Barcelona Climate Talks: Adequate Forest Protection Hinges on 10-Word Phrase

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Reporting from Barcelona, Spain

Developing nations could get paid billions to raze forests and build palm oil plantations in their place if current text in the Copenhagen climate treaty sticks, a group of advocates warned at the Barcelona climate talks today.

It’s not set in stone. Governments could still reinsert a 10-word phrase requiring natural forest protection that got sliced from the treaty language, the nine-group Ecosystems Climate Alliance (ECA) explained in a statement.

They’ll have to do it by Friday, though, the last day of the United Nations Barcelona talks.

The reason: Barcelona is the last stop for global warming delegates before the final Copenhagen summit in December. After that, negotiators must whittle down bloated text, not add to it, as per instructions from the UN Secretariat.

"There is enormous pressure to reduce [the Copenhagen negotiating text] down," Andrea Johnson of the non-governmental Environmental Investigation Agency told SolveClimate in Barcelona. "And safeguards have been discussed already more than anything else since August."

The 10-word provision in question — "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.

Until, that is, the phrase vanished completely on the last day of 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.

The European Commission’s chief negotiator called it "an unfortunate mishap." Twenty countries are said to be in favor of putting the phrase back in. Two days into talks in Barcelona, though, that hasn’t happened.

Many developed nations, including the U.S., 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, spewing CO2 back into the atmosphere. Today, more than 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from razing forests, according to estimates.

REDD is seen as a relatively cheap way to stop this 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.

A new report by British-based Global Witness explains:

"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."

Palm oil plantations have relatively little carbon-storage capacity.

According to a pilot study carried out by the World Agroforestry Centre in collaboration with the Indonesian Palm Oil Commission, palm oil plantations store an average of 40 tons of carbon per hectare. Compare that 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.

Without the safeguard provision, REDD would create the perverse economic incentive to clear these carbon-absorbing 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.

Question remains: Will REDD dollars fund the expansion?


See also:

Putting a Value on Preserving Forests, Not Clearing Them

Forests Loom Large at Governors’ Global Climate Summit

Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Shaping Financing to Prevent Deforestation

Greenpeace Says Model Forest Protection Project Proves REDD Offsets Don’t Work