October 2, 2007
To Bali in 21 sets of brackets
Deforestation Takes Center Stage in Climate Talks
If you are looking for something to get approval at the United Nations (UN), brackets are never a good sign. UN diplomats wrangle over how best to solve international issues, from nuclear proliferation and pandemics to human rights and global warming. And when the UN wrestles, words [and more importantly, brackets] are the instruments of engagement. A treaty doesn’t get far in the United Nations if any country places brackets around some of the treaty’s text. Brackets [at the UN] mean disagreement and inaction. This is the remarkable story of how a universally popular idea (“Who on Earth doesn’t like rainforests?”) picked up steam and worldwide support only to get mired in 21 set of overlapping brackets.
Climate change negotiators from around the world will gather in December for two weeks in Bali Indonesia for the 13th round of negotiations on climate change since the Earth Convention in 1992. One of the most Earth-critical decisions these diplomats will make is whether or not to allow rainforest nations and communities access to the growing carbon market.
A tipping point may have been reached on climate change.
A recent United Nations report confirms and strengthens earlier scientific findings – humans are disrupting the very atmosphere that stabilizes Earth’s temperature. Humankind is running an experiment with the thin film of air that separates our turf (a balmy 20 degrees Celsius on average) from chilly outerspace (slightly colder at –270 degrees Celsius).
Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, won an Oscar and helped catapult climate change into the lives of everyday people. In a January 2007 poll, a strong majority of Americans believe global warming is a very serious, or somewhat serious problem. In another poll of 22,000 people from 21 countries, 79% believe humans are contributing to climate change and 90% believe action is necessary to address global warming, with 65% of people saying “it is necessary to take major steps, starting very soon”.
Such attention couldn’t come at a better time. The United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol are up for renegotiation. Many countries are calling for deeper cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But the negotiations are arduous affairs with dozens of meetings per year, often on highly-technical matters and cumbersome rules. The hatching of the Kyoto Protocol was one of the most vital and difficult exercises in global self-restraint. It only takes a few rogue nations to derail the consensus approach embraced by the UN. Seasoned diplomats think it will take at least two more years to replace and strengthen the Kyoto Protocol.
Tropical Forests and Climate Change
One critical development in climate change policy is how to address emissions from deforestation in developing countries. Approximately 20% of all the human GHGs occur as a result of tropical deforestation. The 13-15 million hectares of forests that are cleared and burned each year spew billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and degradation in developing countries is of central importance to combat climate change.
Despite causing almost a quarter of global GHG emissions, the Kyoto Protocol does not currently offer developing countries any incentives to save their intact forests. That changed in 2005. At the 11th round of negotiations in 2005 (known as the 11th Conference of the Parties, COP13), the Coalition for Rainforest Nations introduced a proposal to reward developing countries that reduce their rates of deforestation. Dozens of countries support the initiative known as “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries” (REDD). And a few countries are bogging affairs down rather than helping things along.
Since 2005, negotiations on REDD have proceeded with broad support and encouragement. Sadly, the UN draft text to help save tropical forests by creating incentives for developing countries to maintain their natural forests is weak and riddled with disagreement. 21 sets of brackets have been placed around the annex to the UNFCCC text of a four-page document entitled FCCC/SBSTA/2007/L.10. (Friends call it “L10” for short.) And what, you ask, is the L10 text? Well, its sub-title is “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries – Draft Conclusions Proposed by the Chair of the 26th Session of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice”. There! Doesn’t that clear things up?
Despite its obtuse title, the L10 text is one of the most important documents of our time. It is the draft text UN diplomats will pick up in Bali, Indonesia at COP13 as they try to forge a consensus on how to provide developing countries incentives for conserving their forests. The problem is the brackets. Text at the UN with brackets around it is still under negotiation (disputed by at least one country). Thus, the sensible idea to offer incentives to countries that reduce deforestation and carbon emissions is still fraught with disagreement.
The current version of the L10 document [even if the brackets were removed] does not go very far in making progress. It calls for more studies, more workshops and more debate. There are no deadlines for future decisions. There is no indication that emission reductions achieved by lower deforestation rates will be eligible for carbon trading. There is no clear signal for countries that want to stem deforestation to take action. So even if the brackets are resolved and removed from the draft text, L10 does almost nothing to actually mobilize resources to fight deforestation.
