The Paris climate agreement; what does it mean for rainforests?

March 12, 2016


The global agreement signed in Paris in December has been heralded as a historic moment in efforts to tackle climate change. The destruction and burning of rainforests contributes perhaps 10% of all man-made greenhouse additions to the atmosphere. There has been much talk of how exactly to stop this, and to reward mostly poor tropical countries for protecting their forests – involving a mechanism usually known by the acronym ‘REDD’, or reducing (carbon) emissions from deforestation and degradation of forests.  REDD is mentioned in the Paris Agreement but, for a few years at least, this is likely to have little direct impact in countries where forests are being destroyed.

Rather than setting obligatory controls on carbon emissions, the document signed in Paris basically allows countries to set their own voluntary targets. The success or otherwise in achieving these will be reviewed every five years or so. One innovation in the agreement is that it might in future become possible for the richer industrialised (and heavily polluting) countries to include in their national ‘reductions’ targets any successes they achieve overseas, such as through funding anti-deforestation programmes in South America, Africa or Asia. Funding for efforts to stop deforestation is thus likely to increase, because governments such as that of Norway believe that it is cheaper, easier and politically more palatable to stop forests being cut down in Indonesia than it is, say, to conserve energy at home or reduce their production of fossil fuels.

This could be positive, especially if it means that more money is channelled to the most effective means of protecting tropical forests, which is to secure the rights of indigenous and other local forests communities. However, the experience of running REDD programmes has so far shown that they are anything other than cheap and easy. In practice, it is almost impossible to know whether a REDD project has succeeded in reducing carbon emissions, or by how much. Many REDD schemes to date have been spectacular failures.

As we at RFUK know very well from our 25 years of experience, securing peoples’ rights across vast areas of remote land where there are very unreliable governmental agencies (or none at all) is difficult, and can take a long time. There are risks that, in the haste to keep greenhouse emissions below dangerous levels, but with an unwillingness to make deep changes to our own lifestyles and economies, governments will seek to impose ‘guns and guards’-type conservation across large areas of rainforest, effectively forcing local people out rather than working with them. This could have disastrous humanitarian consequences, and would almost certainly be counter-productive in the long-term.

A further worry is that, by allowing the richer countries to ‘offset’ their pollution against emissions’ reductions elsewhere, the net result will be that the all-important fossil fuel emissions will simply not fall fast enough to prevent run-away climate change. In the long term, this is also likely to be disastrous for rainforests. According to climate models, the Amazon basin will experience some of the greatest temperature increases. Changes in local weather patterns are already being observed, with the climate becoming warmer and drier. It is not clear whether rainforests can withstand such changes, which could occur within only a few decades. Forest fires are likely to become more frequent.

So we must intensify our efforts to get more forests under local peoples’ control. It is a race against time. Hopefully, the rich world will simultaneously find ways to reduce its fossil fuel emissions much faster than currently expected, in order to remove the biggest long-term threat to the world’s forests.

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