CANCUN, Mexico — For a climate change conference that began with universally low expectations, the Cancun meeting achieved surprisingly concrete progress, including an agreement to help preserve tropical forests.
Despite lacking the teeth many wanted, the deforestation provisions offer a way to protect forests through international agreements. Delegates also agreed to set up a fund to help poorer countries adapt to climate change and strengthened the emissions promises made at last year's Copenhagen conference. None of the provisions are binding.
The deforestation framework, known as REDD+ (which stands for Reducing Emssions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, the + was recently added to denote broader ecosystem conservation) creates incentives to keep forests standing and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Its supporters say it will help to slow climate change.
Deforestation accounts for roughly 20 percent of the world’s emissions, similar to transportation. An agreement to avoid deforestation could offer significant gains in reducing the output of carbon dioxide, say supporters.
Tara Rao, of WWF International, said the forestry deal "was not quite there, but a good building block for Durban," the site of next year's conference, and an "excellent start."
REDD+ is a carbon offset program: developed countries with high emissions can pay to protect forests in developing, usually tropical, nations and count those drops in their overall carbon output.
In the last few years, this has been happening in various forms around the world, with Indonesia at the forefront. The policy is an attractive one to poorer nations, which gain a monetary incentive to avoid logging.
“We can use forests to sequester carbon, and that we can generate incentives that will especially benefit forest dwellers,” said Ben Karmorh, an official at the UNFCC national focal point for climate change at Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency.
Karmorh highlighted that Liberia could benefit greatly from the added income. Liberia also holds 40 percent of the upper Guinean rainforest and has one of the highest percentages of natural forest cover in Africa. Protection of that forest is a priority, he said.
But many fear this protection means ownership, and REDD+ has numerous sincere critics. The offset program puts a value on the carbon in trees, which many feel cedes ownership to those who have paid to protect the trees.
Bolivia, its delegation led by President Evo Morales, was the sole nation fighting against the non-binding document, primarily because the agreements puts a market value on trees. Morales is not alone in arguing that REDD+ comes with potentially negative consequences.
"In various REDD pilot projects throughout the world, the rights of indigenous peoples have consistently been violated," said Jihan Gearon, from the Indigenous Environmental Network. Pointing to the fact that no laws protect indigenous inhabitants from being removed from their land by the corporate interests that own it through REDD+, she said this has already played out in pilot projects in Kenya, Congo and Papua New Guinea.
Theoretically safeguards are built into the REDD+ framework to protect indigenous rights. These safeguards cover the protection of rights, bidoversity, natural forest and governance, guaranteeing that REDD+ does not interfere with the estimated 300 million to 400 million people living in forests around the world.
It was those safeguards that hung up the talks until the final night, and they remain incomplete, said Rosalind Reeves, of the environmental watchdog Global Witness.
Major sticking points included whether REDD+ would be governed at the national or subnational level. Countries such as Brazil do not want a REDD+ policy that would infringe on their national sovereignty. Morales has been outspoken about the need for local communities to have a voice in any discussion regarding their forests.
Many nations, including Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, oppose having to always consult local communities before moving forward. None of these issues have been fully resolved, and could ultimately hamper the implementation of REDD.
As a final challenge, outside of a $4.1 billion start-up fund, no long-term plan for financing for REDD+ exists, and no one has a figure for how much it will cost. This has slowed down the process, and will have to be addressed if REDD+ is to play a major role in curbing global emissions.