Placing justice at the heart of climate action

Country pledges must be more transparent and ensure local communities’ rights, new report says
Maasai women and children in Kenya. Photo by Tim Cronin/CIFOR

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Amid the scars of deforestation in southeastern Brazil, the Kayapo Indigenous Territory is a heart-shaped green oasis whose inhabitants defend it fiercely against encroachment by farmers, ranchers and loggers. Invaders have made some inroads from the east, but some 10 million hectares of primary humid forest remain intact, storing carbon as they have for thousands of years and serving as a buffer against fires.

The Kayapo territory offers a lesson to climate policy makers, say panellists who discussed a new study, the Land Gap Report, on 11 November 2022 at a side event at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP27 climate summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

The report warns that governments are relying excessively on tree planting to slow global warming, when the greatest emphasis should be on maintaining existing forest, restoring degraded ecosystems and guaranteeing the rights of the peoples who have managed those lands for generations.

“The evidence shows that forest lands that are legally held by communities exhibit lower rates of deforestation, store more carbon, harbour more biodiversity and benefit more people than lands managed by either public or private entities,” CIFOR-ICRAF senior scientist Anne Larson said during the panel discussion.

But those communities could be at risk from countries that pledge to offset their greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees, especially countries in the global North that propose converting millions of hectares of deforested or degraded land in the global South into forests and tree plantations.

Adding up the pledges from 166 countries and the European Union, the authors of the Land Gap Report calculated this would require 1.2 billion hectares of land — an area larger than the United States and four times the size of India – and an amount that makes those schemes unrealistic, the scientists say.

“Plastering the planet with imaginary trees is absurd,” Virginia Young of Australia’s Griffith University, said bluntly during the panel discussion.

It also raises issues of land rights and climate justice.

“The pledges, as they’re currently written, can’t be met without including the customary lands and territories of Indigenous Peoples and local communities,” Larson said. “We need a major paradigm shift in the way we seek to solve the global climate crisis. And that new paradigm needs to not only be effective in addressing carbon emissions, but also to be just, if we want to transform the way we live on the planet. Patchwork solutions like tree planting are not going to work, and they definitely aren’t going to work for the Indigenous Peoples and local communities and farmers living on rural lands.”

For Kimaren Riamit, founder and director of Indigenous Livelihoods Enhancement Partners in Kenya and a co-author of the Land Gap Report, risks posed by nature-based solutions that fail to consider local communities hit close to home.

“That the highest biodiversity concentration is in Indigenous Peoples’ territories is not accidental. It is based on the value system. It is based on the traditional knowledge system of positive nature relations,” Riamit said during the panel discussion. “We must not reproduce a history of dispossession of Indigenous Peoples. We need to put human rights at the centre of climate change discussions and decisions.”

Concerns about justice have become more acute as the concept of “net-zero emissions” — where the amount of carbon emitted is not greater than the amount removed from the atmosphere —comes under increasing scrutiny. Countries’ net-zero commitments assume that carbon can be removed physically from the atmosphere — relying on yet-unproven technology — or absorbed using land-based solutions, such as tree planting or ecosystem restoration.

The problem, said Wim Carton of Sweden’s Lund University, is that most net-zero commitments lack detail, and a country could continue to burn more fossil fuels as long as it commits to increase its carbon removal.

In a speech at COP27 on 8 November, UN Secretary General António Guterres warned that those vague criteria create “loopholes wide enough to drive a diesel truck through”. And the Land Gap Report shows “that this is not just a concern that is happening in models — it’s already happening in country pledges, as well,” Carton said during the panel discussion.

“We need more transparency in government pledges about what they mean when they talk about land use, what they’re counting on in terms of removals from land, and what land area it would require,” said Kate Dooley, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne in Australia and lead author of the report. She warned that efforts by some countries to make details of offset trading confidential would further undermine transparency.

Restored landscapes that include forests and farms can be a sustainable solution, the report says, as long as they consider both social and ecological values, a principle known as agroecology, and if their plans include specific targets and ensure the rights of local communities. Belize, Namibia, Malawi and Myanmar are among the countries whose net-zero plans specify the amount of land to be restored through agroforestry.

But the most important nature-based strategy is to make sure the carbon stored in primary forests stays in those forests. Primary forests “continue to sequester carbon, so the myth that you have to chop trees down so you can sequester more carbon is just that — a myth,” Young said.

Current carbon accounting rules do not recognize the value of that stored carbon, she said, although there are proposals for changing that.

As for ecosystem restoration, she added, “The conclusion is very clear that the best thing you can do is allow secondary natural forests to regenerate. Most secondary natural forests are at between 30% and 70% below their natural carbon carrying capacity, so they’ve got the potential to store much more carbon if they’re well looked after.”

Nature-based climate strategies must be designed not only for carbon removal and storage, but also to enhance biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, said Young, who urged a more holistic approach that would create a bridge between the climate convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Above all, said Larson, all nature-based proposals must take into account the traditional stewards of the land and forests. “There should be no biophysical solutions without ensuring the rights and livelihoods of Indigenous Peoples and local communities,” she said.

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