While many participants had hoped for a rocking performance by negotiators, they left still straining to hear the sounds of success.

The most recent round of the United Nations climate change negotiations began early the morning of November 11. After a marathon final session that lasted more than 24 hours, talks concluded at nearly 9 p.m. on Saturday the 23rd. This dramatic finish has become an almost yearly occurrence of governments rocking all Friday night and partying every (Satur)day. With so much activity late in the game, observers might reasonably have expected a lengthy set of agreements to step up the fight against climate change. Or, at the very least, confirmation that Saturday night’s alright for fighting when nations can’t agree.

Instead, based on the reactions from many participants, the final agreements said more about the state of negotiations by what they left out than what they included. To be fair, these negotiations were not intended to reach a final decision on major climate change issues. Warsaw was built as a step toward agreement on a new climate change treaty at negotiations in Paris in December 2015. A successful agreement in Paris depends on countries making commitments to reduce their carbon pollution. Putting their cards on the table as early as possible would help even more. It would leave more time to assess if the commitments will be enough to stop dangerous and potentially runaway levels of climate change. And to negotiate stronger commitments if not.

Rather, governments, particularly the wealthiest and most polluting, spent all of Warsaw showing each other their best poker faces, with no new commitments pledged. Governments did manage to agree to state their commitments “well in advance” of Paris. They did not, however, clarify when exactly that would be.

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The Kyoto Protocol (KP) still sits in troubled waters, as three of its signatory countries threaten to jump ship on its continuation beyond 2012

(Photo: The Adopt a Negotiator Project) The Kyoto Protocol (KP) still sits in troubled waters, as three of its signatory countries threaten to jump ship on its continuation beyond 2012.

Governments just finished another round of negotiations in Bonn, Germany under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. If the international climate talks are a ship, the last two weeks’ voyage saw equal parts clear sailing, stormy seas, and listless drifting, as nations advanced toward agreements on addressing ocean carbon storage and clean technology transfer, fought over the future of the Kyoto Protocol, and wasted nearly three days just trying to agree on the agenda for parts of the meeting.

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From August 31 to September 3, the National Forestry Commission of Mexico and the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment held an international conference in Oaxaca, Mexico, in preparation for the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) in 2011. The focus of the workshops was on forest governance, management, and finance, with a particular emphasis on implementating the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) mechanism and the rights of communities relating to REDD+.

REDD+ measures seek to create financial incentives for developing countries to decrease their emissions from forests while at the same time alleviating poverty. However, skeptics worry that more centralized forest governance will infringe on the rights of local communities to manage their own forest resources.

Aftermath of Deforestation

All of Latin America shares similar struggles when it comes to deforestation. In most of these countries, growing populations and economies are putting a strain on limited environmental resources, including forests. In Mexico, as a result, less than 10 percent of the original tropical forest is left.

The benefits of REDD+, such as sustaining forest ecosystems and providing greater motivation to reduce climate change, seem obvious. So why is it taking so long to implement these practices? One answer raised at the conference was the difficulty in finding balance between preventing social and ecological harm and being as cost-effective as possible. It is nearly impossible to share the costs and benefits of REDD+ equally, whether internationally, nationally, or locally.

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International youth invite delegates to hide their emissions by throwing plastic "emissions" balls through a parody of the LULUCF loophole rules (Photo courtesy SustainUS)

Logging loopholes, gigaton gaps, and other funny phrases await resolution from negotiators now that the United Nations climate talks have wrapped up in Bonn. From finance to forests, a lot of issues will be taken up by governments when they meet again in—surprise—Bonn, in August, and then again in China later this year. Waiting until the annual high-level climate summit in Cancun, Mexico, in November to address these issues would leave little chance of solving them by that summit’s end.

Land use, land use change, and forestry (LULUCF) issues dominated much of the discussion in Bonn. Many developed (Annex I) nations argued for historical “baseline” rules that would give them credit for more emissions reductions than they actually achieved. That baseline serves as a reference period for assessing how greenhouse gas emissions from forestry practices (mostly logging) and land use activities (creating or destroying wetlands, grasslands, etc.) have changed over time due to human activity. If developed countries get their way, the rules would allow carbon storage from forest growth to count toward their reductions, but ignore future emissions from fires and logging.

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Photo courtesy Broddi Sigurðarson. Indigenous New Zealanders celebrate their country endorsing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

At the December 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, treaty negotiators agreed to include recognition of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the proposed draft agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. If approved, the new climate treaty would be the first international environmental law to maintain that indigenous peoples must express their “free, prior, and informed consent” for any conservation program to proceed within their territory. (In a promising move, the precautionary brackets on this controversial text were removed in Bonn earlier this month.)

The inclusion of “free, prior, and informed consent” would, theoretically, protect indigenous peoples from unfair treatment in the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) deals that are under way as part of international climate agreements. Many indigenous peoples organizations are concerned that groups may be coerced into REDD benefit-sharing agreements or forced off their land entirely.

Due in large part to opposition from the three countries that had not adopted the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—Canada, New Zealand, and the United States—the draft climate treaty states only that safeguards “should” be followed and merely “notes” that the UN has adopted the declaration.