REDD: A Bellwether Issue
Nations of the world must now decide. Recognize tropical deforestation must be tackled with urgency, or continue to procrastinate while Rome burns. Removing brackets from the L.10 draft agreement is a matter of political will. If there is enough pressure by citizens to do something, diplomats will have no choice but to move beyond disagreement and reach an accord. At COP13 in Bali, the UN must enact language that sends a clear message – countries that reduce their rates of deforestation will reap some benefit. In practice, that means enacting “early action” language. This language is needed since the complete package for modernizing the Kyoto Protocol will take a few more years.
In many ways, REDD is a bellwether issue for the entire post-Kyoto climate change regime. It is the most important item for global climate policy that is being deliberated at COP13 with a deadline (negotiators in 2005 set 2007 as a deadline for a decision). If REDD becomes mired in politics and stalls in Bali, this will signal a difficult road ahead for the broader post-2012 platform. Alternatively, a success in REDD talks could pave the way for bold steps forward in tackling climate change. Imagine for a moment that the Bali talks enact language that says “even though we don’t know what the final climate change accord will look like, we declare that developing countries that reduce rates of deforestation will be entitled to a fair share of the lucrative carbon market”.
This action could trigger a series of fortunate events. It would give developing countries, markets and policy makers a compelling reason to start implementing policies and projects to reduce deforestation. It would be the first major step by developing countries to step up to the plate… to recognize national sectoral emission reductions (in this case, the forestry sector) are needed by all countries to avert a climate crisis. The US, Australia and other Kyoto fence-hangers have long complained that without meaningful action by developing countries, the Kyoto Protocol is ineffectual. (But see the “Common But Differentiated Responsibility” concept for why wealthy countries should clearly take the lead first). Perhaps most important, early action language by negotiators at Cop13 will indicate that an important new source of climate change mitigation will “come on line” in the next commitment period. This should allow countries agree to deeper cuts in emission levels, since there will be new flexibility. A strong decision on REDD at COP13 is the most promising step the world can make to herald in a new era of global warming cooperation.
Whether REDD succeeds or fails at COP13 will likely depend on the stance of a few countries.
The Coalition for Rainforest Nations
The lead group on REDD has been and remains The Coalition for Rainforest Nations (CfRN). The CfRN, 33 countries as of late, has led the diplomatic charge to develop carbon finance incentives for developing countries that voluntarily reduce their national rates of deforestation. The CRN has long held that any avoided emissions achieved by lowering rates of deforestation should be fully fungible (that is, tradable) carbon credits in the post-2012 carbon credit regime. Success or failure in Bali will depend to a large degree on whether the Coalition has a winning political strategy. The Coalition’s director, Kevin Conrad has been the single most instrumental person in getting tropical deforestation back in the game. If the Coalition and its director, Mr. Kevin Conrad can win a victory at Bali, nothing short of a Nobel Prize is warranted.
Brazil, which for a decade has resisted attempts to include tropical forest conservation as part of carbon trading in international climate policy, has begun to reconsider its position. A recent New York Times article concluded that the drought in Brazil has convinced the government to reconsider this long-standing position:
…Negotiators and others who monitor international climate talks say Brazil is now willing to discuss issues that until recently it considered off the table, including market-based programs to curb the carbon emissions that result from massive deforestation in the Amazon.
Brazil recognizes deforestation is a major contributor to climate change, that new monies are needed for countries to slow deforestation rates, and that a carbon “price” could be an appropriate way to encourage developing countries to slow or stop rates of deforestation. But until recent, Brazil has adamantly opposed bringing REDD credits into the fungible post-2012 carbon trading space. This is likely due to two major reasons: long-standing national sovereignty issues about the Amazon, and concern about price depression in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). So despite encouraging developments from the world’s largest rainforest nation, deep-seated sovereignty questions remain as to whether Brazil will help REDD along or continue standing in its way.
Europe was generally opposed to tropical forest conservation in the Kyoto Protocol’s 1st commitment period. Recently, it has become an enthusiastic REDD supporter. On February 13, 2007, an EU negotiator said tropical deforestation would be one of three key components for brokering a replacement agreement to the Kyoto Protocol. A report released by the UK’s House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee noted:
Anything that can be done through the mechanisms of offsetting—in the voluntary or compliance markets—to preserve existing forests, so long as the projects or methods are robustly grounded in good science and good practice, and allowances or credits made available are properly audited, has to be encouraged.
