Forests ‘not only about the environment’: On SDGs, zero-deforestation pledges

Leading forestry experts discuss the need for multiple benefits.

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BOGOR, Indonesia—Where do forests fit into the climate and development agendas? How—and when—will the promise of REDD+ be fulfilled? What is the value of zero-deforestation pledges?

These are some of the most pressing questions for forests in 2015, and ahead of International Day of Forests (21 March), three experts from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) sat down to talk about these issues and others.

On forests in the climate and development agendas

Bimbika Sijapati Basnett, CIFOR Scientist: This year, the global community will decide on the new climate agreement framework, and we’re also going to be deciding on the Sustainable Development Goals. How would you describe the role of forests in these agendas?

Peter Holmgren, CIFOR Director General: Forestry is really, really important for the development agenda. And we have an opportunity this year to say that it is not only about the environment: Forestry can contribute to eliminate poverty, to food security, to prosperity in the green economy, to energy, and to order and so on.

Louis Verchot, CIFOR Director of Forests & Environment program: I agree with Peter. Forestry is an economic activity, first and foremost. And it does contribute significantly to rural livelihoods now. It contributes to sustainable development. And, as we’ve seen in the climate change agenda, forestry is one of the areas where the world is actually making progress.

We have 1.7 billion people across the planet have no access to electricity. 2.7 billion are using wood fuels and dung in unclean situations, and so the way they prepare their food, the burning of these fuels, is leading to respiratory illnesses. Having forestry come in and support the shift to more sustainable energy sources for rural development, for rural people, is going to have an impact on women’s health. It’s going to have on children’s health. It’s going to have an impact on the ability to do things in these landscapes, to support development.

On Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+)

Basnett: How about the REDD+ program? The REDD+ program was proposed to address climate change mitigation in 2005. 10 years on, the implementation hasn’t really begun. How would you assess the progress that’s been made on REDD+?

Verchot: REDD+ started off very idealistic and very unrealistic. I think there were expectations that it would be a low-cost, easy win for the climate system. And those of who had been working in tropical forestry for decades really didn’t buy that argument. So, as the international community has gotten more into development of REDD+ … they’ve come to terms more with the reality that tropical foresters have known about in those landscapes for a long time: That there are people who live in the forests, there are people who depend upon these forests. … That these rural landscapes are not places that we just set aside like a museum.

… I see the world now as poised to begin implementation. We do have demonstration projects at the province level, at community level, that are moving forward—sometimes in fits and starts. If the international community can distill the lessons from these early experiences, we can actually see a way forward as to how this is going to play out over the next 15 or 20 years.

Holmgren: I’d like to add to that and say that we are gradually or increasingly coming to the conclusion that the REDD+ objective adds value to forests and forestry in the tropics. But it also needs to co-exist with a lot of other values and a lot of other benefits from those same forests. And therefore we need to always think about multiple objectives, multiple purposes of the forests and the landscapes. And I think that’s where REDD+ is maturing into, and we’re looking at first of all landscapes as a whole, but also looking at them as delivering multiple objectives. And I would also like to take that to another level and look at the climate change process as a whole and the Sustainable Development Goals and the post-2015 process as a whole.

These have been two tracks that have existed in parallel for quite a long time on the international arena. Surprisingly little crossover has happened over the last decade or so. In fact, there are reports that say that sustainable development is a co-benefit to achieving the climate objectives, and that’s a little bit weird. But what we can see this year, in 2015, is that there’s a real opportunity for combining or to see a confluence between these two major international development and climate negotiations.

Civil society has a huge role to play in this right now and is trying to play that role

Louis Verchot

Basnett: But to what extent is that actually happening? It seems like there are these two processes that are interrelated but also quite separate.

Holmgren: There is the institutional aspect that they have been carried out by themselves for years. But, at the political level, I think we can see a lot of efforts at the moment. We had a Climate Summit last September in New York, at the same time as the UN General Assembly, which is also negotiating over the Sustainable Development Goals. So we see a great deal of political effort to bring these together.

Verchot: And we’ll be seeing how this unfolds as national action plans are put in place. As we see how countries begin to set their benchmarks and set their objectives and define their indicators, they’ll begin to realize synergies. And more and more, we’re hearing these discussions go beyond ministries of forestry and ministries of environment—agriculture is talking about what can be done within the agricultural sector to reduce emissions and improve their sustainability. I think some of these pledges that we’ve seen from the private sectors, from agribusiness, has been extremely useful in moving that sector along that direction.

Basnett: Lou, a major study by CIFOR to be released soon is showing that women are participating less in REDD+ processes; that’s going to seriously undermine both the efficacy and legitimacy of REDD+. What can be done to safeguard these issues and ensure that REDD+ is more inclusive?

