Forests gain long-awaited recognition in Paris climate summit

Colombia’s El Paujil Bird Reserve. IUCNWeb/flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The climate change agreement adopted by 195 countries in Paris last week raised the profile of forests in ways never seen before.

In past multilateral environmental conferences, deforestation proved too thorny for nations to reach agreement. Now, however, some of the most heavily forested countries in the world have pledged to fight deforestation and promote forest conservation.

This is a key shift. Cutting emissions from deforestation by leaving forests standing or promoting reforestation is arguably one of the simplest and most cost-effective ways to address climate change.

Forests and climate change are intrinsically related. As they grow, trees capture and store carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. But they release their stored carbon and become sources of greenhouse gas emissions when they are harvested or burned. Emissions from agriculture and land use change, mainly from cutting down tropical forests, account for about a quarter of the global anthropogenic total.

The long path to forest regulation

Countries have been discussing proposals for a binding agreement on sustainable forest management since the mid-1980s. However, at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, negotiations fell through. Developing countries feared that international regulation would violate their sovereign rights to exploit forests and forest resources.

In response, a few nongovernmental organizations and countries decided to reframe deforestation as a climate change issue. In 2005, countries started debating forest conservation in developing nations as a climate change mitigation strategy. In 2010, they approved a decision on a mechanism called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries). This strategy would allow developed countries to compensate developing nations for protecting forests.

Until now, global discussions over deforestation have been dominated by a tension between developed countries pushing for better protections against developing countries' desire to exploit their natural resources. crustmania/flickr, CC BY

But subsequent REDD debates focused more on how much money countries would earn for conserving forests than on the steps they would take to tackle deforestation. Developing countries continued to resist discussing forest protection at the international level.

Forests in Paris

In Paris, nations finally achieved some consensus. Article 5 of the Paris Agreement encourages countries to implement and support REDD, as well as activities related to “the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.” For many developing nations, land use, land-use change and forestry account for the majority of their greenhouse gas emissions. That makes this sector a logical place for them to start meeting their commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Chief Raoni Metuktire, a leading indigenous opponent of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Jose Cruz/ABr/Wikipedia, CC BY

Including REDD in the climate agreement is only one step toward recognizing forest protection. Developing nations also launched other initiatives in Paris that addressed deforestation and forest degradation:

  • AFR100: African nations, with support from nongovernment organizations and the German government, launched AFR100 at the Global Landscapes Forum during the Paris meeting. AFR100 is an African Regional initiative to restore forests. Ten African countries (the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Rwanda, Togo and Uganda) have committed to restore 100 million hectares of forest by 2030;

  • Leaders’ Statement on Forests and Climate Change: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, France, Gabon, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Liberia, Mexico, Norway, Peru, United Kingdom and the United States issued a statement committing to “intensifying efforts to protect forests.“ Leaders from developing and developed countries also launched specific partnerships to help reduce deforestation. For instance, Brazil and Norway extended to 2020 their partnership to reduce deforestation in the Amazon Forest and Norway committed new financial support. Norway, Germany and the UK also pledged to provide US$5 billion from 2015 to 2020 for REDD programs.

  • National commitments: Some developing countries included action against deforestation in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). For instance, Brazil committed to “strengthening policies and measures with a view to achieve, in the Brazilian Amazonia, zero illegal deforestation by 2030 and compensating for greenhouse gas emissions from legal suppression of vegetation by 2030.”

This shift would not have happened without a great deal of behind-the-scenes work by environmental and indigenous groups, scientists and governments. Pressure from these groups raised the status of sustainable forest management in international negotiations.

For instance, in 2014 leaders from dozens of countries and various companies, nongovernmental organizations and indigenous communities adopted the New York Declaration on Forests. This statement included an ambitious pledge to “At least halve the rate of loss of natural forests globally by 2020 and strive to end natural forest loss by 2030.”

In September 2015, all United Nations member countries adopted a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This framework will set the development agenda for the next 15 years. Goal 15, target 2 stipulates that “By 2020, [countries should] promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and substantially increase afforestation and reforestation globally.”

As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon noted at the end of the Paris meeting, “Developing countries have assumed increasing responsibility to address climate change in line with their capabilities.” Now developing countries see themselves as part of the solution and forest protection as an important part of their role. As Peru’s Minister of the Environment Manuel Pulgar-Vidal observed: “Forest countries in partnership with other governments, the private sector and civil society are set for an increased international effort to eliminate natural deforestation and forest degradation in a few decades.”

New partnerships between developing and developed countries to address deforestation and restore degraded forest landscapes will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In a recent report, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Climate Advisers estimated that “if just 12 forest countries, including Brazil and Indonesia, meet their existing forest goals this would cut annual global climate emissions by 3.5 gigatonnes in 2020 – equivalent to the total annual emissions from India and Australia put together.”

Forests and sustainable development

International support for forest conservation will promote sustainable development and help developing countries move toward less carbon-intensive economies.

One remaining challenge will be finding ways to measure and value noncarbon benefits that forests provide. One strategy might be compensating local communities for their forest conservation efforts. Another would be ensuring that REDD activities enhance ecosystem services, such as watershed and biodiversity protection, and erosion control.

Moreover, countries are still a long way from proposing a specific plan to fully halt deforestation. This goal is part of both the SDGs and the New York Declaration on Forests.

But the Paris conference showed that developing countries are increasingly willing to address deforestation as a global issue. Developed countries should support them by providing funding for forest protection. Global negotiations over the fate of forests are finally moving from resistance to collective action.