Forestry advocates are warning that a UN-backed plan to preserve disappearing forests in poor nations could do the opposite if alleged loopholes are not closed.
Under the politically popular plan, known as REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, rich countries would pay poorer ones for slowing their rates of tree loss.
The scheme is seen as critical for averting dangerous climate change.
But the draft text lacks language to keep untouched rainforests standing, and a monitoring mechanism to stop billions of dollars from being lost to corruption. A coalition of forestry groups claims these omissions, among others, would lead to more logging not less.
“Governments … have told their constituencies that they’re going to protect forests in REDD. But when you look hard, that’s not what the text actually says is going to happen,” said Peg Putt of the Wilderness Society, a conservation group that is part of the nonprofit Ecosystems Climate Alliance (ECA).
“It needs these holes filled so that you get something good,” she told SolveClimate News.
To begin to counter the problem, ECA says the text must include explicit wording to “protect remaining intact natural forests, including all carbon pools, from further degradation.”
Without it, countries could get paid to raze virgin forests and grow single-species plantations in their place, such as those for palm oil, they say.
Plantations have at most 20 percent of the carbon-storing capacity as native forests, according to scientific studies.
“The text may just as well lead to a subsidy mechanism for large-scale logging and establishment of plantations rather than protections of intact rainforests,” Nils Hermann Ranum of Rainforest Foundation Norway, a campaign group, told SolveClimate News.
Another problem, they say, is the absence of “enforcement teeth.” The text has safeguards to protect the rights of indigenous people living on forest land and biodiversity, but has no checking protocols or enforcement authority to punish anyone for lax observance.
Most tropical forest states have weak legal enforcement of their own. That means the safeguards will be guided by “good intentions” not good policy, Ranum told SolveClimate News.
Curbing Timber Demand
The groups further warn that the current text doesn’t go far enough to curb demand for illegally produced timber in rich nations, a major driver of deforestation.
Lisa Handy, senior policy adviser at the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), said it’s in the interest of wealthy nations to address this.
Under REDD, rich states will spend billions to save forests, she told SolveClimate News. “If they’re at the same time driving the consumption and demand, they’re really undercutting their own investments.”
At UN climate talks, the U.S. has been “very constructive” on the demand issue, Handy said. Meanwhile, Bolivia, Norway and the Philippines have gone to bat for monitoring of the safeguards and better protection of natural forests.
Even as disagreements continue, the REDD program, unique in the global climate treaty talks, has far-flung support from donor and recipient countries, green groups, forest tribes, the World Bank and others.
Putt said “there’s potential” to get a meaningful deal at December’s summit in Cancun, Mexico. But the fear is that ministers will rush it for the sake of securing a win in the troubled talks, she continued. “Concluding something bad in haste is obviously not useful.”
No Rich-Poor Rift
The world’s forests absorb billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. Cutting them down is responsible for almost 20 percent of warming emissions globally, according to UN figures.
Because of that, REDD is seen as a vital piece of a post-2012 global treaty to curb climate change. It is one of the few areas that saw progress at the failed negotiations in Copenhagen last December.
Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has singled out REDD as an area where consensus is achievable. The climate body declined to comment on progress.
But Ranum said REDD talks have something important going for them: They have been spared the rich-poor divide that has stymied progress on a wider global warming pact.
“The REDD negotiations have actually been quite impressive,” he said. “Alliances have shifted depending on the discussions and issues.”
REDD Plus Partnership
There are, however, concerns that could change.
The new 68-nation REDD plus Partnership, started last May to facilitate a fast start of REDD, came under heavy criticism at recent climate talks in Tianjin, China, for quarreling over the agenda and other procedural issues.
The partnership says it aims to “to take immediate action” to improve the efficiency, transparency, coordination and financial instruments so REDD can take off.
“This was meant to be a confidence building exercise and instead it’s turned into utter disarray,” Putt said. “That’s really got the potential to be counterproductive to the negotiations.”
Ranum, who was in Tianjin, said he saw the emergence of a rich-versus-poor alliance in the partnership.
“If this dynamic spreads to the REDD discussions, that would be a risk for a possible outcome in the UNFCCC negotiations,” he said.
But Patrick Verkooijen, a senior partner specialist at the World Bank and co-team leader of the REDD plus partnership secretariat, said notable progress has been made.
In Tianjin, parties reached an agreement that was “strongly welcomed” by NGOs, indigenous people, the private sector and others on stakeholder participation, Verkooijen said. “That was very positive.” The partnership also set in motion a work plan for 2011 and 2012.
Verkooijen continued: “This partnership is still very young, so the establishment of the debate is still unfolding.” But partners agreed on the need for prompt action, he said.
“During the Tianjin meetings, partners emphasized the critical need to work productively together and with a wide range of non-governmental stakeholders to take immediate action.”