We'll Always Have Paris—But Let's Not Forget Forests at Marrakech Climate Talks

November 01, 2016
Check out Frances's new book Why Forests? Why Now?, co-authored with CGD fellow Jonah Busch.



One of my favorite movies is Casablanca. As I arrange my travel to Morocco for the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) to UN climate convention next month in Marrakech, the lyrics to the song that meant so much to Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and were so memorably sung by Sam (Dooley Wilson) have been running through my head.

As Time Goes By…a time to ratify

This week marks a crucial milestone on the path to climate stability. On November 4th, the Paris Agreement on climate change—the outcome of COP21 negotiations last year—comes into force, 30 days after ratification by at least 55 countries representing 55 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

The rapid clip of acceptance that now includes large emitters China, the United States, the European Union, and India among 86 Parties that have ratified the agreement is good news, perhaps signaling a long-overdue seriousness about getting on with the business of saving the planet.

But although Brazil, Indonesia, Peru and other forest-rich countries are also among the ratifiers, the critical role of tropical forests in achieving the goals of the agreement is often forgotten.

You must remember this…

Forests were appropriately singled out for special attention in Article 5 of the Paris Agreement, which essentially incorporated by reference almost a decade’s worth of negotiations on a framework for international cooperation to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, so-called REDD+.

In our book, Why Forests? Why Now?, due out next month, Jonah Busch and I explain how emissions from tropical deforestation are a big part of the climate problem, but reducing deforestation and improving forest management are potentially an even larger part of the solution. Because re-growing and even mature forests pull carbon from out of the atmosphere and store it in vegetation and soils, forests can be a source of negative emissions if current rates of forest loss are reversed.

In fact, without forests there’s virtually no chance of achieving the agreement’s goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius -- much less the aspiration to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. For the same reason, forests are essential to achieving the agreement’s long-term goal of balancing human-caused emissions and removals.

It’s still the same old story…without forests

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Paris Agreement’s entry into force and the forthcoming round of climate talks in Marrakech have not gotten much news coverage. After all, the imminent US election is all-consuming of media attention, and the arcane details of negotiating how to implement what was agreed in Paris could cause eyes to glaze over.

But even in the few stories that have appeared about next steps in global efforts to protect the climate, forests are remarkably invisible. Particularly disheartening was an October 4th story in the Washington Post. The article quoted former NASA scientist James Hansen at some length on the need to develop “expensive new technologies, which do not exist at scale, to actually remove carbon from the atmosphere.” But there was no mention of the safe, natural, and proven technology that we already have to do just that: forests.

In a quick scan conducted by CGD intern Kathryn Brown of 25 articles in the English language press worldwide about the Paris Agreement’s coming into force, only eight mentioned forests, and of those, four were focused on Indonesia’s ratification, and two on Brazil. Only articles in the Morocco World News and The Fiji Times highlighted the vital role of forests in the Paris Agreement more generally. The role of rich countries in providing results-based payments as an incentive for forest conservation—explicitly highlighted in the Paris Agreement—was nowhere to be found.

A kiss is still a kiss…and a ton of carbon is a ton of carbon

One reason for the chronic neglect of forests as a climate solution is a persistent myth that emissions avoided by reducing deforestation or planting trees are somehow less valuable than those averted by reducing fossil fuel use. But as described in our book, a technology-enabled revolution in our ability to monitor forest cover change has removed much of the uncertainty in measuring forest-based emissions that kept forests out of the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism.

Further, while it’s true that forests left standing are vulnerable to losses in the future, fossil fuel reserves left underground are similarly vulnerable to exploitation at a later date. Indeed, forests left standing are arguably more valuable, as in addition to continuing to sequester carbon, they also provide many local co-benefits such as hydrological regulation and conservation of biodiversity.

The fundamental things apply…(to forests) in Marrakech

Forests per se are not expected to feature prominently in the negotiations at COP22. As detailed in our book, forests were among the most constructive negotiating streams in the run-up to Paris, and agreement on how forests would be incorporated—the so-called Warsaw Framework—was essentially achieved two years early at COP19 in 2013.

But that’s not to say that forests will not be relevant to discussions in Marrakech. To the contrary, negotiations on fundamental issues such as how countries account for their emission reductions, how they will mobilize climate finance, and the rules governing the “international transfer of mitigation outcomes” (including carbon markets) will all have implications for how easily Parties will be able realize forests’ potential as a mitigation strategy.

No matter what the future brings…no one can deny…a case of do or die

Unfortunately, Forest Action Day in Marrakech is scheduled for Tuesday, November 8th, when the attention of Americans—and most of the world—will be otherwise engaged. But whatever happens in the US elections, as time goes by, reducing deforestation will remain a “do or die” element of implementing the Paris Agreement, and Parties to the agreement need to start acting accordingly.

The referenced media source is missing and needs to be re-embedded.


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.