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Dangerous Loopholes in Climate Change Framework

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Libby Blanchard [2012] is a Gates Cambridge Scholar and a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Cambridge. Follow her on Twitter: @blanchardlibby. Picture credit: pupunkkop and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

On November 23rd, the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP 19) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) concluded in Warsaw, Poland. The overarching goal of the meeting was to work towards developing a new international treaty by 2015 to curb rising global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions - a goal that was only somewhat kept on track. Despite this mixed success, perhaps the most significant outcome of the conference was agreement over several key technical details surrounding the concept of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in the developing world (REDD+). The evolution of REDD+ at the Warsaw conference from a concept into a formally recognised mechanism has key implications for a post-Kyoto climate agreement, still roughly on target to be agreed upon and adopted in late 2015 and go into effect in 2020.

A brief history of REDD+

The concept of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation is critical to any climate change mitigation strategy, as climate change is caused both by increased anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and changes in land cover from the conversion and degradation of forests. Deforestation and forest degradation are responsible for 15-18% of GHG emissions -more than the emissions created by the global transportation sector. Effective mitigation strategies to limit the magnitude and rate of climate change are dependent on stabilising and reducing global GHG emissions, as well as maintaining and increasing the capacity of carbon sinks such as forests, which capture and store carbon dioxide. Without keeping most of what remains of the world's tropical forests intact, there is no hope of stabilising the climate at a 2°C average temperature increase by the end of the century, which is thought to be the maximum average temperature increase that should be allowed in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

REDD+ has evolved conceptually over time and has taken on several names. The concepts of land use, land-use change, and forestry (LULUCF) were first mentioned in UN negotiations in several articles of the Kyoto Protocol, adopted at the 1997 climate negotiations in Kyoto, Japan (COP 3). Article 3 of the Protocol, for example, discusses the need to "further elaborate policies and measures to protect and enhance sinks and reservoirs of GHGs". LULUCF was again mentioned in 2001 in Marrakech (COP 7), where several principles in the Marrakech Accords underscored the need for sound science and methodologies, and the importance of conserving biodiversity in any LULUCF activities designed to remove GHGs from the atmosphere.

REDD by name was originally proposed at COP 11 in Montreal in 2005, when Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica proposed the idea of issuing carbon credits for REDD in developing countries. In doing so, they defined REDD as a payments for ecosystem services scheme, built specifically on the notion that the developed world would pay developing countries for the delivery of carbon capture and storage from their tropical forests. These payments for carbon credits would "offset" emissions in the developed world. In 2007 at COP 13 in Bali, the Bali Road Map was adopted, and REDD was transformed into REDD+ by considering "the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries". At the COP 16 in Cancun 2010, the Cancun Agreements officially launched the idea of a REDD+ mechanism. REDD+ was further developed and discussed in COP 17 in Durban and COP 18 in Doha, though the most significant outcomes and agreements for REDD+ came several weeks ago in COP 19 in Warsaw.

The Warsaw Framework for REDD+

One of the most significant outcomes from the Warsaw conference was the "Warsaw Framework for REDD+". This framework resulted from seven key decisions regarding REDD+, including rules for creating performance-based financing mechanisms; monitoring, reporting, and verifying forest-related emissions; and ensuring safeguards. This framework allows REDD+ to become a functioning, formal mechanism recognised by the UNFCCC. While getting agreement on these issues is a significant step forward, the resulting decisions still leave plenty of room for questioning the effectiveness of REDD+ in a future climate agreement. This is because sustainable financing for REDD+ has not yet been secured and because the framework contains loopholes, which may not necessarily positively impact natural forests and biodiversity.

First, for REDD+ to work as a payments for environmental services strategy, financing for the mechanism needs to be both adequate and predictable. The first decision of the Warsaw Framework for REDD+ recognises this need, as well as the need for payments to be granted based on results, contingent on the effective delivery of carbon capture and storage from forests. While this text is well written, it is also theoretical. Adequate and predictable funding for REDD+ has not yet been secured, though the text stipulates that funding may come from a wide variety of sources.

Second, the decisions leave the potential for REDD+ to not necessarily positively impact natural forests and their biodiversity, because the framework allows governments of countries to define the word "forests" for themselves. In the third decision of the framework, on "Modalities for National Forest Monitoring Systems", the text says that it will "enable the assessment of different types of forest in the country, including natural forest, as defined by the Party." This is a dangerous loophole, one that could result in government's defining forests as anything from historically intact rainforest (the normative case), to palm oil plantations, banana plantations or other monocrops such as fast growing industrial tree plantations, which may deliver some carbon storage benefit, but negate biodiversity conservation co-benefits that the concept of REDD was originally meant to deliver. This dangerous flexibility is a threat to both REDD+ and the effectiveness of a future climate agreement.

REDD+ in the Post-Kyoto Climate Agreement

The Warsaw Framework for REDD+ means that REDD+ is now a viable payments for ecosystem service strategy that is recognised by the UNFCCC and will likely be included as an offset mechanism in the post-Kyoto climate agreement. While REDD+ has the potential to deliver important social, environmental and biodiversity conservation benefits to the world by keeping tropical forests intact, the way in which it is implemented will determine how effective it is. The idea at the heart of REDD+ - to keep the world's remaining tropical forests intact by compensating land users for the opportunity cost of converting the land to other uses - is a noble one. However, the devil is, as always, in the details. Without adequate funding, and without strict rules for applying REDD+ financing to intact, natural forests, the prospect of REDD+ delivering true climate change mitigation benefits may be muted. While the Warsaw Framework for REDD+ moves the concept significantly forward in UN negotiations, its stipulations should be much more stringent to ensure that its true goals, and the end goal of the UNFCCC to prevent dangerous anthropogenic climate change, are met.