This is a pivotal moment in the fight against climate change. With the world already experiencing increased drought, wildfires and storms – and national and corporate climate commitments falling well short of the Paris Agreement – the United Nations Global Climate Change Conference this November (COP26) could be one of our last chances to get the climate crisis under control.
Deforestation rates now account for 10-20 percent of global emissions and they are increasing, putting the question of how to protect and restore tropical forests high on the agenda. Achieving this is possible, but it will require far more than the usual platitudes from world leaders or the repackaging of conservation programmes which have failed to mitigate the climate and biodiversity crises, and negatively impacted the people least responsible for creating them. With the UK hosting the conference this year, we have a unique opportunity to fight back against these ineffective climate solutions, and put indigenous peoples and other local communities right where they should be – at the heart of climate action.
Among the buzzwords at COP26 will be ‘net-zero,’ ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘nature-based solutions’ (NbS) to climate change. While these concepts may sound good, they actually risk allowing the most polluting countries and corporations to avoid reducing their emissions at source by nominally ‘offsetting’ their emissions elsewhere.
Offsetting has long been controversial. Tree plantations, for example, can take decades to sequester carbon (far too slow in relation to the diminishing carbon budget) and any potential emissions savings can be lost if these trees are later harvested for timber or lost due to wildfires in an increasingly warming climate. Measuring emissions reductions from avoided deforestation is also fraught due to the risks of ‘leakage’ (where deforestation is just displaced from one area to another), ‘double-counting’ (where carbon credits are counted twice, or more, by those issuing and purchasing them) and other susceptibilities to fraud. Offset projects can also trigger ‘green grabs’ whereby companies seeking cheap land in the global south impact the human rights and food security of local peoples, who often already occupy and claim, the land.
Despite these inherent flaws and several failed attempts to address them over the past decade, offsets and carbon markets are being talked up as never before in the run-up to the COP, most notably in global financial centres and by the oil and gas industry. Protecting biodiverse ecosystems is vital, but the carbon they sequester cannot compensate for fossil carbon that accumulates in the atmosphere over centuries.
If offsets are not a real solution to climate-changing forest loss, then what is? Thankfully, there is now growing consensus around the Rainforest Foundation’s founding principle that forests under the control of local and indigenous communities remain far more intact – which means they store more carbon, harbour more biodiversity and benefit more people. They also cost far less to manage than strictly protected areas, which come with a host of severe human impacts. Yet despite all this evidence, research shows that less than one percent of climate funding reaches those communities or supports their land rights or the sustainable management of their forests.
With a key theme of this year’s COP centred around the issue of increasing funding for countries in the global south to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, RFUK will be supporting indigenous organisations and NGOs who have been marginalised from climate negotiations, to present their solutions for an effective and decolonised conservation. Our aim is to divert funding and action on deforestation away from ineffective carbon market-based mechanisms, and towards rights-based approaches. The best way to keep emissions down is by keeping trees standing, and the best way to do that is through entrusting them to those that live amongst them.
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