Hot Air at Climate Change Talks?

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has become the focus of both environmental policy makers and international campaign groups, as the Conference of the Parties prepares for its 21st Session in Paris from Nov 30 to Dec 11.

The upcoming event is one of the more significant meetings in that it is set to finalise an international treaty that is to replace the Kyoto Protocol – an agreement that is nearly 20 years old.

A decision on the future of the Kyoto Protocol was due to be taken in 2009 at the UNFCCC meeting in Copenhagen. However, that meeting was an abject failure. The world’s major emitters of greenhouse gases (GHG) failed to agree on a common approach.

A key element of this failure was the inability of the developed world – most notably the EU – to accept the position taken by the world’s emerging and developing economies.
The developing countries were ably led by a strong negotiating bloc comprising Brazil, South Africa, India and China – referred to as the BASIC grouping. These countries are also members of the G77, a coalition of 134 developing and emerging economies that often forms joint positions at UN meetings. Malaysia is a member of the G77.

The meeting was marked by a significant NGO presence. Their focus at the time was the supposedly high levels of GHG emissions caused by conversion of forest land to other uses, and the forest sector and land use more broadly.

Consequently many industries that relied upon conversion of forest land – palm oil included – found themselves in the firing line in the lead-up to the conference, based on the claim that they contribute significantly to carbon emissions.

The key contention was that deforestation was causing 20% of global GHG emissions. This was a figure that was supported by Greenpeace, WWF and some Western governments.
However, that figure was comprehensively debunked with a better understanding of both the rates of deforestation, as well as emissions from deforestation. The understood figure is now roughly half that – approximately 10%.

Using this higher figure through 2008 and 2009, Greenpeace and many other campaigners went after major purchasers of palm oil. Unilever was the highest profile target. The campaigners’ report, ‘How Unilever Suppliers are Burning Up Borneo’, was an extraordinary exercise in black campaigning against the Indonesian palm oil industry.

Tropical Forest
The measure that Greenpeace and others proposed in the UN in 2009 to mitigate forest-based emissions was REDD – reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Many NGOs, some developing countries and the government of Norway were proponents of this concept, which involved paying countries not to deforest.

Yet there were significant problems with REDD that became apparent very quickly:
• The first was that measuring emissions from land use was plagued with inaccuracies and not particularly well understood.

• The second was that paying people not to deforest would ultimately mean that you were telling them whether they could grow food on their own land or not – meaning there were significant economic and social implications.

• The third was that the original idea – ‘that forests should be more worth standing than as timber products’ – failed to appreciate why most people have cleared land, which is for agriculture. This meant that a parallel contention, that compensation would be inexpensive, was completely wrong. Compensation would have to cover entire commodity classes – such as palm oil.
Taken to its logical conclusion, it would effectively mean subsidies for farmers to not grow crops – which would inevitably impact production, output and prices. This was ultimately not a way to reduce poverty.

Unsurprisingly, REDD has changed significantly. Activities are still being implemented under so-called UN-REDD programmes, but these are a world away from the idea of setting up a global payments system to end deforestation, or the generation of carbon credits for avoided deforestation.


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