At Paris Summit, Make Forests Part of the Climate Solution

November 19, 2015

In two weeks the world will meet in Paris for a long-awaited summit on climate change known as COP 21. In the face of despicable attacks last week, the climate conference is to be an expression of hope and solidarity.

I wrote six months ago about what the conference needs to achieve to be successful:

  • Hold to the 2˚C temperature target
  • Periodically review and strengthen national climate pledges
  • Enable international transfers of emission reductions

My big-picture recommendations haven’t changed, nor have my expectations for the summit overall: Yes, there will be an agreement. No, it won’t be enough on its own to avoid dangerous climate change. Yes, Paris can chart a course toward a safe climate anyway. For a gaze into the crystal ball of how an agreement might shake out, this prediction based on game theory looks as plausible as any.

Beneath the big picture, diplomats in Paris will hammer out many smaller details that will set the tone for years to come. Here’s what they should do to make tropical forests part of the solution to climate change:

Include REDD+ in the text of the Paris agreement.

Tropical forests are an attractive climate solution. They offer safe, natural, available carbon capture and storage, with plenty of side benefits to the people who live in and near them. Tropical deforestation releases more greenhouse gas emissions every year than the European Union; halting and reversing deforestation could potentially reduce climate emissions by as much as 24-30%.

Thus, it’s astonishing that tropical forests could conceivably go unmentioned in the text of the Paris agreement. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) spent a decade producing a fully-formed mechanism for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, called REDD+. When the UNFCCC secretariat shared a draft of the Paris agreement in October, they left REDD+ out. They’ve written REDD+ back into the current draft, but precariously so; references to REDD+ remain in the brackets used to denote unfinished business, like this [REDD+].

Including REDD+ in the final text of the Paris agreement is important because it sends the signal to forest countries and financing countries alike that initiatives like the Amazon Fund, the Carbon Fund, and provisions for sectoral offsets in California’s cap-and-trade program aren’t just nice side projects; they fulfill the core intentions of the global climate agreement.

Up financial support for forests.

The UNFCCC summits have always mixed negotiations with announcements. When countries have had something big to announce on climate, they’ve often done so at a COP.  Previous COPs have seen big announcements of funding for tropical forests by Norway, Germany, the UK, Australia, and the USA, among others.

In fact, funding for tropical forests made up more than 10% of the $30 billion in “fast-start” climate finance announced in Copenhagen. This time around I’m hoping funding will be something closer to forests’ share of mitigation potential. The best hopes seems to be Norway, Germany, and the UK, but I’m optimistic that other countries might jump in to fund tropical forests as well.

A new CGD working group report, Look to the Forests, recommends that funding for tropical forests be not only larger, but also more results-based and less “aidified.”

Recognize that forests help people adapt to climate change, too.

The Paris conference isn’t just about preventing climate change; it’s also about helping people adapt to the impacts of climate change, which will be awful for the rich, and catastrophic for the poor.  My colleagues Nancy Birdsall and Michele de Nevers have suggested that climate adaptation funding shouldn’t be seen as charity, and thus shouldn’t be subject to the strictures that have built up around traditional development assistance. Rather, it should be seen as a financial transfer from rich countries, based on their responsibility for contributing to climate change, to poor countries based on their vulnerability to its impacts. 

Just as forests help prevent climate change, so too can forests play a role in helping people adapt to the future impacts of climate change. In a world of melting mountain glaciers, forests on steep slopes absorb heavy snowmelt and limit landslides’ extent and intensity. In a world of heavier rainstorms, forested watersheds attenuate the impacts of small-, medium-, and (more debated) large-scale flooding. And in a world of sea-level rise and larger cyclones, mangrove forests elevate and protect coastlines from powerful waves. Unlike cement sea walls, mangroves also serve as fish nurseries and carbon sinks.

There are already plenty of references to ecosystems in the current draft text, but these look to be about protecting ecosystems from climate change, or protecting ecosystems from people trying to fight climate change. I’m talking about something different: protecting ecosystems (in this case, forests) in order to protect people from the worst impacts of climate change.  As the Green Climate Fund wrestles with how its investments can best help people adapt to climate change, they should consider the helpful role of forests.

CGD in Paris

My colleagues Rajesh Mirchandani, Michele de Nevers, Frances Seymour and I will all be in Paris during COP 21. If you’re there too, please stop by one of our events.  If you’re following along at home, stay tuned for our reports from the most critical meeting of the decade on climate change. 



CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.