The peak in forest fires which plagued the Amazon and Siberian forests during the summer attracted public attention to the important role they play, especially in relation to climate change. In addition to providing the main basis for the survival of many populations - providing food, water, and many other fundamental ecosystem services - forest ecosystems are an important "sponge" (or sink) for atmospheric carbon, the main greenhouse gas. Forests, and vegetation in general, absorb 30 percent of man-made greenhouse gases from the atmosphere through the photosynthesis process, which transforms the CO2 into plant tissues (stems, branches, leaves), using water and solar energy and releasing oxygen. This function is currently under more threat than ever. There are clear signs that forests can slow down their absorption capacity, reaching the so-called saturation point, particularly due to the impacts of climate change. Furthermore, global deforestation has started to increase again after years of reduction, seriously endangering the global climate system.
The precarious state of the earth system
The latest IPCC report on the interaction between territory and climate change published in August 2019, warns about the precarious state of the earth system, already in a clear state of over-exploitation, in a world undergoing continuous climate change and with a population in exponential growth. The impacts of climate change on natural terrestrial ecosystems, permafrost degradation, desertification, land degradation in many areas, and food security have already been seen, and this situation is expected to worsen further and irreversibly if atmospheric emissions continue at the current rate. Currently deforestation activities, fires, forest degradation and agricultural activities (including fertilizers and enteric fermentation of ruminants) are responsible for approximately 23 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Almost half of this value comes from deforestation (about five billion tons of CO2 per year). The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) recognizes the fundamental role of agro-forestry sector activities, including them among climate change mitigation tools, and offers industrialized countries that are signatories to the Kyoto Protocol the option to use the absorption derived from these activities to achieve the reduction commitments undertaken in the context of the Protocol itself. However, it was clear from the outset that an incentive mechanism limited to industrialized countries would be insufficient to limit emissions from the forest sector, which are concentrated mainly in developing countries, due to the high rates of deforestation in these areas. With this in mind, since 2014, the UNFCCC has set up a reward mechanism for developing countries that demonstrate a reduction in deforestation through national policies, establishing robust monitoring systems and providing information on how the rights of local people and biodiversity are protected. This mechanism is known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, enhancement of forest carbon stocks and sustainable management of forests). The mechanism is predominantly national in scale (sub-national scales are accepted only if temporary) and its implementation is divided into three phases: an initial preparatory phase, which envisages the establishment of a national REDD+ and capacity building strategy; a second pilot phase, in which national strategies are implemented, including action plans and additional training activities and, finally, the third phase of payment by results or full implementation of the mechanism, which provides for incentives based on real and verified emission reductions.
The decisive role of the forestry sector
In the Paris agreement, the agro-forestry sector is part of the long-term mitigation objective (Article 4) which envisages the achievement, in the second part of the century, of a balance between emissions and absorptions (therefore through agro-forestry sinks). Furthermore, the sector occupies a prominent place in the agreement, being the only sector to have a dedicated article (Article 5), in which countries are invited to implement actions that preserve or increase the absorption and carbon stocks of terrestrial and marine ecosystems. In particular, nations are encouraged to implement actions to support REDD+, particularly the third phase of the mechanism.
Forestry and agricultural management are included in the calculation of emissions/absorptions for achieving the National Determined Contributions (NDC), which are the commitments identified by countries to achieve the objectives of the Paris agreement. Around 75 percent of the NDCs include agricultural and forest management and, based on an analysis of these objectives, it appears that 20-25 percent of reduction commitments are attributable to the forestry sector, especially for developing countries, where emissions from deforestation account for a major share of national emissions.
How and to what extent the sector can be included in the market mechanisms of the Paris agreement remains to be determined as part of the negotiations on Article 6 (Voluntary cooperation approaches) which are expected to be completed, at best, by December 2019 in Madrid, at COP25. In the meantime, the implementation of REDD+ is proceeding. At present, around forty countries have begun the formal process of accessing remuneration under the REDD+ mechanism and presented their reference levels of forest emissions to the UNFCCC for technical evaluation. Seven countries have communicated their REDD+ results to the UNFCCC for a total of 6 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent of emission cuts, primarily in Brazil. In its first phase, the Green Climate Fund has already made available $500 million for the payment of emission reduction results achieved through REDD+ actions. This figure is in addition to other initiatives such as, for example, those of the World Bank (FCPF) and the UN (e.g. UN-REDD), as well as individual donors (primarily Norway, Germany and the United Kingdom) which, in various forms, support countries in the REDD+ process.
The insufficient “I’ll pay you not to cut” concept
While these initiatives have been essential to encourage countries to strengthen their forest governance and develop systems to control deforestation and forest monitoring, the concept of “I’ll pay you not to cut” cannot be considered sufficient. A systemic approach needs to be adopted that can act directly on the causes of deforestation in a lasting way, including strategies to limit trade in agricultural and forestry products that are not “deforestation free.” In this respect, at the international level, other initiatives have been promoted over time that promote an increase in forest cover and the conservation of existing forests, such as the New York Declaration on Forests (NYFD). The NYDF was launched at the UN Climate Summit in 2014 and is open to voluntary participation by countries and companies and other actors (NGOs, representatives of indigenous associations, etc.)—currently 200—united by the main objective of halving the rate of loss of natural forests globally by 2020 and trying to stop the loss of natural forests by 2030, in line with the 2°C objective of the Paris agreement. The Declaration also aims to restore forests, identifying and addressing the causes of deforestation and increasing forest finance and governance. The results, however, are struggling to appear; unfortunately the trend towards deforestation since the adoption of the NYDF has far from decreased, with an increase in deforestation of 43 percent compared to the period prior to the Declaration (2001-2013), and average annual emissions from the signing of the NYDF 57 percent higher than the previous period (increasing from 3.0 to 4.7 Giga tons of CO2 per year). There are on the other hand numerous private and public initiatives to combat deforestation, but they often lack ambition and risk remaining isolated experiences. Overall, actions to address the direct and indirect causes of deforestation and the available funds are inadequate to trigger systemic change.
A profound transformation towards sustainable economies
We are therefore in an emergency situation, in which the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is such that only by implementing rapid and profound emission cuts in all sectors can the objective of limiting the increase in temperature to 2℃ (or better still 1.5°C) compared to the pre-industrial era be reached. It is important to remember that these levels have been assessed as being the maximum global temperature increase that allows us to adapt to acceptable social, economic and environmental costs. Climate change is a reality, as is the hope of being able to manage it, but this requires a profound transition towards sustainable and low-emission economies. Without this radical turnaround, global environmental, economic and social balances will be seriously compromised, including the potential of environmental ecosystems to contribute to the absorption of human emissions.
Lucia Perugini is researcher at the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change (CMCC Foundation) with a Doctorate in Forest Ecology, her work focuses on climate change, agriculture and forestry. Since 2003, she has been involved in the UN Climate negotiation, providing scientific support to the Italian delegation on matters relating to agriculture and forestry.