Why Aren’t Forests More Prominent on the Agenda for COP20 Climate Talks in Lima?

December 02, 2014

Conserving the world’s tropical forests is a critical element of any global strategy to protect against climate change—and promote development, for that matter—but we haven’t heard much about it being on the agenda for the COP20  climate talks in Lima starting this week. One reason for that: negotiations on forests were largely completed at COP19 with agreement on the Warsaw Framework on REDD+, and a new CGD Working Paper explains how.

But the stakes for forests in Lima remain high – see below for more on why.  First, let’s understand how the forest-related negotiations got out in front of the others.

Why were negotiators able to reach agreement on forests more quickly?

In “Two Global Challenges, One solution: International Cooperation to Combat Climate Change and Tropical Deforestation,” Antonio G.M. La Viña and Alaya de Leon of the Ateneo School of Government in Manila explain that the achievement of agreement on REDD+ was the culmination of an unusually constructive strand of negotiations.  The authors are particularly well-placed to tell the story, having both played key roles in REDD+ negotiations as members of the delegation from the Philippines.

La Viña and de Leon start by summarizing the history of previous attempts to reach international agreements on conserving tropical forests, including the failure to conclude a convention on forests among the outcomes of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.  In the context of the resulting policy vacuum, the linkage of forests to climate change provided a timely opportunity to address two global challenges with one solution: REDD+.

La Viña and de Leon analyze how the politics of REDD+ were unique, with the national interests of various countries not splitting along the usual North-South divide.  Indeed, the relative absence of the G-77 and China as leading protagonists in REDD+ negotiations is notable.  Overall, the interests of industrialized countries in low-cost mitigation options lined up with the interests of forest-rich countries in generating a new source of development finance, although the positions of individual countries evolved over time.

A model for other areas of negotiation?

Despite an alignment of interests in reaching agreement on forests, doing so was not easy.  Negotiators had to address a long list of technical issues, such as guidance on setting reference emission levels (RELs) and rules for the measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of forest-based emission reductions.  Technological advances in remote sensing over the previous decade facilitated agreement on the inclusion of emission reductions from “avoided deforestation” that were not possible at the time of the Kyoto Protocol.  

Two particularly contentious issues had to do with finance and safeguards. Brazil, Bolivia, and many nongovernment stakeholders opposed finance of REDD+ through carbon markets, out of concern that offsets would enable industrialized countries to avoid reducing their own emissions.  Many countries and other stakeholders were also worried that market-driven finance would create perverse incentives to harm vulnerable communities and ecosystems, for example, through displacement of indigenous peoples or conversion of natural forests to plantations. Ultimately, “appropriate market-based approaches” were accepted as a financing option linked to compliance with a set of safeguards agreed at COP16 in Cancun in 2010.  Those safeguards would also of course apply to non-market-based sources of finance.

La Viña and de Leon describe how these challenges were addressed through an approach to negotiations that combined a number of features designed to nurture and build on incremental progress.  Technical issues were resolved before tackling political issues, and nongovernment stakeholders were giving an unusual degree of access to the discussions in order to secure their support for negotiated outcomes.  La Viña and de Leon see lessons learned from this approach as applicable to other areas of negotiation. 

What are the stakes for forests in Lima?

This week’s negotiations are a critical milestone on the road to COP21 in Paris next year, where a new global climate agreement is expected to be reached.

First, many observers are hopeful that the momentum created by forest-related commitments announced at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in September via the New York Declaration on Forests will carry through to Lima, influencing the size and composition of national commitments being formulated for inclusion in the Paris agreement.  Indeed, the host of COP20, the Government of Peru, announced a REDD+ partnership with Norway and Germany in New York, so its own efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation will be in the spotlight.

Second, a few issues related to REDD+ are still on the negotiating table for methodological guidance, as La Viña and de Leon describe in their working paper, including non-carbon benefits, non-market-based approaches, and safeguard information systems.  An issue that could prove tricky is how to craft a comprehensive approach to account for land-based emissions, linking REDD+ to reductions in agricultural and other terrestrial sources of emissions.  While everyone agrees that such linkage is in principle desirable, doing so without unraveling the painstakingly achieved agreements specific to REDD+ would be a challenge.

Third, and most important, countries participating in REDD+ will be looking for signals in Lima that the international community is serious about providing finance commensurate with the task of reducing forest-based emissions.  With the REDD+ rulebook essentially complete, implementation is now effectively held hostage by the lack of broader agreement on a global emissions reduction strategy that would liberate large-scale finance for forests.  Recent (Brazil) and prospective (Indonesia) submissions of Reference Emissions Levels on the part of the two largest REDD+ countries increase the pressure on industrialized countries to be prepared to reward performance in reducing deforestation with results-based funding.

As detailed in a previous CGD Working Paper and associated blog, REDD+ finance so far has been too small, too slow, too public-sector dependent, too concentrated, and not sufficiently performance-based.  Recently announced contributions to the Green Climate Fund are promising, but there’s still a long way to go before reaching the $100 billion of climate finance per year by 2020 envisioned at COP15 in Copenhagen.  

La Viña and de Leon conclude from the experience of REDD+ negotiations that “international cooperation [on climate change] is not certain but it is certainly possible.”  Here’s hoping that negotiators reach the cooperation possibility frontier in Lima!


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.