Elsewhere in Europe, the Global Canopy Programme has begun circulating a petition to ensure carbon credits from REDD “are included in all of the world’s carbon markets, especially those created by the UNFCCC”. It plans to bring this petition to the European parliament as well as the UNFCCC negotiators. The big question is whether the EU is ready to move. Europe must balance the need to move fast on building support for REDD and new supply of carbon credits with the need for measured steps to ensure key countries also commit to deeper GHG cuts.
In the US, support for saving tropical forests as a tool to combat climate change is growing, despite the Bush administration’s blanket opposition to the Kyoto Protocol. On February 8, 2007, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Pelosi said, “…We must address land-use policies in the U.S. and worldwide, since the loss of forests currently contributes about 25% of global …emissions". Even US bankers are getting on the REDD wagon. On July 24, 2007, a JP Morgan banker told a US Senate Environment and Public Works meeting on global warming, “Prices will tend to be lower the more supply there is. The easiest way to expand emissions supply is to increase carbon offsets. I don’t have a precise recommendation but there is an ideal balance. One of the mistakes of the Kyoto Protocol is to prohibit the preservation of tropical forests”.
At the state level, California’s Market Advisory Committee proposed to the coordinating agency for California’s global warming rules (CARB), that offsets not be restricted either by geography or sector. And while that is not a final decision, it is promising that the early signals for California’s system have not precluded international offsets.
But is the Whitehouse and the State Department that conduct international diplomacy. The Bush administration continues to talk the talk on deforestation but has yet to seriously walk the walk (link to TFG investigation]. The Bush administration has long said deforestation must be a critical part of any climate change agreement (see Bush’s June 2001 Rose Garden speech which promotes cooperative efforts in forest conservation), but has done nothing to support this dimension of international negotiations. Perhaps the greatest news is that the US has decided that the UN is the proper forum to debate climate change and discuss solutions. But in typical fashion, the administration continues to send mixed signals, and snubbed a recent UN meeting on climate change and then invited other countries to discuss “voluntary actions”. As Edward Markey, chairmen of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming noted, “My fear is that the president has aspirational goals that are really procrastinatinal”. The Bush Administration has blocked many UN climate change agreements and it is likely to remain an obstinate participant at COP13.
The government of Australia committed $US175 million to fighting deforestation in Indonesia, other nations in SE Asia, and the Pacific. The Australians have put large amounts of resources and diplomacy behind the REDD concept. But like the US, the Howard administration does not support the Kyoto Protocol or the use of carbon trading. Thus, significant parts of the Australian funding will go towards enhancing the ability of recipient nations to monitor forest cover, calculate baseline deforestation and emission rates. The funding will not directly buy carbon credits, but rather create the conditions for commercial markets to operate in respect of REDD. The key question is whether Australia’s support is meant to help the talks in Bali or to throw a wrench in the works.
This is the country that can, if it decides, get the job done (e.g., get early action language for REDD passed). Recent reports suggest Indonesia is now the 3rd largest greenhouse gas emitter, largely due to its deforestation. As the host to COP13, Indonesia is certainly in a pickle. On the one hand, deforestation in Indonesia has created fabulous wealth, often ill-gotten, for a few. And these constituents certainly don’t want any meddling carbon markets to get in their way of quick cash. On the other hand, Indonesia would stand to gain the most by any meaningful REDD early action language and mechanism. From a diplomatic stand point, Indonesia and its leaders want Bali and COP13 to be a success. A dramatic breakthrough on avoided deforestation and climate change would certainly be a legacy-maker for their country’s leaders. So as host of the negotiations and as the largest source of greenhouse gases from deforestation, Indonesia will certainly have the clout and the obligation to come up with a solution.
Will the world pull out of its environmental nose-dive? Will a small but growing band of developing countries succeed in re-pricing Nature and creating incentives to save her? Will Australia, US and Canada continue to throw stones or will they embrace this non-threatening opportunity for cooperation? Will Indonesia realize saving its forests makes more sense – financially and developmentally – than continuing to cut? The Tropical Forest Group will continue to work for a meaningful decision at Cop13 to help fight climate change and save forests. We’ll be entrenched at the negotiations with a cadre of scientists, dancers and large magnificent trees. Wish us luck or drop us a buck (link to donate) so we can continue our work supporting solutions to climate change and tropical deforestation.
There is one reason for hope. The actual site of the negotiations, Nusa Dua, was founded on the philosophy of Tri Hita Karana.Tri Hita Karana is the Balinese philosophy of harmony between humans, between humanity and god, and between humans and the environment. Hopefully some of this cosmic harmony will find its way into the discussions of deforestation and will be reflected by early action language in the negotiations.