Forest Protection Hinges On 10-Word Phrase
Author: Stacy Feldman
BARCELONA - Developing nations could end up being paid billions of dollars to raze rainforests and build palm oil plantations in their place if the current text of the Copenhagen climate treaty sticks, a group of advocates warned at the United Nations climate talks on Tuesday.
It's not set in stone. Negotiators could still reinsert a 10-word phrase that was sliced from the treaty language, but that would have to happen by Friday, the last day of the U.N. talks in Barcelona.
Barcelona is the last stop for global warming delegates before the Copenhagen summit starts on December 7. After that, negotiators must whittle down the bloated text, not add to it, as instructed by the U.N. Secretariat.
"There is enormous pressure to reduce down," Andrea Johnson of the non-governmental Environmental Investigation Agency told SolveClimate. "And safeguards have been discussed already more than anything else since August."
The 10-word provision - "safeguards against the conversion of natural forests to forest plantations" - was part of the proposal on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, known as REDD. The words were enclosed in brackets. Meaning, they were still up for negotiation.
The phrase vanished completely on the last day of UN climate talks in Bangkok in October.
The cut came from the European Union, with support from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and several other Congo Basin countries.
Afterwards, the European Commission's chief negotiator called the word change "an unfortunate mishap." Twenty countries are said to be in favor of restoring the phrase. Two days into talks in Barcelona, however, that hasn't happened.
Many developing nations, including the United States, have remained silent on the issue.
"The protection of intact natural forests should be a core element of REDD, but so far it is still not in any text proposals," said Peg Putt of The Wilderness Society. "Barcelona may be the last chance for forests, and we need Parties to step up and say so."
Hope remains. Before Barcelona, reports surfaced that the UK would push to undo the so-called Bangkok mistake. Brazil's climate negotiator Thelma Krug told SolveClimate, "I am 100 percent confident it is going to be there" by Friday.
If it isn't, the implications could be huge.
Forests are carbon sinks, sucking up carbon from the atmosphere and using it to grow. Deforestation has the opposite effect, releasing CO2 back into the atmosphere.
Today, more than 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation.
A study by the World Agroforestry Center, in collaboration with the Indonesian Palm Oil Commission, found that palm oil plantations store an average of 40 tons of carbon per hectare. That compares with untouched "temperate moist forests," which store an average of 377 tons of carbon per hectare, according to a study published in July in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Tropical rainforests store 171 tons of carbon per hectare.
REDD is seen as a relatively cheap way to stop the practice and cut CO2 emissions quickly. Its underlying premise is to reward developing countries with billions of dollars in "carbon credits" for conserving their tropical forests. But for REDD to be successful, primary forests must be protected over vested palm oil interests.
"Maintaining primary forests must be REDD's top priority, as these forests store the most carbon and improve permanence through greater resiliency than degraded forests," a new report by British-based Global Witness explains.
Palm oil plantations have very little carbon-storage capacity and bring severe biodiversity loss. Without the safeguard provision, REDD would create a perverse economic incentive to clear forests to plant a polluting cash crop, environmentalists warn.
In recent years, there's been a palm oil explosion. The growth stems from increasing demand in cooking oil, but an increasing chunk of new plantations are being used to meet biofuel mandates in wealthy nations.
Indonesia and Malaysia have the most existing plantations. Large swathes of forests in both countries have been cleared to fuel the boom. Newer markets in Latin America are beginning to balloon, with signs of massive growth on the horizon.
With out the safeguards in the Copenhagen text, REDD dollars could end up funding the expansion.