Interview

Keep fossil fuels in focus while talking forests and trees at COP26, says forestry expert

Interview with Robert Nasi: "Financial incentives falling short"
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A forest canopy
By using high resolution aerial imagery, scientists can estimate the diametrical growth of trees. CIFOR/Axel Fassio

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Putting land use issues — including deforestation, reforestation and restoration — front and center at the U.N. COP26 climate summit in Glasgow is without a doubt a positive and important move, but world leaders should also keep fossil fuel emissions at the top of the agenda, said Robert Nasi, managing director of the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF).

He delivered the remarks in response to a report in Britain’s Guardian newspaper which stated that an agreement and new funding to stop forest loss and degradation will be announced at the summit.

“We need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, move to renewable energy, while removing perverse financial incentives, such as subsidies,” Nasi said.

“Stopping deforestation and protecting standing forests or reversing it through reforestation and landscape restoration can make a dramatic contribution to mitigating and adapting to climate change while helping to achieve biodiversity targets. But if it’s not accompanied by measures to reduce the 75 percent emissions from other sectors, it’s not going to bring us to the ‘1.5 degree Celsius’ future we want.”

Still, the focus by the UK COP presidency on forests and trees is crucial because the Agriculture Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) sectors represent about 25 percent of planet-warming emissions. Another often overlooked benefit is that it is the only sector which can actively grow carbon sinks through reforestation and ecosystem restoration.

Forests and trees also offer very strong synergies across the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity and its newly minted post-2020 agenda, and the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification and its land degradation neutrality agenda.

Globally, deforestation and forest degradation results in an average of 8.1 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year, while standing forests absorb 16 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, according to research published by CIFOR-ICRAF scientists and partners

Producers and consumers of such commodities as livestock, cocoa, coffee, soy and palm oil have been asked to commit to halt land clearances, the second largest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, the Guardian story said, citing a Downing Street source.

“COP26 puts a heavy emphasis on trees – it’s there as an equal part of ‘coal, cars, cash and trees’ because the prime minister (Boris Johnson) personally believes protecting nature and biodiversity has to be a major part of how we tackle climate change. Alongside reducing carbon emissions from coal and cars, nature-based solutions are a priority. That’s why COP26 sees the UK presidency pushing for a strong international agreement to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030,” the source told the Guardian.

Currently, however, there is no effective monitoring and evaluation system in place to track commitments in a coordinated fashion, and most reports have so far indicated that they have underdelivered.

“Tremendous opportunities exist as alternatives to land clearing, not only through restoring forested lands, but also by developing sustainable farmlands with agroforestry techniques or by rewetting drained peatlands,” Nasi said. “Trials in degraded peatlands in Indonesia have demonstrated they can be effectively rejuvenated to produce bioenergy-friendly trees through planting fast-growing native species, for example.”

The U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 has shed light on a vast range of projects and opportunities for innovative nature-based re-carbonization of ecosystems.

“While political leaders can be convinced to adopt transformative and sustainable changes, we also need to convince the private sector, which relies on these commodities for revenues,” he said. “A carrot and stick approach must be used to ensure obligations and responsibilities are fulfilled.”

The fate of Indigenous and local people, and how this will affect smallholder farmers and producers is a critical issue that must be taken into consideration.

Currently, financial incentives for countries in the Global South to keep forests standing fall short.

“It’s been a vexing and contentious issue,” Nasi said. “Some countries are still largely covered in forest and have a low deforestation rate — for various reasons, but generally because of a low population density — for example, in Guyana or Gabon — or due to the availability of resources such as oil — for example, in Brunei. These countries — because of their low deforestation — are not benefiting from the REDD+ mechanism developed to reduce deforestation. Yet they have an important role in keeping forests standing, so leaders should find ways to value avoided deforestation better than it has been so far.”

Many positive outcomes of REDD+ and public funding exist, which have led to more research, greater capacity to measure carbon, map forest loss and regrowth, support gender diversity, Indigenous and local communities, all key conditions for addressing deforestation and forest degradation.

“If nature-based solutions to fight climate change are potentially capable of mitigating 30 percent of our emissions, why do they as yet receive only 3 percent of the climate finance,” Nasi said. “We should invest more in our forests and tree-based systems as green infrastructure, the same way we invest in roads building or other type of infrastructures.”

Holding countries to account is complex, but one thing that is clear is that transparency is key and should apply both to developed and developing countries.

“So far countries in the Global North have not fully delivered in many respects: the $100 billion a year in climate finance promised in 2009 is not yet there, subsidies for fossil fuels represent $11 million a minute, — the International Monetary Fund said in a recent report that the production and burning of coal, oil and gas was subsidized by $5.9 trillion in 2020 — while many countries are still opening new coal mines or new coal-based power plants.”

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For more information on this topic, please contact Robert Nasi at r.nasi@cgiar.org.
This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.
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