UN Year of Forests stumbles in first week

Last Wednesday’s UN launch of the International Year of Forests has been tempered by disagreement over global plans for their protection. The flames of criticism have been fanned by reports of irregularities in pilot projects to reduce deforestation in Guyana and Indonesia.

The UN-sponsored scheme known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) intends to offer financial rewards to developing countries for protecting their forests.

The plan combines two vital environmental objectives. Halting deforestation preserves rainforest biodiversity whilst simultaneously preventing the release of carbon dioxide emissions which cause global warming.

REDD was approved in outline at the Cancun climate conference last December. But the most difficult issues – finance and monitoring – were put off for another year.

Activists concerned about REDD seized the opportunity to piggyback UN promotion of the International Year of Forests.

The forest campaign group, Global Witness, warned on Thursday that REDD can succeed “only if it prevents any subsidies for logging, and includes effective safeguards which protect biodiversity, ensure forest community rights are upheld and prevent corruption.”

Anne Petermann, Executive Director of the Global Justice Ecology Project, said that “REDD does not address the underlying drivers of deforestation, so logging may be curtailed in protected areas, but then pushed to non-protected forests.”

Campaigners have been unable to slow the momentum of institutional preparations, sometimes described as “getting ready for REDD.”

Over 35 developing countries are already participating in pilot REDD projects facilitated by the UN and the World Bank. This was reported in the State of the World’s Forests, published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to coincide with the Year of Forests launch.

Significant pledges of $4 billion for REDD initiatives have been forthcoming from the REDD Partnership, formed by a number of key donor countries. The cheerleader of this group is the Norwegian government which brought the parties together for the first time in Oslo in May 2010.

Two projects sponsored by Norway are currently gaining attention for the wrong reasons.

The Guyana-Norway REDD Partnership was signed towards the end of 2009 with the goal of creating a “replicable model” for REDD. Norway’s potential funding commitment of $40 million for 2010 amounts to a significant percentage of Guyana’s national budget.

The latest January analysis by external consultants is potentially a major embarrassment to the donor country. Whilst the content and conclusions of the report are unclear, the figures have been interpreted as revealing an increase rather than reduction in deforestation.

Verifiable measurement of forest cover is a core concern about REDD.

The Letter of Intent signed with Indonesia engages the ultimate REDD challenge, with a price tag to match. Norway has offered $1 billion over two years in return for a moratorium on deforestation.

The programme was due to commence on 1st January but the Indonesian president has delayed signing the final agreement. Explanations are confused.

One possibility is that agri-business interests are seizing on the rise in world food and fuel prices to persuade the president that Indonesia cannot afford not to convert its forest lands.

Meanwhile evidence is leaking out that last minute concessions are being granted to enable logging companies to beat the moratorium deadline. Last Tuesday, the Indonesian environmental watchdog, Greenomics, reported that 17 companies have just been awarded land conversion rights for 3 million hectares in Papua province.

Such setbacks are insufficient to discourage the authors of the State of the World’s Forests from occasional flashes of optimism. For example, they report that the average annual measure of global deforestation has reduced from 16 million hectares in the 1990s to 13 million hectares in the decade ending 2010.

These figures imply that carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation have reduced almost 20% since 1990. That is a better performance than any of the other major sectors contributing to global warming.

It has been achieved without any regulations imposed by an over-arching UN forest agreement or by the Kyoto Protocol, the UN treaty enforcing commitments to emissions reductions. And these figures take no account of the impact of considerable reforestation programmes in sub-tropical and temperate countries.

Difficult negotiations to renew the Kyoto Protocol on its expiry in 2012 have prompted many observers to question the wisdom of pursuing an international agreement on climate change. Perhaps national governments and local communities can deliver a low carbon transition independently.

The International Year of Forests may add fuel to this debate.

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this article was first published in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News

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