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Story Publication logo December 1, 2015

Paris Climate Meeting Begins in Optimism; REDD+ Part of Solution?

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Image by Justin Catanoso. Italy, 2015.
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Pope Francis has issued an encyclical on a topic of global significance: saving the planet from...

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COP21 is seen by many as the last great hope for a binding climate change agreement. Image by Reto Stöckl and Robert Simmon courtesy of NASA.

After two decades of largely failed negotiations, a buoyant optimism surrounds the global leaders from 194 nations who stand ready to hammer out and approve an unprecedented accord to reduce carbon emissions in Paris over the next two weeks. The summit marks the 21st consecutive attempt by the United Nations to cope with the escalating ravages of largely manmade climate change.

Starting today, 100 world leaders, including President Obama, will gather in Paris in a show of solidarity for the terrorism-stricken city, and to acknowledge that there is broad agreement on the need for every country to reduce its share of greenhouse gas emissions. Those emissions have already resulted in record-breaking high temperatures globally for 15 straight years — with 2015 very likely be the warmest since record keeping began.

Underscoring the negotiators' sense of optimism: for the first time, the world's three largest carbon emitters — China, the U.S. and the European Union which represent 50 percent of global emissions — are on board with pledges to peak and reduce their burning of coal, oil and natural gas over the next 10-15 years.

Also, Climate Wire broke an important story Friday that billionaire and Microsoft founder Bill Gates intends to announce the creation of a multibillion dollar clean energy fund today, hailed as the largest in history. It will reportedly fund new clean-energy technology R&D to "accelerate the pace of progress, [and] develop and deploy new solutions" to combat global warming, as Gates has said previously.

National carbon cuts don't add up

So far so good. Until you do the math.

Climate scientists are in broad agreement that to avoid catastrophic, civilization-threatening climate change, global temperature increases, measured since the mid-1800s, must remain below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. We're already nearly halfway there: temperatures have risen nearly 1 degree Celsius since the dawn of the industrial age.

The massive burning of fossil fuels for energy generation has been a double-edged sword: unprecedented First World wealth, and increasing prosperity in the Developing World, along with rapidly increasing climate instability with more numerous and more intense heat-waves; longer-enduring droughts; stronger, more frequent storms; greater Arctic melting; rising sea levels; dying coral reefs and many other negative impacts.

Last year's summit in Lima, Peru, outlined the first-ever bottom-up approach to coping with carbon emissions. It came as the result of the failed Copenhagen conference in 2009, when the UN's top-down, do-what-we-tell-you approach blew up in highly visible acrimony, with poor countries refusing to be bullied.

Earlier this year, more than 170 countries — including all the major carbon emitters — used the new bottom-up approach to set their own targets for carbon-emission reductions. Each nation's promised cuts are known as its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDCs).

The accumulated promised cuts in carbon emissions are less than comforting.

"[W]hen you look at the [INDC] pledges and add them up, we're about halfway to where we need to be to stay under 2 degrees Celsius. Halfway. Unless the leading emitters become a lot more aggressive, the world is heading for 3.5 degrees C (6.3 degrees F) warmer. And that would be beyond catastrophic," says John Knox, a special representative to the UN on climate change and human rights.

The only way to close the emissions gap, Knox says, "is cutting the use of fossil fuels. There is no other way to fix the problem."

Factoring in forests

Unless, of course, you can see the forests for the trees.

Jason Funk, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, spoke at a November 20th pre-COP21 press conference in Washington, D.C., on the importance of the land sector to carbon cuts — forest management approaches that can result in either more carbon emissions, or preferably, the reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

"The activities of the land sector collectively account for about 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions," Funk said, "and forests provide sequestration potential equal to 10-14 percent of current gross emissions."

Sequestration refers to carbon storage outside the atmosphere or oceans, where increasing carbon loads are leading to climate destabilization.

