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Spotlight on forests at COP26, a big step forward for climate talks

Ending deforestation by 2030 is on the agenda
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Opening plenary of the 2017 Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany. CIFOR/Pilar Valbuena

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In the minds of many observers and environmentalists, the outcome of the upcoming U.N. COP26 climate summit in Glasgow is a fait accompli — already, the talks are destined to fail due to the inability of negotiators to agree on planet-saving measures.

Promised financial commitments of $100 billion a year made by rich countries to poor countries at COP15 in 2009 failed to materialize by 2020.

Leaked documents reveal the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is under pressure from some countries to play down the need to move away from fossil fuels, responsible for 70 percent of planet-warming emissions.

In addition to scandal and squabble, the central tenet of the U.N. process on climate – to curb average temperatures and stop them from rising more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times – is also in jeopardy.

Emissions cuts put forward so far by countries through their Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement cannot meet the 1.5-degree goal, and U.N. chief Antonio Guterres warned last month that the failure to cut global emissions is setting the world on a “catastrophic” path to 2.7 degrees Celsius heating.

Yet, reversing the detrimental effects of the second biggest emissions culprit – the triad of agriculture, deforestation, and other land use change (AFOLU), which produces 30 percent of emissions – while supporting efforts to conserve forests and biodiversity should lend significant momentum to the process, according to experts with the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF).

Newspapers report the UK host presidency at COP26 is spearheading an ambitious initiative financed by public and private money to halt deforestation by 2030, and asking producers and traders of major agricultural commodities to stop land-clearing activities.

“We’re hopeful that a high-level decision on nature will emphasize the need for very significantly scaled up public finance to protect and restore natural ecosystems in parallel to — and not as a replacement for — the phase out of fossil fuels,” said Stephen Leonard, a climate law and policy expert, and an advisor to CIFOR-ICRAF. “This is by no means a single solution to the environmental challenges the planet faces, but it could go a long way to supporting the urgent action that’s needed.”

The talks should not only focus on agricultural transformation and conserving and restoring forests and ecosystems, but they should emphasize the role of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, regenerative and equitable food systems.

“In accordance with the Paris Rulebook, transparency of action in the land sector should be rights-based, built on equitable benefit sharing mechanisms and consider social inclusion,” Leonard said.

CIFOR-ICRAF work with Indigenous Peoples and human rights has demonstrated the efficacy of social inclusion in sustainable forest management. It is important that initiatives are based on an understanding of the rights and justice concerns at play in intervention areas, to avoid exacerbating problems and causing more harm than good.

However, the net-zero emissions discussion, coupled with the expectations of a new global carbon market that may include nature, creates a risk that carbon trading in offsets using nature will lead to delays in the phase-out of fossil fuels, Leonard added. “We need to avoid this – and incentives must be put in place for very deep decarbonization and efforts to protect the world’s last remaining natural ecosystems and to scale up restoration in a way that also supports biodiversity.”

Setting targets to reach net-zero emissions – one of the stated central goals of COP26 – requires switching by mid-century to energy and technologies that do not produce greenhouse gases. Efforts must include protecting the world’s last remaining ecosystems, phasing out coal, switching to electric vehicles and increasing investments in renewable energies.

Mobilizing finance is another key goal of the COP26 summit. Financial institutions are under pressure to release trillions of dollars in private and public sector finance.

“We see strong signals coming from some corners of the private sector to engage with governments to support movement toward a greener future,” said Christopher Martius, managing director of CIFOR Germany, who served for many years as team leader of Energy and Low-Carbon Development.

The LEAF Initiative, a coalition launched by Britain, Norway and the United States with a range of companies, including Amazon, Nestlé, Airbnb and Delta Airlines, seeks to support companies in reducing emissions in their value chains and countries in the sale of forest-based carbon credits to companies to achieve net zero may also feature in Glasgow.

“The message is starting to get through that conserving what exists will be cheaper and more efficient than rebuilding what has been destroyed – conservation must have priority over restoration,” Martius said.

Through initiatives linked with the net zero goal, such as the Marrakech Partnership Programme, investors will make commitments to shift finance away from deforestation linked activities and invest in protection and restoration.

CIFOR-ICRAF is jointly hosting almost 30 events at the COP, on topics ranging from women’s land rights, to fair and equitable REDD+ finance, to adaptation efforts on the African continent, to soil health, sustainable energy transformation, and biomass power generation and land restoration.

The Global Landscapes Forum (GLF), jointly coordinated by CIFOR-ICRAF, the World Bank, and the U.N. Environment Programme, is hosting a three-day conference focused on forests, food and finance on the side lines of the COP26 summit at the University of Glasgow.

Sponsored by Germany, Luxembourg, and the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration (FOLUR) program — which is coordinated by the World Bank and funded by the Global Environment Facility — event organizers anticipate it will attract thousands of delegates both online and in person.

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For more information on this topic, please contact Christopher Martius at c.martius@cgiar.org or Stephen Leonard at stephen.v.leonard@gmail.com.
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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