Hot Air at Climate Change Talks?

Likely scenario

Tropical Forest

With all this in mind, what is the outlook for the Paris conference in terms of reaching an agreement, and for forest and agricultural policy?

In terms of the overall agreement, the UNFCCC is aware that it can’t have another perceived failure if it is to maintain credibility and justify the vast expense associated with its work on an annual basis.

Other multilateral agreements that emerged at the same time as the UNFCCC – such as the Convention on Biological Diversity – operate with smaller budgets and arguably achieve similar results.

But part of the problem with the UNFCCC is the level of expectation placed upon it by the activist community, and the use of its meetings as a general platform to air grievances, whether related to poverty, gender or capitalism more broadly. The image of Hugo Chavez railing against capitalism in 2009 immediately springs to mind.

The UNFCCC secretariat has therefore gone out of its way to address the underlying tensions that plague the prospect of a future agreement.

The EU (and more recently the US) have been the key proponents of a treaty that will require all countries to make binding commitments to cutting emissions, with large emitters such as China firmly in their sights.

The response of the BASIC nations has been to point out that the Convention itself – the document that any agreements are founded on – contains a notion of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ between rich and poor nations.

The rationale is reasonably simple: industrialised nations have historical responsibility for most emissions and are therefore the creators of the problem, so developing nations can’t be expected to pay the price.

A similar logic can be applied to deforestation and agricultural development. Deforestation for agriculture and economic development in Europe and North America has been well documented. Developing nations can’t be expected to hold back on food production for this reason, and food production is a more essential part of development than, say, building a coal-fired power station.

So will this translate into a policy measure at the Paris conference? It’s unlikely.

REDD has already been incorporated in some ways into the UNFCCC’s broader work. Countries have been asked to make submissions on the best way to reduce emissions from deforestation and land-use change. An agreement on a methodological approach was made in June this year.

But what is more important is individual country policies and how these impact the negotiations.

The EU, which has been the driver of much of the work on REDD, is currently not in a position to demand much in relation to forests. The EU has been struggling with its own position on how and whether to incorporate land-use emissions into its own emissions trading system – and therefore its commitments under the UN. If the EU is struggling to determine how it’s going to treat its own land-use emissions, it can’t ask others for anything.

This leaves campaign groups. Will campaigners make a big deal of forests in Paris? Yes, but it won’t be the focus. There are two reasons.

First, coal-powered generation is the climate change cause celebre of the moment. There has been little in the way of campaigning specifically on deforestation emissions as something to be handled by governments, which leads to the second point.

Greenpeace and many other groups worked out a number of years ago that lobbying governments on climate policy was for the most part ineffective. These groups made a concerted effort to campaign against major corporations and their brands rather than aiming for policy change.

This is essentially the reason these groups have spent most of their energy either launching black campaigns against companies and/or pushing for change through and within forums such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

This leaves the fact that the world’s media will be trained on Paris, which will give these groups an opportunity to push their causes and voice their complaints, however inaccurate these may be. Will palm oil be spared? Unlikely.



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