Verchot: There is an international commitment to a certain number of safeguards within the implementation of the REDD+ mechanism. And amongst that is free, prior, informed consent of people who are currently using forest resources. And we know that women make up more than 50 per cent of rural populations because of rural to urban migration. Women tend to be more present in the villages and are making the decisions about how land is managed. So, it’s extremely important to bring them into the discussion and have their concerns recognized. Civil society has a huge role to play in this right now and is trying to play that role. But I think also the onus is a bit on the governments, to make some extra steps as they put in place their REDD+ mechanisms, to make sure that their internal, national consultative processes are taking women’s issues into account.

On zero-deforestation pledges

Verchot: More and more in developing countries, what’s driving some emissions-generating activities in these landscapes is not so much about population, but it’s about income and how income is changing consumption patterns. And this is mediated a lot by these larger agribusiness companies. If they’re becoming more aware and beginning to make these zero-deforestation pledges, or these pledges to reduce emissions or reduce their climate footprints, or committing to socially responsible actions in the landscapes where they derive their primary materials, I think we’re seeing things moving in a direction where we’re actually going to see these two agendas come closer together.

Holmgren: Zero deforestation efforts and ambitions are really a positive force at the moment. But I’m also asking some questions about that. Zero deforestation sounds good and it’s easy to put on the policy for the private corporations. But getting down to the nitty-gritty and figuring out, what does it actually mean and how do we verify that the deforestation is actually zero? It’s not so easy. And there’s also perhaps a discussion to take that, yes, zero deforestation would be good, but there might also be other measures that are necessary to make sure that we maintain the vitality and diversity of forests [as well as] the productiveness of the agriculture landscape.

Basnett: Another issue is that the concern seems to be about net zero deforestation as opposed to absolute. Of course, we can’t achieve absolute, but what are some of the tradeoffs that we need to consider? And does that actually mean that there will be certain practices that will go on as usual, being compensated by others that are perhaps different?

Holmgren: First, there is no such thing as net deforestation. Deforestation is the loss of forest. If you want to calculate the net of deforestation and afforestation, then that becomes the net forest area change. But it is true, that is one of the definitional aspects that is unclear in the current debate.

When it comes to zero deforestation, it's more a market solution. And the question becomes, what is the role of consumers?

Peter Holmgren

Verchot: I agree. And I think we still don’t have models. We have commitments. What’s going to be interesting to see is, What do the corporations do to put these in place? If you’re going to have a completely traceable supply chain, what’s going to happen to a smallholder producer? They’re much more difficult to monitor than large-scale plantations. And there are concerns that some of these corporate commitments are going to be pushing the small-scale producers out of the market.

Holmgren: One area that we’ve started to work on here in this context is finance. Because the access to affordable and fair finance for smallholder producers is something that might help us achieve some of the sustainability outcomes that we’re after.

Basnett: How do we incentivize the corporate structures, corporations, to actually address these social issues? What is the role of government and civil society organizations in the process?

Holmgren: Well, when it comes to zero deforestation, it’s more a market solution. And the question becomes, what is the role of consumers?

Verchot: I think a lot of the advances we’ve seen have really been through the “stick” approach. The international NGOs have been holding corporations up for public scrutiny, exposing unsustainable practices or unfair practices or environmentally damaging practices. This has done a lot to move these corporations along because they care about their image. They care about what the consumer thinks of them. And if the consumers are informed and want to improve the performance of their consumption, then they’re going to demand products that are more environmentally sustainable, that are produced in socially responsible ways.

But … we have a lot of markets in emerging economies right now that are not necessarily demanding these environmentally sustainably produced products. So we need to educate those consumers. There’s a need for these markets to actually care about what they’re buying and the quality of what they’re buying, and what’s the impact of the production systems that lead to their products. What we’re seeing is largely driven at the moment by Western consumption and preferences.

Holmgren: It seems that civil society has become quite engaged together with the corporate sector, particularly on this zero-deforestation idea. And one thought that I’ve had is that’s really good as a positive collaboration. But now both the civil society and the private corporations are sitting together around this objective of monitoring and verification of this commitment we talked about. And in the last few weeks I’ve seen some news items coming out that actually there is still deforestation going on, but who should we look to, to figure out what’s actually happening on the ground if all the stakeholders are sitting together?

Basnett: You’ve talked about the role of civil society organizations and also corporations, but what about the role of governments? What can governments do to ensure that there is monitoring, there is verification, there are safeguards, and there are proper regulations?

Verchot: I think governments are already where the ball got rolling. But they’re the ones that need to … make sure that all factions within society have a voice at the table … that it’s not an uneven playing field for everyone, so that the tradeoffs can be managed, recognized and dealt with. But we all know that in many places there are problems associated with governance.

This is where the international community can also play a role in providing some of the fact-checking on some of these issues. When claims are made by countries, well, these claims need to be actually scrutinized and verified. We have within the REDD+ mechanism a whole discussion on measurement, reporting, verification. And this verification side of things has been a really difficult issue, because it means that countries have to give up a certain level of sovereignty and submit their claims or their statements to international scrutiny.

Watch the conversation in its entirety:

CIFOR’s research on forests, climate change and sustainability forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry

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