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Missing the forest for the trees

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Every cloud has a silver lining, right? Well, not in Copenhagen.

As COP15 talks got underway last week, many people thought that a deal on curbing deforestation in developing countries might offer one positive outcome to what looked likely to be an otherwise disappointing climate conference. Now, though, at a time when negotiations for a comprehensive climate treaty have hit a brick wall, talks concerning deforestation appear to be grinding to a halt as well. Can anything be resolved at COP15?

Bill Barclay of Rainforest Action Network says that talks on reducing deforestation are at a "critical juncture" and that a draft text released on Friday by a COP15 advisory group lacks sufficient targets for curbing deforestation and for protecting indigenous people who live within the world's forest habitats.

The impact of deforestation on the atmosphere is twofold. Forests serve as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon released into the atmosphere from fossil fuels. Conversely, when forests are cut down, they release that carbon back into the air. Twenty percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from felling the world's forests.

At climate talks in Bali two years ago, negotiators hammered out an action plan that included goals of reducing emissions from deforestation. The agreement, called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), is intended to protect intact forests and restore ones that been cut down to make way for cattle ranches, palm oil or pulp plantations, and agricultural crops.

A comprehensive deal to curb the practice by 2020 – and fully eliminate it by 2050 – would go a long way in reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Prior drafts had included these reduction targets. As of Friday, though, they had been removed.

The reason? Like most areas of COP15 talks, rich nations and developing ones have come to loggerheads over financing. REDD allows rich nations to fund projects in poorer ones that will protect or restore habitats. Rich nations will then be able to credit this financing as a contribution to their overall emissions reduction targets. Several rich countries, however, are refusing to finance projects without mechanisms in place for monitoring how developing countries spend these funds. Their primary concern, shared by many conservation and indigenous rights organizations, is one of government corruption. Developing nations, in turn, are balking at international monitoring of their practices without additional financial commitments.

Dr. Rosalind Reeve of Global Witness says "It's a two-way street: developed countries need to put up more money; developing countries need to address issues of governance."

Conservation groups are also concerned that funds could be used to convert existing forests into palm oil or paper pulp plantations. "Paying to convert forests to plantations would be an extraordinarily perverse outcome," Peg Putt of the Wilderness Society told The Nation.

Protections for indigenous communities living within forest habitats are also in jeopardy. Previously, indigenous rights were included in the operational section of the document; now, though, those protections have been moved to its preamble, making it an advisory statement rather than a legally enforceable one. These safeguards would require that indigenous people receive full and prior consultation about projects receiving REDD funds.

Conservation and indigenous rights groups close to the negotiations expect another draft to be released tonight or early tomorrow. But at the moment it appears that, like most negotiations at COP15, the substantive issues will not be settled among low-level delegates and negotiators, but instead be decided tomorrow or Wednesday by Environmental Ministers or even later this week when heads of state arrive in Copenhagen.

In Copenhagen, though, agreement is in short supply.

The Nation
Robert S. Eshelman
Monday, December 14, 2009

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