Climate negotiations have never looked like this

In the buildup to COP21, it seems the world has accepted it must act on climate change—but it must balance ecosystems integrity and social needs.
Walk against Warming in 2009: already Paris is looking a lot different from the failed COP15 six years ago. Takver/Flickr

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As the much-anticipated Paris climate conference draws closer, speculation is heightening over what the Paris Package might look like. In terms of what it will mean for forests, land use and natural ecosystems, a series of recent developments can give us a sense of what we can—and should not—expect.

Overall, we do have reason for optimism for the final agreement. The draft text looks better than the previous version, countries seem to be taking it seriously, and we are riding into Paris on a wave of events and announcements. These include the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, a US–China Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change and a joint statement between China and France. An announcement by the G7 to decarbonize economies over the course of the century was a welcome development, and Buddhist, Islamic and Christian faith groups, including the Vatican, have made historic statements that are shaping the debate and giving the world the divine intervention it needs. In addition, 147 countries have submitted their national climate plans, known as intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), showing that an unprecedented number of countries have begun to implement climate policies at the national level.

Nevertheless, I personally hold concerns that Paris will not deliver enough, and there will be expectations that the inadequacies can be fixed in years to come.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”: George Santayana

A look at the text that we are taking to Paris suggests that we have greater potential for an outcome than we had at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. The celebrated 86-page Geneva Negotiating Text was produced in February this year. The Geneva Negotiating Text was later split out into part COP Decision and part draft treaty text. By July, it had been reduced to only 12 pages, and by early October, that document was up to 20 pages; the proposed draft agreement component was only 9 pages in length.

The text we take to Paris is well balanced … and provides for emphasis on ensuring the integrity and resilience of natural ecosystems

Stephen Leonard

However, during the most recent session, some serious concerns were expressed at how much had been lost, and we now go to Paris with a text that is 54 pages long. By comparison, only weeks away from COP15 in Copenhagen, the text was an unmanageable 200 pages long; it was not until the middle of COP15 that we had text similar in length to the text we currently have.

It’s also looking like a very different type of agreement from what we were developing six years ago. At that time, we had no agreement on a nationally driven process—which we now have through the INDCs. Indeed, a bottom-up system is now not only widely accepted but also underway. Loss and damage remained a missing link that many felt uncomfortable with, and the framework for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) was far from being developed. These items have created a more significant level of engagement from those countries that are most vulnerable and which were not caught within the legally binding framework of the Kyoto Protocol. The objective of a universal agreement applicable to all has also made very significant progress. Unlike Copenhagen, it seems that there is an appetite to leave no one behind and to achieve balance between mitigation and adaptation.

Nevertheless, the world remains on a path of global warming that will go beyond safe limits within this century. The assessments of the INDCs show that the world is expected to exceed the 2-degree goal, with estimates of between 2.7 and 3.5 degrees of warming between now and 2100. The associated social and environmental devastation around the world—some of which is already being felt—should not be underestimated. As Parties aim to rectify this situation, timing and ambition are at the heart of the issue. Strong arguments based on science hold that we need full global decarbonization by 2050. Politics, however, seeks to slow the pace, pushing the timeframe out to 2100. Do we conduct a review of the INDCs in the short term and “ratchet up” ambition or do we meander along and take what we can get? Commitment cycles that are five years apart are considered by many to be a good way to develop a strong system that will enable ongoing review and regular upward adjustments.

The INDCs lodged by 1 November 2015 represent 75 percent of Parties to the UN Climate Convention and cover 86 percent of global emissions. Many countries include provisions for actions in the land sector and forestry, and REDD+ is mentioned in different contexts in 39 submissions, mostly countries from the tropics. In some circumstances, countries refer to REDD+ policies that have been put in place, or are being explored. In most cases, specific reference is made to the achievement of REDD+ being conditional on finance. The INDCs provide good insight as to the extent of countries that have commenced work at the national level to put enabling conditions in place and seek to rely on this framework as part of their contribution. If one thing comes through from these INDCs, it’s that finance for the implementation and multiple benefits of REDD+ will be critical.

“Make haste slowly”: Augustus Caesar

So when it comes to increasing ambition and mitigating, what cost to ecosystems are we prepared to accept? Do we act on climate without limits or do we safeguard against unintended consequences? Are we prepared to engage in questionable, potentially unsafe “techno fixes” and roll out massive implementation of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) facilities in order to end our addiction to fossil fuels? Or will there be incentives for safe and proven renewable energy solutions? Recent reports show that we can achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2050—but where is the political will to do so? And to what extent will governments allow the fossil fuel industry to slow progress?

The future will see a new mix of energy solutions, yet the nature of this mix and the associated costs to the land sector, forests, food security, indigenous peoples and biodiversity remain unknown—and are the subject of speculation around the halls of the climate negotiations. The burning questions for those working on the role of land use, biodiversity and forests are: Will the world ensure ecological integrity in a new climate agreement? Or will ecosystems, biodiversity and forest-dependent peoples be the victims of our efforts as we scramble to survive the climate crisis?

The climate negotiations have developed in recent years with great uncertainty as to the role of natural ecosystems and the extent to which forests, food security and REDD+ will be included in the agreement. As recently as October, the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, comprising more than 50 tropical forest countries, released a statement that a Paris Agreement cannot be considered a success without a strong reflection for REDD+. It’s surprising that this has entered the discussion at all, even with the billions of dollars invested in putting in place measures at the national level.

But it is, of course, part of a bigger negotiation.

