Countdown to Paris: 10 climate concerns related to forests and land use

Everything from human rights to the Green Climate Fund will be up for discussion.
The countdown to Paris has already begun.

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As we approach the second half of 2015 – and the Bonn climate change conference – with high expectations for a new climate agreement to be reached at COP21 in Paris, it’s useful to take a step back and consider some of the important issues concerning land use and forests currently under negotiation.


We have seen an unprecedented focus on human rights more recently within the climate change negotiations. There are proposals to include references to human rights in the Geneva text, as well as various proposals concerning a ‘rights-based approach’ to the new climate agreement, particularly on the subject of land use and forests.

The International Bar Association has recently highlighted how climate change undermines internationally protected human rights, including the rights to life, health and subsistence.

It is argued by leading lawyers that coverage of human rights in the Geneva text remains insufficient. At ADP 2.8, 18 countries signed the Geneva Pledge on Human Rights and Climate Action, calling for a strengthening of the relationship between the two processes. Multiple international agreements applicable to human rights are already in place.

Parties will need to consider how these and other relevant processes will be reflected within a new climate agreement.


It comes as no surprise that this issue is receiving more attention now than it has previously as the IPCC, through its 5th assessment report (AR5), has provided significantly more useful scientific findings on the issue.

AR5 recognizes that policies governing agricultural practices and forest conservation and management are more effective when involving both mitigation and adaptation and, importantly, it is recognized that adaptation co-benefits can emerge from REDD+.

A good example is that of mangrove restoration projects, which reduce emissions, sequester carbon, enhance resilience and improve livelihoods. A benefit of including text on adaptation–mitigation synergies in a new agreement will be that it may prevent mitigation actions from having negative impacts on adaptation (maladaptation) and vice versa.

To further develop the approach, the Geneva text contains a proposal for a Climate Resilience and Sustainable Development Mechanism.  The issue of synergies is also on the agenda for discussion at SBSTA 42, arising from a proposal for a Joint Mitigation–Adaptation Mechanism as a non-market-based approach to sustainable forest management.

The Parties will need to give serious consideration to these synergies and linkages and potential for enhancing resilience, achieving REDD+ non-carbon benefits and undertaking activities concerning land and forests that achieve multiple benefits, particularly adaptation.


The Geneva text contains a proposed objective to achieve ‘net zero’ emissions, which has attracted attention from those focused on the land sector.

This is because a ‘net zero’ emissions target will require large amounts of sequestration, dependent on continued emissions, which involves potentially significant ramifications for the land sector. The Geneva text also reflects this ‘net zero’ approach in the definitions section, which defines emission reductions as “the sum of all reduced emissions and increased carbon stocks”.

The AR5 also acknowledges the importance of a ‘net zero’ approach and places emphasis on an unproven technology known as bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS). We can expect much discussion in the corridors on each of these issues, particularly the risks associated with BECCS and a ‘net zero’ approach, including risks to food security, rights of Indigenous peoples, local communities and biodiversity.

A further interesting development will be whether a ‘net zero’ approach and technologies such as BECCS will trigger the opening of space within the negotiations for safeguards in addition to those established for REDD+, but related more broadly to the land sector.


It is expected that REDD+ will receive some recognition in a new climate agreement, although momentum has been lost because of lack of finance, and many countries continue to struggle with its implementation beyond the subnational level.

Not only is REDD+ one to watch in the ADP negotiations, but there also remain outstanding ‘cosmetic’ issues to be completed within the SBSTA as a part of the agreed Warsaw REDD+ Framework.

Parties seem unable to reach agreement on matters concerning further guidance on safeguards information systems, non-carbon benefits and non-market mechanisms. As long as these issues remain unresolved, the implementation of REDD+ ‘in country’ will be weakened, as is its overall momentum.

It is important for Parties to make progress on these issues in Bonn and avoid taking up unnecessary time in Paris. Putting in place processes or work programs to deal with these issues may be a useful approach to consider during the post-2015 period.


This issue has received greater emphasis in the climate negotiations since the agreement of the REDD+ safeguards in Cancun at COP16, but significant challenges remain. In the sections on adaptation, commitments and capacity building in the Geneva text, options are put forward to ensure the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge.

This inclusion may be seen as encouraging, but there are clear omissions such as in the section concerning transparency proposing Land Sector Principles, and there is no reference to Indigenous peoples or local communities anywhere in the section on mitigation.

Further, many references throughout the text refer only to Indigenous peoples and fail to make reference to local communities, an important clarification consistent with the UNFCCC Cancun REDD+ safeguards decision. There is also the important matter of intellectual property associated with Indigenous peoples’ knowledge.

The support of local people, in particular Indigenous peoples and local communities, for mitigation and adaptation activities within their territories is critical to their success and hence the success of any future climate agreement.


