Currently, many of these communities are forced to cut down trees to survive. Deforestation, resulting mainly from ongoing conversion of forests to agricultural land, is the major cause of biodiversity loss on land.
How it began
The REDD proposal was accepted at the 2007 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting in Bali, Indonesia. Despite discussion of biodiversity and forest-dwellers, the mechanism ended up focusing on monetary rewards for forest conservation.
Initially designed to benefit countries with rainforests, REDD+ now covers all developing countries, which could be compensated for forests preserved from a fund or with credits to be traded on international carbon markets.
Activists persisted in trying to address the rights of indigenous forest communities and biodiversity at later UNFCCC meetings. These issues were finally recognized as "safeguards", or conditions that counties were required to meet to qualify for REDD+ funding, in the 2010 UNFCCC meeting in Cancun, Mexico.
The UNFCCC's Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) was asked to develop guidance on how this could be done, notes a Greenpeace report. But the process "stalled somewhat" in the 2011 UNFCCC meeting in Durban, South Africa, the report said, "and many felt some governments were even moving backwards on their commitments regarding safeguards."
No policies have yet been developed to implement the REDD+ safeguards.
Safeguards should be central
Biodiversity and forest communities "cannot be mere conditions but [must be] central objectives of REDD+", said Bhaskar Vira, a senior lecturer at Cambridge University and one of the authors of the IUFRO assessment. "The report argues that pursuing social objectives alongside REDD+ will increase the likelihood of achieving carbon and biodiversity goals," he added.
This thinking is gaining currency. Leonard of the Climate Justice Program said, "I think there has been some shift in the perception of safeguards... fewer are seeing them as conditionalities and more as enablers."
Roman Czebiniak, a senior political advisor on climate change and forests at Greenpeace, told IRIN, "We agree that the protection of the rights of forest communities and biodiversity must be a central objective of REDD+... A REDD programme that focuses only the carbon risks losing the forests for the trees."
This changing view of REDD+ was apparent at this year's UNFCCC meeting in Bangkok, Thailand. A paper of the REDD+ Safeguards Working Group (R-SWG), reporting on the meeting, pointed out that "REDD+ payments should go beyond carbon benefits... Achieving multiple benefits... is more likely to produce lasting results."
Many scientists agree. "There is clear evidence that including objectives to improve the livelihoods of forest-dependent people and local communities will strengthen local involvement and acceptance, and thereby support REDD+ goals," said Christoph Wildburger, the coordinator of IUFRO's Global Forest Expert Panels (GFEP) initiative.
"Socio-economic impacts should therefore be considered early on in REDD+ planning and implementation. Tenure and property rights, including rights of access, use and ownership in particular, also need to be emphasized as they are crucial to ensuring the sustainable success of REDD+ activities."
A number of countries have even begun to develop their own national safeguard standards.
Nils Hermann Ranum, head of policy and campaign division at Regnskogfondet - Rainforest Foundation Norway, said, "Given that a narrow carbon focus is not likely to give the results we hoped for from REDD+ - [results such as] biodiversity protection and strengthened rights and livelihoods for indigenous peoples and local communities - I believe we have to rethink how we define results for REDD+."
Lack of political will
But even as REDD+ appears to be evolving, many feel the entire process is being stymied by a lack of political will.
In Durban in 2011, countries managed to agree on an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, to 2017. But the nail-biting talks spilled into two all-night sessions, and still failed to result in an agreement on revised emissions targets.
And after years of talks, countries have repeatedly failed to agree on a plan for after the Kyoto treaty expires.
The R-SWG paper noted, "There is increasing recognition that a narrow model based solely on a market for credits for emission reduction... is not feasible in the short term due to the limited political will to set stringent and ambitious mitigation targets..."
Even the changing vision of REDD+ might not produce tangible results, reckons Greenpeace's Czebiniak. "I have not seen much positive progress... this year, nor indeed since Cancun... My expectations for positive progress in Doha are quite low... given the stalemate on many issues and the general lack of political will for science-based reductions and the finance needed to achieve them."
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.