The fear that forests and natural ecosystems will be used for offsetting and to justify continued use of fossil fuels remains a strong force within the negotiations. The question must be asked: Where is the space for offsetting in a world where national efforts globally fail to ensure the climate safety of future generations? Expect this controversy to come to a head in Paris.

“Integrity is an ecosystem”: Michael Leunig

Returning to the draft agreement text—the 9-page version produced in early October was substandard, to say the least. All provisions related to human rights or land use had been removed, so it contained no opening for safeguards related to issues such as social protections, food security, indigenous rights and ecological integrity. All references to synergies and linkages between mitigation and adaptation actions had been removed, and the only mention of forests was in the form of what appeared to be a typographical error where it was supposed to say “finance”.

It goes without saying that this text did not go down well when the recent intercessional in Bonn commenced.

Most of the references to land use throughout the text as it has evolved have been associated with a new set of Principles for accounting and transparency. It should be noted that these Principles would relate only to a system of rules for accounting, and are not intended to apply to actions that could affect forests or other natural ecosystems. It remains unclear what this will mean for REDD+ and LULUCF (land use, land use change and forestry), and what we may take from the Kyoto Protocol LULUCF rules (if anything) with all their complexities and inadequacies. This time-consuming, highly political and complex work looks likely to form part of a work program going into 2016 and beyond.

The build-up to Paris feels more real, as though the world has finally accepted that it is time to act on climate change

Stephen Leonard

The negotiating text did not reflect many of these issues until recently. Hopefully, this is not too little too late. We did see significant improvements in Bonn, and the text now contains options for inclusion of human rights, indigenous peoples’ rights and the importance of ensuring food security. The text recognizes that the land sector will play a critical role in addressing climate change and goes as far as proposing an entire separate Article dedicated to REDD+ (which some perceive as a step too far).

The text we take to Paris is well balanced, with good language across mitigation and adaptation and finance, and provides for emphasis on ensuring the integrity and resilience of natural ecosystems. Appropriately, the current text puts in place a sensible arrangement to develop Principles and Guidelines related to actions in the land sector, which reflect these characteristics. A loss of these provisions in the new agreement would be an unfortunate outcome in Paris.

The pre-2020 work will be an important part of the ongoing UNFCCC negotiations beyond Paris; the technical examination process will also continue, looking more to implementation efforts and prioritizing finance. This is particularly important given the role that climate action could take through UNFCCC initiatives to achieve SDGs such as halting deforestation by 2020, as a significant and important short-term measure to achieve a long-term goal. This work should be aligned with the private sector’s zero deforestation pledges and the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests. It would be useful to see guidance or decisions agreed in Paris that enhance action on these items, and achieve this and other pre-2020 SDGs that can contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

“Money often costs too much”: Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the case of forests and climate change, the perennially major issue of finance never seems to be resolved. There never seems to be enough money to go around. Yet this year, the UNFCCC Standing Committee on Finance (SCF) and the Green Climate Fund (GCF) have made efforts to move the discussion forward.

The SCF Forum on Forests, held in Durban in September, was well attended by UNFCCC land-use negotiators, academics and civil society. A series of presentations on finance for forests identified the need for a range of financial instruments, including grants, concessional loans, market rate loans, equity, tax incentives, insurance and guarantees. The importance of landscape approaches was highlighted, as was the need for clarity in terms of accessing results-based payments from the GCF.

A study by the Climate and Land Use Alliance pointed out that, to date, REDD+ finance has increased MRV capacity, stakeholder participation and the overall dialogue on forests and climate change. The study shows that REDD+ has had low-level political impact, without identified emission reductions able to be attributed to the initiative. The SCF will now go to the UNFCCC COP with the recommendation that guidance be provided to the GCF to provide more clarity on accessing results-based payments and to assist countries to implement REDD+.

In early November, the GCF met in Zambia, where the first eight projects were put forward for approval. None of these passed through smoothly. Intense controversy emerged amid allegations that consultations with indigenous peoples in relation to the project proposed in the Peruvian Amazon had been inadequate. (The project seeks to be aligned with REDD+ and provides for adaptation measures, addresses tenure and seeks to improve the livelihoods of 120 communities in Peru’s Datem del Maranon province.) The long-lasting debate that ensued highlighted the need for greater emphasis within the GCF on how Accredited Entities, project developers and the fund itself engage with communities. Indigenous civil society expressed concerns over the lack of policies on the issue, seeking for the Board to develop a standalone policy on consultations and free, prior and informed consent, particularly with indigenous peoples.

Finally, small groups drafted text in a last-ditch attempt to find a resolution at 9 o’clock on the final evening of the meeting. After much discussion, at 3.30 a.m. on 6 November, the GCF approved its first eight projects, to be put in place in Peru, Malawi, Maldives, Fiji, Mexico, Colombia, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Senegal, Bangladesh, Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

Let us hope that the Paris Agreement leaves no one behind and that representatives of the most vulnerable countries return to their homes and islands confident that the world has moved onto a track that will not result in the loss of their homes, heritage and culture.

We need this agreement to be holistic in its approach and to ensure the integrity and resilience of natural ecosystems and biodiversity, and to protect all people. A mitigation- and carbon-centric agreement will not be enough. Ecosystem integrity and human rights must be core elements of the Paris Package.

We need a package that is balanced across social and environmental needs, and we need it in December 2015.

For more information on this topic, please contact Stephen Leonard at
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Topic(s) :   Climate talks