It is proposed in the Geneva text that the new agreement contain a single / common transparency framework applicable to all Parties. Having regard to the land sector, when establishing an international rules-based measuring, reporting and verification (MRV) system applicable to all countries, much can be learned from the lessons of REDD+.

A stepwise or staged MRV framework for setting Forest Reference Emission Levels (FRELs) or Forest Reference Levels (FRLs) and for measuring REDD+ emission reductions and greenhouse gas removals recognizes that developing countries should start with the capacities they have, build on their strengths, and fill the gaps as they progress through the phases of implementation.

The involvement of local communities in national forest monitoring activities also has the potential to enhance monitoring efficiency at lower costs while promoting transparency and better forest management. As many REDD+ activities address actions and actors outside forests, monitoring should be broader than forest areas.

The phased approach to REDD+ and the stepwise approach to MRV are two examples that recognize the need for more learning and individualized country-driven approaches.


The Geneva text places significant emphasis on the Green Climate Fund (GCF) as the main financial entity under the new agreement. Proposed new windows for establishment in the GCF include for REDD+, Loss and Damage, and technology transfer.

It could be argued that the GCF is part way to establishing such a window for REDD+ through its specific 2014 framework for results-based payments. Interestingly, despite much emphasis on a critical need for private sector finance in REDD+, the Geneva text contains provisions that specify that climate finance should be primarily from public sources with private sources being supplementary.

While REDD+ compensations are not yet a political reality, countries may be well advised to move forward with a no-regrets agenda, which consists of paving the way toward climate change mitigation, adaptation and sustainable resource management, by implementing policies that will be desirable and useful to meeting these objectives in the long run, with or without REDD+.

These include focusing on policy changes that would be desirable irrespective of climate objectives, such as clarifying land tenure, removing perverse subsidies, and strengthening the rule of law.


The Geneva text includes provisions that would require developed-country Parties to remove barriers to accessing technology and to enable and accelerate technology development and transfer to developing-country Parties.

This would be a step forward. The lack of country- and region-specific data of sufficient high resolution limits the ability to convert area estimates of deforestation, forest degradation and land use into reliable estimations of emissions, sinks and changes in carbon stock for most tropical countries.

The Geneva text also proposes a Capacity-Building Mechanism, which would be useful where stakeholders – including policy makers – have trouble understanding the concept and the issues that lie behind REDD+ and the complexities associated with land-use accounting. Capacity needs have been extensively identified by CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on REDD+.


A roadmap involving a process of submissions and expert meetings was agreed at SBSTA 40. The agriculture roadmap has commenced with submissions received in March, and concerned early warning systems and contingency plans in relation to extreme weather; and assessment of risk and vulnerability of agricultural systems to different climate change scenarios at regional, national and local levels. An in-session workshop will be held on these issues in Bonn.

The roadmap will continue with additional submissions expected in March 2016 concerning identification of adaptation measures, taking into account the diversity of agricultural systems, Indigenous knowledge systems and co-benefits, socioeconomic, environmental and gender aspects; and identification and assessment of agricultural practices and technologies to enhance productivity in a sustainable manner, food security and resilience, considering the differences in agroecological zones and farming systems.

This important process is detached from the negotiations concerning land use in a new climate agreement. The outcomes of this roadmap are expected to inform ongoing negotiations after Paris, undertaken to determine the implementation and coming into force of the new agreement.


The issues associated with carbon markets related to the land sector and forests are well known, and remain an unresolved dividing line between Parties as well as between civil society.

These political challenges are likely to continue up to and beyond any agreement reached in Paris. In Geneva, Parties engaged in significant debate on this topic, with many arguments made against the inclusion of market provisions linked to the land sector in the new agreement. Issues raised included the need to ensure environmental integrity and safeguarding food security and that carbon markets transfer action from developed to developing countries through offsets.

This ‘shift’ in mitigation was, however, argued as being justified on the basis that some Parties seek to reduce emissions above and beyond what they can achieve at home by paying for them in other countries. Some consider carbon markets to be a system at risk of collapse, while others consider them to be a necessary component of a new agreement.

A recent USAID report suggests that unless REDD+ credits are incorporated into a future UNFCCC agreement, REDD+ as intended may cease to exist. One option in the Geneva text proposes that ‘units’ emanating from REDD+ mechanisms would be transferrable and can be used to meet contributions of Parties under the new agreement. It is also proposed that mitigation outcomes and ‘units’ emanating from mechanisms outside the UNFCCC can be used to meet contributions of Parties under the new agreement provided that they meet conformity requirements established by the COP.

Stephen Leonard is an international lawyer and climate policy analyst. You can contact him at

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Topic(s) :   Deforestation REDD+ Food security Climate talks