from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Jennifer Harris: Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Forests in Paris

climate change; deforestation; Indonesia

December 8, 2015

climate change; deforestation; Indonesia
Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Deforestation is a critical source of carbon emissions that should not be overlooked in climate negotiations, argues Senior Fellow Jennifer Harris in this guest blog post. Her piece is part of our ongoing guest series surrounding the Paris climate talks, with previous posts on short-lived pollutants, climate and conflict in northern Nigeria, international climate institutions beyond the UN process, and China’s climate rhetoric.

It’s true that all politics is local, and that climate change is no exception. But it’s also true, especially when it comes to abating carbon emissions, that some localities matter more than others. How closely leaders heed this corollary in the ongoing COP-21 negotiations—how single-mindedly they “follow the carbon,” in other words— may well determine our success, in Paris and after.

Certainly, negotiators in Paris are rightly, raptly focused on the world’s largest emitting states, present and future. But “follow the carbon” will need to become an organizing principle for more than simply triaging countries by carbon footprint. It will need to be zealously applied to the overall balance of Summit priorities; to the country pledges themselves; and to how assistance dollars are structured.

To understand what a more disciplined “follow the carbon” rule might look like, take the issue of deforestation.

Beginning with overall Summit priorities, it is hard to overstate the importance of deforestation to climate outcomes. The conversion of forests and peatlands marks one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions in the world – and hence one of the world’s most significant abatement opportunities. Deforestation alone accounts for at least twelve percent of human-caused CO2 emissions, the second-greatest source after burning fossil fuels.  For many developing nations in the tropics, deforestation is the largest source of emissions.  Halting and reversing deforestation could shrink climate emissions by as much as twenty-four to thirty percent. In short, unless the final COP-21 declaration gives deforestation due priority, leaders will be hard-pressed to reach a deal that stabilizes warming below two degrees Celsius.

While the initial signs and murmurs emerging from Paris contain some reasons for optimism, meaningful progress is by no means a sure bet. A joint statement released Monday by Norway, the United Kingdom and Germany pledged increased financial and technical support for the world’s leading deforestation initiative, known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (or REDD+). But the funding increases are contingent on commitments and actions by other countries, and more broadly, it is not clear that this progress is enough to compel negotiators to prioritize deforestation in the final COP-21 declaration. As others have noted, forests do not always figure into climate negotiations as significantly as they should – and sure enough, when the UNFCCC secretariat circulated a draft of the Paris agreement earlier this fall, they left REDD+ out. They added REDD+ back to the starting draft for the Paris talks, although with bracketed language indicating that consensus has not yet been reached. If this time is to be different, the final COP declaration will need to include strong, specific deforestation and land use commitments by the most heavily forested countries, and credible funding mechanisms to help these governments deliver.

A more rigorous, “follow the carbon” approach should go beyond assigning greater overall priority to deforestation, to rethinking how we tackle it. REDD+ and other deforestation efforts are already well focused on the handful of countries with the most carbon-dense forests, such as Brazil, Russia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Indonesia.  But too often, this focus stops at the borders of these countries, content to diagnose problems as national in scope when the reality is somewhat different.

While deforestation in Indonesia, for example, is a nationwide problem, carbon emissions from deforestation are concentrated in two provinces, Riau and Central Kalimantan. As my colleague Michael Levi and I noted in October, even partial action to help conserve Indonesia’s forests (say, in these two regions alone) could prevent carbon emissions on a scale comparable with U.S. President Barack Obama’s power plant regulations or the U.S.’ new fuel economy standards. And because Indonesia’s deforestation-linked carbon emissions are so geographically concentrated, it is also likely that one could design a robust deforestation plan for Indonesia—one that would curb the majority of deforestation-linked carbon emissions, while providing new funding for smallholders—for a reasonable sum. Likely less, possibly much less, than $1 billion.

That dollar figure matters because Norway has established a pay-for-performance fund that would offer up to $1 billion each to several countries (Brazil, DRC, and Indonesia, included) in exchange for progress in combating deforestation. In the case of Indonesia, only $50 million of this $1 billion has been disbursed.

In other words, this is not a problem that could certainly benefit from— but does not necessarily require— additional money.

Any sort of breakthrough deal would, though, require that existing funds be restructured not just to reward progress but to hasten it. That, in turn, means sharper focus by Western donors. Thus far, U.S. assistance to Indonesia has focused overwhelmingly on renewables. Important as this work is, it is no substitute for progress on deforestation, which accounts for more than sixty percent of Indonesia’s carbon emissions.  The announcement earlier this year that the World Bank and Indonesia will enter a new, five year partnership on “infrastructure and poverty reduction schemes,” backed by $10 billion in new financing, is welcome news; what remains unclear is where sustainable land use and deforestation will rank among the partnership’s priorities.

Not least, breakthroughs will require significant political will on the part of those governments closest to these carbon-dense lands. Recent commitments by Indonesian President Jokowi suggest that the Indonesian government is finally seeing its deforestation problem with new urgency. Here again, however, a more disciplined “follow the carbon” approach should not stop with Jakarta. Given the relative strength Indonesia’s regional and provincial governments hold within the country’s political system—not to mention their inevitable role in enforcing deforestation measures—negotiators in Paris should consider offering portions of the pledged climate finance directly to Indonesia’s provinces.

If negotiators are to make meaningful progress toward stabilizing warming below two degrees Celsius, they will need to “follow the carbon” wherever it leads. Certainly, plenty of the most significant abatement opportunities will reside with the national governments of the largest emitters, like the U.S. and China. Others, though, lie hidden within a handful of rural provinces that matter far more in climate terms than their landmass or population might suggest. We need to be dogged in pursuing both.

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