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Q&A on the forest agreement in Warsaw

Building on several years of negotiations, countries inked a major agreement on forest conservation at the United Nations climate talks in Warsaw on 23 November. The deal formally integrates carbon emissions from tropical deforestation into the international climate agenda by enabling wealthy countries to pay for forest protection in developing countries.

The framework is known as REDD+, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. The plus sign refers to an additional component that would reward countries for enhancing their forests. Nature talked to Doug Boucher, director of the tropical forests and climate initiative at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington DC, about the agreement in Warsaw.

How would this programme work?

Results-based payments will start with countries fixing a ‘reference level’ — their emissions from deforestation before they start working to reduce it — and putting into place a forest-monitoring system to track emissions. Additionally, they would need to establish safeguards to protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples and environmental values such as biodiversity.

They would then take actions, of many kinds, to deal with the drivers of deforestation… After several years, if they have been successful…they will be paid financial compensation. This can come from a variety of sources, including bilateral programs and multilateral programmes. The Green Climate Fund, which has been established and is going to start receiving contributions in the coming year, is expected to become one of the major sources of compensation in years to come.

How much would it cost? And given the state of climate negotiations more broadly, is there financing to pay for it?

The estimates of several years back generally agreed that we would need US$20 billion or so per year, once REDD+ got going globally in the 2020s. The experience of Brazil and Norway has shown that major emissions reductions can made at costs considerably less than such estimates would have predicted, but we’re not at all sure that this can be done in many other countries. So for the time being I think those older estimates are still our best guesses.

Right now, the financing isn’t there at that scale. More worrisome is that there’s no clear plan among donor countries to increase funding over the next several years… The Green Climate Fund has been established, but countries are going to have to fill it if they want REDD+ to succeed globally.

The agreement took longer than expected. Fears arose about ‘carbon cowboys’, social and environmental safeguards as well as the actual structure of the policy. What were some of the outstanding issues, and how were they resolved?

Safeguards were one of the major issues, and important decisions in Cancun, Durban and here in Warsaw put those into place. The technical aspects — especially how to establish reference levels and how to measure, report and verify reductions with respect to them — required a lot of complicated discussions, but ultimately they were resolved by establishing rules that were scientifically sound but not overly complicated, with technical assessment by the global scientific community. Financing took the longest, and although we now have the procedures for payment in place… we still don’t have the necessary money.

To benefit from forest management, countries must be able to monitor their forests. How will science play into the process?

Science will be critical to monitoring, and we’re fortunate that over the last decade or so…the technology necessary to monitor forests has improved significantly… There have also been important advances in our understanding of the drivers of deforestation and the global economic patterns, including trade and changing diets, that underlie them. So the science is now up to the task, if the resources to implement it are made available.

Where do we go from here? And how long will it take to begin implementing the agreement?

This can start for many countries in 2014, but as I mentioned, some have already been doing it, with considerable success. Leaders such as Brazil, Costa Rica, Vietnam and Norway have already been implementing REDD+ without waiting for the agreement in Warsaw. They’ve shown the way; other countries can now follow.

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this post, the introduction said the agreement would allow wealthy nations to “offset” their emissions by paying for forest protection in developing countries. In fact, UN negotiators have yet to determine whether developed countries will be able to record the resulting reductions in carbon emissions as formal offsets when reporting on greenhouse gas mitigation activities. 


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