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Feelings of inequality and tensions between the global North and South—which have plagued international negotiations leading up to the December United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark—were also present at the XIII World Forestry Congress last week (October 18- 23, 2009). Over 7000 participants representing 160 countries convened in Buenos Aires for this event, hosted by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the government of Argentina. Founded in 1926, the Forestry Congress serves as a forum for governments, civil society, academia, and the private sector to discuss forest-related issues and formulate recommendations at multiple levels of governance. 

 The Conference’s theme was “Forests in Development: A Vital Balance.” Discussion topics included biodiversity, forests and energy, forest management, tourism and recreation, and development opportunities. A forum focused on “forests and climate change” was held Wednesday afternoon, with a keynote address by Roberto Acosta, Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The forum included panels on land use and land use change as well as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), and discussed the impacts of climate change on forests and people.

Forests are not just important carbon sinks, they provide economic, cultural and spiritual livelihoods for billions of people

Forests are not just carbon sinks, they provide economic, cultural and spiritual livelihoods for billions of people

 The forum also produced a message to the UNFCCC’s 15th Conference of Parties (COP 15) which will convene in Copenhagen this December. It outlines the important role of sustainable forest management in climate change mitigation and adaptation, and calls for increased “inter-sectoral collaboration” to improve forest governance and the livelihoods of people dependent on forests for income, as poverty and lack of human rights are linked to deforestation and forest degradation. The message to the COP 15 also called for increased recognition that forests are “more than just carbon,” as they provide valuable ecosystem goods and services, promote biodiversity, and provide the economic livelihood, “cultural and spiritual identity of billions of people.”

 An ongoing theme of the Congress was that climate change has pinholed forests as tools of storing greenhouse gases, rather than also focusing on the opportunities for “rural development, foods security and livelihood improvement” that forests offer to developing nations, as expressed by Sudanese representative Balgis Osman Elasha (who incidentally authored one of the climate connections for State of the World 2009, “Building Resilience to Drought and Climate Change in Sudan.”

 This theme echoes the North-South divide that has also characterized recent climate negotiations. Developing countries do not appreciate being viewed exclusively as mitigation tools (or in this case, as carbon sinks) for industrialized countries. Accordingly, the World Forestry Congress emphasized that forests should be appreciated in a broader sense including their vital role for the daily lives of hundreds of million people depending on them in the developing world, rather than valued for their usefulness to industrialized countries.

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Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, Bolivia

Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, Bolivia

The environmental movement is largely in agreement that international climate negotiators should include avoided deforestation measures in the successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol (see my Eye on Earth story, published yesterday, about environmental groups and industry applying joint pressure on the United States to support such forest policies). Groups are divided, however, on whether funding should only support national programs, such as park police and deforestation monitors, or whether an international policy known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (or REDD) should also allow for programs that provide money directly to forest communities.

Greenpeace International raised concern about “sub-national” proposals last week by questioning the emissions reductions achieved by the world’s first avoided deforestation project funded by carbon offsets. The dispute over this single project highlights the difficulties in establishing sub-national REDD projects. But such projects may be necessary, proponents say, or else a scarcity of affordable carbon offset options will lead to a sharp rise in the cost of many cap-and-trade programs.

The project in question is the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project. U.S. energy companies American Electric Power, BP-Amoco, and Pacificorp teamed with The Nature Conservancy in 1997, spending $11.35 million to buy the logging concessions in Bolivia’s Noel Kempff Mercado National Park and establish a buffer zone that surrounds the park. Communities within the buffer zone receive payments to support eco-tourism operations and other sustainable forest management initiatives. The Nature Conservancy describes the project as “an example of how well-designed forest carbon projects can result in real, scientifically measurable, and verifiable emissions reductions with important benefits for biodiversity and local communities.”

But Greenpeace, in a report released last week, calls the entire project a “carbon scam.” The Noel Kempff project was originally estimated to sequester 55 million metric tons of carbon dioxide for the next 30 years, but recent estimates ratcheted down the emissions savings to 5.8 million metric tons. The discrepancy allowed the polluting companies to overestimate how much emissions they helped to avoid. A “fixed and consistent” estimate has still not been established, the Greenpeace report said.

Jonathan Hoekstra, managing director of The Nature Conservancy’s climate change program, responded to the report’s criticisms in an email. He said the group estimated emissions reductions at a time when proper methods were not yet established. Essentially, the project had to peer into a crystal ball and predict 30 years of deforestation based on previous timber extraction rates and the forest’s carbon sequestration potential. “Initial estimates of emissions reductions were just that, estimates—based on anecdotal evidence and interviews with experts,” he wrote. “The business-as-usual baseline (the emissions that would have happened if logging continued) was lowered as methodologies improved and as monitoring data indicated.”

What’s clear, Hoekstra said, is that 1,034,107 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions were avoided from 1997 to 2005 due to the Noel Kempff project. The Bolivian government would have otherwise lacked the funds to terminate the region’s timber concessions or expand the national park, he added.

Several standards have emerged in recent years that better estimate how forests such as Noel Kempff sequester carbon dioxide. Whether any method can accurately predict future forest loss remains to be seen.

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