Imperative: Regain momentum in reducing deforestation emissions

We know the global community can make a difference - just look at the ozone.
The world’s tropical forests are our climate safety net – our layer of protection from global warming.

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At a glance :

  • With news that good science and international cooperation has started to repair the ozone layer, it’s time to repeat that success for humanity’s greatest challenge.
  • REDD+ could form a key component. But there are still a number of issues to resolve to ensure equitable benefit distributions and create attractive incentives to protect the world’s forests.
  • We should be seeing financial pledges by developed countries of at least $15 billion and increased ambition to reduce emissions to ensure the world remains below a 2 degree target.

Twenty-five years ago, hundreds of heads of states and scientists traveled to the UN Headquarters in New York to deliver a protocol. The document, signed by all 197 representatives of the UN, was the first universally ratified treaty in UN history. The Montreal Protocol promised a worldwide phased ban on ozone-depleting substances and a transition to more environmentally sustainable alternatives.

For countries likely to struggle with these requirements, a multilateral fund was provided with billions of dollars in financial assistance. Developing countries were given the means to manageably phase out production and consumption without causing unnecessary economic headaches. Despite a widespread fear that regulatory interventions would damage already fragile economies in a time of significant market insecurity, the actual result was the opposite – green-innovation and growth.

This week the UN revealed that our actions paid off – the ozone layer is recovering so fast that, across most of the planet, it will be more or less repaired by 2050. Were the protocol not in force, scarcely a day would pass when the problems caused by ozone depletion did not impinge on our consciousness. The UN maintains that the protocol “will have prevented 2 million cases of skin cancer annually by 2030″.

Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is similar to ozone in several ways. Both are relatively rare in the atmosphere – a few hundred parts per million – and variations in both gases have dramatic effects on Earth’s natural systems. Both are formed through natural and manmade processes – from vehicle tailpipes, power plants and factories. Like ozone, CO2 has desirable impacts when it’s in the right place and negative impacts when somewhere else. So where does climate-changing CO2 need to go?


The world’s tropical forests are our climate safety net – our layer of protection from global warming. Absorbing about 35–40 percent of all fossil fuel emissions, forest growth keeps CO2 out of the other places in the biosphere where it does damage. When CO2 ends up in the ocean, you get acidification, which can damage coral reefs and shellfish. When you store it in soils, it’s easily reversible. The only place to safely store carbon in the biosphere is in forests.

Unlike the ozone layer, spectrometers and satellites are not required to understand the devastating impacts human activities have on our tropical forests. From 2000 to 2012, over 1.1 million km2 of tropical forests was lost. Annual emissions from tropical deforestation over a similar time period (1999–2007) were 2.94 billion tons of C per year. Losing these forests emits significant amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere and destroys the safety net.

Deforestation appears to have decreased since 2000, but recent evidence suggests that this trend may be reversing. Preventing this reversal further is a big financing issue. At the moment, the long-term prospects for financial support are uncertain.

The impasse at Copenhagen and the weak decisions in Doha have taken the wind out of the climate change mitigation sails. What is more, a persistent glut in the carbon market means the price of carbon is too low to incentivize investment in its abatement. The prospects for increases before 2020 are slim.

The failures of previous conferences to reach binding agreements have slowed progress significantly and delays in operationalizing the Green Climate Fund, or any other market-based mechanism, have left many early movers high and dry. Although forestry has seen much more progress as a climate change thematic area than fossil fuels, it is imperative that we regain lost momentum in reducing deforestation emissions.

We need to see ambition to reduce emissions to ensure the world remains below a 2 degree target

The authors

So how do we get things moving? How would you get a car moving (let’s say it’s a hybrid of some kind) that’s stuck in the muddy world of climate change negotiations? You need help to push. The tires would spin. You might get dirty. But moving any stationary object takes much more effort than turning the wheels of what’s already in motion.

The help we need will come from incentive-based mechanisms, like Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, or REDD+. But there are still a number of issues to resolve to ensure equitable benefit distributions at all scales, creating attractive incentives to protect the world’s forests.

REDD+ is asking countries to make fundamental changes to how they manage and use their forested land. Countries need to understand what is in the deal for them. At the moment that is unclear, so it remains a low priority of developing country governments. It is also a low priority of developed country governments.  Norway and Germany are providing substantial funding at the moment, but the amounts available internationally are a small percentage of what is needed for a successful mechanism.

Notable progress on REDD+ can be seen in only a few countries so far, mainly Vietnam, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil and Costa Rica. CIFOR’s research shows that successful early actors were countries that had previously successfully undertaken institutional change in the forestry sector. Additionally, the successful countries were those that had either significant pressure on their forests or effective forest governance.

We also saw a lot of institutional resistance to change in the countries that were less successful.  Countries that have been successful typically have strong coalitions of stakeholders allied to support change and thus national ownership or inclusive policy processes that actually regenerate ownership of REDD+ by different stakeholders within the country.

Securing resources through the World Bank Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and through the UN-REDD initiative has been complex and slow. Toward resolving this constraint, the Green Climate Fund has made a number of decisions on its governance and operation earlier this year, which have paved the way for its capitalization. If pledges are honored, this could be a game changer, but if they are not it could easily be a deal breaker. At the moment, pledges are around 1 percent of what is needed to capitalize the fund properly.

Technical constraints remain, but they are rapidly being overcome.  Everyone paid attention to the IPCC 5th Assessment Report this year, but the IPCC published two other methods reports that overcome some of the technical constraints to measuring and reporting emissions reductions. Scientific agencies, like CIFOR and many others, are working hard to reduce the technical barriers and fill knowledge gaps on all fronts to support positive actions to reduce emissions.

The international community has set a goal of reducing tropical deforestation emissions. Financial issues continue to be a point of contention, but it is slowly becoming apparent that REDD+ will be implemented as a market mechanism in some countries and as a non-market mechanism elsewhere.  We need to see examples on the ground of how these mechanisms can work in practice. If we can’t do that, there are powerful interests aligned in favor of a “business as usual” scenario.

As world leaders and scientists descend on the UN Headquarters in New York this week, again with good science and ideas, we need to see the same commitment that came in 1989. We should be seeing financial pledges by developed countries – in particular concerning the Green Climate Fund to reach a target of at least $15 billion by the end of 2014. We need to see ambition to reduce emissions to ensure the world remains below a 2 degree target. We need enthusiasm and a spirit of cooperation among countries to successfully agree on a new climate agreement.

As chemist Mario Molina, one of the scientists whose pioneering research predicted ozone depletion, said 25 years ago, success at the UN negotiations would be “a victory for diplomacy and for science and for the fact that we were able to work together”.

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