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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Separating the Tree from the Forest: Tackling deforestation independently to make progress on climate change

Jessica Duncan, MPA

In early 2007, there was a palpable sense of a growing global consensus on the need for a multilateral climate change agreement. US presidential candidates were discussing their plans for domestic legislation, many European nations had already enacted ambitious policies, and the Chinese government had declared pollution – carbon emissions included – as a top priority. However, the 2008 financial crash and the resulting credit crunch, falling gas prices, and a return to protectionism quickly wiped out both capital and political will for the climate change agenda. At the time, commentators said it would take a year for the economy to bounce back and climate change would again return to the docket. President Obama and others spoke of the opportunity presented by clean energy industries to foster, rather than limit, American economic growth.

Four years since that cautiously optimistic time, and few of the predictions have come true. Indeed, climate change has all has absolutely disappeared from Washington. While American politics on energy have often been fickle, European’s sudden silence on climate change is more surprising. Across the globe, it appears that multilateral environmental agreements couldn’t be further from political leaders’ priorities.

In this political and economic context, what is the most productive next step to foster international climate change consensus? If we assume that something should be done on climate change but realize carbon pricing simply will not be implemented in the current economic climate, what do we do?

Way Ahead: Divide and Conquer
The most influential forum for climate policy, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), should take areas of growing consensus and separate negotiations and policies on these issues from the broader UN international climate change process, e.g. deforestation and technology transfer policies. (This article will focus on the former.) While far from ideal, this pragmatic division of labor will enable the US and other major emitters to invest in components of the climate policy that do not threaten their domestic economies in such a rough economic time. They can work aggressively on these areas until their domestic politics and economies better align to allow stronger mitigation policies in the future.

With regard to deforestation policy, in recent rounds of UN climate talks there has been remarkable convergence of international opinion on its importance, including the launch of the United Nations’ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) program to better coordinate UN efforts to combat climate change by providing incentives to decrease deforestation. However, these promising developments have been overshadowed by the lack of movement in other areas of climate change policy and by the ongoing turbulence of the global economy. Overall, leaders have been prevented from doing all they can in this area because of a larger stalemate around carbon pricing and binding emissions cuts. A division of the international negotiation process that tackles deforestation policy separately will capitalize on positive developments even when countries remain at different ends of the table on other issues.

What can be done on deforestation alone?
Deforestation accounts for an estimated 20% of global carbon emissions each year. Slowing emissions from the destruction of forests will help keep global emissions at sustainable levels even if there is delayed action on more contentious areas of mitigation. While it may take decades to stop reliance on fossil fuel, it is possible to slow or halt deforestation far sooner. Reforestation also presents a very cost-effective opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with far greater returns on each dollar invested than most other mitigation options. In addition, deforestation should be separated from the broader climate agenda because it has potential to alter regional and international economic and political landscapes by giving developing countries, from Indonesia to Congo to Brazil, massive value in their forests. If these new carbon assets are managed correctly, so that current incentives are reversed and forests are more valuable left standing than cut down, carbon sinks – reservoirs that store carbon, removing it from the atmosphere – could become a tremendous resource for the populations of these developing nations. However, if they are poorly regulated, carbon sinks could feed corruption, giving governments leverage which could disrupt geopolitical relations and even potentially drive conflict. It is vital for the international community to establish sound deforestation policies now since it will be far harder to reform them down the line.

The UNFCCC should separate deforestation policy from a broader post-Kyoto agreement for the following reasons:
  • Effective international regulation in these areas is essential to cut global greenhouse emissions at the scale and with the urgency dictated by science – it’s more important than ever to protect carbon sinks since we have been unable to cut carbon emissions.
  • Regulation of these areas will provide opportunities for developing nations to profit from the climate agenda rather than be burdened by it.
  • As deforestation policy helps emerging economies become more invested in the international climate agenda, these nations may become more willing and able to take on binding emissions reductions targets.

Success on reforestation will not only cut global emissions in the near-term, but it will also – perhaps even more importantly – feed back into, strengthen, and drive progress on a more comprehensive global environmental negotiation in the future.

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