The mantra of scientists like Funk is simple: the rainforests and cloud forests that ring the equatorial belly of the earth are natural sinks for carbon emissions — enormous, thirsty sponges that lock up carbon in their leaves, limbs, trunks and roots as long as they are standing. Cut them down, burn them? All that stored carbon escapes as if from a smokestack adding to climate chaos.

"Forests and ecosystems are the only way we have of removing carbon from the atmosphere at [a large] scale," said Steve Panfil, a technical adviser with Conservation International. "Any agreement in Paris has to take that into account. If we stop deforestation where it is now, we could reduce emissions by 30 percent."

Of the five scientists at the November press conference, none is more familiar than Chris Meyer with the controversial forest policy called REDD+. That policy asks industrial countries to compensate tropical countries to keep forests standing, thus offsetting and capping the greenhouse gases industrial countries continue to burn.

"We are not expecting the Paris agreement to have a very big section on REDD+ or even mention it explicitly," said Meyer, a REDD+ specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. "That's because in previous COPs, particularly Warsaw in COP19, it's already been decided on."

REDD+ is controversial in part because of critics like Chris Lang, British author of the REDD Monitor web site. He asserts that the policy will allow major industrial countries and carbon emitters, like Norway and Germany, for example, to continue polluting at will, while buying themselves a clean conscience by tossing some money at poor, tropical countries in an attempt to protect carbon-sequestering forests.

Lang questions the lack of scientific rigor built into the REDD apparatus: Are tropical forests really being preserved to offset First World pollution, he asks? How much carbon is really being sequestered? How can it be accurately measured? How do you know both countries aren't a part of a big international trading scam where one party keeps burning fossil fuels and the other gets richer by pretending to save forests?

"The idea that you can make forests worth more standing, [rather] than cutting them down for the riches of fossil fuels and precious metals that lie underneath is naïve," Lang said in a Mongabay interview. "You can always get more money cutting down trees and planting palm oil [in a country like Indonesia, than you can], drilling for oil [in Ecuador] or digging for gold [in Peru]."

Giving REDD+ a chance

Meyer disagrees with Lang, arguing that REDD+ is a useful market mechanism that will allow countries to make more economically efficient carbon reductions. He sees it as just "another tool in their policy toolbox to work with."

Meyer points to the early successes of a pilot REDD+ program in Acre, Brazil, in the western Amazon near the border with Peru. Acre is larger than some Central American countries, with more rainforest, and has suffered significant deforestation due to ranching, logging and extraction. But now thousands of forested acres are being managed and preserved, Meyer said.

Without claiming offsets, but willing to give REDD+ a shot, Germany has paid millions to the jurisdictional government in Acre to reduce its land concessions for logging and ranching. Officials have used some of the money to support sustainable rubber tapping, thus keeping more trees standing while providing jobs. Most of the German money goes to indigenous communities in Acre who determine how they will use it to preserve the forests they call home.

"These are eco-system services — more carbon sequestration, more jobs in the forests, more food security — that are being paid for by keeping forests standing," Meyer said. "It's pioneering in many ways."

Regardless of the claimed success in Acre, Meyer acknowledges the stiff challenges in scaling up REDD+ and applying regulations and penalties to make sure it's effective worldwide.

"REDD+ complements, but does not substitute for, essential efforts to transition from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy," Meyer said.

Meanwhile, climate scientist Jason Funk argues that observers should not overplay "the emissions gap" after the voluntary INDC national pledges are totaled. Paris is not the end, he says, it's a pivot point with all nations on board for future negotiations and the inevitable international pressure to do better.

"This is like a Noah's ark kind of agreement," Funk said of the potential COP21 Paris accord. "You don't have perfect accommodations. But it's more important to be on the ark than to be left behind. If you are on the ark, we all have the potential to move forward together."

Of course, this begs the question of whether the ark of global carbon commitments will be sufficient, and come in time, to weather the fierce climate change storms ahead.

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